Wrong

I got home late Monday – only to have my modem crash and Telstra take a week to replace it. Apologies- I have just got back on line.

Now being wrong and admitting it is something I am something of an expert at. What can I say: I’ve stayed married for more than thirty years. It’s a useful skill (both staying married, AND being wrong – even when you’re right, sometimes. The latter is called a value judgement, and it’s another useful little life skill I ought to be better at.). So call me a veteran at that, and give me a long service medal, and try not to turn off completely when I tells yer ‘ow ‘ard bein’ wrong was when I were a lad.

We often read about the successes of sf in predicting futures. A lot of back-patting about how clever we all are…

Well, yes.

Stopped clocks are also right sometimes… and I don’t think our track record is quite that good, to be honest. There are some cases, certainly, of devices and ideas in sf becoming reality – the Waldo or my case how mapping the brain would work (See RBV). But let’s be real from Space Odyssey 2001 to On the Beach… sf writers have just been as perhaps Irene Gallo would put it ‘painting with too broad a brush’ – Or as I would put it: ‘dead wrong’.

Fortunately, that’s one the things about fiction… it is fiction (I believe the name to be a subtle clue to this). Fiction is allowed to be dead wrong, so long as it is entertaining, and not pretending to be the truth revealed. People will still read it, as long as they enjoy it. The future is complex and, especially the further off we look small things can change, having large effects.

I remember quite clearly the conclusion that quite a few sf writers had, that English was about to change enormously. That the youth were all using SMS shortenings (l8ter and U) for example. They were cheaper to send and faster to type.

It made logical sense.

Pity no one thought of predictive text and the rapid reduction in cost of sending text.

It seemed plausible though.

And that is pretty vitally important. Not that it was true. That seemed plausible that it would be true. It is part of the suspension of disbelief that writers’ use like a fry –cook uses an egg-lift or a spatula. You can – and many authors do, carry the reader along with your story by sheer character plausibility, or just by being so entertaining they want to give up on reality and live within your whimsical world for a while. Plausible doesn’t hurt, however, which is why I focus on detail being plausible (which means a bit of research, or prior knowledge).

Still, there have been some wonderful bits of wrong over the years – Mack Reynolds’ triumph of communism (honestly can’t remember the name of the book), Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room (overpopulation and soylent green) – Malthus seems to have been a little off, not to mention the various ‘flying cars’.

Your turn. How many can you think of?

70 Comments

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70 responses to “Wrong

  1. Robin Munn

    Keith Laumer had a short story called “Cocoon”, in which a man who lives in essentially a virtual cocoon of entertainment channels is rudely awakened to reality: the glaciers are coming over the walls of his city, and everyone needs to evacuate to save their lives. Laumer assumed that the predictions of doom of a coming ice age were true, and made those the basis of his story. Turns out there was as much evidence backing those predictions up as there is now backing up the global-warming hysteria.

    • Chris Nelson

      Although we are in a warming period, when you look deeper into the geological record, it’s possible that we might have a return to glaciation so than expected. Probably not in our lifetime, but all bets all off if Mother Nature decided to chunk a rock from space or pop a large volcanic cyst or Sol dims a bit.

      • If you take out the “corrections” put into the early 20th century records, and the urban heat island effects, the globe has not warmed since 1998. In fact it seems to be cooling, which fits the dip in solar energy output that started about 5 years ago.

  2. There are a number of assumptions regarding space travel and colonization that are taken as givens in a lot of science fiction. How many stories can you think of that were set in the medium future (say, 100 years or more in advance of the date of publication) that posit a continuing of technological advancement that do not assume permanent extra-terrestrial colonies?

    The assumptions seem to be that first, population pressure would make space colonies necessary, increasing technology would make them possible, and that government central planning would make them practical.

    None of those three assumptions are true, and they are are demonstrably untrue. However the image of the city under a lunar dome is so much a part of the background scenery of Science Fiction that even when a story takes place entirely on Earth authors feel the need to throw in a news story about the Lunar Independence Party or some such, so that readers will be able to tell that the story is set in the future.

  3. That persistent idea that traditional marriage and fidelity would quickly become a thing of the past, replaced by line marriages, free love, and all sorts of nonsense. Verdant Venus and Mars lush with life. Several different flavors of FTL, which continues to disappoint me greatly. The “eternal” conflict between the West and the Soviets. That last always struck me as “now” (the time the author wrote it) with ray guns.

