On Predictions in Real Life and for Science Fiction

No one can predict the future, not even theoretically.

Still, there are a lot of things that are predictable, that we know with a high degree of certainty will happen.  You drop something and it will fall.  The sun will rise tomorrow.  A major league baseball team will beat a little league team every single time no matter how many times they play.   Plenty of things like this out there, that aren’t interesting, that aren’t usually worth writing about or even remembering.  The things worth writing about and the things we remember in history are the things that are unlikely but happen anyway.

The stock market crash going on now, for instance.  This will be talked about in the history books and may have a lasting impact on the course of world events in the near-future.  There were a few voices out there with concerns, but nobody was publicly predicting it would happen like this at this time.  It makes for an interesting story (interesting in the Chinese sense, unfortunately).  So did the fall of the Soviet Union, 9/11, the assassination of  JFK, and a lot of other unpredictable events.  (Note: 9/11 was totally predicted in the big picture sense that the US or other western countries would suffer terrorist attack, and the World Trade Center specifically was a clearly identified target, but the timing and scale was shocking nonetheless.)

Some things were predictable, and not just with hindsight, however.  The Manhattan Project and the development of atomic weapons was predicted and made to happen with foresight.  The Apollo Project of putting men on the moon, likewise, predictable at a relatively high level of certainty in the context of the cold war.  These were the conversions of our scientific understanding into specific engineering applications.  Engineering is predictable, given the time, money, and other necessary resources.

There are a lot of things that are predictable about the future.  We’ll have improved technology and will be able to find and study Earth-like planets around distant stars.  We’ll have a lot more power over our own genetics either through screening or manipulation.  We’ll have have problems with global warming for the coming century barring major changes in our habits or some other unknown feedback process.  Computers will continue to get smaller, faster, and more ubiquitous.  Energy will get more expensive longterm as long as our system is dominated by fossil fuels.  There will be more conflicts as the world becomes more interconnected.
And there are a lot of things that are almost certainly unpredictable.  There will be major positive breakthroughs, and disasters, too.  They will shape the world as much if not more so than all the predictable things.  I can’t tell you what these things are, but I am sure that in hindsight it will be easy to point at them.

A realistic science fiction story set in the future should exploit both of these phenomena.   If there’s nothing unpredictable that occurs in the future history, it’s not realistic (I’m looking at you mundane science fiction).  If it’s all wacky randomness and the things we can predict have no impact (e.g., energy issues, global warming, increasing computing power, etc.), it’s also unrealistic.  Some of the unrealistic things may seem bizarre, but if you can explain them in a compelling story, they can work.

Let me point out one nice example of near-future science fiction: Nancy Kress’s  Beggars series.  It’s predicated on foreseeable genetic manipulation with the creation of sleepless people.  Sleeplessness itself may not be possible, but genetic manipulation, surely.  As the  series progresses into the future, however, there are important and unpredictable changes, such as the development of cheap energy generators.   I liked this a lot as it felt realistic, even if they particular change itself wasn’t.  History changing things happen, not all the time, but they happen in our lifetimes.

So, my final suggestions.  When writing about the future, you must pay attention to the foreseeable changes and use them.  Your world should also have some major changes from ours today, or it isn’t realistic.  Fine lines, I know, and perhaps I haven’t said anything profound, but I hope I have at least sparked some thought on this topic.

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  1. 1. Barry Holmes

    That clicks with some ideas I’m very slowly pulling together. As I work out the current situation (science, political, historical, etc.) I’m trying to ensure that I take a series of small logical steps, rather then leaps of faith, in order to get from Now to Then.

  2. 2. chrisweuve

    Except people DID predict the fall of the Soviet Union: Seweryn Bialer, Andrei Amalrik, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to name a few. (Amalrik’s book, written in 1974, was titled _Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?_ He was off, but not by much.)

    To be honest, though, I am not sure what the lesson is, other than preponderance of expert opinion will not make it actually turn out that way.

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Mike Brotherton

Professional astronomer, science fiction novelist (Star Dragon, Spider Star). Visit site.

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