Science fiction is often thought of as being a “predictive” or prophetic genre. H.G. Wells is hailed as a prophet for the many predictions he made, and Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century is remarkably accurate in some of its predictions. Gibson’s Neuromancer is seen by some as being a prophetic imagining of the Internet, and when 2001 came and went, 2001: A Space Odyssey was retroactively criticized by some for failing to be accurate. A common trope among stand-up comics is, “It’s the 21st Century… where’s my flying car?”
Both the lionizing of Gibson, Verne, and Wells as visionaries and the criticism of our lack of airborne automobiles is inappropriate. It is not only unfair, but these investigations of SF miss the point. SF is often not about predicting the future. It is instead about understanding the present moment, and doing so in such a way that allows us to step outside of politics and social restrictions. Neuromancer, for example, was less about predicting the future than it was exploring the changes that technology was bringing to the historical moment in which it was written. The book engages a very mid-1980s concern with the rise of Japan as an economic power, for example: Neuromancer opens on an expatriate community in Japan, and explores the fractured multiculturalism of the global economy. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly was less about predicting a future drug that would cause split personalities to emerge than it was examining the emerging rhetoric of a “drug war” and the impact that was having on society; those issues were very pressing to a post-Nixon, “War On Drugs” America. And Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is very rooted in immediate, real-world concerns about peak oil and the dead dinosaur energy economy as well as the emergence of bioterrorism, private armies, and economic warfare in a way that creates a neocolonial atmosphere.
In fact, I would argue that the “predictive power” of SF is, at best, a happy accident. And at its worst, the heavy-handed attempt at prophecy is an annoying distraction from the story being told. If I want prophecy, I will read Ray Kurzweil, Peter Newman, or Peter Schwartz. It isn’t that SF writers should be forbidden from trying to predict events. But rather, we as the audience must understand that SF writers are presenting a vision. It might play out, and it might not, but in many cases that predictive vision is not relevant to the story that they are telling us! Because authors are located in their historical moment, they cannot help but comment in some way upon their immediate historical context. And it is that comment that is more important. Gibson’s work was concerned with the intersections consumerism, technology, and everyday culture; Dick’s work was concerned with identity, surveillance, and freedom; Heinlein’s work was concerned with how advances in technology make new cultural modes of organization necessary. For all of them, discussion of “the future” was always meant to cast our thoughts back to the present. They were prophets not in the predictive sense, but in the sense it occurs in the Abrahamic religious traditions. In that sense, a “prophet” is a person who carries a message for people to listen to. It might be a warning of future events, but it might be a message that is meant to guide people here-and-now.
Prophets are in a dangerous line of work. Authors write the stories that speak to people, and prophets often fail to speak to people. When prophets are wrong, we call them fools and cast them aside. When prophets are right a few times too many, we start to get suspicious. No one listens to Cassandra, and professional writers want an audience. SF authors aren’t in the business of making predictions as much as they are capturing the ever-present “now” in ways that guide us toward the future while simultaneously illuminating our current condition. But they are on the very leading edge of that “now,” and they are pulling the rest of us along with them. If SF is prophetic, it is so in the sense that life as it is right now is not how it could be. SF authors are not predicting the future; they are reminding us that the present is not living up to the promises of the past.