    Magical nanotech used to be a much more common thing, before we really got into the meat and bones of it and learned, by gosh, it really is that hard. Fusion power- ten years away for how many decades now? And of course aliens by the score. Half breed aliens appears to have fallen by the wayside, as well. *grin*

    Wormholes were a thing back in the nineties, but you hardly hear about them now. Space has been small, then got big again- effortless planet hopping now at least has some handwavium applied where before it seemed more like point the rocket at it and you’re there! Space combat has run the gamut from being a broadside naval battle in space to WWII dogfights in space, neither of which are all that plausible but made for some ripping good reads.

    Some of these we were wrong in part, or in degree, not completely. I still want my flying car, jetpack, and colonies on other planets, though. The best thing about those stories is that the fired the imagination and got people thinking about how to actually *do* the impossible… Now we’re landing rockets instead of dumping them in the sea, catching up to and landing on comets, and someday soon we might be snagging a rock and putting it Terrestrial orbit for mining.

    Everything we get wrong is still a step on the path to getting it right someday. The entertainment of Buck Rogers, Star Trek/Star Wars, TMIAHM, and all the rest have a connection to the real stuff that eventually gets into space- if only in the minds of the men and women who make it all work.

    • snelson134

      I don’t know, Dan, looking at the headlines lately, that conflict with the bear looks pretty accurate.

      • Yeah, you’re right. But not anything like it was thought of back then- in days of yesteryear it was two superpowers duking it out like titans. Now… Now we have two aged oldsters, a bear with rotten teeth but a nasty temper and a lifetime’s worth of sick guile, and a tottering myopic eagle (admittedly, the size of a roc) who hears voices… but might, *might* have one sharp talon left to swipe with.

        The challenge remains, but the players have changed.

    • Chris Nelson

      I’ll place a bet down that apocalypse is more likely than optimistic sci-fi due to physical reality and human nature. We don’t have anti-gravity nor warp drives. The last three generations of leadership and public have pooped the hard problems down stream and made the chances of a regular space faring society as high as a specific individual winning a national lottery three times on consecutive Ash Wednesdays.

  4. In the last year or so someone posted a link to a story, written in the mid/late 1940’s about how civilizations rise and fall, particularly the fall, as told by or through a historian (alas, I cannot recall the title – argh). That didn’t throw me, but the big 60inch (or larger?) CRT for the radar did. That made me go look up when it had been written. I’d read the story years earlier – in the 1980’s – and then the use of a big CRT wasn’t something that tripped me up.

    Other old SF stories boggled me some as more than a couple had lines about the air handling system working harder as some character started smoking. This just seemed insane to me that that would happen.

    One bit that was sort of right was in Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart, about the sound cancelling system. Well, there are sound cancelling headsets now, at least. But the story ,in the same book, about the military computer becoming aware, given the level of complexity given, is hilarious nonsense.

    • Anonymous Coward

      Clarke’s sound cancelling technology has several industrial applications (look for active vibration control/cancelling/damping).

      • TRX

        Mitsubishi claimed to have a patent on the concept; they put active sound cancelling mufflers on some cars in the 1990s. But Clarke’s description, backed by his technical credentials, would certainly have qualified as “prior art.”

  5. Bob

    Psychic powers. Detecting, training and reliably using them. Too bad that hasn’t come about. That we know of.

    (Adjusts tinfoil hat to keep the psi cops out)

  6. The most common assumptions I see in the sweep of sff stories from 1910 to 1977 is that marriage and family could be taken for granted, that women in the future would be at least as feminine as women of the past, or that popular art and entertainment would be at least as beautiful as, say, Duke Ellington’s performances or works by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In some cases, they would even convey an almost mythic or transcendent power to marriage vows.

    • I don’t have any problems with those as long as the story does not mention dates. Old fashioned marriages seem to produce more stable societies – through more stable next generations – than most current alternatives. What is going on now could be more of an interlude than a fundamental change when it comes to stuff like that. If there are no definite dates in the story I can always imagine it happening somewhere further down the line when some things have shifted back to what once was.

  7. BobtheRegisterredFool

    Mental illness and psychiatric grade drugs.

    I’m poorly read, but I don’t get the impression the old stuff forecast the implications of ‘all medicines are poisons’ and that some modern doctors might handle the stuff as if they were patent medicine sellers.

