Sixteen years ago, long before the ascent of Facebook and Twitter, I published a science fiction story anticipating the rise of fake news. In “Born Under the Sign of Bonanza,” a shadowy Center for Memetics Research deliberately releases false ideas into the world and carefully tracks their spread through the internet, television, and other news media. How did I manage to foresee the rise of social media, the ease with which falsehoods would spread on the internet, and the deliberate dissemination of lies for nefarious purposes? The answer is simple: I didn’t.
Science fiction is famous for its successful predictions. In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, the first mission to the moon is organized by Americans, launched from Florida, and crewed by three men. Numerous science fiction writers predicted nuclear power, and Cleve Cartmill published a story in early 1944 outlining the atomic bomb, resulting in a visit by a federal agent to the offices of Astounding Science Fiction.
But science fiction has had as many misses as hits. It promised us nuclear-powered electricity that would become too cheap to meter; instead, we got free long-distance phone calls. We were warned about an overpopulated planet, but instead, we failed to produce enough children to support our retirees. And our robot cooks and maids have morphed into robot auto workers. Science fiction has been particularly bad at predicting social, as opposed to technological, changes. Countless 1950s science fiction stories postulated galactic empires with Eisenhower-era social arrangements, complete with heroes still puffing away on cigarettes.
The truth is that science fiction is not meant to predict anything. Its function is to entertain readers with interesting stories about imagined worlds, not to provide a road map of the future. And my own story? My Center for Memetics Research studied the way that new ideas spread. But to avoid complicating the experiment by spreading ideas with differing degrees of plausibility, the center generated only false ideas—the more outlandish the better: Cheez Whiz prevents cancer! Crisco makes excellent bathroom caulk!
My story was intended as a humorous parody of pop culture—how else to account for the existence of fad diets, alien abduction stories and the stubborn idea that Elvis is still alive? I never thought that the central conceit of the story would eventually come true. And that’s exactly the way that most successful predictions of science fiction happen: by accident. When the predictions of science fiction do come to pass, the effect can be startling, but these predictions are nearly always incidental to the story that an author was trying to tell.
Should we mourn the stillbirth of our science fictional future? There’s no doubt that technological progress has plateaued in many areas. The years from 1900 to 1960 saw transportation progress from steam-powered trains to jet airplanes, while medicine conquered polio and nearly all bacterial illnesses. In the 60 years since then, we’ve seen transportation evolve from jet airplanes to … overcrowded jet airplanes. Although medicine has seen numerous triumphs over the past six decades, we’ve had nothing like the antibiotic revolution; in fact, bacteria seem to be making something of a comeback. And there’s still no sign of extraterrestrials, colonization of the solar system, or flying cars.
This failure of our science fictional dreams to arrive on cue has bred a kind of “retro-nostalgia,” a yearning for a future that never came, full of jet packs (which technically exist but burn so much fuel as to be essentially useless) and stainless-steel rocket ships. The Smithsonian once sponsored a travelling exhibition on Yesterday’s Tomorrows, and author Daniel Wilson has explored the failed world of tomorrow in his book Where’s My Jetpack?. But perhaps the best place to view the stillborn science fictional future is at Disney’s Tomorrowland. The original versions of Tomorrowland repeatedly fell behind reality, until the designers at Disney finally gave up and settled on a nostalgic view of the future that never arrived.
Of course, we’re undeniably better off for some science fictional predictions that didn’t come true: we’ve been spared alien invasions, death rays, and, most importantly, murderous robotic versions of Arnold Schwarzenegger. So, I cannot shed too many tears over the vanished world of tomorrow.
But I still wouldn’t mind a flying car.