How Futurology Works

Futurology in Literature

Arthur C. Clarke, the author of more than 70 books of popular science and science fantasy and a pretty good futurologist to boot, in his office in November 2003
Arthur C. Clarke, the author of more than 70 books of popular science and science fantasy and a pretty good futurologist to boot, in his office in November 2003
Luis Enrique Ascui/Getty Images

Although some practitioners admit that future studies rely as much on art as on science, many dismiss writers, particularly science fiction authors, as prophets. They argue that fiction, whether historical or futuristic, is in fact a commentary on the author's own life and times.

Maybe so, maybe not. If science fiction writers lack a solid grasp of the indicators used by futurists, then they also do not suffer from the futurists' limitations, such as the need for measurable data, or for an evidence-based link between roots and outcomes, which leaves little room for the unexpected. After all, the famous futurologist Herman Kahn, in his 1972 book "Things to Come," missed the energy crisis waiting just around the corner.

Besides, whoever predicted the future without considering the times in which they lived? Certainly not futurologists.

Sci-fi writers might get the future wrong more often than not but, unlike futurologists (whose track record is hardly without blemish), they're free to think laterally and, more importantly, to focus on ineffable human factors, such as desire. They can postulate futures they don't believe in and need not justify. Thus, they can explore interesting ideas or warn of dire possibilities. As Ray Bradbury put it, "I don't try to describe the future. I try to prevent it" [source: Moore].

In any case, few sci-fi writers have claimed prophetic powers. In fact, a running inside joke goes that a story is just a story until it happens to come true -- then it becomes a prophecy.

To doubt the influence of these authors, though, is to ignore Arthur C. Clarke's nonfiction prediction of telecommunications satellites or the influence of Jules Verne's mid-19th-century vision of a (literal) moon shot (his spaceship is shot from a gigantic gun in Florida, near the future location of Cape Canaveral). It is to disregard H. G. Wells's forecasting of tanks (1903), aerial bombing (1908) or the atom bomb (1908), or Czech author Karel Capek's prediction of something akin to the A-bomb, or his imagining, and naming, of robots in 1921.

Edwin Balmer dreamed up the lie detector, based on "involuntary reactions in the blood and glands," in a 1910 detective story. Hugo Gernsback, the great proponent of putting more science in science fiction (and Hugo award namesake), foresaw numerous advances in his 1911 book, "Ralph 124C 41+", including television, fluorescent lighting, plastics, tape recorders, rustproof steel, synthetic fabrics, jukeboxes, tinfoil and loud speakers [sources: Gernsback; Nicholls].

Are these authors visionaries, perceiving the inevitable? Or do they inspire future generations, who then act on their visions? If so, then might their inspiration be more powerful than the futurists' forecasts?

"The best way to predict the future is to invent it," said American computer scientist Alan Kay in the Nov. 1, 1982, edition of the Financial Times.

Maybe he was on to something. Why predict a course that flows deterministically from cause to effect when you can warn of a future worth stopping or envision a world worth building?