The 1969 novel that accurately predicted the world of 2013

Illustration for article titled The 1969 novel that accurately predicted the world of 2013

John Brunner isn't just one of the great underappreciated science fiction authors — he also has a pretty amazing track record at predicting the actual future. At least, in one novel, the Hugo-winning Stand on Zanzibar, he makes a number of predictions that turn out to be spot-on about 2013.

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Zanzibar is set in 2010, and some of its predictions — like widespread eugenics — haven't come to pass. But a lot have. Over at The Millions, there's a compelling rundown of the things that Brunner got right, including a character named President Obomi, and the invention of the TiVo. Check out the whole list at The Millions.

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DISCUSSION

Spaceart
Ron Miller

Brunner's description of our world is indeed pretty creepily accurate!

Which led me think about the nature of prophecy in SciFi, since the genre is so well-known for this. I decided that there are several ways in which a science fiction novel can be prophetic, or at least appear to be.

1. The prophecy might be entirely in the eye of the beholder. For instance, an author might describe something operating by means of mysterious force which the reader immediately interprets as being atomic energy. This is probably the most common SciFi "prophecy." But it's really just the reader superimposing their own expectations.

2. The author can simply make present-day things better: bigger, smaller, faster...whatever. Hugo Gernsback's classic Ralph 12C41+ is a perfect example of this. For much of the book, Gernsback simply scales up the world of 1911.

3. The author might be extrapolating from statistics or a current trend. This is how most newspaper psychics work. For instance, it's not hard to say that California will experience an earthquake in the near future or that the seas will become more polluted.

4. The prophecy might be self-fulfilling. That is, something described in a science fiction story directly inspires someone to set about creating it in reality. Jules Verne is the best example of this. For example, he didn't so much prophecy space travel as to help cause it to come about. Ditto Verne and the helicopter.

5. Sometimes an author is faced with solving a problem that present-day scientists or engineers don't have to deal with. If there are only a limited number of realistic solutions, there's a good chance that the author might hit on the same idea that's eventually used years later. I can use Verne again as an example of this. Much is made of the fact that he set his lunar launch site in Florida. But his reasoning was much the same as that of NASA a century later: he needed a location in the US that was closest to the equator. It was just the case of two people arriving at the same answer to a problem.

6. The author might really hit on something totally out of the blue. Gernsback again is the best example of this. In Ralph he not only explained radar in detail, he provided a diagram showing exactly how it would work! Murray Leinster's short story, "A Logic Named Joe," really got the brass ring for SciFi prophecy. Read it for yourself...and then realize that it was written in 1949...

A SciFi story or novel might include any one or more of these types of prophecies, so when one talks about how prophetic a story is, it's probably a good idea to keep in mind just what is meant by that.