Which sci-fi authors best predicted the present?
January 16, 2017 9:43 AM   Subscribe

As we now seem to be living in a dystopian science-fiction movie, I am wondering if there are books or movies that were particularly close in their predictions of what life would be live coming up to 2020. A lot of cyberpunk seems to have been short of the mark, but my vague memories of their precursors (like John Brunner) lead me to think that there were creators in the 1960s and 1970s who were better at looking forward.
posted by Grinder to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I think that a lot of past anglophone (not as familiar with writers elsewhere) SF authors predicted aspects of the present really well, but everyone who was writing in the period of post-war liberalism seemed, IMO, to ascribe a much greater and more benign role to the state - even where the state is depicted as a villain, as in Tom Disch's 334, it's a welfare state villain, not a "let them eat cheap catfood" Paul Ryan villain.

I think there's basically a huge break at the end of the seventies which throws everyone off. You start to get far more corporate-control dystopias that feel more modern (like Octavia Butler's work, and Marge Piercy's Woman On The Edge of Time). And there's also a massive turn to the right, globally, which means that the problems advanced in, say, feminist SF in the seventies suddenly become not as relevant, because women abruptly lose so much ground - you go from The Female Man to The Handmaid's Tale. (Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns, is an interesting UK transitional work.) Also, AIDS happens - Samuel Delany talks somewhere about how after the AIDS crisis started, he felt that the world he described in Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand was so unreal that he didn't feel able to write the sequel - instead, he wrote the postmodernism-influenced and very interesting revisionist sword and sorcery Neveryona series.

Some stories that I think are interesting:

Ursula Le Guin's short story "Atlantis", for the advertising language and the minimizing of environmental catastrophe. (You can't get aspirin anymore; you get "super double painbegone from the federal clinics. And women have a weekly "watch those surplus calories" day (men don't) where they are not allowed to eat.

James Tiptree's "The Girl Who Was Plugged In", for its reality TV marketing aspect

John Brunner, of course. (Did you know that he was one of the founders of the CND and wrote their song, "Can You Hear the H-Bomb's Thunder"?)

"The Space Merchants" is widely held to be of interest.

I think that Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To... presages a lot of far-right discourse around abortion and childbirth.

Basically, when I think about sixties/seventies dystopias, they are most often concerned with an oppressive welfare state (or "welfare" state, depending), with overpopulation and with post-colonial or anti-colonial movements. I'd say that the way that sixties SF deals with pop culture is interesting - try "Time Considered As A Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" by Samuel Delany. But honestly, the post war liberal period was a more optimistic time, a time when a lot of movements saw themselves as able to win and gain rights, even if they saw the present as pretty bleak. A right-wing SF writer like Gene Wolfe would tend to see awful things happening because of hippies/the left (and GW has a couple of very good stories like this).

Of later SF writers who are predictive, I think Octavia Butler's Parables books are horribly on, and so is Snowcrash. I really, really dislike Neal Stephenson for his structural misogyny (and his patting himself on the back for his "feminism") but in terms of "the US turns to absolute shit because of stupid and evil people", he really had it with that book. It scared me deeply at the time and I tried not to think about it.
posted by Frowner at 10:18 AM on January 16, 2017 [21 favorites]

Gibson still. Not so much the stuff he's most famous for, the flashy cyber distopias, but particularly the "Blue Ant" novels, Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History.

It's the little details that we seem to be growing into, increasing addictions to drugs to moderate anxiety and existential pain, the background that much of the bad stuff is (still) motivated by amoral commerce, the uses of branding as weapons.

The early Gibsons are very sciffy and make amusing (or not) movies, but his later works are more subtle and so more realistic in scope. He may not get everything right, but he's really good with filling in scarily believable, prescient background.
posted by bonehead at 10:23 AM on January 16, 2017 [8 favorites]

Sinclair Lewis isn't primarily known as a science fiction writer but his novel, "It Can't Happen Here" has proven to be somewhat prescient over the past year or so.
posted by fuse theorem at 11:03 AM on January 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you're interested in tech predictions, The Door Into Summer by Heinlein (1956) is really interesting, in that he predicted the roomba, other robots, CAD (sort of), ATMs and some other stuff, but before the invention of silicon chips (1961), so they all work with vacuum tubes or mechanically. The drafting machine is particularly interesting.

