arm-chair prophet

Specific predictions; the fantastic future erupting right on schedule and in the blink of an eye what seemed so impossible we now come into contact with on a daily basis. Nonetheless, discerning particular trends have always been more a matter of luck than genius…

Social predictions were almost always wide of the mark: nineteenth-century science fiction dresses twentieth-century Americans in Victorian garb and Victorian ideals, and nowhere can we find a realistic augury to today’s informal, casual, dress, nudity and sexual permissiveness. Political predictions were generally no better. The decline of Great Britain as an international power, for instance, was not foreseen; the rise of japan and the United States were obvious enough to most writers, but tales of the often-predicted Japanese-American war usually assumed that hawaii’s japanese Americans would defect to the side of their ancestors. In World War II, they fought for the Allies.

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In 1944, Astounding Stories published what seemed at the time a stunning prediction. “Deadline,” a routine cloak and dagger tale by Cleve Cartmill, included such lines as “U 235 has been separated in quantity sufficient for preliminary atomic-power research…It was extracted from uranium ores by new atomic isotope separation methods… The explosion of a pound of U235…releases as much energy as a hundred pounds of TNT…”

Nevertheless, embedded in this mass of error and shortsightedness, there are some surprising keen predictions. H.G. Wells, in`”The Land Ironclads” ( 1903), virtually invented the military tank; in The War in the Air (1908) he portrayed aerial warfare much as it would be conducted in Europe less than a decade later; and The World Set Free (1914) predicted tapping the atomic energy of uranium ( albeit in 1953) and the devastation of the world by what Wells called “atom-bombs.”

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The story was published just as Manhattan Project scientists were nearing the climax of their work, and military intelligence agents hurriedly called on Astounding’s editor, John W. Campbell, to trace the source of their security leak. Campbell calmly pointed out that everything in Cartmill’s story was based on reports published as early as 1939.

The Cartmill incident illustrates how limited the prophetic powers of science fiction writers actually are. When they predict a specific technological development, it is usually done by keeping close watch over current scientific research and then projecting the consequences in various narrative directions embedded within an entertaining story-line. Even Wells’s 1914 vision of atomic bombs was simply a remarkable extrapolation of existing facts: Wells knew about radioactivity and saw the rest.


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