When Science Fiction Comes to Life…Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it sometimes grows out of it
A senior editor at Wired told us a while back that science fiction writer H. G. Wells’s 1914 tale, The World Set Free, formed part of the inspiration for the atomic bomb, exploded over Hiroshima in 1945.
… in the novel Wells imagines a new kind of bomb, based on a nuclear chain reaction. In this science fiction story Wells imagines that atomic energy would be discovered in 1933 (20 years in his future), and that the bomb would first explode in 1956.
Wikipedia notes, “As fate or coincidence would have it, in reality the physicist Leó Szilárd read the book in 1932, conceived of the idea of nuclear chain reaction in 1933, and filed for patents on it in 1934.”Kevin Kelly, “ The Influence of Science Fiction on Science” at The Technium (October 24, 2007)
According to Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986), Szilard wrote in 1968,: “Knowing what [a chain reaction] would mean—and I knew because I had read H.G. Wells—I did not want this patent to become public.” (p. 24)
Part of Well’s ability to influence scientists came from his immense imagination, capable of describing not only an invention, but more importantly, the consequence of that invention. Long before any of the scientists working on the atomic bomb did, Wells foresaw the global political “fallout” an atom bomb would bring. In his eyes the atomic bomb would begin “the Last War.” In Section 5 of his novel he unrolls this astounding vision of a nuclear age.Kevin Kelly, “ The Influence of Science Fiction on Science” at The Technium (October 24, 2007)
It did not work out that well for Wells’s own peace of mind. In 1945, when he was 78, he wrote Mind at the End of its Tether. He was convinced that humanity would shortly be extinguished by a more advanced species, consistent with his model of evolution.
On a more cheerful note, we learn that Hugo Gernsback (1884–1967), after whom the science fiction Hugo Awards are named, was no slouch either at correct technological guesses in his novel Ralph 124C 41+:
His novel from 1911 is stunningly prescient, producing the first ever description of radar and predicting everything from solar energy to the video phone call, and even artificial clothing material.”J. R. Thorpe, “10 Times Science Fiction Predicted The Future” at Bustle (February 4, 2015)
Thorpe also points to John Brunner (1934–1995) and Stand on Zanzibar (1968):
Stand On Zanzibar is regarded as one of the most accurate science fiction novels of all time. Set in 2010, it predicts everything from Detroit’s collapse (because of electric cars, rather than a recession) to the existence of the European Union, overpopulation, inflight entertainment on planes, Viagra, terrorism, the rise of China, and TiVo. It even has America ruled by a President named Obomi. That’s just eerie.J. R. Thorpe, “10 Times Science Fiction Predicted The Future” at Bustle (February 4, 2015)
At Business Insider, we encounter a different list, in which we learn that Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) inspired the waterbed via Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). From the book:
“His body, unbearably compressed and weakened by the strange shape of space in this unbelievable place was at last somewhat relieved by the softness of the nest in which these others had placed him … The patient floated in the flexible skin of the hydraulic bed.”Melissa Stanger, “10 Science Fiction Novels That Correctly Predicted The Future” at Business Insider (October 4, 2013)
It gets better. Stanger also recounts that waterbed inventor Charles Hall was denied a patent on the his brainchild in 1968 “on the grounds that Heinlein owned the intellectual property.”
A waterbed manufacturer fills us in:
In fact, it was described in several science fiction novels and by one of the most prolific authors of our time, Robert Heinlein. Like most science fiction novels, Heinlein’s stories took place in dystopian futures and were rife with descriptions of futuristic gadgets. However, Heinlein’s descriptions of the waterbed were so detailed that Charles Hall was denied a patent for a waterbed in 1968 because Heinlein owned the intellectual property. In Heinlein’s Expanded Universe he says “I designed the waterbed during years as a bed patient in the middle thirties as an attempt to design the perfect hospital bed by one who had spent too damn much time in hospital beds.”Boyd Specialty Sleep, “4 Facts You Never Knew About The History of Waterbeds” at Boyd Flotation (December 6, 2012)
Then there’s a list from Silicon Republic that includes the submarine. Inventor Simon Lake (1866–1945) submitted plans for a submarine to the Navy in 1892, based on a submarine called the Nautilus in a book by Jules Verne (1828–1905), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869).
Lake built the first submarine to successfully navigate the open ocean.
At Silicon Republic, we also learn that Martin Cooper (1926– ), director of research and development at Motorola, was inspired by Captain Kirk’s Star Trek communicator when he developed the first mobile phone. That’s what he told Time Magazine in 2007.
It’s difficult to know in each of the numerous cases whether it’s that sci-fi writers are oddly prescient or if the things they write are a by-product of scientific cultural porousness, whereby they are channelling the whispers of innovation already in the air.Eva Short, “Prediction or influence? Science-fiction books that forecast the future” at Silicon Republic (April 5, 2018)
In any event, the helicopter was inspired by another Jules Verne story, Clipper of the Clouds (1887), which inventor Igor Sikorsky (1889–1972) had read as a young boy:
Sikorsky often quoted Jules Verne, saying “Anything that one man can imagine, another man can make real.”Mark Strauss, “Ten Inventions Inspired by Science Fiction” at Smithsonian Magazine (March 15, 2012)
On a more sombre note, one of the most significant predictions was that of George Orwell (1903–1950) in his futurist novel 1984, describing a total surveillance state. He said, for example, “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”
But 1984’s Big Brother’s power was limited insofar as he depended to a great extent on spies and informants. An AI-powered surveillance state like China today can create near-total surveillance using smart technology:
China already has hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras in place. Xi’s government hopes to soon achieve full video coverage of key public areas. Much of the footage collected by China’s cameras is parsed by algorithms for security threats of one kind or another. In the near future, every person who enters a public space could be identified, instantly, by AI matching them to an ocean of personal data, including their every text communication, and their body’s one-of-a-kind protein-construction schema. In time, algorithms will be able to string together data points from a broad range of sources—travel records, friends and associates, reading habits, purchases—to predict political resistance before it happens. China’s government could soon achieve an unprecedented political stranglehold on more than 1 billion people.Ross Anderson, “The Panopticon Is Already Here” at The Atlantic
Orwell had no good news for freedom-seekers in 1984 (after grim torture, his hero ends up “loving” big Brother). But if the past is any guide, future science fiction writers will help think of ways to get around AI-driven totalitarian government.
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