The late Tom Clancy was known for his uncanny ability to accurately predict future events with his fiction writing. His 1994 novel, "Debt of Honor," describes a September 11th-like attack, and his 2010 book "Dead or Alive" describes the capture of a Bin Laden-like public enemy.
While remarkable, these seeming premonitions aren't uncommon; Sci-fi writers have been predicting the future for centuries. Jules Verne was describing rocket ships and submarines before these vehicles of exploration even existed. Although we don't delve into the ocean's depths inside of "a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent, and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale," his prediction, while distorted, more or less came true.
This presents a "chicken or the egg?" sort of question: Do writers simply notice the direction a cultural phenomenon is heading in, or do their ideas inspire cultural and technological change? In some cases, a fiction writer's imagination serves as a sort of catalyst for new technologies. But sometimes, like with Edward Belamy's lost classic "Looking Backwards," it's difficult to say whether or not the author had anything to do with the eventual inventions.
Here are 7 sci-fi predictions that came true:
The Atomic Bomb, from H.G. Wells's "The World Set Free"
Wells's is one of those books that, sadly, may have changed the course of history with its technological predictions. Physicist Leó Szilárd read the book the very same year that the neutron (of neutron chain reaction fame) was discovered. Wells wrote:
"Certainly it seems now that nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the earlier twentieth century than the rapidity with which war was becoming impossible. And as certainly they did not see it. They did not see it until the atomic bombs burst in their fumbling hands..."
Luckily, we've yet to create bombs quite like the ones he describes, which, when set off, cause a literal "blazing continual explosion."
Debit Cards, from Edward Bellamy's "Looking Backward"
This peculiar book, published in 1887, uses dry language to describe an American utopian society. One element of the society Bellamy creates is a card with an allotted amount of credit, which citizens may use to make purchases. All citizens begin with an equal amount of credit, but those with more dangerous or unpleasant jobs are given more credit. Certainly this isn't how contemporary American society is run, but the concept predicted modern-day debit cards. Notably, Bellamy also foresaw the existence of shopping malls.
Digital Media, from Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey"
Clarke not only predicted the immediacy of news, he also took a great guess at the devices on which readers would read about current events. He wrote:
"One by one he would conjure up the world's major electronic papers... Switching to the display unit's short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him."
Sounds a lot like perusing your Apple devices on your lunch break, right?
Earbuds from Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451"
In addition to the immersive, 3D movie-like experience Bradbury describes in this book as well as a handful of short stories, he also predicts a techy toy most of us couldn't live without: headphones. Let's just hope his other predictions made in "Fahrenheit" are less accurate.
Print On Demand, from Edward Page Mitchell's "The Senator's Daughter"
This is a little different than the sort of instantaneous news predicted by Clarke. Mitchell's characters, from his story written in 1879, owned printers in their homes, from which they could access and print current articles and information. Writes Mitchell:
"...an endless strip of printed paper, about three feet wide, was slowly issuing from between noiseless rollers and falling in neat folds into a willow basket placed on the floor to receive it. Mr. Wanlee bent his head over the broad strip of paper and began to read attentively."
Watson (and other ultra-smart computers), from Ambrose Bierce "Moxon's Master"
Ultra-smart computers are often the focus of sci-fi novels; Interestingly, our cultural fascination with a computer that can beat a human at chess or trivia is over 100 years old. I.B.M.'s Jeopardy-winning super-computer, Watson, was predicted by Bierce, whose 1910 short story describes an invincible, chess-playing robot.
Alan Turing's famous test for distinguishing between a human and a computer wasn't introduced until he wrote "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" in 1950.
Video Chatting, from "The Machine Stops" by E.M. Forster
Forster predicts Skyping in his 1909 novel:
"But it was fully fifteen seconds before the round plate that she held in her hands began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her."
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