What science fiction does, doesn’t and can do.
2019 is the year that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is set in. Given the film’s status as an influential science fiction classic, it was inevitable that news sites and media outlets seized upon this fact. So we saw many stories under headlines such as ‘Blade Runner predicted what life would be like in 2019: Here’s what it got wrong’, ‘Blade Runner: What the movie got wrong in its predictions for 2019’, and ‘The Sci-Fi Movies That Predicted 2019 And Got It Wrong’, a story that included other movies set in 2019 such as the classic 1988 anime Akira, the Schwarzenegger-starrer Running Man and Michael Bay’s 2005 movie, The Island.
It wasn’t Blade Runner or the other movies that got it wrong. It’s these ‘hot takes’ that are patently wrong.
Because these movies were not trying to ‘predict’ the future. Though known to science fiction writers and its readers, this needs repeating: science fiction is not about prophecies and DOES NOT ‘predict the future’.
The fact that science fiction is about predicting the future is amongst the biggest misconceptions about the genre. A myth perpetuated by listicles, click-bait headlines and attributions of technologies that have come true much later after they were written about as ‘predictions,’ one that this writer has also been guilty of inadvertently perpetuating in the past. So, to say that Blade Runner was predicting replicants and flying cars in 2019 is as ludicrous as saying Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein predicted modern organ transplants.
So, if science fiction does not predict the future, what does it do, and why? What feeds the myth that it does? And is there truth to the fact that science fiction influences the future?
Here’s the long answer: Science fiction imagines the future – just one of the many possible futures in any given book, depending on which path the author chooses to pursue – to put the spotlight on the now; using imagined futures to examine the very real present that the book was written in, to critique contemporary issues and challenges. Most of the technologies or concepts that are credited as being ‘correct predictions’ then are nothing but objects or plot devices that help move the story forward easily and/or because they make the story possible by extrapolating the technologies and trends of the time. What does an author do when he wants to write a sea-faring adventure but set – fantastically – underneath the surface of the ocean? A man of extraordinary imagination, he comes up with the idea of a ship that – wonder of wonders – sails underwater. Which is what Jules Verne did, for Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, describing a watercraft powered by a source of energy that was just dawning at the time, electricity – what we now know as (electric) submarines. Jules Verne predicted submarines!
How does the captain of a starship who’s part of the landing party conveniently communicate with his ship which is still in orbit around the planet? You come up with – as Wah Chang, the designer of props for TOS did – a convenient and wireless handheld device that can be carried around in the captain’s pocket and fits in the palm of his hand. Years later, an engineer called Martin Cooper working at Motorola would lead the team that developed the world’s first handheld mobile phone, inspired by watching Star Trek and seeing Captain Kirk using his Communicator. And in this – apart from being a great escapist and entertaining genre – lies the true value and worth of science fiction.
Not for nothing is science fiction called the ‘literature of ideas’. Operative word – Literature (read: fiction). Not for nothing did the Chinese government decide to encourage science fiction because their delegates—who went to the USA to find out how it is that silicon valley comes up with great products—found that the people who worked at Apple, Google, Microsoft were science fiction readers.
Good science fiction is inspirational. It fires the imagination of fertile minds, influences engineers and designers to come up with technologies and products inspired by what they’ve read in the pages of a science fiction book or seen portrayed on screen in a sci-fi film. And when they do, when a fictional product, device or concept is actually made real, engineered and invented in our present time, it is usually chalked up as a ‘prediction’ by the science fiction author. A situation not dissimilar to the one where an archer fires his arrow at a wall and then draws the target around it. But for every correct prediction credited to science fiction, there are hundreds that have failed. That said, there is no better genre of literature than science fiction to look at if you are looking to encourage people to become scientists, engineers, inventors and to spark imagination and innovation.
When Philip K. Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the book that Blade Runner is based on, he wasn’t predicting off-world mining and replicants, he was writing about what he saw as the dehumanising effects of technology and the movie explored this theme further with its treatment of empathy and with its questions of what ‘humanity’ is and what being human means. A theme as relevant then as it is now and will be in the future.
Blade Runner just happened to be set in 2019, a year suitably distant from 1982 when it was released to qualify as ‘the future’. Mayhap a time will come when flying cars and other elements (apart from notably, massive neon, now LED, hoardings that are already in our midst) which follow the design that the visual futurist, Syd Mead came up with for Blade Runner will be a reality. And when they do, hopefully, some writer in the future will see Blade Runner for what it is, and not write an article called, ‘5 things Blade Runner predicted–the third one will make you shed tears in the rain’. If s/he does, and you’re still around, do let him or her or they know that Blade Runner was not trying to ‘predict’ anything. I know I will.