Warning... the protagonist falls in love with a little girl, time travel tomfoolery ensues, then they get married when she's older. It's pretty creepy in a couple of spots.
posted by Huck500 at 11:18 AM on January 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Philip K. Dick would have to be on this list. I remember in the days and months that followed the 9/11 attacks, and OBL mocked George W. Bush on TV, just like an "ubiquitous" Ray Hollis mocks Joe Chip, in the novel Ubik.

In The Days of Perky Pat, the characters take refuge in an artificial reality, as well.
posted by My Dad at 11:18 AM on January 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

Long time since I read Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia, but it's close to the mark, and may be closer yet. I recall a post-apocalyptic novel about water shortages in LA, but it was a long time ago.

and it's nice to know how many John Brunner fans there still are.
posted by theora55 at 12:08 PM on January 16, 2017

Ah! theora55 just beat me to it; Ecotopia talks about computer terminals, electric cars, attempts to create ecological balance, print on demand books, etc.
posted by gregr at 12:19 PM on January 16, 2017

Every day our new OMG US president ((OMG america looks so stupid)) reminds me of the rich Biff in Back to the Future 2.
posted by JimN2TAW at 12:26 PM on January 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

i thought The Sheep Look Up was pretty prescient when i read it in 2006 or so.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 3:02 PM on January 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

Kate Wilhelm "Ladies and Gentlemen, This is Your Crisis!" was a super-eerie predictor of reality TV.
posted by dancing_angel at 5:20 PM on January 16, 2017

Brave New World. Not the tech in particular, but the capitalist-hedonist-dystopia angle. (Of course, Huxley thought that World Controllers would be very smart people, not Epsilon Semi-Morons.)

Alfred Bester seems to me to get the anxiety, complexity, and sophistication of the future down pat. The Stars My Destination, with its aristocratic corporations and amoral ruling class, feels closer to now. The Demolished Man is more hopeful.

There's always Rapture in Bioshock, for the explicit Randism. And maybe the Fallout series. (The pre-apocalyptic stage, I mean. We moved beyond the '50s in architecture, but the nuclear grandstanding seems suddenly way more relevant with Trump.)

I always feel that Douglas Adams is likely to have captured what the galaxy is like more than any other sf writer. The election of crazy, egotistical con man Zaphod Beeblebrox as Galactic President seems less absurdist today.
posted by zompist at 9:45 PM on January 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Since you mention John Brunner in your question, I assume you are familiar with Stand on Zanzibar. Felt it had to be linked for the sake of completeness, though!
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:54 PM on January 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Gibson's latest, The Peripheral, is set in a weird distant future London and a near-future America. The former is post-collapse sci-fi with all sorts of unrecognizable things in it; the latter is eerily familiar, like tomorrow's news.

(I only know we're not actually living in a William Gibson universe because he would never give his civilization-ending tyrant character such a cheesily eponysterical name. "Trump" puts us squarely in George Lucas' wheelhouse of subtlety.)
posted by mumkin at 10:41 PM on January 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

William Gibson was the first sci-fi writer I read where the gadgets had brand names and were believable consumer products, not one off creations of a mad scientist.
Really the genre is more fascinating for all the things it failed to predict. I read an Arthur C Clarke story once set thousands of years in the future and the menacing robot was covered in vacuum tubes. What makes most old science fiction old fashioned now is the absence of smart phones.
posted by w0mbat at 10:42 PM on January 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

My recollection of Michaelmas by Algis Budrys may have had a handle on the current civilization's process.
posted by ptm at 11:17 PM on January 16, 2017

Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson's series Transmetropolitan, which ran from 1997-2002, predicted a lot of the way we behave on the internet now, not to mention our current political situation.
posted by sleeping bear at 11:38 PM on January 16, 2017

Really the genre is more fascinating for all the things it failed to predict.

