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February 23rd, 2010 - Mo's Journal

February 23rd, 2010

February 23rd, 2010
10:38 am

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Recent Reading - Things Science Fiction Predicts, and Doesn't
Anyone who reads old science fiction is struck by the wealth of correct predictions one finds in the text. Now, of course, predictive fiction is often spectacularly wrong, as well. If it weren't we'd all be zipping around in flying cars now. But it's amazing to me just how many things are accurately depicted 30, 40, or 50 years before they were invented. There's often an amusing mix of the prescient and the absurdly off base (like Heinlein's space traveling characters still doing calculations with slide rules).

So with all the things that have been predicted in one science fiction story or another, I've always been struck by what I thought of as two major omissions, two really transformative and ubiquitous bits of technology that I thought no one had predicted. These are cell phones and the ways we use computers now.

Now, there are lots of things in predictive fiction that look like cell phones, from Dick Tracy's watch radio (thank you, talktooloose) to Star Trek's communicators to Max Smart's shoe phone. But they all seem to be some sort of glorified walkie-talkie device, connected to a specific person or group of people. Nobody seemed to envision mobile phones as we know them now, where they are used by a wide swath of people world wide who can call anywhere on a nationwide or world wide network, just as one does with a home phone.

With computers, you definitely see predictions of computers in every home, of them getting smaller and cheaper and so on. But I don't think I've seen anything from the pre-pc, pre-internet age that predicts the way we use computers now, as a major communication and social tool. Not just the fact of the internet (computer networks definitely show up in predictive fiction), but the combo of the internet and word processing. In the past 20-30 years communication has transformed to the point where a primary use of computers is interpersonal communication and a primary method of interpersonal communication is via computer. The combo of cheap personal computing, word processing, and the internet has really revolutionized human communication, and I've never seen that predicted.

Okay, until last week I thought these were the two big omissions. Then I found one of the Heinlein juveniles I'd never read, a novel called Space Cadet, about a student at an academy for an interplanetary military force. I thought I'd read all of the juveniles as a kid, and read them all to Doran, too, but somehow I missed this one. It was written in 1948. In the opening scene the kids have just arrived at the academy and are waiting in line to get in and one of them is very embarrassed because his phone rings and it's his parents checking on him to see he arrived safely. It's described just as his phone, with the assumption that that's what phones are, mobile devices. Another kid in line tries to make him feel better by saying he knew his parents would do the same, so he put his phone in checked luggage. Pretty prescient.

So, I was wrong on that one. Maybe on the other, too. Anyone know of a novel or story that fills the computer gap?

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