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That Martian fella, cold chilling on Mars an' that

Sci-fi wise guys: top writers’ predictions about the future

Image credit: Capital Pictures

Can science-fiction authors see the future and just how accurate are they? Here are some of the best predictions – some of them may surprise you.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell (1949)

One of the best sci-fi novels of all time, ‘1984’ highlights many issues we seem to have in our society now.

The dystopian novel describes a world under oppressive government surveillance and manipulated by propaganda, and historical negationism (distortion of history). The Party (with Big Brother as its leader), which rules Great Britain, known as Airstrip One, employs the Thought Police to persecute individuality and independent thinking.

With today’s worries about facial-recognition software being employed everywhere (the Police National Database contains about 20 million faces), voice assistants doing things they aren’t meant to do (Amazon said it’s because the devices are ‘mishearing’ requests), and workplace surveillance checking you’re doing your job properly – research firm Gartner found that 50 per cent of large businesses monitor employees, which can mean logging keystrokes, or recording your Google searches – some believe we are moving towards an Orwellian surveillance state.

The Children of Men, by P.D. James (1992) 

Set in England in 2021, this is another novel where society is ruled by an autocratic government, in which a single person or party (the autocrat) possesses supreme and absolute power, but this time the birth rate is zero, with no children born since 1995.

At present, the birth rate in developed countries has been declining for decades – women are having fewer babies, and fertility rates decline with age. The situation could be changed if employees were offered a better work balance.

The reason for zero birth rate in ‘The Children of Men’ is that men’s sperm count has dropped to zero – it isn’t specified whether this is down to natural causes or human action, such as nuclear fallout. The film adaptation says it’s down to radiation and plague.

This may happen. But we’re not so sure if, or when.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick (1968)

This ground-breaking and very readable novel tells the story of how war and pollution have left the Earth almost uninhabitable. Set in a post-apocalyptic 1992 (2021 in later editions, and 2019 in the film adaptation, ‘Blade Runner’), the rich have gone to live off-world (Mars, perhaps?) and everyone else has been left behind. Rick Deckard, one of the unfortunate, ‘kills’ renegade androids (‘replicants’) for a living.

In the present day, climate change is already affecting the Earth – global temperature and sea level are rising, with the potential for more natural disasters – and our carbon emissions and other pollutants are the problem.

Androids are coming on in leaps and bounds – robotic engineer Subramanian Ramamoorthy recently said at New Scientist Live that robots will be helping surgeons with complex medical procedures within a decade, showing the evolving ability for AI and humans to work together.

It’s safe to say that Dick’s scenario won’t happen just yet, but elements in the novel could appear in the future.

Downbelow Station, by CJ Cherryh (1981)

Set in Cherryh’s Alliance-Union Universe in late 2352 and early 2353, ‘Downbelow Station’ is a tale of corporate space exploration as humankind expands outwards – nine star systems lack planets suitable for colonisation, so space stations are built instead for humans to inhabit.

In the present day, Nasa recently demonstrated its new Orion astronaut suit, designed to be stronger and more comfortable for those who wear it. It will be used for the proposed 2024 missions to the Moon. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has always said he established his company to help humanity colonise Mars. It’s developing a 100-passenger spaceship called Starship, to be launched by Super Heavy, a giant rocket. Together, this important transportation system will, Musk reckons, bring a Mars settlement within reach.

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (1818)

Set in 1817, it’s a Gothic horror novel, but it’s also one of the earliest science-fiction stories. We all know what it’s about – Victor Frankenstein creates his ‘monster’ from body parts he grave-robbed and uses electricity to bring it to life.

However, transplanting body bits is a usual, successful occurrence these days. Electricity also brings people back to life. Yet the whole stitching dead people’s pieces together and giving them life still hasn’t happened.

Synthetic biology – engineering natural science to make it better, or more useful – is the most common comparison nowadays to Frankenstein’s work in the book.

Neurosurgeons planning the world’s first head transplant (one of them was dubbed ‘Dr Frankenstein’) said they were one step closer to starting human trials back in March, claiming to have repaired “irreversible” spinal cord injuries in monkey and dog experiments.

They had a potential head transplantee in 2018, who suffers from a muscle-wastage disease, but he backed out after “falling in love”.

Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton (1990)

The well-known blockbuster film of dinosaurs and the power of science was based on Michael Crichton’s book of the same name. Set in 1989, it’s a cautionary tale about genetic engineering. Will we listen? Of course not.

DNA can be used for cloning, dinosaur fossils cannot. Yet scientists are always searching for the good stuff inside the ancient bones, just in case they come across anything juicy.

These days, we are making small breakthroughs with cloning extinct species like the woolly mammoth, after an incredibly well-preserved 28,000-year-old furry elephant was found in 2011. It contained cells that showed signs of life – they were briefly ‘woken up’ in mouse eggs earlier this year.

The Martian, by Andy Weir (2011)

In 2035, a crew from Nasa are planning to stay on Mars for a month. After six sols (a Martian solar day), a terrible dust and wind storm causes them to evacuate. However, astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon in the film adaptation) is left behind.

Apart from SpaceX and Musk’s plan described above, there was another organisation called Mars One – a small private Dutch organisation that said it would use investor funds to land the first humans on Mars and leave them there to establish a permanent colony. However, they only raised US$1m, and one company in the Mars One group went into administration back in February. There has been no news on the proposal since then.

Also, Virgin Orbit is planning the world’s first “dedicated commercial small satellite mission to Mars”, with the initial launch in 2022.

Neuromancer, by William Gibson (1984)

The novel – which the writer says takes place around 2035 – is said to be one of the most influential cyberpunk stories. It follows Henry Case, a disgraced computer hacker hired for one last job, which “brings him up against a powerful artificial intelligence”. In the story, hackers and cyborgs work together against corporations and carry out “daring heists”.

This book was written when people started getting excited about computers, whereas nowadays, computerised networks are an integral part of society. This is where the problem comes in.

As E&T recently discussed, cyber hacking on a worldwide scale could lead to widespread internet disruption or economic collapse.

As to whether hackers could team up with cyborgs to defeat giant corporations in the future, it’s more likely than not.

Otherland series, by Tad Williams (1996-2001)

Virtual reality (VR) is something we hear about a lot and gimmicky applications are always coming out. The most recent I’ve read about is an immersive experience that “sheds new light on the behaviours of tiger and hammerhead sharks, including the first-ever tagging of a shark with a VR camera”, so you too can be a hammerhead.

Just imagine what it could be capable of. VR has been around a lot longer than ‘Ready Player One’, which was released in 2011, in the form of the tetralogy ‘Otherland’. Set between 2082 and 2089, technology has advanced on Earth, and one of the greatest achievements is widespread availability of full-immersion online VR installations, called the Net.

Immersive VR experiences where you can interact and play online with others is something we see already, so if the world becomes dystopian and/or boring enough that everyone wants to get involved, then this sort of thing could happen sooner than we think.

Ringworld, by Larry Niven (1970)

A classic of sci-fi literature, ‘Ringworld’ tells the story of a human and alien crew who investigate a huge ring built around a sunlike star. The novel, set in 2850, addresses ideas of how we might colonise space and our place in the universe.

From what we’ve discovered so far, 2850 doesn’t seem like a stretch for us taking space adventures and living off-planet. If anything, we will be well-rehearsed in space tourism and emigration.


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