One reason for this is that science fiction is mostly not predictive - that's not what it's for. "Science fiction is what you read to get a handle on gadgets of the future" is this sort of weird argument that, IMO, was mostly advanced about the pulp/"Golden Age" as a way of covering up how basically trashy-adventure it was (I mean, interesting trashy adventures!) and as a push-back against feminist and New Wave science fiction.

I think that near-future science fiction has gotten a lot more popular and a lot better since about the eighties, partly because technological change happens faster, partly because it's had some time to grow as a genre and partly because there's been more and more conceptual tools since the sixties (Future Shock, McLuhan, theorists of advertising, etc) to a point where anyone who is at all widely-read has encountered some of those ideas. John Brunner is really foundational - you can see today's near future work growing out of the sixties political and SFnal climate, but it takes a while.

Joanna Russ writes in the mid-seventies that one of her huge pet peeves as an editor/slush pile reader is the kind of SF where it's five hundred years in the future and everyone lives in floating cities on gas giants or whatever and social life is exactly the same in its sexism and economic underpinnings as in 1975. My feeling is that with the New Wave and after, there starts to be a lot more emphasis on social sciences and psychology and the idea that technological changes change the ways people believe and behave. (Russian SF pretty much had this sorted by 1917, it's worth noting.) Today there's certainly plenty of "it's the future, but people are just the same in every respect" SF out there, but there's a pretty well-developed and strong critique of that tendency, and it's expected that you'll incorporate sociology into any future projection.

It's interesting because the conservative periodization of SF is "we used to write about technology but then women and minorities came in and made us write about garbage sociology and political bullshit, now science fiction is terrible", when really it's the sociology, psychology and politics which render both contemporary near-future SF and contemporary farther future SF (So Like The Lightning, etc) more genuinely predictive.

That said, SF that is truly interested in being "predictive" of how we will live in twenty or a hundred years is, IMO, a minority of SF. Far more often, SF is working in a satirical or wonder-tale vein, where the idea is not "here is what is going to happen" but "if this were to continue unimpeded" or "if this were to happen, then" or "this could have happened". And it is for the most part about using wonder-tales to comment on and estrange the present, with a side order of wonder-tales for their own sake. So The Fifth Season isn't actually about how Earth scientists will someday [do the thing that changes the whole earth into a world of constant tremor]; it's an exercise in clever world-building and a way of processing some really heavy stuff about historical trauma and how it lives on in individual experience.

It might be that thrillers of the Robin Cook or Andromeda Strain variety would be a better place to turn for near-future, predictive SF, actually. Those tend to work out scary current events.

There's a sub-genre of sort of literary near-future SF around the late seventies/early eighties that is largely forgotten today (because it wasn't actually very SFnal and wasn't actually very literary). But one of the most politically motivating near-future SF books I've ever read was among them - The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica. Because it focuses on social breakdown, refugees and the rise of fascism in Europe, it does not seem to me to be rendered particularly useless by the lack of cell phones, etc. It is a critique of a utilitarian liberalism which has stood me in really good stead, politically, since the second Iraq war. Because I read that book when I was fifteen or so (and I remember the very day I read it because it made so much of an impression) I've always known that both fascism and liberalism let people die if it's convenient, and that each has its own masking ideology for the process.
posted by Frowner at 6:28 AM on January 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Arthur C. Clarke had a number of things on the nose, but in at least one case, he cheated by assisted in inventing future tech.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 9:53 AM on January 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Orwell's 1984:
-Big Brother (Mark Zuckerberg?)
-Perpetual war (Yup)
-Telescreens (NSA surveillance)
-Newspeak (Twitter)
-Doublethink ("Citizens United")
-The lottery and porn as mass distractions.
-Proles (Trump voters)
-Donald Trump
posted by sixpack at 10:25 AM on January 17, 2017

Rudy Rucker's short story "Rapture in Space," written in 1984, is surprisingly prescient about such current phenomena as Internet addiction, digital spam, and exhibitionists having public sex to earn money via paid subscriptions over a distributed network.
posted by the matching mole at 12:05 PM on January 17, 2017

If you want to go way back, "The Machine Stops" by E.M. Forster is not realistic perhaps, but is still pretty stunning to me. Public Domain links on the Wikipedia page.
posted by bongo_x at 7:18 PM on January 17, 2017

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