The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
THE GREAT HERESY:
SF IS NOT ABOUT THE FUTURE
The overriding theme on this site is given elsewhere as Carper's Law: The Future is Never About the Future. It Is Always About Today. That applies equally to Science Fiction (SF). Writers and artists use SF to express today's hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares, aspirations and disappointments, extrapolated hypertrophied into the future to concentrate thought and feeling onto that issue.
SF writers may have thought more about what some possible futures might incorporate. That doesn't mean they personally expect the future to happen in that way or want the future to look like that. Ray Bradbury gets tagged with a supposed quote - “I don't try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.” - which like many famous quotes is niftier and more succinct than what he really said. All these protestations are farts in a tornado. The world always has more fun pretending that SF writers somehow can forecast the future. Endless pages have been written about SF works that got it right! or else got it comically wrong! with the loosest definitions of what right or wrong might be and normally no context whatsoever for why the work of SF might have expressed that future in the first place. You can make a hobby of collecting headlines from Google News that equate SF and the Future. A few I found recently:
Flying cars may no longer be just science fiction
Science fiction evolves from fantasy to reality
Science Fiction Comes True
Superconduction wires; not from science fiction
The 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science had at its theme, Where's My Flying Car? Science, Science Fiction, and Changing Vision of the Future. Naturally SF writers, including Catherine Asaro and Kim Stanley Robinson, were asked to speak. When the Scitech children's science museum in Perth, Australia, wanted to do an exhibition of future technology in 2012, they bundled it as Science Fiction, Science Future.
Perhaps the most hypertrophied clickbait headline on the subject comes from the SF-driven site io9:
All The Times Science Fiction Became Science Fact In One Chart
Look, clickbait is fine; there's not an atom's worth of difference between io9 running that and Popular Mechanics doing an article on flying cars. What really matters is why certain words and images inspire instant and feverish responses. Readers passionately want to believe that SF predicts the future. Isn't that what makes it so great? And so defendable to scoffers?
That SF doesn't try to predict the future, any future, is old news, though it needs to be repeated loudly and often. The point I want to make is a derivative from that, somewhat more subtle, and certainly bound to be a surprise to many. SF writers aren't even original about their futures. They're stolen, each and every one of them.
Robert Heinlein gave away the game a long, long time ago, in a lecture given at the University College of the University of Chicago on February 8, 1957, reprinted in 1959 as an essay in The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism, a collection of the lectures by him, C. M. Kornbluth, Alfred Bester, and Robert Bloch. A remarkable little volume, long out of print though it's easily found used and will repay the small amount of money it will cost you with some of the best and most perceptive analyses of field in its early days. In a section probing what SF as a
field is, he makes the following points, which I'm excerpting, I think fairly, from a longer argument:
The fact is that most "scientific prophecies" are made by writers who follow the current scientific reports and indulge in rather obvious extrapolation of already known fact. [Mentions of Waldo and "Solution Unsatisfactory"] ... Given all this mass of fact could a careful fictionist fail to come up with something near the truth? ...
Back in 1918 I read an article in Popular Mechanics about a poor fellow afflicted with myasthenia [sic] gravis, a pathological muscular weakness so great that even holding a knife and fork is too much effort. ... this genius did not let myasthenia [sic] gravis defeat him. He devised complicated lever arrangements to enable him to use what little strength he had and he became an inventor and industrial engineer, specializing in how to get maximum result for least effort. ... Twenty-two years after I had read about his inspiring example I was scratching my head for a story notion... [A]s a "prophecy" I was taking as much chance as a man who predicts tomorrow's sunrise.
(As an aside, I've tried to find the original article without any luck. Seemingly the full text of the complete run of Popular Mechanics magazines is searchable through Google Books but with this curious lacuna: all the issues of 1918, 1919, and 1920 are missing. Searching for myesthenia gravis (the usual spelling of the ailment) brings up nothing but a few references to medical journals. It would be a nice find if anyone were to stumble over the issue.)
Just because Heinlein can trace one or two of his futuristic inventions to earlier popular science is not equivalent to his having invented none. Nor do his procedures apply to any of the thousands of others in the field. Yet I stand by my claim.
Deliberately provocative? Yes. I can't prove that none of the many zillions of notions in the vast body of work that is subsumed by the convenient label of SF wasn't original. Precedence in time is not the same as causation; ideas are independently rediscovered with fortunate frequency. Asking the author is of little help. I use the term "Consensus Future" for the vision of the future that was the common vision of most science fiction writers, popular science magazine article writers, world's fair producers, and scientific prognosticators up until 1962, that world of flying cars and food pills, space travel and alien encounters, miraculous technology and robot helpers in our all-electric kitchens that this site is devoted to. James Gunn was using the term as early as 1974 in Science Fiction: Today and Tomorrow, edited by Reginald Bretnor. He credits the notion to Donald Wollheim in his 1971 book The Universe Makers, though Wollheim never uses those exact words. Yet anyone in the early 1970s, including the college kid who happened to be minoring in history, might have known that the dominant paradigm in American History studies was being called Consensus History, which The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History defines in terms almost identical to my view of the Consensus Future:
Consensus history offered a view of the American past that was powerful in its simplicity: Americans across the centuries had shared a fundamental belief in democracy and liberal capitalism. The resulting political/economic system diminished differences... This perspective resonated with positive connotations about America as a civilization...
Did I subconsciously remember the term "consensus history"? Did I independently reinvent it as an obvious parallel to an earlier term? I can't answer the question for myself. I certainly won't claim to do so for others.
Where do SF writers get their ideas from? Everywhere. Newspapers, magazines, scientific journals, movies, radio and television, conversation, observation. Ideas are mere ore: they must be refined, processed, polished, and worked to produce stories. Doing so well requires talent. Saying that SF writers don't - can't - create futures on their own is hardly denigration. In fact, it's a tribute to the creative talent of SF writers that their treatment of these subjects are remembered when the originals have been forgotten.
For the past several years, though, I've been digging through archives of the printed word and their accompanying illustrations to search out the originals, trying to compile a coherent narrative of how their iconic tropes of SF entered the public consciousness. SF writers certainly popularized some, but with every discovery I find it more difficult to say that they originated any with the possible exception of rockets to other planets. (Though not tales of travel to other planets.)
What about SF artists? A cautious maybe. Frank R. Paul, the primary colors wizard who created the covers for every issue of the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, through its first three years, may have put not just one but two images firmly into the minds of everyone who saw those covers. The flying saucer on the cover of the November 1929 Science Wonder Stories obviously didn't emerge from a story and is only one of many such saucer-shaped ships that appear in his art. A few scattered references to sightings of circular craft, not yet called UFO's, can be found earlier; still this cover encapsulates everything about aliens in unearthly craft a breathless reader could want. The Amazing Stories cover from August 1928 is perhaps even more primal: a smiling man waving at his friends from the air, using a machine on his back to fly. The story behind this illustration is Edward Elmer "Doc" Smith's first Skylark of Space story. In synchronicity that can only be termed amazing it could equally well have been plucked from the other name on the cover, Philip Francis Nowlan and his first Anthony "Buck" Rogers tale, Armageddon 2419 AD, which features an almost identical jumping rig. Neither is technically a jetpack or rocket belt - both use imaginary anti-gravity metals - but by the mid-1930s Buck is commonly being depicted wearing a rocket pack that is purely iconic.