Vintage Tomorrows

Retro‐futurology is the study of retro futures, from the “Golden Age” of science fiction – or to be specific, the study of attempts by major SF authors to predict the future, taking advantage of hindsight to evaluate exactly how wrong they were.  Well, I came up with the word, and that's what I've decided to use it for.

My collection consists of pages for each of the canonical “Big Three”:

Lt. Robert Anson Heinlein (1907–1988)
The first page in the collection was my audit of his predictions in the essay Pandora's Box.
Sir Arthur Charles Clarke (1917–2008)
Now that he's gone, an evaluation of Profiles of the Future (plus a postscript).
Dr. Isaac Asimov (1920–1992)
Quoting O Keen‐Eyed Peerer into the Future! and (a late addition) Visit to the World's Fair of 2014.

My original plan back in the nineties was that this collection would be titled “Mocking the Prophet”, but as things turn out, that gets entirely the wrong kind of Google‐hits these days.

Fables and Prophecies

I should take a moment to emphasise once again that science fiction and futurology are two different things.  If you're an SF writer with a plot in mind and you need a matching imagined future to set it in, a crystal ball wouldn't necessarily be useful – instead what's often wanted is a setting with as few distractingly unfamiliar background features as the author can get away with to justify the fantastic goings‐on in the foreground.  And if that foreground plotline is about an alien invasion, that doesn't mean the author believes in the imminent arrival of Martian War Machines any more than Tolkien believed in dragons.

And something I didn't want to cram in on the Heinlein page itself, about his title, Pandora's Box.  It was the opening of that box that ended the Golden Age of Greek mythology.  Heinlein never had any very good reason for mentioning Pandora, whose name means “all‐giving”, but her husband is highly relevant: Epimetheus (“hindsight”), brother of Prometheus (“forethought”)!  I can picture the domestic arguments already – “Come on, Prometheus, what do you think this hope thing was doing in a box of plagues in the first place?”…

Meanwhile, a different mythology provided a handy excuse for not publishing my own predictions for 2050 at as far as Xibalba was concerned, the end of the world was due in 2012.

20 ⁄ 20 Hindsight Appendix for 2002

A few years ago, when it was too late for postscripts to my RAH page and too soon for an ACC page, I got bored and wrote the following Appendix, which is retro‐futurology in a slightly different sense.  The idea is, if you were a would‐be visionary in 1950 trying to come up with your own list of predictions for the end of the century, but unlike Heinlein you had access to a genuine crystal ball, what features of recent history could you predict that would be surprising to your contemporaries and get you a score of twenty out of twenty?

Some of the following suggestions are already based on contributions from email correspondents, and further feedback is welcome, especially from elderly American SF fans.  But before you ask, the reason I don't nominate President Mandela (the UN's favourite terrorist) is that he wouldn't have become surprising until the 1960s.

  1. Artificial satellites (starting with the Soviet Union's “sputnik”) will transform meteorology, astronomy, and telecommunications.  By 2000 satellite navigation systems will be a well established dashboard accessory.
  2. The USA will put a dozen men on the moon in 1969–72, but after this, space exploration will be left to machines.  As the new millennium dawns, there will be no human beings in space.
  3. Wegener's continental drift hypothesis will be accepted, revolutionising geology; meanwhile Piltdown Man will be proved a fraud, and evidence will mount that the dinosaurs [PS: make that “non‐avian dinosaurs”!] were rendered extinct by a cataclysmic asteroid impact.
  4. Fermat's Last Theorem will be proved using techniques so complex they probably wouldn't have fitted in the book, let alone the margin.
  5. Atomic weapons will dominate geopolitics, but will never again be used in anger.  The US will only fight wars with Third World nations, and will almost always win.
  6. Most homes will contain coherent‐light “ray guns” used for playing music and radar‐style microwave emitters used for cooking food.
  7. Youth music (“rock” and its successors) will become an industry to rival the movies, making many of its stars and many more media moguls immensely rich.
  8. The basis of the genetic code will be understood to the extent that researchers will be capable of cloning (and patenting!) animals; forensics will be revolutionised by the possibility of identifying criminals from genetic “fingerprints”.
  9. Major organ transplants will be almost routine operations by the century's end; smallpox will be extinct in the wild, but the common cold will still be common and TB will be making a comeback.
  10. Tobacco will be recognised as carcinogenic, killing hundreds of thousands of Americans a year; smoking will be prohibited in an increasing range of public places.
  11. Pocket telephones will become commonplace, but videophones won't.  Instead in 2000 AD it will be fashionable to use punctuation marks in text telephone‐messages to represent facial expressions ;-)
  12. Supersonic passenger jets will become available as a status‐symbol form of transatlantic transport, but will never break even; none will be flying at the end of the year 2000.
  13. China will end up only nominally Red, and the USSR will dismantle itself (earning its last leader a Nobel Peace Prize); the US will be left as the world's only real superpower.  Poland will be in NATO, and queuing to join the European Union, but Cuba will be Communist.
  14. Japan will lead the world in reliable high‐technology consumer goods, based on micro‐miniaturised transistors.
  15. Robots will be widely used in manufacturing, and chess‐playing machines will beat the human world champions, but walking, talking androids will prove impractical.
  16. Personal computers will fit in your lap, cost a few hundred dollars, and surpass toys like ENIAC by many orders of magnitude (doubling in computing power per dollar every eighteen months).  They will be linked into a vast international network… largely used for distributing junk mail, pirated music, and pornography.
  17. There will no longer be “plenty more fish in the sea”, and there will be increasing public alarm over deforestation, overpopulation, and other “ecological” issues.  The world will get obviously warmer, due largely to pollution from the ever‐increasing use of fossil fuels.  Meanwhile, a series of disasters will leave atomic power plants generally regarded as an expensive and dangerous failure.
  18. An assassinated black civil rights campaigner called King will be the first American since Washington to have a nationwide holiday named after him.
  19. The contraceptive pill will influence sexual mores enormously, and the laws against homosexuality will be replaced by laws against discrimination on the basis of gender or sexuality.  However, a new, lethal, and incurable STD will infect over a third of the population in parts of Africa, and kill half a million people in the United States.
  20. The UK, Israel, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines will each have female leaders, while all US presidents will be white male millionaires… and one of them will be Ronald Reagan!