    Related might be the assumption that future attitudes about sexual preferences would be as expected from then contemporary fashions about what the underlying mechanisms were. Because I’m a little bit better read on the newer stuff.

  8. Let’s see:
    Oil running out
    Food running out
    Colonizing the moon
    Manned missions to other planets
    Contact with Aliens (Hostile and Friendly)
    Post scarcity economy and life
    Nuclear Armageddon
    Evil anti-American group takes over White House and destroys the country … Oh wait, that one actually happened 🙂

  9. Christopher M. Chupik

    Computers of the future will need to be bigger. Also, artificial intelligences that can outthink humans, yet not synthesize a realistic voice for crap. Because thinking is easy, speaking is hard.

    • Also, the robots don’t have wifi. They communicate to each other verbally.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      A super-computer able to predict the future will not be able to understand “human language” instructions and will not be able to give “human language responses”. (IE H. Beam Piper’s Cosmic Computer). 😉

  10. A little off topic perhaps, but actual forecasting is hard, beset by not fully understanding assumptions and flocks of black swans. But SF isn’t forecasting for accuracy. It’s presenting a future that is plausible at the time for the sake of the story. When Venus was a jungle world; when canals built by a dying race cut across Mars; when the Earth was recovering from a global nuclear war; when there was colonies on the Moon by 2000; all of this was plausible by what was known at the time and made for dandy tales.

    Sure, part of the fun of reading old SF is looking at what was seen as plausible and what wasn’t questioned. But really, SF writers create a plausible world for the story and not as a hard prediction, and that plausible world is for the story. And if it gets some points on the future right, that’s extra gravy.

    • Chris Nelson

      Right now a William Gibson world is more plausible than a E.E. Smith universe. But Pat Frank world might be more likely than Gibson’s.

    • Reality Observer

      The science fiction writer is writing from one Point In History (PIH). The problem is, the next PIH will have actually worked out something that completely contradicts the knowledge of the current PIH.

      A lot of the wormhole stories were written not long after they were mathematically postulated – but before the mathematics were completely worked out to show just how difficult (if not impossible) it would be to stabilize and use them. The science fiction writer, even if capable of working out all of the issues (I am thinking of people like Dr. Forward), does not have the time to do so.

      Which means that the SF writer is never “safe.” Even your “very far future” stories can be undermined, sometimes within the year.

      The only solution is to write well, not contradict the current PIH, and then forget about it… (Heinlein’s “The Door Into Summer” is still a great read, IMHO – despite not a single thing in it, technically or socially, having come to pass.)

    • TRX

      When the Soviet Union dropped the first probe on Venus there were millions of people who could remember reading about the Wright brothers’ first flights. My grandfather was one of them.

      In 1940-1970, “progress” moved at warp speed. Fusion power, functioning AI, vacations on the Moon by 2000? It wasn’t “real” science fiction; any reasonable person fully expected to see all that and more Real Soon Now.

      • An uncle who taught fighter pilots observed he grew up farming a mule drawn plow and lived to see men walk on the moon. On the other hand, the electronic revolution happened so quickly that I know how to use slide rules and logarithmic tables, but someone just a year behind me in school had always used scientific pocket calculators. And I remember when funeral homes maintained ambulances, took calls on rotation, and the medical equipment consisted of a first aid kit and an oxygen tank. We have had technological changes in our own lifetimes that rival what my grandparents, parents, and aunts and uncles saw in the same span of time.

      • Christopher M. Chupik

        It’s more that our advances grew “sideways” instead of “upwards”, so to speak.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      There are severe challenges in forecasting beyond those you mention.

      • Those are the two main areas: Understanding what’s going on and dealing with the unexpected. We have to do this stuff at work annually. It’s why I once had a Magic 8 Ball ™ on my desk.

  11. Uncle Lar

    Malthus completely ignored the impact of technology on the production of food crops. Save for political malfeasance with food distribution there would be no reason for anyone in the world to experience hunger.
    As for flying cars, we have a reasonable facsimile today. What we don’t have is an air traffic control system capable of dealing with the load popular access to three dimensional travel would place on it.
    As in many things, it’s often not the issue, but the details behind that issue that become the driving factor.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      I’ve “heard” that Malthus has been misquoted.

      Basically he warned of dangers and offered solutions.

      He wasn’t making “hard predictions”.

      Unfortunately, I don’t have cites.

