Science fiction as a predictor of the present

Tin House, a literary magazine, asked me to introduce the current science fiction issue with an overview of the field. I wrote them an essay called "Radical Presentism," about the way that science fiction reflects the present more than the future.
Mary Shelley wasn't worried about reanimated corpses stalking Europe, but by casting a technological innovation in the starring role of Frankenstein, she was able to tap into present-day fears about technology overpowering its masters and the hubris of the inventor. Orwell didn't worry about a future dominated by the view-screens from 1984, he worried about a present in which technology was changing the balance of power, creating opportunities for the state to enforce its power over individuals at ever-more-granular levels.

Now, it's true that some writers will tell you they're extrapolating a future based on rigor and science, but they're just wrong. Karel Čapek coined the word robotto talk about the automation and dehumanization of the workplace. Asimov's robots were not supposed to be metaphors, but they sure acted like them, revealing the great writer's belief in a world where careful regulation could create positive outcomes for society. (How else to explain his idea that all robots would comply with the "three laws" for thousands of years? Or, in the Foundation series, the existence of a secret society that knows exactly how to exert its leverage to steer the course of human civilization for millennia?)

For some years now, science fiction has been in the grips of a conceit called the "Singularity"--the moment at which human and machine intelligence merge, creating a break with history beyond which the future cannot be predicted, because the post-humans who live there will be utterly unrecognizable to us in their emotions and motivations. Read one way, it's a sober prediction of the curve of history spiking infinity-ward in the near future (and many futurists will solemnly assure you that this is the case); read another way, it's just the anxiety of a generation of winners in the technology wars, now confronted by a new generation whose fluidity with technology is so awe-inspiring that it appears we have been out-evolved by our own progeny.



  1. One of the reasons I’ve never been impressed by the idea of the singularity is that we’ve NEVER been able to reliably predict the future. (Which isn’t to say it’s not fun to try.)

  2. Oh, well done, Cory. Well done for sure.

    It makes sense, really. There’s no reason I, Robot should reflect its environment any less than The Great Gatsby.

    Neat essay.

  3. “we have been out-evolved by our own progeny”. I bet you’re hoping that will happen to you though it might be a little while. ;) However, I’m surprised to see the implied ageism in that last sentence. I would have thought bOingbOing would have been above all that. So Boomer SciFi authors are expressing their fears about the use of technology by GenX who in turn feel threatened by GenY, who in turn… Don’t you think it’s time we got over that meta-narrrative? We’re all actors in this play, no matter how old we are. (says the BOF).

  4. I remember reading Harlan Ellison’s collection of New Wave SF, “Dangerous Visions”, in the ’70s.

    Mind-blowing stories considered to be too weird by most SF magazines.

    But they all depicted, in a nuanced sort of way, the world we currently inhabit.

  5. For anyone I’ve ever tried to convince that SF is a valid genre of literature, I would love to present them with a copy of that introduction. I’ve yet to read or hear anything that makes the case so simply and effectively, especially since that isn’t even the point of the article. And Mr. Doctorow, I am hoping that I have a chance to meet you at the Lillian H. Smith next week. it would be a pleasure to shake your hand.

  6. Great essay. What I’ve always liked about The Difference Engine is that the way the Engine warped 19th century political and social history describes pretty well the present after personal computers and the internet. Futurists and sicence fiction writers up to the 1970s never saw those coming. At best, a computer of the future could be a household terminal or maybe a glorified HP 41 CV programmable calculator.

    I’m not sure what to make of “Caryatids.” It was a fun read, but the chapters that are cliffhangers don’t really get resolved, and the story just sort of stops. But the movie star family/corporation dis makes more sense after I’d seen “Entourage.”

    The Singularity as the Rapture for geeks seems dubious. It’s an axiom of futurists that no trend lasts for ever. Something else always interrupts the curve, if it doesn’t interrupt itself. But the concept is an easy one to explain to non-geeks, along the way to invoking the Wingnut Singularity, or Wingularity, for comic effect.

