09 July 2009

Predict, then Verify

Heinlein is very much a connection between the past of SF and the current age. He certainly seemed to be aware of this, or at least aware of the need for his work to reflect not a realistic present but a shaped future; to wit--even his most militarist, political, technologically steered work in Starship Troopers spends an inordinate amount of time dwelling on the effect of situations upon people. (According to Wikipedia--yeah, I know--John Steakley wrote Armor because he felt that there wasn't enough action in Troopers...and note that Armor is not of the classic age of SF; see what I mean about RAH being a connection?) Almost everything he wrote had this kind of vague forward thinking mentality, futuristic in structure for reasons of setting the stage. (See All You Zombies--)

It is interesting, then, to read what he actually thought the future might hold. In Expanded Universe, in "Where To?", he expounds upon a set of predictions made initially in 1950, updated in 1965, and then updated once more in 1980. He attempts to analyze the actual process of prediction, and explicitly states that an exponential path for the future is the most likely...but that a conservative, timid path is almost always what is chosen. I can't look at all of his predictions, but some of them really stand out to me:

circa 1950 "Interplanetary travel is waiting at your front door-C.O.D. It's yours when you pay for it."
--It's heartbreaking to see his pessimism on this point by 1980, especially as it has largely been justified since. He maintains some confidence, though, mostly in the space programs of other nations, to the point of expecting some other nation to step into the gap. Have they? Not since then; maybe they might be starting, but the world has failed RAH in this regard.

circa 1950 "Contraception and control of disease is revising relations between the sexes to an extent that will change our entire social and economic structure."
circa 1980 "Most of this can be covered by one sentence: What used to be concealed is now done openly. But sexual attitudes are in flux; the new ones not yet cultural mores. [...] the current flux of swingers' clubs, group marriages, spouse swapping, etc., is, in my opinion, fumbling and almost unconscious attempts to regain the pleasure, emotional comfort, and mutual security once found in the extended family of two or more generations back"
--Not a typical SF author, indeed, but this prediction would not surprise anyone familiar with his work. Is he right? Not sure about this, but I think that this view wouldn't seem out of place today.

circa 1950 "We'll all be getting a little hungry by and by."
circa 1980 "Not necessarily. In 1950 I was too pessimistic concerning population [...] But no one in the United States should be hungry in 2000 A.D.-unless we are conquered and occupied."
--He was very much a man of his time, but he saw it for what it was later, where others didn't.

circa 1950 "Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag. Your house telephone will record messages, answer simple inquiries, and transmit vision."
circa 1980 "This prediction is trivial and timid. Most of it has already come true and the telephone system will hand you the rest on a custom basis if you'll pay for it. In the year 2000, with modern telephones tied into home computers (as common then as flush toilets are today) you'll be able to have 3-dimensional holovision along with stereo speech. Arthur C. Clarke says that this will do away with most personal contact in business. I [...] disagree with his conclusion; with us monkey folk there is no substitute for personal contact [...]"
--Once again, a man of his time and undoubtedly a writer of his time, but his realization of the 'timidity' of the prediction is accompanied by more of his sociological insight. We still don't have 3-dimensional holovision, but everything else, pretty much; it's technologically timid in the same way, but just happens to be right.

circa 1950 "A major objective of applied physics will be to control gravity."
circa 1980 "I stick by the basic prediction. There is so much work going on both by mathematical physicists and experimental physicists as to the nature of gravity that it seems inevitable that twenty years from now applied physicists will be trying to control it. But note that I said "trying"-succeeding may take a long time. If and when they do succeed, a spinoff is likely to be a spaceship that is in no way a rocket ship-and the Galaxy is ours!"
--Always the optimist, he cannot pass up a chance to cheer lead for his preferred future, even while hedging. I think, however, that he falls down some here, mostly because he hits the frontiers of science that are suddenly, as of today, more poorly defined than ever. Control of gravity is as far away now as it was then; we just want to understand it!

More than any of his fiction, these predictions give us insight into Heinlein's mind, and consequently the predictive power of current SF writers. He stumbled across reality when it came to mobile phones and arrived at the present state of science through a simple lack of progress. His predictions when it comes to family and sexual freedoms are, however, about as good as it gets, in my opinion, which is utterly unsurprising, and may actually be an artifact of his libertine vision of the future rather than any predictive ability. I think that the surface lesson to learn here is that we don't live in RAH's future...and his future can still be THE future.


Adam Wykes said...

This makes me think (hard to do): If only we could determine a way to aggregate the good predictions SF authors, while discarding all the many bad ones.

Could there be a method of statistical analysis suited to this job? Are predictions more likely the more people agree on them?

I wish I could see a concordance of predictions made, arguments included, the better to choose between them.

Geoffrey Wykes said...

That kind of analysis would probably be next to useless predictively because of branching futures; however, I can see a backwards-looking check that might make general recommendations about accuracy and thus who is the most likely to be correct. Probably though this would just mean that the dice came up one way for someone for a long time, and the next roll might just be a blank as much as anyone else's. Majestic vagueness on the model of the Constitution is probably the best bet.