Accidental Prophets and Texas Sharpshooters: Science Fiction and Predicting the Future

Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on James L. Cambias’ website. To learn more about Cambias’ fiction, and to read more of his musings, visit We hope this essay is the start of a broader conversation about Project Hieroglyph, storytelling, technology, and the dynamics of inspiration. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the Hieroglyph forums, and to publishing more essays exploring these themes.

One thing I’ve discovered about being a science fiction writer is that it somehow makes me into a futurist. Because I write stories with spaceships and aliens in them, people think I must have some kind of inside line on how the world is going to look a century from now. In fact, that seems to be generally true: because science fiction has spaceships and aliens, people think it can predict the future.

In this essay I’m going to talk about how science fiction can — and cannot — predict and shape the future. I’m going to begin by talking about a book: the anthology Hieroglyph, edited by Kathryn Cramer and Ed Finn, which came out in the summer of 2014. I had a story in it, along with a number of other very talented writers.

Project Hieroglyph — because it’s not just a book, it’s a Project — began with an essay by Neal Stephenson, the guy who wrote Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon and a stack of other great books. Stephenson is one science fiction writer who has embraced the whole futurist gig, and can often be found in the pages of Wired or wherever writing elegant think pieces about science and society. Back in 2011 Stephenson wrote an article called “Innovation Starvation,” about why the contemporary United States of America seems incapable of tackling big projects any more.

When Stephenson was a lad back in the early Sixties, we were building the Interstate Highway system and sending men to the Moon. The original Twin Towers took four years to build in the late 1960s; the current One World Trade Center tower took almost twice as long. There has been some debate about how true it is, but the very fact that the essay attracted so much attention suggests that at the very least people have an inchoate feeling that he’s on to something.

Stephenson proposed that part of the reason for this stagnation is a failure by SF writers to inspire people to undertake big, innovative projects. We’re no longer laying out grand visions of flying off to colonize Mars, so scientists and engineers spend their time developing better iPhone apps instead of spaceships.

In that piece he mentioned two theories of SF’s role in creating or inspiring technological change.

Inspiration Theory: This is the notion that SF inspires brainy youngsters to pursue careers in science and technology, and generally acts as a recruiting tool for the next generation of nerds.

Hieroglyph Theory: This is Stephenson’s own idea, and as one can guess from the name, was the inspiration for the whole project that followed. It’s the theory that science fiction (to quote Stephenson himself) “. . . supplies a plausible . . . picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place.” It creates symbols or icons that become part of the shared intellectual landscape. Stephenson again: ” . . . such icons serve as hieroglyphs — simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.” In Stephenson’s theory, Hieroglyphs provide a sort of “shared goal” for bottom-up innovation. If everyone knows that we’re going to colonize Mars, then working on nuclear rockets in order to reach the Red Planet generates approving nods (and presumably funding) rather than uncomprehending stares.

Examples of Stephensonian Hieroglyphs include: The Spaceship, The Robot, The Cyborg, The Ray-Gun, The Powersuit, The Electronic Brain, The Net, Atomic Power. My personal benchmark is that if you show it in a mass-market motion picture and don’t stop the action to explain what it is, it’s a Hieroglyph.

Stephenson maintained that SF writers have stopped producing new Hieroglyphs. We’re telling interesting stories, but we make use of the same furniture and props that people were using twenty years ago. There’s a certain amount of truth to that, especially when you recall that twenty years ago was 1995, when writers like Kim Stanley Robinson and Bruce Sterling were in the first flush of their powers.

I noticed a similar problem myself at about the same time as Mr. Stephenson: back in 2012, I wrote a little blog post which eventually turned into a convention panel on “Have We Lost the Future?” about how so many Hugo-nominated works at that time were fantasy or steampunk alternate history, rather than future SF.

Stephenson’s essay, and my own, would have been just another in a series of laments for past glories stretching back to Plato. However, Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, challenged Stephenson (and other SF writers) to supply those Hieroglyphs again.

Stephenson, no fool, passed the job along to Kathryn Cramer, a longtime SF editor, and Ed Finn, director of ASU’s new Center for Science and the Imagination. They assembled an anthology, called (of course) Hieroglyph, which included Stephenson’s essay and a bunch of short stories by people like Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, Elizabeth Bear, and . . . me. I got involved because I happened to be at a social gathering with Cramer when she was talking about the project, and I told her “I want in” with what was probably an alarmingly intent look in my eyes.

The goal of the anthology was technologically optimistic fiction, hearkening back to SF’s golden age. According to the guidelines, the editors wanted stories “. . . at the intersection of a huge problem, a radical solution, and a breakthrough discovery that makes the solution possible . . .”

