It’s fairly widely known that much of today’s technology started with ideas put forward in science fiction novels. Rockets into space for example. They first appear in novels in 1874 (Jules Verne, From the Earth to the Moon), but the first actual space launch didn’t happen until 1957. 1958 for manned flight.
A lot of people have expressed disappointment that we haven’t got hovercars or even hoverboards yet as promised by 2015 by the film, Back to the Future II (1989), but hey, sometimes the timing is a little off. It gives us something to keep looking forward to. According to books and film, we should have routine space travel by 2001 (2001: A Space Odyssey), World War III by 1970 (The Door Into Summer, 1970), Interstellar travel and androids by 2019 (Bladerunner, 1982), The world dominated by megacorporations by 2020 with virtual reality being the dominant form of entertainment (Iron Man 2020, comic, 1984). Oh wait, we have come close to this one…
The world that gives us The Terminator (1984) is supposed to see us at war with machines in 2029 and society was supposed to have a complete breakdown between 1983 and 1985 according to Mad Max (1979).
One odd thing I’ve noticed during these many months of pandemic is the number of science fiction novels depicting exactly what we’re going through now, a widespread virus and changes to the way we conduct our lives as a result. Most of these dramatise much more disruption and end of the world panic than we’ve actually experienced, but it’s interesting to see how popular these novels have suddenly become. Perhaps because comparing the reality to the fictionalised devastation makes us realise just how much worse it could be.
I recently acquired a 6-book series by Stephen Birch depicting collapse due to a virus and looked at the release dates to find they had been written 2013 – 2015, years before we would first learn of Covid-19!
Despite the differences between reality and the changes science fiction depicts, we can learn a lot by reading about these imagined futures and the potential devastation or benefits that undiscovered technologies have to offer, as well as warnings of how our unmindful attitudes towards biological balance might possibly go wrong. Whether a virus comes through engineering or interacting with the animal world in unnatural ways, we’ve seen over and over again that our species is subject to illnesses that occur naturally in some other creatures with whom we share our planet and the stories are there to warn us of the realities we might subject ourselves to if we’re not careful!
Books depicting 2050 and beyond are mostly focusing on climate change now. Some of these have us settling other planets and abandoning the mess we made of our own. Cue the exploration of developing colonies on Mars or the Moon! What worries me most is the number of books and even series coming out depicting the zombie apocalypse. Maybe we should be paying more attention to the cautions in science fiction as well as the brilliant imaginary worlds that foretell of tomorrow’s technological advances.
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