William Gibson explains why science fiction writers don't predict the future

William Gibson speaks with Wired's Geeta Dayal about his new book Distrust That Particular Flavor (my review), and particularly the idea that science fiction sucks at predicting stuff.

Science fiction writers aren’t fortune tellers. Fortune tellers are fakes. Fortune tellers are either deluded or charlatans. You can find science fiction writers who are deluded or science fiction writers who are charlatans — I can think of several of each in the history of the field. Every once in a while, somebody extends their imagination down the line, far enough with a sufficient lack of prejudice, to imagine something that then actually happens. When it happens, it’s great, but it’s not magic. All the language we have for describing what science fiction writers and futurists of other stripes do is nakedly a language of magic.

I’m having a week where some well-intentioned person on the internet describes me as “oracular.” As soon as one of the words with a magic connotation is attached — I know this from ongoing experience — as soon as someone says “oracular,” it’s like, boom! It’s all over the place; it’s endlessly repeated. It’s probably not bad for business. But then I wind up spending a lot of time disabusing people of the idea that I have some sort of magic insight…. You can also find, if you wanted to Google through all the William Gibson pieces on the net, you can find tons of pieces, where people go on and on about how often I’ve gotten it wrong. Where are the cellphones? And neural nets? Why is the bandwidth of everything microscopic in Neuromancer? I could write technological critique of Neuromancer myself that I think could probably convince people that I haven’t gotten it right.

Because the thing that Neuromancer predicts as being actually like the internet isn’t actually like the internet at all! It’s something; I didn’t get it right but I said there was going to be something. I somehow managed to convey a feeling of something. Curiously, that put me out ahead of the field in that regard. It wasn’t that other people were getting it wrong; it was just that relatively few people in the early 1980s, relatively few people who were writing science fiction were paying attention to that stuff. That wasn’t what they were writing about.

I published an essay with my take on this in Locus: A Vocabulary for Speaking about the Future.

William Gibson on Why Sci-Fi Writers Are (Thankfully) Almost Always Wrong

(Photo: Jason Redmond/Wired)


  1. A sci-fi writer trying to predict the future is like a travel writer trying to author a guide to an exotic, as-yet-undiscovered new locale. Anything the writer might come up with will tell far more about the writer’s times, hopes, dreams and experiences than anything else.

    1. a travel writer trying to author a guide to an exotic, as-yet-undiscovered new locale.

      Which was, in centuries past, a rather popular genre of literature – imaginative travelers ‘ tales of far countries, exotic beasts, and curious savage tribes – often more fabulation than travelogue.

      Rather like science fiction, in fact.

  2. He looks a bit like Dr. Eldon Tyrell in this photo (ignoring, for the duration of this observation, whether Tyrell would have kept printed books around).

    1.  Dr. Tyrell had some beautiful art pieces in his penthouse/office.  The chess set, for example.  I think he’s the sort of person to cultivate a noble gentility through the use of classic objects.

  3. I’ve heard this criticism of SF before–that it doesn’t predict the future–and it’s sad and bogus. People that can predict the future don’t write SF for a pittance, they become Warren Buffet. 

  4. So by this guys claim technically all theorists who push science forward are just “charlatans” or deluded, but just enough to get something right once in awhile… Wow took a genius to tell us that???? The world certainly must be getting less smart if we have gone through this ground-breaking find multiple times… Ohhhhhhhh its just a DIFFERENT persons opinion about this. Yeah they all think the same thing, they are all SF writers!!!!

  5. My favorite science fiction writer is Gordon Moore, the creator of Moore’s Law. He inspired two generations of engineers to advance the state of the art of semiconductor fabrication at such a breakneck pace that we have exceeded most of the electronics technology futures written about by the science fiction writers of the last 75 years.

  6. The way I have always understood the concept of sic-fi was it transposed ideas & issues of the present into a hypothetical future. Nothing more & nothing less. Once you understand that concept, good sci-fi becomes even better to understand & it’s clear why bad sci-fi is bad.

