The following is a reprint from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe. A while ago, we posted “10 Things That Science Fiction Got Wrong” but believe it or not, there are many things that sci-fi got right as well. From communication satellites to robotic pets, here are a few of the things that science fiction nailed before they happened.
Science fiction is supposed to predict future events – and to be entirely honest, some of us are getting impatient waiting for our own rocket cars to the Moon, which we understood we’d have by now. Be that as it may, here are some things dreamed up by science fiction writers that are part of our real world.
1. Moon Visits
Lots of science fiction writers had this one covered, but the question is: Who got closest to the real thing first?
The best candidate is good ol’ Jules Verne, whose 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, and the 1870 follow-up, Around the Moon, nailed a lot of the minutiae of a moon visit, including weightlessness, the basic size of the space capsule, the size of the crew (three men), and even the concept of splashdown into the ocean on return to Earth. In one of those fun coincidences, the fictional splashdown in Around the Moon was just a few miles from where the actual Apollo 8 capsule splashed down (and, interestingly enough, the fictional launch pad was just a few miles from Cape Canaveral).
Verne was tremendously prolific, writing two novels a year for much of his creative life and dying with quite a few novels unpublished. It’s not entirely surprising that he’s credited with a number of other predictions, including trips by balloon, helicopters, tanks, and electrical engines. One “discovery” he’s famously credited for, the submarine, is inaccurate, since submarines existed prior to the 1870 publication of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
2. Robots (and Robot Pets!)
“Robot” comes from the Czech word robota, which means “drudgery”; robotnik is a word for “serf.” Since today’s robots are typically found in industrial setting doing mindlessly repetitive work, this is a strangely appropriate term.
The word “robot” was popularized in Karel Capek’s 1920 play R.U.R., which stood for Rossum’s Universal Robots. In the play, robots were manufactured humans who were used as cheap labor. One day they got fed up with this and decided to have a revolution and kill all the humans, proving once again that good help really is hard to find.
One thing people don’t seem to know about Capek’s “robots” is that they’re not actually mechanical – they’re made out of synthetic flesh, although that flesh was then put into a stamping mill to make the bodies.
The concept of robots as mechanical beings came later and was most famously popularized in fiction by writer Isaac Asimov in his Robot series. It’s probably not a coincidence that a humanoid robot manufactured by Honda is called “Asimo.”
Robot pets, like the Sony Aibo robot dog, have also been a staple of science fiction. The most famous example of this is probably Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the Philip K. Dick novel that was the source material for the movie Blade Runner.
The main character in the book is saving up to buy a realistic electric sheep for his lawn, so he’ll be the envy of his neighbors (the movie had none of this suburban one-upmanship going on).
Woody Allen, of all people, nailed the robot dog in 1973’s Sleeper, in which we’re introduced to Rags (“Hi! I’m Rags! Woof woof!”). Allen’s reaction: “Is he housebroken? Or will he be leaving little piles of batteries all over the place?”
3. Cloning and Genetic Engineering
Humans haven’t been cloned yet (as far as we know), but sheep, cats, cow, and rabbits have. And humans have used genetic engineering and gene therapy to improve their bodies. In June 2002, for example, it was announced that genetically modified cells helped to create functioning immune systems in two “bubble boys” who were born without immune systems of their own.
The most famous work of science fiction with cloning and genetic engineering is also one of the earliest: 1932’s Brave New World , by Aldous Huxley. In it, humans are “graded” into jobs and social classes based on the number of clones that were made from their originating embryos; the higher the number of clones, the less bright they are and the more menial their jobs (this was backed by a social agenda that assured each level of humanity that they were actually the best, so everyone went along with it).
4. The Internet
Okay, now, who wants to be blamed for this one? There are so many culprits. Author William Gibson is credited with coining the term “cyberspace” in his 1981 short story “Burning Chrome,” and kick-started the whole media fascination with computers and the Internet and all that geekiness with his seminal 1984 novel Neuromancer.
But even before Gibson, John Brunner’s 1975 novel, The Shockwave Rider, posited a continent-wide information net, “hackers” who broke into the net, identity theft (when someone pretends to be someone else online), and most famously, computer viruses and worms – the terminology for these, in fact, comes from Brunner’s book. Brunner imagined using viruses and worms as part of warfare – something that worries today’s military quite a bit.
It should be noted that in 1975 a proto-form of the Internet did exist, thought not in the scope and complexity imagined by Brunner. It existed in the form of ARPANET, a decentralized computer system that the US Department of Defense created and which by 1975 also included several research universities as “nodes.” Internet features created by 1975 include E-mail, online chat, and mailing lists. The most popular mailing list in 1975? One on science fiction, of course.
5. The World Wide Web
… which, despite the propaganda of the 1990s, is not the whole Internet, just a subsection of it – was created in 1991 by Tim Berners-Lee and hit the big time with the creation of the Mosaic Web browser in 1993.
The dynamic of the Net had been described before then. In 1990’s Earth, David Brin imagined a streaming audio and video and clickable hypertext links. And in a 1989 short story, “The Originist,” based in Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” universe, Orson Scott Card also created a linking system similar to today’s hyperlinking.
Imagined (sort of) by every single science fiction author who ever wrote about a picture phone. There are too many of those to bother counting.
Yes, waterbeds. Robert Heinlein used them in 1961’s Stranger in a Strange Land ; the first modern waterbed was created in 1967 in San Francisco by design student Charles Hall, who dubbed it the “pleasure pit” (naughty boy).
Heinlein also thought up the idea of remotely controlled machines to manipulate dangerous materials; he called them “waldoes,” and that’s what they’re called today.
8. Communications Satellites
9. Space Tourists
When millionaire Dennis Tito put down his $20 million and hitched a ride into space with the Russians, he became the first tourist in space.
The idea of punting rich folks beyond the stratosphere is not new; in 1962’s A Fall of Moondust , Arthur C. Clarke told the tale of some rich tourists who get stranded in a moon crater.
More whimsically, author Roald Dahl imagined a “Space Hotel, USA” in 1973’s Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, complete with a staff of “managers, assistant managers, desk-clerks, waitresses, bellboys, chambermaids, pastry chefs, and hall porters.”
10. Miniaturized Surgery
Doctors these days use miniaturized tools to perform surgery that’s less invasive and more precise than traditional surgery, a practice suggested by Isaac Asimov in his 1966 novel, Fantastic Voyage.
It’s worth noting, however, that along with miniaturized surgical tools, Asimov also shrunk the doctors to fit into the patient’s body. We haven’t manag