On the Hieroglyph website (hey, you’re here!) Stephenson suggested the “3H” rule: no Holocausts, no Hyperspace, and no Hackers. In other words, no post-apocalyptic “dreadful warning” stories, no stories relying on magic tech, and no stories about characters who are essentially parasitic on someone else’s technology.

Cramer and Finn assembled seventeen short stories and essays. HarperCollins published the book in the spring of 2014. It got good reviews and seems to be selling well.

Nevertheless, it failed.

How did the Hieroglyph anthology fail? It’s full of great stories, it got good reviews and it sold well. By any normal criterion of success, it succeeded. However, it failed at its original goal: we didn’t create any Hieroglyphs!

Viewed objectively, Hieroglyph doesn’t contain many futuristic visions at all. It contains stories about climate change, immigration, surveillance, protecting endangered species, private space development, and (self-referentially) the decline of Big Engineering projects. My own story “Periapsis” is basically about rapid prototyping and brain drain. You could open up a newspaper on any given morning in 2012 and find news articles about any of these topics.

The central icon of the collection is Stephenson’s concept of the “Really Tall Tower,” a steel structure twenty kilometers high, and even within the story in which he introduces it, characters wonder aloud at what the point of it is. Nobody other than Neal Stephenson is seriously talking about building one, and it’s hardly the sort of thing that people will subconsciously adopt as part of their concept of “what it will be like” in fifty years.

To be clear, some of the stories in that collection are superb, many are excellent, and all are good. As an anthology of top-quality original science fiction it’s great, and I urge everyone to buy many copies. But it isn’t changing the world.

So: why did Hieroglyph fail?

It failed because I believe it was impossible for it to succeed.

Once you point people in the direction of inspiring or predicting change to solve contemporary problems, you lock them into the present. Think back to those iconic “Hieroglyphs” I mentioned earlier — rockets, robots, ray-guns, et cetera. None of them were created by someone trying to inspire inventors or predict new tech. Science fiction’s predictions and iconic images are almost never the result of anyone’s conscious attempt to predict or shape the future. They are accidental by-products.

Predictions of the future in science fiction come from three sources. Some writers are technologists themselves, and can introduce readers to things that haven’t made it into the popular science periodicals yet. Some concepts from stories actually do make inventors or engineers think, “that could work.” But most predictions are accidents.

The first method shows up a lot in the works of writers like Arthur C. Clarke or, appropriately, Neal Stephenson. Clarke, of course, was a genuine space science pioneer himself, the inventor of the communication satellite and a member of the British Interplanetary Society back when space travel was still an absurd pipe dream. He had friends in both the American and Russian space programs, and was well connected in the science community as a whole. So he could write whole novels (like Imperial Earth) consisting of little but “here’s some cool stuff people told me about since my last book came out.” Stephenson does the same in the software, cryptography, and private-space communities. They’re not inventing future technologies; they’re just beating other authors into press with them.

The second method is less common, especially since it’s increasingly rare for a technology to be the brainstorm of a single individual. But there are verified cases of people who read about something in a science fiction story and decided to make it real. The best-attested one I can find is the Taser, which was apparently inspired by the “electric rifle” of the old Tom Swift series. Supposedly the name Taser can even be read as an acronym for Tom A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.

The third method is the most common of all. As far as I can tell, it is the “default method” for science fiction predicting real-life future technology. It’s very simple: someone invents something for a story because it’s necessary for the plot or helps develop the theme, and then later someone else invents something like it in the real world.

The big dirty secret of science fiction, something some SF writers hate to admit, is that science fiction is, fundamentally, a branch of literature. And despite all our talk about scientific accuracy and extrapolation, the things we put in our stories are there to serve a literary purpose first and foremost. In science fiction, futuristic concepts usually begin as metaphors or plot devices.

Metaphors are elements of the story that enable us to develop a theme or create emotional effect in the reader. The great strength of SF is that it lets us literalize our metaphors. So if you’re Philip K. Dick and you want to write about how technology seems to be undermining our humanity, you can sit down and write Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in which the whole story is about the difficulty in telling humans and robots apart.

Note that one way that critics outside the SF/Fantasy ghetto often run aground is when they insist on interpreting the fantastic elements in a story entirely as metaphors. Yes, the androids in Dick’s novel are a metaphor, but they are also deadly human-shaped robots in a depopulated future world. It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping, as we like to say.

