Predictions are hard, especially about the future

Although I’m geeky in a bunch of different ways, I’ve never been a big science fiction reader. Lately, though, I’ve been trying out some of the classics of the genre. I just finished Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which I enjoyed quite a bit. I think it gets better as it goes along: things get more morally ambiguous and interesting in the last part.

It’s hard (at least for me) to read futuristic stories without evaluating them for accuracy or plausibility. That’s not necessarily a fair form of criticism: the author’s goal is to tell a good story, regardless of whether it’s accurate. But it’s an irresistible game to play, at least for me.

In that spirit, this description of a new navigation system, just implemented in the starships of 25,000 years in the future, struck me as amusing:

Bail Channis sat at the control panel of the Lens and felt again the involuntary surge of near-worship at the contemplation of it. He was not a Foundation man and the interplay of forces at the twist of a knob or the breaking of a contact was not second nature to him. Not that the Lens ought quite to bore even a Foundation man. Within its unbelievably compact body were enough electronic circuits to pinpoint accurately a hundred million separate stars in exact relationship to each other. And as if that were not a feat in itself, it was further capable of translating any given portion of the Galactic Field along any of the three spatial axes or to rotate any portion of the Field about a center.

So this amazing device can manipulate a few gigabytes of data, applying translations and 3d rotations to it? That’d be a difficult job for your phone, but utterly trivial for, say, your XBox, let alone the high-end computers of today. The Foundation has nuclear power plants you can carry around in your pocket, but their computing expertise is stuck in the 20th century.

Asimov goes on to describe how a human operator can use this to figure out where he is in the Galaxy, by looking at the patterns of stars and matching them up by eye, in “less than half an hour.” Of course, this would, even today, be trivial to do in software in a fraction of a second.

(In fairness, I should mention the possibility that “million” is a misprint for “billion.” The number of stars in the Galaxy is of order 100 billion, as Asimov surely knew. If you make that switch, it becomes a more daunting task, although still perfectly manageable with good present-day computers.)

Again, I don’t mean this as a serious criticism of Asimov. I just thought it was amusing.

If you really want to criticize Asimov for mis-guessing about the future, you’ll find much more fertile ground in his depictions of how people behave. Asimov’s characters act an awful lot like men (pretty much always men) of the mid-20th century. They spend an astonishing amount of time reading newspapers and offering each other cigars, for instance.

One more thing. According to Wikipedia,

In 1965, the Foundation Trilogy beat several other science fiction and fantasy series (including The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien) to receive a special Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series.” It is still the only series so honored. Asimov himself wrote that he assumed the one-time award had been created to honor The Lord of the Rings, and he was amazed when his work won.

I’ll reveal my geek allegiance: Asimov was right to be amazed. The Foundation books are good, but the idea of them winning in a head-to-head competition with Lord of the Rings is absurd.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

6 thoughts on “Predictions are hard, especially about the future”

  1. Several comments:

    First, I’m a huge Asimov fan. However, I started with his non-fiction books when I was about 8 and didn’t move to science fiction until I was 14. (He is more famous for science fiction, but wrote many more non-fiction books.) I only got into (his) science fiction when we had little time before leaving for a trip and I asked my father to pick up some Asimov titles (with so many, I was sure there would be some I hadn’t read). (Before that, I had only read the novelizations of Star Trek. I’m a fan, but not a hard-core one, of the original series. I haven’t seen most of what came later.) Since fiction is sorted by author while non-fiction is not, he got several science-fiction books by Asimov. I’ve since read essentially all of his science fiction and most of his non-fiction (except that I haven’t read most of his children’s books). I’ve also read most of Arthur C. Clarke’s books (fiction and non-fiction). Otherwise, I haven’t found much science fiction I like, though there is probably some out there (I have a list of things to check out). Early James P. Hogan can be interesting, and I read Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement, which was good. I was underwhelmed by Stranger in a Strange Land. I also read Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which has an interesting premise and like the other Heinlein book is well written and entertaining to read, but I thought it was unnecessarily over the top in some respects.

    I thoroughly recommend all of Asimov’s non-fiction. For example, his history books are excellent. Want to get an overview of a field in which you don’t work? Read the corresponding Asimov book. Even if (like me) you are not a huge history buff, they are good reading.

    The quote above misses a crucial point. Asimov was the emcee introducing the award for best all-time series. He was sure that he wouldn’t get it, and thought that he was the emcee out of consolation (and of course he didn’t expect to have been chosen as the emcee if he was going to win). IIRC, at that time he didn’t have a Hugo at all, but was well known as a science-fiction writer, so he hammed up his introduction, playing up the hard-working writer who wasn’t appreciated etc. The punch line couldn’t have been better when he announced his own name as the winner.

    Check out his two-volume autobiography. Wonderful reading.

    Yes, some of his predictions were way off. He is not alone here, of course. Someone said “You know you are reading old science fiction when, as time progresses into the future, computers get bigger and bigger rather than smaller and smaller”. There are astronauts with slide rules on other planets. Clarke wrote a science-fiction story about his own invention, the geosynchronous communications satellite, but had people inside with a patch board to make the connections. However, Asimov did write a story, “Trends”, which took place in the early 1970s and involved the first Moon landing. First, this was much earlier than most authors envisaged this happening. Second, the point of the story was that the public were mostly opposed to the space programme, something hardly anyone conceived of back in the days of the Atomic Cafe (wonderful film; check it out). Clarke was better on the near future, Asimov on the intermediate future, Clarke on the far future.

    I recommend that you continue to read his science fiction. Please take this into account: Don’t read anything ABOUT the books before you read them, and read them in order of publication, not in order of the future-history timeline. Most of his books are part of the Foundation universe or the robot universe. Read books from both groups at the same time, reading the books strictly in order of publication. Some don’t belong to these two universes. One is The Gods Themselves, for which Asimov won a Hugo. Some think it his best work. I don’t agree, but parts of it are good (and, on the whole, it is not bad). This was written about a dozen years after he had stopped writing science fiction (because of the Sputnik shock; he thought that Sputnik implied that Americans should catch up on real science). He was worried that the field had moved on and he was an outsider. An editor comforted him: “When you write, you are the field”.

    He later had some best-selling s.f. books. Again, read the science-fiction books in order of publication.

    Of his non-fiction books, while all are good, I particularly like the collections of (non-fiction) essays reprinted from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. These were also Asimov’s favourite things to write (and the worst paid).

    Have fun!

  2. Two more comments. Another of his “standalone” books is The End of Eternity. It is a time-travel story, which of course is rather hackneyed in s.f., but he made it a time-travel story to end all time-travel stories (perhaps like James Joyce inserting references to essentially all of Western culture into Finnegan’s Wake).

    As I said, Clarke was better for the near future. I remember reading things in the 1970s, which were written in the 1950s or 1960s or early 1970s, describing, quite accurately, the internet in all but name. Work from home? Check. Communities of “friends” who have never met face to face? Check. And, what to me seemed miraculous at the time, just a few keyboards will deliver to you, literally in the blink of an eye, more information on a topic than you can read in your lifetime. Check. He even wrote a story about most of the bandwidth being used for porn.

  3. Interestingly, many early science-fiction stories taking place in the future (as most, but not all, science-fiction stories do) didn’t just take place in the future, but rather had some additional plot device to propel a character from the present into the future. Or, at best, the story starts in the near future and something propels the protagonist further into the future (think Buck Rogers). It’s like, rather than just writing an historical novel, one used the “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” to move someone into the past. This is an exception for historical novels, but for a time was quite common in science fiction. I’m not sure why. Of course, as a plot device, it provides a fish-out-of-water angle so that the author can describe, via the character, things which are different in the future, which of course the reader cannot know. (At least a well informed reader of historical fiction has a basic idea of how the world at the time was.) This might come across better than the omniscient author explaining things. But I don’t think this was the main reason. (If done well, s.f. movies don’t suffer from this. One has to include some background anyway, and it can be quite bizarre, but in a book it has to be explicitly mentioned, which can break the narrative flow, while in a movie it is just there.)

    A very interesting book touching on both science fiction and science fact is Time Machines by Paul Nahin. Do check it out.

  4. I should have mentioned that Asimov’s first published book, Pebble in the Sky, uses this device. Exceptions are of course stories which are explicitly about time travel, though even here sometimes the story starts far enough in the future for a time machine to be built then the real narrative takes off. H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine is of course explicitly about time travel, but it is more a vehicle for comparing societies at different times than about the details of time travel itself (see Nahin’s book for many examples of the latter). However, it does contain an amazingly explicit prescience of space-time as later introduced by Weyl.

  5. The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is fantastic (though inaccurate post-curiosity), and I’ve been told wonderful things about his work _Antarctica_ (which is not Science Fiction, but still very good).

    Also I personally enjoy Stephen Baxter, though lots of people I talk to can’t stand his writing. Several people have recommended Greg Egan to me, but I haven’t had a chance to look at his writing.

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