    1. … sic-fi was it transposed …

      I see what you did there.

      Must it be a hypothetical future though? Or are stories of long, long ago in galaxies far, far away either bad sci-fi or non-sci-fi?

      1. I love Star Wars but it is clearly more fantasy than science fiction. Swords, wizards & magic… At least now it is thanks to the prequels hammering that point home.

        1. Correct. ;)

          But – as long, long ago from far, far away, could still end up being experienced in our future …

          Albeit as nothing we could do anything about, except possibly in some sci-fi scenario involving temporal shenannigans.

          1. Whether a story is “far, far away” or “in the near future” the crux of that conceit is the same as “Once upon a time…” which is to disconnect your mind from the politics & the world world of now and “let go” to experience a “different” world.

            Which is all to say, you know what the best way to convey a story?  In a fiction where the personalization & politics are removed just enough to allow you to shut up people who say “Hey, that’s not a fact…”  A historical fiction will always compel more and convey a greater truth to a larger audience than a deeply researched but tedious non-fiction.

  7. Fortune tellers and sci-fi writers are similar in that they are basically making educated guesses, in the case of fortune tellers it is to defraud, in the case of sci-fi writers it is to entertain and provoke thought.  PLUS with the writers, even when they get it wrong they have provided a valuable service (assuming they can actually write well.)

  8.  The best way to fail about predicting the future is get specific. Gibson failed by talking about specific quantities of RAM. Niven failed in Ringworld by mentioning broken CRT monitors. WTF? They had boosterspice, hyperdrive, doctor boxes, and Slaver tech. Why the hell were there CRT’s?

    A Logic Named Joe failed the same way even as it was otherwise so awesome. A scientist asked the Tanks how to make a cold emission vacuum tube. An interesting task, but the logics of the story could be carried by a single man, they would not had tubes as their primary circuitry.

    Good sci-fi focuses on potential capacities, not on potential technologies.

    1. Moore’s Law again. The stuff of science fiction, but real. It’s hard for even sci-fi writers  to conceive of technology getting 100 million^H^H a trillion times better in a few decades.

    2. Don’t underestimate vacuum tubes! They are extremely rad-hard, for example. I for one wouldn’t be surprised if they make a comeback after being cross-polinated with MEMS.

  9. Or, conversely, they predict a great many futures, and every so often get something right, or close enough to right as to make people go “oh wow, remember that story…”

  10. It is one of those odd criticisms that come up. There’s this regular thing that comes up in interviews were a literary author has written something mildly futuristic “but what if that doesn’t happen” which generally just leaves the author and the listener baffled.
    Fiction, science or not, is about exploring ideas. Science fiction is (often) about an idea of the future, and therefore is as much about to the time in which it is written.

  11. Oh, he did. In more incredible ways than anyone I ever read.

    Unless you really go for meaningless details, he, well, not quite predicted as much as imagined, incredibly plausible and fascinating future scenarios. And the human condition and emotions that would go with them. Dostoevsky would have cried.

    It’s not the little details, it’s the picture, the Matrix Voodoo, the Flatline asking to be erased, the simstim stars, the corporate extraction scenarios, the derms, the decks, the street… I could really go on,  there is just _so_ much in the early Gibson books. Just Molly, as a character. Lady 3Jane. The extinct horses. The blue Zeiss Ikon eyes.

    Like Neal Stephenson wasn’t predicting a down-to-the-quarter-tone future, was he.
    But he certainly let us have a good laugh at it, just at WG let me have a good cry.

  12. Science fiction and other in-the-near-future type novels tell us more about life within the culture and society at the time they were written than they do a glimpse into the future.

  13. Scifi writers don’t predict the future, they make it. They write up the possibilities. The ones who like scifi are often the ones who like tech and who couple years afterwards end up as inventors or scientists, still remembering the possibilities/gadgets/technologies described in the books they read earlier. The best prophets are these that make self-fulfilling prophecies.

  14. To change my perspective on our life here and now I read Sci Fi. For predictions i listen to the weather report.

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