Plot devices, of course, are elements that allow your story to happen. I personally try to follow a rule that if my story can happen without something that doesn’t exist in our real world, then it’s not science fiction or fantasy, it’s contemporary or historical fiction and I should write it as such. If I’m writing a murder mystery set aboard a spacecraft bound for Mars and a search-replace could turn the spaceship into an ocean liner without affecting the plot, then that’s not a science fiction story.

If you look at those iconic Hieroglyphs from my earlier list through the lens of metaphor and plot device it becomes quite clear how many of them were invented as story elements first and became predictions only by accident.

The Spaceship: This is both a metaphor and a plot device. As a metaphor it’s obvious — you’re literally ascending to the heavens. As a plot device it lets your characters have adventures on places that aren’t Earth.

It’s important to remember that SF had spaceships long before it had rocketships. Jules Verne used a giant cannon to send a crew From Earth to the Moon, and H.G. Wells used magic antigravity to do the same in The First Men in the Moon. There were plenty of other balonium-drive spaceships in early SF, in stories by people like George Griffiths or William Astor. Even one of the most beloved of the old pulp SF series, The Skylark of Space and its many sequels, relied entirely on balonium drives.

Meanwhile real-life rocket developers like Goddard, Tsiolkovsky and Von Braun were at work building machines that could reach the upper atmosphere or lob a warhead at London, and SF writers jumped on the bandwagon. Spaceships became Rocketships and we all patted ourselves on the back for predicting them.

The Robot: This is a stone-cold metaphor and nothing else. For a century SF authors have been writing stories about slaves, oppressed workers, prejudice, emotional repression, logic puzzles, parenthood, technology out of control, militarism, superheroes, and the nature of humanity. Nobody’s ever written a story about the real machines they’re building up at iRobot.

The Cyborg: This can be a metaphor for dehumanization or the encroachments of technology, or it can be an excuse for characters to have superpowers. What’s interesting is that the world is filling up with cyborgs as more people get medical devices, wearable tech, etc., and none of them thinks of themselves as anything but human. I predict that the metaphorical use of cyborgs is going to disappear entirely in the next few years, precisely as the tech becomes ubiquitous.

The Ray-Gun: Beam weapons aren’t even a plot device, just cool set dressing — it’s not a pistol, it’s a SPACE pistol. The real-life laser turned out to have very different features from fictional ray-guns, but authors cheerfully slapped the name onto their old blasters and beamers anyway. I think ray-guns are actually a kind of anti-metaphor. In fiction and cinema beam weapons are almost always depicted as less deadly than actual firearms; a gun is a potent symbol of deadly power while a ray-gun can zap people harmlessly.

Powered Armor: This began as a plot device, to allow human soldiers to survive more than a few nanoseconds on a high-tech battlefield. Generations of engineers who read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Iron Man comics are trying to make it real.

The Electronic Brain: Thinking machines are a perfect metaphor for intellect divorced from humanity. They can also function as a plot device straight out of the Oracle at Delphi in Greek myth, making appropriately vague or self-fulfilling prophecies for story purposes. As computers became common technology, the Electronic Brain morphed into the Godlike AI hiding in the internet instead of a big box of blinky lights and tape drives, but it still does the same job.

The Net: The global computer network was inspired pretty directly by the fiction of “cyberpunk” writers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. It began as a metaphor for the increased “connectivity” of the world and the growing dominance of media and information. They hit the perfect moment, as a generation of internet pioneers went straight from reading cyberpunk to building the real-world information economy, so a lot of cool jargon (like “the Net”) got transferred from fiction to fact.

The Atom: Nuclear energy has always been a metaphor. At first, in works by Wells and others of his era, it was a potent symbol of transcendence and the Liberating Power of Science. After August 1945 it abruptly turned into a metaphor for hubris and Science Out of Control.

I find it particularly interesting (and a little alarming) that The Atom has remained a pure metaphor in fiction even as it became the main driver of geopolitics for half a century. The reality of nuclear conflict described in technical works like Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War or Pentagon planning sessions are very different from the popular notion of “blowing up the world.” You see this in the sheer blank incomprehension and mockery in works like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, where the very concepts and vocabulary of real-world nuclear strategy are so at odds with the metaphorical idea of “blowing up the world” that Kubrick can only treat them as grimly absurd. Ultimately that metaphorical interpretation is the one driving policy about both nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Not an ideal state of affairs.

Those examples are all metaphors or plot devices that anticipated or even inspired real tech. But it’s important to remember that science fiction writers are “Texas Sharpshooters” — we empty our pistol at the barn wall and then paint a target around the hits.