    • Malthus didn’t ignore it; it didn’t happen in his lifetime. There was some innovations such as land plaster, but nothing like what we have now. He wrote based on what was known then.

    • Until Norman Borlaug and his double-crop cross breeding and the development of nitrogen fertilizer (Haber-Bosch process), the Malthusian Scissors remained in effect. Now, we’re seriously reset the calculation, despite efforts by bureaucrats and activists to undo his great work. *glares at India’s ag policy people and a certain anti-Western Indian activist*

      • Yes and no. I completely agree about the impact of Norman Borlaug and the development of nitrogen fertilizer – but don’t underestimate the impact of widely available, cheap, effective contraceptives, too. The malthusian scissors depend on population increasing to the available food supply – and a population that can and does choose not to expand to fill available capacity thorough mucks up the whole assumed constant human expansion side of the equation.

        To be fair, there was no way Malthus could have seen that one coming, either.

    • Joe in PNG

      RE: Flying cars-
      Until we come up with a proper ‘anti gravity’ drive, a flying car using current tech (wings and engines) will continue to be neither fish nor fowl. Too heavy to be a decent airplane, too light and bulky to be a decent car, and you will still need a proper airfield to take off and land.

  12. Christopher M. Chupik

    I will say this for the Original Trek: even if they got a lot of stuff about computers wrong, they got it right that they’d be used for just about everything in the future. I don’t think it would still be around if we had Sulu whipping out a slide rule to calculate his course corrections.

    • TRX

      It’s popular to harsh on TOS nowadays, but many younger viewers don’t understand just how far Trek pushed the limits. There were good reasons the show was always on the verge of cancellation.

      Mr. Spock was the first and largest of those problems; when the series was originally broadcast, “miscegenation” (interracial relations) was illegal in 13 of the 50 states it was broadcast in, assuming Vulcans were de jure “human.” If they weren’t human, all the states had laws (variously named) against sex with animals.

      Desilu’s PR people airbrushed Spock’s ears out in some of the early press packets, and Roddenberry got orders to put Spock in the background.

      You got your LGBTQABCEDF characters nowadays, nobody much cares. The Spock bomb never actually went off, but Desilu was right to worry about it.

      • You got your LGBTQABCEDF characters nowadays, nobody much cares. The Spock bomb never actually went off, but Desilu was right to worry about it.

        Eh, that was just more If You were a Dinosaur, My Love thinking. I remember TOS as first run episodes, and the pediatricians of the time used a device to measure hemoglobin from a finger prick and it made it look green. They let kids peek at their “Spock” green blood, probably to diffuse anxiety at visiting the doctor. The same NBC bunch thought the Kirk/Uhura kiss was going to be too much (maybe they thought gin was a popular honky-tonk drink, too). Barely caused a ripple, if it made any ripple at all.

  13. The largest inaccuracy I see if SF is timing. Some things come faster than expected, many seem to be taking forever to get here. Space exploration is slower, yet we get tantalizing glimpses of possible FTL, or at least fast enough travel that “slow ships” might not be generation ships.

  14. mrsizer

    I liked the card-sorters that were used to find the best scientists to create negative matter sometime in far future (E.E. Smith). Meanwhile, you’ve got inertialess ships scooting around the galaxy(ies) without running into anything. Apparently the engineers got better computers (which was also used to refer to people doing the computations) than the librarians.

    The story I want to write is about 800 years in the future. Healthcare and automation are the big issues I’m running into. I’ve assumed 200 years as nominal lifespan (hence 800 years in the future so I have enough past generations to work from). Assuming good automation (nano-tech, 3D-printed structures, etc…) makes a lot of stuff really hard to extrapolate. Without it, colonization would take forever. With it, what do people do? Does the entire human universe look more or less the same? The “all restaurants are Taco Bell” syndrome?

    In many ways, it doesn’t matter. But we’re at the verge of interesting times (assuming we live to see them) when extrapolation will stop working. Just this week the first gene therapy (for bubble-boy disease) was approved in the EU. In ten years, I don’t want people laughing at my punch cards in 2816 (assuming anyone reads me).

    • Reality Observer

      See my above comment… It could be next week that your notions become “laughable.”

      I mentioned Heinlein’s “The Door Into Summer” – just looked at its Amazon rankings. No, not in sight of the top of the heap, by any stretch – but still pretty darn high for a book that was written sixty years ago, is completely wrong in just about every “prediction” it makes about the year 2000 (or the year 1970, where it starts), and receives absolutely no promotion.

