Someday I’ll be able to tell my daughter that I grew up in a time before the internet, and she’ll look at me the same way I used to look at my grandma when she talked about not having electricity or indoor plumbing. It’s shocking to consider how much the development of the world wide web has touched every facet of our lives (for example, it would have taken a lot more effort—and a lot of stamps—for me to share this blog post with you 30 years ago).
What’s more surprising is how few people saw it coming—even within the science-fiction genre, which is supposed to be all about predicting the future. Still, there were a handful. Below, find five books that managed to get at least some of the details right:
“From the ‘London Times’ of 1904,” by Mark Twain (1898): Did you know that when he wasn’t writing about irascible orphans and jumping frogs, Mark Twain sometimes wrote science fiction? In one of them, he imagined the “telelectroscope,” a device that used telephone wires to create a world-wide communication network that allowed users to get a peek at what people were doing at any given moment in any place on earth (if today’s social media landscape is any indication, they were probably taking tintypes of what they ate for breakfast). The story even features a murder suspect who is cleared of the crime when he’s able to locate the supposed victim alive and well via a livestream from a webcam filming a festival in China. Okay, not in those exact words. But essentially, what I’m saying is, Mark Twain invented the internet.
The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov (1957): As one of the most influential science-fiction writers of all time—and one of the most prolific—it’s no wonder that Asimov managed to stumble across the idea of the internet. In The Naked Sun, a detective and his robot sidekick visit Solaria, a planet where the strictly controlled human population shuns personal contact, preferring instead to interact through the use of machines. As someone who has spent an entire weekend alone on the computer, I can identify with the citizens of this world and would love to meet them. Just not face-to-face. Maybe via Skype.
Neuromancer, by William Gibson (1984): Considering it’s the novel that popularized the phrase “cyberspace,” I can hardly leave Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk masterpiece off the list. His vision of a virtual world linking the databases of every computer in the world, while not exactly a literal description of what we currently call the internet, sure feels right: “A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.” Well, maybe only after you’ve been up all night bouncing between Wikipedia and TV Tropes.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams (1979): Speaking of Wikipedia, Douglas Adams describes his titular guidebook as a portable, handheld electronic device that is “the standard repository for all knowledge and wisdom” in the galaxy. I don’t know, it sounds to me like an iPad with a 3G internet connection and access to Wikipedia.
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card (1986): Though the movie adaptation is just making its way to theaters in November, the book is nearly 30 years old, and pre-dates the world wide web. At the time it was written, the idea of “going online” meant posting to message boards and poking around on university servers, but Card was able to envision the development of a global marketplace of ideas that served a vital role in shaping public opinion and government policy. His teen prodigies, Peter and Violet Wiggen, rise to prominence (and power) through their widely read and hotly debated online political essays. Today, we’d call it them bloggers.
What’s your favorite work of prescient science fiction?