  7. As you can tell, too, from the clothes they wear in the future, in the movies.

    I think the view you outline is the best one for sci-fi, and one I wish more of its adherents would adopt. Although the ones I meet don’t seem to.

  8. OTOH, much of the Science Fiction/Military sub-genere (I’m thinking Bruce Weber, Jerry Pournelle et al) consists of thinly veiled retelling of battles past.

  9. It’s hard to imagine anyone with even a passing familiarity with science fiction would think it’s an accurate predictor of much of anything. No matter what the setting, social values always mirror the time of authorship, or the time of authorship + 1 dimensional changes (we all act like 1950s Americans, but everyone is a CANNIBAL! Or EXTREMELY FREE WITH SEX!). The effects of technology are overestimated in the short term, and underestimated in the long term. Also, hairstyles.

    The good folks at tvtropes make much of all this.

  10. Great post – thank you.

    It’s a heady idea that authors can take current trends and create a future reality where those trends mature to be controlling influences.

    That’s my main reason for reading science fiction. not only do you get a great, inventive story, you get the added layer of determining what parallels, trends, or symbols the author has pulled from our current time.

  11. Personally I see science fiction as more of an inspiring element, rather than a predictive agent. We read fantastic stories about possible future technologies, and think “wouldn’t that be awesome/ wonderful? How can we do that now?”

    It becomes a progression from bewilderment to creation. The scifi we read as children and young adults becomes the future of tomorrow.

    1. I always saw sci-fi as more of an exploratory than inspirational thing. Certainly it’s not that good at accurate predictions, but it allows us to explore future possibilities and think about consequences, before something similar happens. Cloning is a great example of a future scenario that had been thoroughly written about before it actually came to pass. Few works were all that accurate on how cloning is actually done, but they did give us a road map of the ethical and social implications of the technology.

  12. Very reasonable essay. Maybe the great stuff is so rich that it gives the illusion of making accurate predictions, or at least sets up a parallel system that tells the right time twice a day. I’m thiking of PKD’s degraded copies of objects from his printers and our current “problem” with mp3’w; Herbert’s retelling of Mohammed and our blankety-blank. Both of these turn out be critical predictions. In at least the case of PKD, I can’t figure out what mysterious wavelength he was able to tap into, pharmacological or not.

  13. People have a tendency to overestimate the short term impact of technology, and underestimate its long term impact. Think of it as an optimistic but easily tired pencil. Much SF of the ‘if this goes on’ variety takes one, or a few, of today’s trends and extrapolates them within the then existing structure. Orwell was off by a few decades in the development of the surveillance society, and by 90 degrees in the carry-forward of his current geopolitical setting. Perhaps that’s the best that SF can do – one tiny trend, plus flying cars.

  14. Hi Cory,

    You have indeed nailed reality that science fiction is about now, not later. It’s an opportunity to examine ideas without as many boundaries as conventional fiction. You can stretch the metaphor a bit more easily when you expand the playing field.

    It also allows the author to examine ideas which might be a bit too sensitive to write about as ‘real’ concepts.

    I believe with all that, though, the most important part of science fiction is that it should be just GREAT to read! The best of it is engaging and absorbing, with a protagonist you can identify with. I have to admit to preferring positive endings as well.

    Futurists always give me a good laugh. If you think they know anything, ask them to tell you what the weather will be like next year, then watch to see how it works out.

  15. I would like to partly disagree with Cory’s post, speaking from the vantage point of the consumer. I don’t read science fiction for the fiction. I don’t read it for the characters, or the plot, or the reflections it has on current society. This is becoming an increasing problem for me in recent years, as more authors subscribe to views like Cory’s and SF slowly becomes “fiction with lasers.”