In the process we ignore our many misses. There are many SF Hieroglyphs that didn’t come true and will probably never come true. Let me bring up some examples that don’t get trotted out as evidence of science fiction’s predictive power.

Antigravity: As I’m sure everyone is sick of hearing, the big question since the year 2000 has been “Where’s my flying car?” The simplest way to show that something takes place in a futuristic setting is to have people flying around using lift-belts, air-cars, or whatever. It’s so common that it would be easier to list the works of science fiction over the past century that don’t use antigravity. Sadly, antigravity is flat-out impossible, unless you’re willing to do weird things like suspend masses of neutronium overhead to cancel out the Earth’s gravitational field locally. Not exactly Buck Rogers.

Hyperspace/Warp Drive!: Faster-than-light travel is probably the central plot device of science fiction for the past century and still going strong. Call it Warp Drive, Hyperspace, Jumpgates, or whatever, it’s the only way to have reasonably contemporary-seeming humans interacting with alien beings beyond our Solar System. And it’s almost certainly impossible. All the scientific basis for FTL travel boils down to “here’s one way it might not be impossible” which is very different from saying something is really possible. The sheer value of it means that NASA is willing to spend a few thousand dollars a year on “advanced propulsion concepts” in the hope of finding a way to break the rules, but so far Einstein has kept his title belt.

Psionics: This is one of the best examples of a genuine Stephensonian Hieroglyph that’s totally bogus. From the 1940s through the 1970s this was a major trope in SF, thanks to the personal interest of legendary editor John W. Campbell in psychic phenomena. Even now it’s a staple of media SF: Star Trek, Babylon 5, Firefly, and so on. Every spaceship crew has a person who can read minds, because that’s just part of the standard furniture of science fiction. But as James Randi will happily point out, psychic powers don’t exist.

Force Fields and Tractor Beams: These were a convenient plot device, plus a way to make hooking a rope onto something into “space rope” or locking someone in a room into a “space room.” Force fields in particular have lodged very firmly into public consciousness even though nobody has ever been able to build anything that works even remotely the way they’re depicted in fiction. It’s always amusing to me how every new military defense system gets compared to a force field. Both the Israeli Iron Dome and a new Boeing plasma defense system to counteract shockwaves were called “force fields” in news headlines. The Iron Dome shoots things with bullets, for God’s sake.

So this is why I call science fiction writers Texas Sharpshooters. We make plenty of predictions, but we can’t know which predictions will be hits! Or which fictional elements will inspire someone. We’re just tossing out ideas. Sometimes reality tosses out something that matches. More often it doesn’t.

However, it gets worse when science fiction writers aren’t using future technology as a metaphor or plot device. When we genuinely try to predict the future, or worse yet, to actually influence it, we fail very badly indeed.

We fail at prediction because when you get right down to it, we’re little more than well-informed laymen. There’s a standard Sci-Fi convention panel topic, usually entitled something like “Things We Got Wrong,” about failures of prediction in SF: starships with computers weighing ten or twenty tons, far-future societies with gender politics just like 1957 or 1975, discrimination or oppression of people born via in-vitro fertilization (“test-tube babies”). To predict the future you need a very comprehensive understanding of the present, and most writers don’t want to put in the time to get that. It’s too much like working.

And when we actually get mixed up in politics, run away as fast as you can!

SF writers have a long, sordid history of getting involved in crackpot politics —H.G. Wells wanted a world run by what he described as a “scientific Samurai class.” Heinlein worked for Upton Sinclair, Frederick Pohl was a Marxist in the 1930s, China Mieville is still a Trotskyite. When SF and fantasy writers try to advocate real-world policies they’re about as prescient and perceptive as any other “creative” professionals, which is to say, awful. Our professional organization, SFWA, can’t even govern itself!

The only good political science fiction is the “dreadful warning” school, showing the dystopian results of some system the author disapproves of. Orwell warned about totalitarianism, Heinlein depicted the dangers of theocracy, and everyone warns about what happens when Evil Corporations Take Over. We’re good at spotting the failure modes of systems we don’t agree with, but like most people, science fictioneers are regrettably blind to the failings of causes we support.

Now, having thoroughly demolished the branch of literature I’ve spent forty years trying to master, let me build it up again. How can SF encourage and influence new technology?

Recall that Stephenson listed two “theories” in his essay. Hieroglyphs and Inspiration: the idea that people become interested in science and technology because of exposure to science fiction.

That is where we can shine. SF can help cultivate a mindset conducive to scientific and technical innovation, and provide a literary community for people who think that way.

