Prediction or influence? Science-fiction books that forecast the future

5 Apr 2018

The California Nebula processed with the Hubble Space Telescope palette. Image: Albert Barr/Shutterstock

In many instances, sci-fi writers have dreamed up technologies that have since become realities. We look back at some of the best literature-inspired STEM innovations.

A false dichotomy is often created between the arts and science. Perhaps it’s merely a playful rivalry between students of different schools, but the divide still does a disservice to how symbiotic the two disciplines are. This symbiosis is really exemplified in science fiction.

Future Human

Sci-fi literature seamlessly sates both scientific curiosity and a desire for drama and action. It explores the potential consequences, social and otherwise, of various scientific and technological innovations. Sci-fi authors have posited possible technologies that will exist in the future and often, their predictions materialise in the years following publication.

It’s difficult to know in each of the numerous cases whether it’s that sci-fi writers are oddly prescient or if the things they write are a by-product of scientific cultural porousness, whereby they are channelling the whispers of innovation already in the air.

It could even be that a scientist picks up a book, gets inspired and tries to bring some fictional innovation into reality.

Inspired by Star Trek

Although it wouldn’t be the first time that scientists have been inspired by the arts, American inventor Simon Lake’s source of inspiration is amazing. Lake read Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and was so inspired by the idea of undersea travel that he went on to build the first submarine to operate successfully in the open ocean.

In later years, Martin Cooper, the director of research and development at Motorola, said that the Star Trek communicator was his inspiration for the first mobile phone.

A scientist and a writer

One of the world’s most famous sci-fi writers, and also one renowned for writing about technologies that subsequently materialised, is prolific author HG Wells who penned sci-fi classics such as The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds and The Island of Dr Moreau. What you may not know, however, is that he was trained as a scientist (though it demands mention that he was the exception, not the general rule – “a rarity among his literary contemporaries”).

Wells wrote about everything from lasers to directed energy weapons to genetic engineering to the atomic bomb, all in the 19th century and therefore years upon years before any of these things came close to becoming a reality.

The sci-fi prediction that is probably most baffling and difficult to explain, however, is one made by Irish author Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. As well as providing incisive and hilarious social satire, Swift in one line proposes that the planet Mars has two moons. The novel was published in 1726, but it was only in 1877 that Mars’ two moons were actually discovered.

For some more startling instances where writers have outpaced scientists, check out the infographic from Printerinks below.

science fiction predictions

Click to enlarge. Infographic: Printerinks

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic