Looking Forward

Old SF novels contain many strange and surprising "predictions". Robert Conquest's A World of Difference (1955) is set in 2009 or thereabouts, and incidentally features a "Poet" class of spaceships named after the author's verse-writing pals like Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn and Philip Larkin. The big moment comes in the headquarters of "that most distinguished and exclusive of all bodies, the [British] Interplanetary Society", where we meet its "ninety-odd-years-old Honorary President" – the legendary Sir Arthur. Yes, Arthur C. Clarke's 1998 knighthood was predicted in 1955. Sheer accident, of course.

The same is true of a futurological quip I rather wish I hadn't made right here in 1998 – discovered by SF fan Tom Whitmore in my collection The SEX Column and gleefully copied back to me. I'd been banging on about the senile decay of SF authors like L. Ron Hubbard: "Well, we all get older and may yet go gaga. A few decades hence, perhaps Sir Terry Pratchett will celebrate his 80th birthday by launching the First Church of Discworld..."

As Tom depressingly put it, "Probably the first mention of Sir Terry as such, but did you have to get the Early Onset Alzheimer's right too?" Oh dear! You'll all know about Sir Terry's hero work campaigning for Alzheimer's research, thanks to saturation media coverage including this year's two BBC2 programmes. Daily Telegraph readers will remember how that paper's TV reviewer Damian Thompson couldn't resist enlivening the painful story with a sideswipe at "the assorted saddos at the annual convention devoted to Discworld ... the account executives dressed as dragons, the health and safety officers in princely robes". Such originality, such well-timed wit; how we all roared.

Startlingly prophetic SF extrapolations go back a long way. Sometimes authors got the right answer by logic, like Kepler predicting weightlessness in space in his 1634 dream-story Somnium. More often they were trying to be satirical, like Jonathan Swift with his hand-cranked knowledge machine or expert system generating new concepts at random in the Laputa section of Gulliver's Travels (1726). Sometimes a wild guess comes off: Swift also mentions the two moons of Mars, which 1726 telescopes weren't powerful enough to reveal.

Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888) predicted the credit card if not the credit crunch. Air-to-surface missiles are deployed in The Angel of the Revolution (1893) by George Griffith. Robert Cromie's The Crack of Doom has the first plausible description of an atomic bomb, in 1895. Automatic doors – "a long strip of this apparently solid wall rolled up with a snap" – seem to have been dreamed up by H G Wells in When the Sleeper Wakes (1899). Wells also invented the joystick control with firing button, for his awesome war machines in "The Land Ironclads" (1903). Clever lot, those Victorians.

It was another Victorian who predicted rival brands of advanced machines, and maybe even PC/Macintosh or Windows/Linux wars: "Among themselves the machines will war eternally, but they will still require man as the being through whose agency the struggle will be principally conducted. In point of fact there is no occasion for anxiety about the future happiness of man so long as he continues to be in any way profitable to the machines..." This mildly boggling piece of long-range futurology comes from Samuel Butler's Erewhon, published in 1872. Now you know why the pogrom against all artificial intelligence in the back-story of Frank Herbert's Dune was called the Butlerian Jihad.

Finally, Jules Verne famously scored a lucky near-bullseye in From the Earth to the Moon (1865), with his manned Moon shot being fired from the nonexistent Stones Hill near Tampa, Florida – just across the state (and a short distance south) from Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, where Apollo 11 was indeed launched Moonwards in July 1969. Verne's geographical accuracy was pretty good when you consider he was shooting at 104 years' range.

Let's hope his predictometer was less well calibrated when he gave this speech to a chap called Kennedy in Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863): "... If men go on inventing machinery they'll end by being swallowed up by their own inventions. I've often thought that the last day will be brought about by some colossal boiler heated to three thousand atmospheres blowing up the world." Quick as a flash, his companion replies: "And I bet the Yankees will have a hand in it."

David Langford's so-far-failed predictions include Sir Brian Aldiss, Sir Iain Banks, and (a long shot) Sir Iain M. Banks.