Science fiction has often been derided as “power fantasy,” and that’s not false. A lot of fiction is power fantasy. (I personally think a better term would be “agency fantasy,” but that’s just me nitpicking.) Fantasy stories are power fantasies. Detective stories are power fantasies. Legal thrillers are power fantasies. Spy stories are power fantasies. Romances are power fantasies of a very specific type. All of us wish we could control more of our lives than we do, so all of us like to experience characters who have more agency than ourselves.

What’s important is that science fiction is a power fantasy based explicitly on knowledge and discovery.

Way back in 1999 when the Star Wars prequel films came out, David Brin wrote a combination movie review and essay for Salon in which he contrasted the Star Wars setting with Star Trek‘s imaginary future. Brin maintained that the Star Trek universe is actually morally better than the “galaxy far, far away” of Star Wars.

How do you get to be a heroic Starfleet officer like Captain Kirk or Captain Picard? You study and train hard to pass the Academy’s admission requirements, and then you work your butt off to graduate. How do you get to be a Jedi Knight? You’re born with it.

This is possibly the most humane power fantasy possible: a fantasy of earned power, open to all. Brin claims it is fundamentally democratic as opposed to the hereditary “despotic” fantasy of being the Chosen One. (I’m not sure he’s right about this; SF has an unlovely undercurrent dismissive of mere democracy, and SF writers tend to place too much trust in meritocratic elites, but that’s an entirely different discussion.)

The idea of earned power in a knowable universe is what makes science fiction inspirational to techies. It isn’t just “hard” SF that has this effect. Even when the science in science fiction is rubbery, it is explicitly portrayed as being knowable or at least discoverable. (Unlike the more mystical depiction of “trusting your feelings” in order to use the Force.) When science fiction characters encounter a mysterious event or situation, the story is about how they explain it. That’s practically a formula of the genre: show the characters and the reader something astonishing, then pull back the curtain and explain what caused it.

The other aspect of science fiction that inspires readers is the implicit assumption that Things Will Be Different. It’s hard to emphasize how important this is. Even now people tend to think that the current situation is permanent, or should be. People — including myself — have trouble mastering any technology that appears after they turn thirty or so. Science fiction reminds us that every moment is a point not on a line, but on a curve, and that things are bound to change. Because a story without any change isn’t a science fiction story, after all.

This inspiration method has worked, too! Just in my lifetime I’ve seen being “nerdy” go from being a badge of ostracism to being a badge of defiant outsiderdom to being a form of insider. We’ve reached the point now where there have been some minor twitterstorms over who is a “real” nerd and who is just a poseur. Let me tell you, when I was a nerd back in 1982 there were no poseurs trying to get in with my and my friends by pretending to be interested in Dungeons & Dragons or Tron.

We see that all around us. Is it a coincidence that “geek culture” — what used to be called SF fandom — has boomed at the same time that technology has become one of our civilization’s major economic engines? Techies are now high-status, and things techies like have become mainstream. The very fact that Salon gave David Brin a platform to talk about why Captain Picard kicks Luke Skywalker’s ass indicates how mainstream science fiction has become, and how much science fiction has changed the intellectual and social climate.

So, to sum up: if you’re looking for specific predictions of future technology, you’re probably better off talking to actual technologists than science fiction writers. We’re better at publicizing than we are at innovating, and our predictions are all over the map. We can’t see the future.

But if you want to create fiction that will encourage people to become scientists and engineers and create the future, I think science fiction is the way to go. We can’t build a better future by writing didactic stories about How It Should Be and expecting other people to do the hard work of making it happen. What we can do is write stories telling people that things will change, that the power to make those changes comes from knowledge and discovery, and that everyone can have that power.

You, sitting there reading this essay: you’re one of those people. You can make the future. Don’t build the future I want. Go out and build your own. I can’t wait to see it.


The featured image from this post is a screenshot from the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery.






2 responses to “Accidental Prophets and Texas Sharpshooters: Science Fiction and Predicting the Future”

  1. […] talks of what he labels “failure” of Project Hieroglyph, in a long new blog post “Science Fiction and Predicting the Future”. Already? It was only published last year. As with Tomorrowland, I’d give it at least a […]

  2. Giulio Prisco Avatar
    Giulio Prisco

    I don’t think Hieroglyph “failed.” On the contrary, it’s a good book full of inspiring stories (like yours).

    I see the book as a starting point, now we need more of that, much more of that, more short stories and full length novels.

    One of the most impressive works that I have been reading recently is Liu Cixin’s Sun of China, I think it is one of the best examples of the kind of science fiction that we want to see.