Too often, we hear that a science fiction story has "succeeded" if it predicts the future accurately. But that's the wrong measure of success. The most powerful works of SF don't describe the future — they change it.
It's true that SF stories predicted things like satellites, smart phones, and gay marriage before they happened. To that I say: Who cares? Predicting a gadget or social change isn't a terribly enormous accomplishment, especially when you consider how many predictions that SF writers get wrong. But more to the point, it's not the job of storytellers to predict things. That's what we have futurists, investors, and probabilistic modelers for. Storytellers offer us narratives that help us make sense of our world, by providing a meaningful structure that expresses what Ralph Waldo Emerson once called our "latent conviction."
Think, for example, of one of the most profoundly powerful science fiction stories of the last century. It is George Orwell's 1984. Why is it successful? Because to this day, everyone knows what you mean when you refer to "Big Brother." Even people who have never cracked open a book in their lives. That is how deeply Orwell affected the future — he gave people a story, still retold today, that allows us to express in just two words the entirety of our outrage, fear, and despair in the face of authoritarian surveillance regimes.
No, Orwell did not predict drones or the internet with his telescreens, though I have heard people argue that. The plain fact is that 1984 does not predict anything that came to pass. Instead, Orwell offered a frank and ugly description of the world he saw around him in the wake of World War II, with just a thin scrim of science fiction on top. Surveillance regimes and wiretaps were already commonplace in the late 1940s — all Orwell did was slap a "telescreen" on top.
What Orwell did that was utterly brilliant, and transformative, was give us a way of describing our world, as it was then and is now. It's a world threaded through with surveillance technologies that are mere irritants until some authority decides to victimize us with them. The image of Big Brother immediately conjures up a government that controls its citizens with force, but also chooses to brainwash them — not because it needs to, but just because it can. 1984 is about the destruction of stories — the government-authorized "Newspeak" is draining English of subversion — and yet it gave us a shorthand way to evoke the idea of how the media and education system to rob our language of the stories we could use to make sense of it and think outside of it.
A story is powerful when it gives us a way to name something that was difficult to describe before. Having that name can change the future. It gives us a way to explain, quickly, what it is that we are fighting to prevent. Or what we are fighting to bring into being.
Another of the most powerful science fiction stories ever written is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which has been continuously in print since its publication in the early nineteenth century. Like Big Brother, the idea of Frankenstein's monster has become shorthand for the horror of scientific hubris — especially when it comes to experimenting with human life. Today, people refer to "Frankenfood" and "Frankenbabies" as a way of signaling their disgust with scientifically-modified life forms.
Similarly, William Gibson captured a huge and complicated idea with the term "cyberspace" from his early 1980s novel Neuromancer. You may have noticed that his idea of a "consensual hallucination," or immersive virtual reality, has not come to pass. Many believe it never will. Nevertheless, he captured the feeling of being immersed in an electronic network, of having online friends who are more real than the meatspace people around you. And for that reason, you could argue that Gibson didn't just describe the world; he shaped our experience of it in the future, too.
Predicting the future is a cheap parlor trick. Giving people a way to understand their lives is the true gift of the storyteller. The better we understand our world, the easier it is to think beyond the confines of the present and change the future.
Thanks to Ben Lillie for suggesting this column idea!
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9, and this is her column. She's also the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter.