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Opening Arguments

The future ain't what it used to be

This article is recommended for any of my fellow science fiction fans. Lately I've been rereading some of my favorite Robert Heinlein stuff from when I was much younger. One thing you notice right away -- since "the future" he was writing in the 1940s and 1950s has mostly come and gone by now -- is how wrong he got many things. But that doesn't make his novels any less interesting. Furthermoere:


Science Fiction was never about predicting the future.  The clue to this is that writers were not in carnival fairs, and didn’t say “cross my palm with silver” (Okay, I lie about that last one.  Though I prefer gold.  Or would.)

The contradiction of science fiction is to make it sound like it’s about the future – like the writer can see into the future and see clearly enough to make it real and believable to the writer.  But it should not – and I don’t think it ever did – have pretensions of being accurate.  (Again, if we could do that, we’d win the lottery.)

But then, what good is it? you ask.  Well, let’s put it this way – your daydreams of being a grown up when you were very little were in no way accurate.  BUT they were important.  They gave you an idea life wasn’t static, and you wouldn’t always be a kid, dependent on your parents.  It got your mind working towards such ideas as “I’ll live independently and need to make a living.”  So, as each new stage arrived, in what is, looking backward, years of vertiginous change, you weren’t scared.  You’d tried this on, if in slightly different form, in your mind.  You could think about it clearly now because it wasn’t new and scary.

Science fiction is like that for our entire species.  We can – and do – look to the future through it.  Science fiction is the dreams of mankind.  (Fantasy, too, but it’s a different thing.  It’s like those daydreams you had – what you didn’t? – that you’d find out you were a dragon shape shifter.  You knew they’d never come true, but it was fun to think about it on a summer afternoon, and work out exactly how you’d hide it.)

In a time of rapid change – now – we must dream ahead.  The future will not be what we expect, but it will rhyme.

"The future will not be what we expect, but it will rhyme." I like that and take it to mean that even if we don't get quite where we think we will, we can look back and make perfect sense of how we got there. The best of science fiction, whether it tries to imagine oour own future or an alien culture has as its primary purpose giving us better insight into the here and now.


Mon, 04/16/2012 - 4:35pm

I think maybe Isaac Asimov, one of my childhood favorites, might disagree. I think he was predicting the future, at least with respect to robots. Come to think of it, Arthur C. Clarke liked to brag about predicting geostationary communications satellites (although what Clarke had in mind was big orbiting telephone exchanges manned by human operators).

Mon, 04/16/2012 - 7:30pm

Heinlein might have been wrong about the future, but he was right about human nature. I remember a prof in grad school who quoted Heinlein's Cheops' Law: Nothing gets built on time or within budget. True then and now.

But my favorite Heinlein: Ignorance is curable ; stupid is forever.


Harl Delos
Tue, 04/17/2012 - 10:24am

Heinlein's greatest contribution, I think, was in inventions.  AutoCAD was called "Drafting Dan".  The slidewalks at airports are scaled down roadtowns.  Waldoees are actually called Waldoes. I'm surprised that nobody has set up a successful FutureMail.com site.

Nehemiah Scudder was supposed to speak tonight at a Lancaster GOP fundraiser, but he's pulling a no-show, which says something about his character, I guess.

What surprises people who haven't read SF of the 1950s and 1960s is that most of Bob's books were romance novels, and the heroine was always the same, whether she was called Hazel Stone in the stories, or Friday, or Wyoming Knott. Why was I unsurprised to learn that Ginnie was a busty redhead?

“Freedom begins when you tell Mrs. Grundy to go fly a kite.”