    Now, I’m deliberately trying not to comment on why you write science fiction. As someone who’s read his share but never published so much as chicken scratch, I’m not qualified to criticize. Maybe every SF author really is secretly trying to get across perspectives on current society and all this spaceship foolishness is just metaphor. I don’t know. My perspective is wholly that of the end-user and as such doesn’t have to take any of it into account. When I’m at the local art fair, listening to some over-excited art major talk about the subtle social commentary inherent in each of his three dozen shit-smeared pictures of Dick Cheney, I’m not actually listening. I’m thinking about whether the one with blue food coloring would go well in the living room, and what domestic favors I’d have to do to put it up.

    No, I read science fiction for the science. Call me an ubernerd, but I like following logical extrapolations from a set of base assumptions. The actual events, the characters and whatever, are pretty much inconsequential except as actors for showing off the worldbuilding. One of my favorite science fiction books is H.G. Wells “Anticipations,” and it’s not actually fiction at all, just Herb sitting down and writing about where he thought the world was going in 1901. Did a damn good job of it, too. Probably my favorite SF author (sorry Cory) is Larry Niven, who makes this sort of logic the core of every novel and isn’t afraid to refine it in the sequels. As an author of fine literature he’s eh at best – mary sue protagonists, sloppy plots, zero dynamic tension – but as a nerd? Love him.

    Futurists always give me a good laugh. If you think they know anything, ask them to tell you what the weather will be like next year, then watch to see how it works out.

    That’s a good metric for telling when a futurist isn’t worth listening to. Since “futurism” is just a sexy term for “bullshitting,” futurism attracts hucksters like an MBA attracts daddy’s boys. Good futurists are upfront about what they can’t predict and can justify what they do. If the futurist you’re asking is worth a damn, you’ll get an answer like “it’ll rain.”

    1. Maybe every SF author really is secretly trying to get across perspectives on current society and all this spaceship foolishness is just metaphor. I don’t know.

      My impression of Cory’s point is that it doesn’t really matter what the author is trying to say, in the end every author is going to write about contemporary issues simply because they don’t yet have the context to write about anything else.

      Writing a story about a time that hasn’t taken place is like trying to write a travel book for a faraway land that you’ve never visited or read about- in the end, the book is going to say much more about your preconceptions than the real thing.

  16. An excellent essay. Obviously science fiction authors have failed to predict many things. The connection you drew between automobiles and surveillance was a really good example. Another example, one that comes quickly to my mind, is that William Gibson in an interview said that he completely failed to predict anything resembling cell phones. And lets not forget that a great number of Ray Kurzweil’s predictions have failed to come to fruition.

  17. “When I’m at the local art fair, listening to some over-excited art major talk about the subtle social commentary inherent in each of his three dozen shit-smeared pictures of Dick Cheney, I’m not actually listening.”

    I think my professors automatically docked points if any of us ever used the phrase “subtle social commentary” in our analyses.

  18. Asimov didn’t believe in his “three laws”. Every story was an exploration of the absurd consequences of assuming them.

  19. I think I have to respectfully disagree with this as an assessment of -all- science fiction. Certainly many classic examples can be seen as allegories of the time period in which they were written, but many more, not so much. Sure, an author’s thoughts and ideas are a product of his time, but the best science fiction builds a speculative future based on the extrapolation of a current or wholly imaginary but plausible scientific idea. Sometimes it is a very long chain of said ideas, that take the story far from the contemporary. That future is not -meant- to be a prediction, it is an exploration of a possibility and all the little side routes and unforeseen twists that could pop up. Judging science fiction by the accuracy of it’s ‘predictions’ is, well, dumb, unless the explicit purpose of that piece is a specific prediction.

    For instance, there is little of contemporary social-political circumstance in Dan Simmons Illium and Olympos. Perhaps you could say the entire setup is about a particular twenty-first century mindset looking at the far future, but why would you bother? That’s a big wild story to sort through looking for what we already know about today.

