To the consternation of millions, scientific endeavor has yet to yield us a functional hoverboard (despite what these guys might tell you).
Science fiction writers, however, have done a decent job adumbrating humanity’s forward progress. By writing about instances of brilliance and dystopia, these scribblers have helped shine a light down the tunnel of time and have offered some fascinating revelations about the ways in which we interact with technology, privation and each other.
Published in 1966, Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress had plenty of historical precedent to draw from in the formation of its themes. The novel relates the tale of a lunar rebellion, as organized by a hardscrabble colony of criminals and exiles — “Loonies” in the novel’s argot — that break free from an Earth-bound central government.
Though the fictional rebellion displays multiple similarities to the American Revolution, Heinlein, in describing a diffuse, citizen-led movement, gave insight into the workings of insurgency campaigns in nations ranging from 1950s Algeria to early twenty-first century Iraq.
In a New York Times essay contrasting P.D. James’s novel The Children of Men to its cinematic adaptation, Caryn James insists that to describe the novel as science fiction is “sloppy.” However, for the purposes of this list, we’ll risk the ire of both Jameses in the interest of including this fascinating, literary outlier.
Published in 1992, James’s novel posits a world beset by the ostensible blight of species-wide infertility. From this starting premise, the novel goes on to investigate the way people interact in a world in which resources are running thin. As the “haves” retreat to islands of prosperity, shunning and imprisoning the “have-nots,” James’s fictional society tilts ever further in the direction of fascism, employing “security” as both its watchword and evergreen excuse. Like its cinematic adaptation, James’s novel raises discomforting questions about whether or not this fictional world differs in any essential respects from our own.
William Gibson produced the charter document of the “cyberpunk” genre, his novel Neuromancer, in 1984 by combining noire sensibilities with a remarkable talent for presaging hacker culture. If the tropes of Gibson’s debut novel seem hoary at this point, it’s because subsequent authors, directors and artists have made constant reference to his electronic outlaws and their dystopian surroundings.
Neuromancer follows the exploits of Henry Case, a brilliant, drug-addicted hacker who gets drawn into a narrative far too complicated to summarize here. In addition to coining the term “cyberspace,” creating a template to which laptop renegades still aspire and predicting at least a half-dozen technologies, Neuromancer can take credit for having rendered a passable description of dubstep three decades before the genre achieved popularity.
Nineteenth-century French author Jules Verne wrote so many tales of the fantastic that it would have been strange had a couple of them not proven prophetic. While 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea presaged Cold War submarine travel and Around the World in 80 Days proved ultimately conservative in its fantasticality, Verne’s Propeller Island has had the most curious, real-world analogue.
The tale follows the exploits of a string quartet as it tours the world, playing for an audience of millionaires as they float about on a manufactured nation, dubbed “Standard Island.”
In 2011, billionaire Peter Thiel, PayPal founder and a staunch Libertarian, announced that he plans to build just such an island off the coast of San Francisco. A population of millionaires and a near absence of legal restrictions will characterize the new nation (provided it ever gets built), and it seems not unlikely that a string quartet will grace its privileged surface as well.
J.G. Ballard sits high in the pantheon of authors who found success by indulging, rather than trying to repress, their obsessions. In Ballard’s case, two themes came to define his fiction: car crashes and environmental catastrophe.
The Drowned World and The Burning World take place in landscapes ravaged, respectively, by global warming and water shortage — two of the most pressing threats now weighing on society. These novels remain controversial, seeing as their protagonists tend to rejoice in the destruction that surrounds them. Ballard, with these novels, produced plausible portraits of elegant demise.
Ray Bradbury later described Fahrenheit 451 as his only science fiction novel, a characterization he drew from the fact that, alone amongst his works, the book’s premise depended on a scientific fact: paper burns at 451 degrees Fahrenheit.
In crafting the novel’s world, suffused with omnipresent media, Bradbury predicted the emergence of inventions ranging from headphones to plasma screen TVs. Kingsley Amis’s 1960 study New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction, relates the following anecdote from Bradbury:
In writing the short novel Fahrenheit 451, I thought I was describing a world that might evolve in four or five decades. But only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog. I stood staring after them, absolutely stunned. The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap opera cries, sleep walking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not fiction.