The strangest thing about science fiction is that it usually does a terrible job of predicting the future. I can think of several supposedly prophetic sci-fi works; including 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale and 2001, that basically get everything wrong about the future.
That makes truly prophetic science fiction pretty extraordinary and explains why most people won’t take the genre seriously. Fortunately there are a few truly science fiction stories and novels out there. Unfortunately most of them were written by one guy: Robert A. Heinlein.
Five Science Fiction Novels that sort of got the Future Right:
- Revolt in 2100/If This Goes On – Robert A. Henlein’s 1940 novella predicted the rise of high-tech theocracies, televangelism, fake news, psychological warfare, the revival of torture, the replacement of democracy by oligarchy and the use of targeted assassination as a weapon of war. Strangely enough it was written at the beginning of World War II; when TV was only found at the World’s Fair, but Heinlein predicted the danger of a telegenic demagogue several years before Donald J. Trump’s birth.
- Player Piano or Utopia 14 – Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s first; and most prophetic novel; was written in 1952, but it predicted a society in which almost the entire working class is unemployed because of automation. The only “work” available to average Americans is the military, or New Deal type public works projects. That sounds like some of the recent headlines from a lot of blogs. The American society in the novel is totally dominated by a wealthy class of engineers (an accurate forecast of Silicon Valley’s wealth and influence) and it features a revolt against a meaningless existence by frustrated workers. Vonnegut also predicted automated (drone) warfare;, the rejection of technology by intellectuals, and the popularity of low-tech off grid lifestyles in the book. Not surprisingly Player Piano is the least appreciated of Vonnegut’s works. Today it’s the subject of renewed interest because of the relevance of the themes of income inequality and technological unemployment.
- Starship Troopers – Heinlein basically invented the genre of military SF with this 1959 Hugo Award Winner. The work accurately predicted some social trends of the early 21st Century including the revival of romantic militarism, male earrings, authoritarianism, restrictions on civil rights and calls for the restoration of practices like corporal and capital punishment as a reaction to the excesses of modern life. The society in it where the military is glorified; and only veterans can vote or hold public office, is disturbingly reminiscent of modern American and Russian society. Starship Troopers also accurately predicted the replacement of conscript armies by elite all-volunteer high-tech fighting forces; and the moral and political power such militaries would amass in modern societies. It also mentions the defeat in the 20th Century of the United States by a “Chinese Hegemony.” Today the book is on the reading lists of three the armed services of the United States.
- Friday – Heinlein’s last great work is in many ways his most unappreciated. Written in 1982, it can be regarded as cyberpunk, and it was certainly influential. In Friday Heinlein accurately predicted the collapse of large nation states into smaller units and the Balkanization of the world; several years before the fall of the Soviet Union and the horrors in Yugoslavia. The book also features an all-powerful energy technology corporation founded by a garage inventor. The company the Shipstone Corporation is eerily reminiscent of Tesla. Its power is based on the easy availability of cheap energy storage and Friday was written before the popularity of Lithium batteries. Heinlein also accurately predicted the rise of massive corporations; over which governments would have little or no control, and identity politics. Another prediction of Heinlein’s is private warfare waged by shadowy contractors, 20 years before Blackwater.
- The Probability Broach – Despite its’ silly politics and setting in an alternative reality, Libertarian L. Neil Smith’s first novel has some disturbingly accurate predictions. They include a Gestapo like national police force in the United States called the Federal Security Police (shades of the Department of Homeland Security), terrorists that set off “information bombs,” a fairly accurate prediction of the internet and modern casual dress in a 1979 novel, and a society where animals are given equal rights to humans long before anybody had ever heard of PETA or “animal companions.” A loose sequel The American Zone written in 2001, includes a pretty accurate description of a transportation system similar to Elon Musk’s Hyperloop.
So yes, some science fiction writers occasionally make accurate predictions. Unfortunately they are the exceptions rather than the rule in their genre.