    I write quite a bit, some of it science fiction, and some of it very much asking a question about some near future technological or medical possibility. I am biased, and won’t try to say my fiction is -not- about the present, but I can tell you something about the process of creating a future. The clothing is not important. The props are not important. The technology is not meant to be an accurate portrayal of exactly how we will do X, unless it is specifically a story about how we will do X. It is described only in as much detail to make X plausible in context. Then I apply X to what I know of people, human nature, the physical world, etc, and I see what happens. Yes, that human nature is the contemporary one, which is also the ancient one, it is something not likely to change much in the near future. In the far future, well, that’s another speculative story.

    The point is, often the story is about how we are going to deal with X when it comes, it is not about creating a metaphor for the current day using X, nor is it a prediction of when and how X will come. X doesn’t exist now, it will change things. How will it change them? Sure you can see preconceptions in how I think we will deal with X and what X will do, but if that is all you get out of my story, then I have to wonder why you are reading it. My exploration of X may be very colored by my milieu, but thats a bias we all share – and guess what, we’re the ones that will be moving into that future and dealing with X. The Masters covered what is widely called “the human condition” long ago, go read them if that’s what you want to know about.

    The value of science (and speculative) fiction is not in prediction, very often the exploration of what a new idea might mean to us is the point. Don’t ignore that point, please. My stories might have a lot to say about me and my era, but for f**k’s sake, that’s not what I am trying to get across, and if that’s all you are looking for, all you are judging by, you’ve ignored everything I wanted to say in that story.

  20. “Asimov’s robots were not supposed to be metaphors, but they sure acted like them, revealing the great writer’s belief in a world where careful regulation could create positive outcomes for society. (How else to explain his idea that all robots would comply with the “three laws” for thousands of years? Or, in the Foundation series, the existence of a secret society that knows exactly how to exert its leverage to steer the course of human civilization for millennia?)”

    I can explain the three laws without resort to Asimov’s deep believe in a contemporary world where careful regulation could create positive outcomes. How about the world where Asimov was a pragmatic write of fiction and knew that a robot was not a useful subject of fiction unless it was restricted by some kind of laws? The laws are a literary devices, otherwise the presumed technology of the robots would make them invincible supermen and you would be left with a superhero comic or a monster movie. Instead, but applying three laws, he ended up with an exploration of the laws themselves, and the difficulties and interesting quirks of creating and controlling a force more powerful than ourselves.

    Asimov was indeed very concerned with the present, and wrote very much about his vision of how to fix it, but sometimes a plot device is just a plot device.

  21. Don’t forget inspiration, the other side of prediction: Just about everyone at NASA has a Star Trek toy in their cubicle.

  22. History-writing tends to work the same way. Historians think they (we) are writing about the past, but it’s really about the present. And contrafactual history, which is often published under the SF guise, gets even better in that respect.

  23. Conspiracy aythour mMchael a Hoffman wrote about this in “Secret societies and psychological warfare.” he thinks it’s an insidious method of the Masonic conspiracy.

    He called it “predictive programming” or something like that. Where a false standard of progress is presented to us by a suppossed fiction (I think he puts sci fi in qoutes) then when that tech is achieved we are impressed by how far we are advancing.

    A great book, and I’m doing this on an iPhone or I’d try to explain better. Lol

  24. Great points. I think it’s a given that any author in their creative effort of framing a future vision must operate within the confines of the existing knowledge and circumstances of the Present. This is simply the template from which they all must “predict.” And I believe that the sign of great literature, or at least “relevant” literature, is that it speaks to pertinent concerns in the Now. However, I wonder if there might not be some exceptions to the argument that writer’s aren’t really extrapolating the future based on rigor and science. For instance, isn’t Arthur C. Clarke credited with predicted several technologies relatively far in advance of their birth? (Such as orbital satellites?–correct me if I’m wrong!) And if he is not an extreme enough example of extrapolation, what about someone like Olaf Stapleton who made wild extrapolations about the future of…well, everything (in such works as “First and Last Men, and “Starmaker”), and did this far beyond what one could describe as the concerns and criteria of the Present. Perhaps these are just a couple exceptions to the principle of “radical presentism” (or perhaps not), but your introduction was good food for thought.

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