Sci-fi is a genre of ideas, and, seeing as it is also unbound by the normal rules of space and time, it often wanders into possible futures. Every story or novel set in the future can be taken as a kind of prediction, and there are many examples of sci-fi books that were eerily accurate with those predictions—from Jules Verne’s strangely prescient imagining of a trip to the moon, circa 1877 (in From the Earth to the Moon) to Edward Bellamy’s surprising vision of debit cards in 1888’s Looking Backward, to Star Trek’s early takes on the cell phone, the PDA, and the 3D printer.
But to be fair, most of examples of sci-fi prophecy are only kind of accurate. Verne’s vision of going to the moon is remarkable—but he also thought the spaceship would be fired out of a giant gun. Bellamy’s concept of debit cards is amazingly prescient—but he also assumed those cards would draw on a common fund of government-managed money. And all of those Star Trek technologies are close-but-no-cigar. Generally, SF predictions tend to be just that: similar in concept but wildly different in the details.
And then there are the books on this list: the technologies imagined by these five writers are so accurate, you have to wonder if they used a time machine to conduct their research.
Book: Heavy Weather, by Bruce Sterling (1994)
Bruce Sterling’s 1994 novel deserves to be high on to-read lists these days; it’s a great story, and a trailblazer in the cli-fi subgenre. It also contains a few amazingly accurate predictions about the future world of 2031. Although the main thrust of the story revolves around a group of high-tech stormchasers in a world where climate change generates incredibly destructive weather phenomena, in one passage Sterling casually describes cryptocurrencies so accurately, it’s made more than one person speculate only half-jokingly that he might be Satoshi Nakamoto, the unknown person who launched Bitcoin in 2009. As Sterling wrote 15 years earlier, “electronic, private cash, unbacked by any government, untraceable, completely anonymous, global in reach, lightninglike in speed, ubiquitous, fungible, and usually highly volatile” was the way of the future. The only thing he got wrong: it didn’t take until 2031 to hit the market.
Technology: Tablet Computers
Book: 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke (1968)
It’s no surprise to find Clarke on a list like this; he was always a sci-fi writer who made a real effort at maintaining scientific realism in his books. People might argue over what was actually the first tablet computer; although the most successful and obvious example is Apple’s iPad, nascent examples date back to as early as 1987. What shouldn’t be grounds for debate is the fact that Clarke imagined the tablet computer with remarkable accuracy in the late 1960s, describing a Newspad, a “foolscap-sized” device with a large screen allowing someone to “conjure up the world’s major electronic papers… the postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen…” While all the ingredients for a tablet computer existed in 1968, believe it or not (the first touchscreen technology was operational by then, and early GUIs existed), Clarke’s descriptions are almost frighteningly close to the experience of using a modern-day tablet to skim the news and organize documents.
Technology: Bluetooth Earbuds
Book: Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953)
“And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind.” That’s how Ray Bradbury described what are obviously earbud headphones in his 1953 novel. You might quibble that Bradbury’s “seashells” are more like tiny radios, not wireless earphones, but that doesn’t change the fact that Bradbury imagined them before the advent of the first stereo headphones (1958), and even prior to the first time an earphone was connected to a transistor radio (1954). The next time you’re lying in bed listening to your favorite playlist with your Airpods, think of Ray Bradbury—who also, it should be noted, also described flat-screen televisions pretty accurately—although in that case, he wasn’t the first to do so.
Technology: DVRs/Streaming Video
Book: Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner (1968)
Stand on Zanzibar, winner of the 1969 Best Novel Hugo Award, is often noted for its many smart predictions of the future, but most are your standard close-but-not-perfect ideas—fun to talk about but not really all that specific or accurate (which is not to diminish its power; it’s really a remarkable, enduring work). The one exception is Brunner’s description of what’s essentially a DVR or streaming video device—a time-shifting technology that allows the people of his 2010 to watch television programs whenever they like, which must have been a pretty cool concept for the poor folks of 1968, who had 11 channels to choose from and no way to record anything, and thus had to conform to the schedule that the networks cooked up. Did we mention that Brunner also imagined that, in 2010, the president of the United States would be named Obomi? That has nothing to do with technology, of course, but… still.
Technology: Apps and Voice Assistants
Story: “Our Lady of Chernobyl”, by Greg Egan (1994)
This short story is a fusion of detective fiction and sci-fi centered on a wealthy oligarch’s purchase of a religious icon and the murder of the courier tasked with delivering it. Egan is known as a writer of hard sci-fi who tries to keep things real, and he hits it out of the park with what’s essentially a prediction of modern app-based technology and voice assistants like Siri and Alexa. The detective on the case uses both in his work, and if you find yourself thinking the story was actually written 20 years later than it was, you’d be forgiven—it’s bizarrely on point. Set in 2013, Egan’s story describes what’s basically a “Where Am I?” app and an interaction with a “tour guide” that attempts to answer questions and offer guidance—complete with the frustrating literalness and lack of flexibility we’ve all come to know all too well when it comes to our AI assistants.
What other SF books got the future just right?