Thursday, September 02, 2021

Failures of Prediction

To dispose of one point up front, of course we know the purpose of science fiction isn't literally to predict future technology and social structures. Its speculations typically explore hypothetical paths that may or may not become reality, some of which are so extreme nobody seriously expects their fulfillment. They're extrapolations that answer "What if. . . ?" or "If this goes on. . . ."

Nevertheless, it's entertaining to contemplate some of the future technological and cultural developments in older SF works that drastically missed the mark. One classic example shows up in Robert Heinlein's HAVE SPACE SUIT, WILL TRAVEL, where human colonies on the moon coexist with slide rules. In I WILL FEAR NO EVIL, the fabulously wealthy protagonist has to wait several days for the result of her pregnancy test, although at the time of the novel's publication, such a test could be completed in less than half an hour. (Ordinary patients had to wait only because of lab backlogs. Now, of course, we have instant home pregnancy tests, which ought to exist in the future setting of I WILL FEAR NO EVIL.) I don't count Heinlein's transplantation of 1950s family structures into the spacefaring future in his "juveniles" as a failure of prediction, because it's obvious he was simply bowing to the constraints of the market in those books. His posthumously published utopia FOR US, THE LIVING demonstrates how early in his career he envisioned alternative marriage and sexual customs.

Isaac Asimov did foresee the hand-held calculator, but that story imagines a future in which people have become so dependent on calculators that even scientists with advanced degrees don't know how to do arithmetic the old-fashioned way. I can't believe that's meant as a serious prediction rather than a fanciful thought experiment. I suspect the same about a story in which people aren't taught to read, since computers and robots convey all information (apparently -- it's not quite clear) in audible speech. (So what about deaf users?) It comes as an incredible revelation to the two boys in this tale that their recent ancestors could decode "squiggles" on paper.

Recently I reread a collection of Asimov's robot short stories, along with his novel ROBOTS OF DAWN, and was amused at some of the predictive "fails" perpetrated by such a visionary author. For one thing, the robots are almost all roughly humanoid-shaped, supposedly because the public would feel less wary of them in that form. The plan doesn't work; throughout the series, most Earth people (as opposed to Spacers, who tend to embrace the convenience of artificial servants) fear robots, and it's pretty clear that the crude approximation of human shape makes the animated machines more distrusted, not less. It would make more sense to design robots' bodies for maximum efficiency in performing their particular tasks, as real-life industrial robots usually are. Furthermore, to learn new information robots are shown reading books rather than having the contents uploaded directly into their positronic brains. Very odd from a present-day perspective, when astronomers in one story want to identify extrasolar planets likely to harbor life, they teach a robot to perform the analysis rather than programming a stationary computer to carry out the search. This piece, of course, is set in the distant future, yet we have methods of finding Earthlike extrasolar planets right now.

In terms of social change, Asimov's robot series includes elements that require generous suspension of disbelief. For instance, THE CAVES OF STEEL emphasizes how overcrowded Earth has become. As one consequence, personal hygiene occurs in what amount to huge communal bathhouses, called Personals. All right, if overpopulation means apartments are so small it makes more sense to centralize baths, showers, and related functions, I can accept that. But it's strongly implied that individual dwellings don't have toilet facilities, which would imply no running water! This assumption is confirmed in ROBOTS OF DAWN, where Earth investigator Elijah Baley is suprised to find one-person Personals in private homes. Asimov must not have thought this through. In a technologically advanced society hundreds of years in the future, people don't have any means of washing at home? And when "nature calls" in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning, they use -- what? Chamber pots? Family structures on the Spacer worlds, at least the two we see in the series, are also problematic. One world has developed a culture in which people abhor personal contact so deeply that they never touch or even meet in person if they can help it. Almost all contact happens holographically. Children are brought up in group care homes, where they're gradually trained out of the crude desire for physical proximity. Even spouses don't live together. They have sex only for reproduction, and most people detest that "duty," yet the obvious alternative of universal artificial insemination isn't embraced. On the planet Aurora in ROBOTS OF DAWN, casual recreational sex is commonplace, children are the only purpose of formal marriage, the young are reared in communal nurseries and may not even know the identities of their parents, and sexual jealousy allegedly doesn't exist. Asimov must have subscribed to the early and mid-20th-century belief that human nature is infinitely malleable. (For a lucid, detailed, entertainingly readable rebuttal of that notion, see Steven Pinker's THE BLANK SLATE.) Consider how recognizable to us are the portrayals of marriage, family, and sexuality in the early books of the Old Testament, thousands of years ago. Are a few more centuries and the relatively minor change of venue to different planets really likely to inspire radical changes in those areas of human interaction?

Famously, when later series in the Star Trek universe were developed, the producers had to cope with the fact that some technology in the original series had already become outdated, notably the flip-phone communicators. On the other hand, some SF works predict too ambitiously, as in the proverbial plea, "Where's my flying car?" The classic 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY envisioned a level of routine space travel in 2001 that we haven't attained yet. Heinlein's DOOR INTO SUMMER promised all-purpose housecleaning robots in 1970. I wish!

Of course, many elements in current print and film SF that seem to us like cutting-edge predictions may turn out to be laughably wrong. As far as dystopian visions such as THE HANDMAID'S TALE are concerned, we can fervently hope so. However, I still want my autonomous housecleaning robot. I'm pleased with my Roomba, but it's only a start.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt