Those who look in at science fiction from the outside focus obsessively on the narrow predictive qualities of science fiction, and make their judgements on the quality of a work based on the accuracy of the predictions. That's obviously a nonsensical criterion for a work of fiction. For one thing, if this was the criterion, then you would need to potentially reserve your judgement on a work for centuries. You wouldn't be able to say a novel was any good until you could see how well the author foresaw the future, as if SF writers were really just fortune-tellers.
Here are some of the successful predictions attributed to science fiction writers which I've had a stab at ranking in terms of significance of prediction:
1. Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953) predicted earbud headphones, describing them as 'little seashells… thimble radios' that brought an 'electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk'.
2. Aldous Huxley predicted antidepressants in Brave New World (1931) with soma, the mood-altering medicine that kept people sane.
3. Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888) predicted 'universal credit' where citizens spent credit from a central bank on goods and services without paper money changing hands.
4. Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124c 41+ (1925, serialised from 1911) predicted video-conferencing, radar, television, channel surfing, remote-control power transmission, transcontinental air service, practical solar energy, synthetic milk and foods, artificial cloth, voice-printing, tape recorders, and spaceflight.
Ray Bradbury's novel is universally lauded as a masterpiece, while Hugo Gernsback's novel is usually derided as a work of fiction and almost no-one reads it anymore. Yet the level of prediction in Fahrenheit 451 is trivial compared to Ralph 124c 41+. In these examples, the quality of prediction is actually inversely proportional to the literary merit. The better the prediction, the lousier the fiction! (Sorry, Hugo, at least you had an award named after you.)
You might argue that I've made a specific selection to back up my point. Maybe, but whatever the case, I don't think you can reasonably argue that the higher the quality of the prediction in science fiction, the higher the quality of the fiction.
I think we can all reasonably conclude that we're never going to be invaded by Martians, but that doesn't diminish H G Wells' The War of the Worlds. I can't wait to see whether gorillas and chimpanzees take over the planet so that I can decide whether I've enjoyed Planet of the Apes or not.
Let's not allow those outside of the science fiction to place value criteria on SF that has nothing to do with good writing. Science fiction explores futures and possibilities, but its worth doesn't lie in the accuracy of the speculation. I would argue that what good science fiction writers do isn't predicting the future, but influencing it. Before something new can come into being, someone has to imagine it first. So, not only could science fiction writers be responsible for the drive-in, they could also have some responsibility for the sexual revolution!
The international science fiction anthology The World To Come, to be launched later this month, is as much about influencing the future as it is about predicting the future. Twenty-one writers from around the world speculate on what is just around the corner for us all. My story "2084" appears for the first time in English, and I sincerely hope I don't have to wait 70 years for people to be able to tell me if it's any good or not.
The World To Come anthology will be launched by author, film-maker, and former 60 Minutes journalist, Jeff McMullen as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival on Sunday 31 August 2.30 pm at ACMI The Cube, Federation Square, Melbourne. The session will also feature an exploration of new trends in short fiction by the co-editor of the anthology, Patrick West, and several authors.
A version of this article appeared in Aurealis #73.
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