As I’ve written before, science fiction isn’t very good at predicting the future, but it’s great at predicting the present: tell us what futuristic phenomena you fear and hope for and we’ll know what fears about yourself and your relations with the people around you are lurking, possibly unacknowledged, in your psyche.
Better than any SF [or, science fiction,] writer of his time, Dick understood that science fiction is not about predicting the future but examining the present.
Prediction, SF Encyclopedia, David Langford and Peter Nicholls.
The most widespread false belief about sf among the general public is that it is a literature of prediction. Very few sf writers have ever claimed this to be the case, although Hugo Gernsback did see one function of his sf magazines as to paint an accurate picture of the future. Very few of the stories he published lived up to his editorializing. When John W Campbell Jr took over the editorship of Astounding he demanded an increasing scientific plausibility from his writers, but a plausible-sounding “perhaps” is a long way from prediction.
“Huxley’s Bad Trip”, An introduction to the Folio Society edition of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, 2013, Ursula K. Le Guin.
“The cautionary novel does what many people assume all science fiction does: it predicts the future. However much they may exaggerate dramatically or satirically, predictive writers extrapolate immediately from fact. And, believing that they know what’s going to happen in the future, for good or for evil, they want the reader to believe it too. A great deal of science fiction, however, has nothing to do with the future, but is a playful or serious thought experiment, such as H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds or Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Thought experimenters use fiction to recombine aspects of reality into forms not meant to be taken literally, only to open the mind to possibility. They don’t deal with belief at all.
This distinction enforced itself on me when I realised that Huxley himself appears to have believed quite literally in his prediction.”
“Our Dystopia: Imagining More Hopeful Futures”, Kameron Hurley:
“People often ask me about the power and purpose of science fiction. Are we future-prophets? Should there be a religion founded on William Gibson texts? Should we make Octavia Butler our patron saint of change? Will Connie Willis found the next Scientology spin-off?
I don’t think we’re seers. Most of us can’t even predict what we’ll have for lunch tomorrow. I’m even conflicted about the idea of us on advisory committees for NASA. We don’t know the future any better than anyone else. If you’d asked me in 1988, I’d certainly have thought the world would have exploded into a fiery World War Three by now and we would all be being hunted by Terminator robots. In truth, some of the worlds I created, like the one in my God’s War trilogy, look far more like post-apocalypse novels than anything else. That’s still the future I turn my head toward when shit gets real. It’s the future I know. It’s the one I grew up with.”
Nigel Kneale: Science fiction is never about the future, it is always about the present.
ETA: Gibson and Doctorow.
Source: Sci-fi special: Stephen Baxter.
It’s true that many of the old dreams of science fiction have been fulfilled, or bypassed. And it does feel as if we’re living through a time of accelerating change. But science fiction has – rarely – been about the prediction of a definite future, more about the anxieties and dreams of the present in which it is written.
Source: Asimov on Science Fiction, “How Easy to see the Future”
[…] the science fiction writer chooses those [changes] which provide him with a dramatic situation out of which he can weave an exciting plot. There is usually no deliberate attempt to predict what will actually happen, but a science fiction writer is a creature of his time, and in trying to imagine a change in science and technology he is quite likely to base it on those changes he already sees in embryo.
Often this means an extrapolation of the present, an extrapolation that is so clear and obvious as to forecast something that is inevitable. When this happens, the science fiction writer does make a successful prediction. Usually, this astonishes almost everyone, for mankind generally, even today, takes it for granted that things do not change.
I have written stories about galactic empires, about faster-than-light speeds, about intelligent robots which eventually became God, about time travel. I don’t consider that any of these have any predictive value; they weren’t intended for that. I was just trying to write entertaining stories about the might-be, not at all necessarily the would-be.
Fiction as fact
It was inevitable also that I should refer to the fact that many of his inventions in fiction have become inventions in fact. Here the amiable Madame Verne concurred with me.
“People are kind enough to say so,” said Jules Verne. “It is flattering, but as a fact it is not true.”
“But come, Jules,” said Madame Verne, “and your submarines?”
“Aucun rapport,” said Verne, waving the flattery aside.
“Mais non. The Italians had invented submarine boats sixty years before I created Nemo and his boat. There is no connection between my boat and those now existing. These latter are worked by mechanical means. My hero, Nemo, being a misanthropist, and wishing to have nothing to do with the land, gets his motive force, electricity, from the sea. There is scientific basis for that, for the sea contains stores of electric force, just as the earth does. But how to get at this force has never been discovered, and so I have invented nothing.”
With his usual modesty, M. Verne deprecated all idea of being considered an inventor.
“I have merely made suggestions,” he remarked, “suggestions which, after due consideration, I deemed to rest upon a practical basis, an these I then elaborated in a more or less imaginative manner to suit the purposes which I had in view.”
“But many of your suggestions, which twenty years ago were rejected as impossible, are now accomplished facts?” I urged.
“Yes, that is so,” replied M. Verne. “But these results are merely the natural outcome of the scientific trend of modern thought, and as such have doubtless been predicted by scores of others besides myself. Their coming was inevitable, whether anticipated or not, and the most that I can claim is to have looked perhaps a little farther into the future than the majority of my critics.”
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.
Science fiction writers and fans are prone to lauding the predictive value of the genre, prompting weird questions like ‘‘How can you write science fiction today? Aren’t you worried that real science will overtake your novel before it’s published?’’ This question has a drooling idiot of a half-brother, the strange assertion that ‘‘science fiction is dead because the future is here.’’
Now, I will stipulate that science fiction writers often think that they’re predicting the future. The field lays claim to various successes, from flip-phones to the Web, waterbeds to rocket-ships, robots to polyamory.
I believe that in nearly every instance where science fiction has successfully ‘‘predicted’’ a turn of events, it’s more true to say that it has inspired that turn of events.