      (Going by the guesstimates of rank to sales – it’s still selling between 50 and 100 copies a year.)

  15. Kate Paulk

    There’ll be a one world government.
    The one world government will be mostly like the US government.
    The one world government will be mostly a democratic-ish government.
    There won’t be any kind of movement towards feudalism-by-another-name (communism, ISIS, etc. etc.)
    Everyone from Earth will be civilized.

    Not that I’m at all cynical about this.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      The world government supposedly covers every population then extant, and isn’t a festering pile of shit, or dealing with extreme centrifugal tendencies. (What makes a type of government work comes from the population. That is not universal, and may be wildly incompatible.)

      Also the whole ‘ETs show up then unity’. Depending, the other nations may still be a bigger threat.

      • TRX

        I realized very early that any “world government” would look more like the USSR than the USA.

        Lots of people wouldn’t *want* to be ruled by a world government, so the jackboots would have to be liberally applied to keep everyone in line.

    • I’d add: Ideology and religion no longer matter and are purely private things that don’t appear in people’s “outside” life and motivations.

  16. TRX

    I recently noticed that the entire “undersea city/civilization” subgenre seems to be stone dead.

    • eh. perhaps I need to write one :-). Seriously – the problems and limitations not only in getting sufficient O2 but with a myriad other factors like pressure and the relative smallness of the habitable undersea zone

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        On “underwater cities/civilizations”, they would be difficult enough if they were built by air-breathing beings but IMO the really difficult ones would be the ones built by “water-breathing” beings.

        How could “water-breathing” beings create metal tools without fire?

        • I’m not enough of a chemist to say for certain, but I believe that electrolysis can be used to plate metals from seawater onto a conductive surface. It would be slow, but you might be able to build metal tools that way, a layer at a time. If you posit a much higher level of biochemistry, they might be able to base a manufacturing infrastructure on “growing” parts from minerals dissolved in the water. It would be a very odd looking technology, to human eyes, and I don’t see them being able to make computers or other electronics that way.

          • Alan

            3d printer that either works submerged in fluid, or needs to be in an evacuated cabinet while operating.

        • snelson134

          Volcanic vents for forges. They have access to high heat, just not for combustion.

          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

            Volcanic vents likely aren’t places where “people” would want to live near for long periods of time.

            Still, it would make metal items more valuable for the undersea folks than the times would be for surface dwellers.

            Harder to create so maybe only special items would be made from metal and have such an item would be a sign of status.

    • 0ldgriz

      Yeah. Everyone knew we were running out of land. Floating cities, underwater habitats, space. Over fishing would turn the oceans to lifeless deserts.

    • Anonymous Coward

      Underwater cities subgenre has just been replaced with global warming/sea level rise apocalypse stories 😉

  17. The one that worries me is John Ringo’s Last Centurion. Which hasn’t yet been shown to be wrong dammit.

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      Looking more likely everyday, including having Hillary as president.

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        Look on the bright side. I can change my name to Pat Buckman, and campaign in 2020.

        • Reality Observer

          Dibs on the VP slot?

          Actually, I’d be angling for it this year, either party. Whether they leave vertically, horizontally, or in a wheelchair with a straitjacket – I have the feeling that the next President won’t make it to the mid-terms.

  18. Alan

    Document-publishing technology – usually seems to postulate either something about the size of a mini-floppy, or a chip/cube – which still only holds a few documents and is physically transmitted to convey those documents to a recipient.
    Compare with current technology, advanced just a bit: we could use something like a USB flash drive to hold many documents, include biometric sensors in the device to authorize near-field wireless transmission to a recipient, and control which documents are in the subset being sent by VR glasses/contacts or implant. Or, of course, store them all internally in an implant and put a near-field transmitter in your finger…

  19. Farley

    Without digging back through Everything Reynolds, I don’t recall offhand where he had Communism triumphant. He did have a series of stories where Communism had achieved its economic goals, but not its social ones. And the US much the same. By the time he hit his stride as a popular writer, he was somewhat jaded about communism, what with being kicked out of the Party for WrongThink and all.

  20. Draven

    Linda Lee was killed for sixteen megs of stolen RAM. About twenty years from now…. (yeah, the war with Russia should be now-ish)