Speculative fiction, and the art of predicting the future

John Schwartz has a nice piece in today's New York Times on science fiction as a tool for predicting the future:

The dirty little secret of speculative fiction is that it’s hard to go wrong predicting that things will get worse. But while avoiding the nihilism of novels like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” in which a father and son wander a hopeless post-apocalyptic moonscape, a number of recent books foresee futures that seem more than plausible as the nation’s ambient level of weirdness rises.

Albert Brooks, the actor and director, brought out “2030,” in which the nation’s economy is sent into a spin by seemingly good news: cancer is cured. The bad-news twist: the resulting drain on national resources by an aging population that no longer conforms to the actuarial tables and continues to consume resources at baby-boomer rates, and a rather literal twist on the notion of intergenerational warfare. “I chose not to go too far,” Mr. Brooks said. “I liked having more present in my future.”

In “Ready Player One,” the novelist Ernest Cline extrapolates from the ripples that rising energy prices and climate change send through the economy, and gives us a future where the suburbs die off and many people are packed into in high-rise urban trailer parks, spending their days on an increasingly addictive Internet instead of facing the quotidian squalor. Readers who spend so much time issuing updates via Twitter, Facebook and Google+ that they have forgotten what their spouses look like might see themselves reflected in Mr. Cline’s funhouse mirror. “I did try to envision it as a possible future,” Mr. Cline said. “I don’t see it as a future we’re necessarily headed for.”

Read more: Novelists Predict Future With Eerie Accuracy - NYTimes.com.

Photo: "Book: A Real Page Turner," contributed to the Boing Boing Flickr pool by SHOTbySUSAN. Union Square NYC Taken 6/12/11.


  1. People like to see how bad it could possibly get. It helps us appreciate what we have, but it also makes us complacent since we feel blessed compared to the people were reading about.

  2. I had posted that Schwartz did not mention genre authors. Boy was I wrong. To his credit he interviews James Gunn and mentions Gibson and Sterling to boot. Mea culpa….

  3. Re: Cline’s Ready Player One:

    It’s not a future we’re headed for.

    It’s a present many of us already live in.

  4. Seems to me exactly the reverse – speculative fiction is always too pessimistic. After all, on balance and globally there has never been better time to live than the last 2-3 decades, and this has generally been true for any such period for at least the past 3-4 centuries.

    Predicting future disaster is very thought provoking as a criticism of current society, but beyond that it is also a manifestation of our neuroses.

  5. Speculative fiction, IMO, only becomes predictive when it’s translated to the mass-media of TV & film, with a far higher weighting to the former. There are tons of SF & other related genres that have made me go “We need this now, and it’s almost possible. We should do this!”, but because reading involves imagination, regardless of the details involved, people can’t come together on how to proceed.

    Regarding either pessimism and optimism in speculative fiction, many genre specialists perhaps have a tendency to be over-optimistic as far as utopian movements, while others can be more pessimistic. The one thing where pessimism rules incontrovertibly is the lead-time to development & widespread acceptance by the population.

    Arthur C. Clarke put the tablet in a screenplay, and Kubrick got the production team to show us what it would look like. It took Steve Jobs until 2009 to convince the world that such things were even useful, never mind essential. Eight years after the film showed us what they were and how they’d work.

    Dick Tracy & Star Trek showed us what a possible personal communication device might look like and how it could work. More than a decade passed before anyone could get the wherewithal to build the real thing, and then it wasn’t understood that the power of the devices comes from their universality.

    A big part of my livelihood has been directly evolved from my love of speculative fiction. It should be obvious to everyone on the planet that benefits are available if change can be embraced. Even when the technology and supporting infrastructure is operationally sound, people still don’t make use of things very well.

    I think a better question would be to ask all world economic, political academic and religious leaders if they have a thorough understanding of the speculative fiction field, including canon and movements. Then maybe it wouldn’t take quite so long to solve problems and build solutions.

    My 2¢ worth—of course, that’s Canadian, so better make it 2.5¢ US.

  6. Regarding the chosen photo; nice to see a real saddle-stitched case-bound book, although making a Christmas decoration out of it shows a bit of cruelty. Ever notice how modern retail hard-bound books use a fake ribbon glued to the signatures? Must make it look like there’s quality involved. How else can they justify the additional price? 

  7. From the article: “James E. Gunn, the director of the Center for the Study of Science
    Fiction at the University of Kansas, said science fiction could even
    help encourage the future by preparing minds.”

    Reading this brought to mind a bit of fiction that involved a company that could show people a few possible futures. By paying a modest sum, the person could walk through a portal and be assured that they were on the path to the future that they wanted.

    At the end, it is revealed that this is all a scam, as one of the con men wonder about the fact that almost everyone is choosing dystopia over utopia. He wonders if the hundreds of those the company has scammed will bring about the dystopic future by their actions.

    I like to think that humanity is intrinsically optimistic, but it is conflict that makes for an interesting, and ultimately, commercial story.

  8. Speculative fiction isn’t really about predicting the future, more about holding up a mirror to the now. It sometimes gets it right in the “if this goes on” sense. 

    But if you look at the ratio of hits to misses, well, I suggest some cherry-picking going on there.

    1. Speculative fiction isn’t really about predicting the future, more about
      holding up a mirror to the now. It sometimes gets it right in the “if
      this goes on” sense.

      Sometimes. But it cal also be about exploring the human experience, and beyond, independent of its condition in any one time or place. Speculative fiction, in it’s broadest characterization, is fiction with an expanded phase space of possibility.

      “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” ~ Yogi Berra

  9. Xeni – if you want to have a truly inspiring and provocative insight into SF as a tool for predicting the future, don’t waste time with this NYT ho-hum space-filler (maybe that’s just me..) but try closer to home by getting Cory D to share his talk on this very subject at the Edinburgh Book Fest a couple of weeks ago. It was a barn-burner…

  10. _a POV could be that ´future is the end result of all decisions you made´.  If those decisions concern whole societies / communities then a common future will happen, partially – but it’s not in a general sense all peoples future _nohow. If the outcome of decisions is predictable, then future is too, partially.

    Prognosis is, Jeff Bessos and Elon Musk will possess front row seats in their shiny spaceships, while strange things happen down here. Milk the cow whilst there is grass.

    1. _a POV could be that ´future is the end result of all decisions you made´.

      …and all the decisions made by others the consequences of whose decisions will interact directly or tangentially with the consequences of your own, and all the myriad interactions with the complex environment beyond the control of anyone’s decisions. Chaos, friend of finite knowledge, arch nemesis of all would-be psychohistorians. The best a futurist can do is point to contingent outcomes sans any unforeseen perturbations. Which is still valuable, since we each individually and together must make decisions with the best information available to us.

  11. “Accurately predicting the future” is merely an example of cherry-picking your samples.  As any staistician will tell you producing a list of [books] anecdotes which match your theory is easy.  Try this:  collect EVERY story over some 5-year period and see how many of them match the future in a substantive way.

  12. Writing about the future from the present is one way to approach it. However, I used a different approach … that of being in the past and changing the future, by knowing the future. It’s presented in my new novel “Citrus White Gold.” You can see a summary at


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