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When Science Fiction Comes True – The New York Times



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By Namwali Serpell

Maybe because we’re living in a dystopia, it feels as if we’ve become obsessed with prophecy of late. Protest signs at the 2017 Women’s March read “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again!” and “Octavia Warned Us.” News headlines about abortion bans and the defunding of Planned Parenthood do seem ripped from the pages of Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1985). And Octavia Butler’s “Parable” series, published in the 1990s, did eerily feature a presidential candidate who vows to “make America great again.”

In “The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World,” Thomas Disch calls this relay between fiction and reality “creative visualization.” Businesses have started to co-opt it. The designers of the iPhone and the Kindle cite works of science fiction as inspiration. Boeing, Nike, Ford and Intel have hired prototyping, future-casting or world-building ventures for product development. As the author Brian Merchant put it on Medium recently, these companies “do what science fiction has always done — build rich speculative worlds, describe that world’s bounty and perils, and, finally, envision how that future might fall to pieces.” This is “speculative” fiction in the financial sense, too, a new way to gamble on futures.

The irony — or the proof — of this brave new business model is that sci-fi saw it coming. Dystopias have long portrayed artists being drafted into nefarious corporate labor. In “Blade Runner 2049,” for instance, the Wallace Corporation sets a woman the task of crafting memories — not for characters in a novel, but for androids.

It’s a touch self-congratulatory for sci-fi creators to imply that they’re the unacknowledged designers of the world. But they do seem to have a knack for innovation. The genre has predicted satellite communication, army tanks, tablets, submarines, psychotropic pills, bionic limbs, CCTV, electric cars and video calling. You can find dozens more examples of sci-fi-minted gadgetry on the internet, which is itself a prime example of the phenomenon. The word “cyberspace” first appeared in the cyberpunk novel “Neuromancer” (1984), to describe “a consensual hallucination …. A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system.” Its author, William Gibson, is our Nostradamus: His novels have prophesied reality television, viral marketing and nanotechnology.

I write science fiction set in the near future, so I’m constantly testing my own powers of prophecy. I once wrote a story about a germaphobic couple who want to have sex without touching. They purchase the “TouchFeely” — my nod to the “Feelies” in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (1932) an apparatus that includes an electrified dildo and a sheath that respond remotely to each other. The year after the story came out, I learned about Hera and Zeus, “the world’s first internet-enabled” sex toys. These “teledildonic” devices uncannily resemble my fictional invention. I was a little disconcerted. My story is a satire about bourgeois disconnection. My characters each start affairs with the bot. One ends up choking on the dildo. But I’ll confess: I felt a perverse pleasure, too. It was as if I had conjured something into existence — the dream of every artist.

More recently, I did some research on H.I.V. vaccines for my novel, “The Old Drift.” With some help from a biologist at New York University, I came up with one that uses a particular technique to target a specific gene sequence. I felt a strange, and, again, perverse, mix of horror and wonder when I read a couple months ago that Chinese scientists had used the exact same mechanism for their “AIDS vaccine development project,” also known as the CRISPR babies, the first genetically modified humans. I’ve started to worry that, before long, the Moskeetoze(TM) microdrones that I designed for the novel will buzz to life too. Raymond Z. Gallun’s 1936 short story “The Scarab” got there first, but the TV series “Black Mirror” introduced robo-bees into the popular imagination just in advance of their emergence in the real world: Last March, Walmart filed a patent for a fleet of pollination drones.

This is the dark side of science fiction prophecy. “Wow, I was right!” can turn quickly into “Yikes, I was right!” You almost envy Cassandra, the Trojan princess who was doomed by the gods to be always correct yet disbelieved. “I was never able to predict,” William Gibson demurred in an interview with GQ. “But I could sort of curate what had already happened.” When it was brought to his attention that the global disasters he had envisioned in his 2014 novel, “The Peripheral,” seemed to be happening even before it was published, Gibson admitted: “That makes me very uncomfortable.”

What if you don’t just predict a bad idea but inspire it? Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818), widely considered the first science fiction novel, tried to forestall this: “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge.” But while science fiction aims to warn, humans are teenagers at heart: We love doing what we’re told not to. Our modern-day “Frankenstein,” Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” (1990), may even have spurred researchers to try to recover dinosaur DNA. Should the makers of sci-fi quit indulging this desire to peer into the future?

Well, no. First of all, our predictions are off a lot of the time. No one’s floating around in jet packs and hovercrafts just yet. Huxley presaged genetic engineering — his test tube babies are the true precursors of CRISPR babies — but so far we’ve passed on his multisensory “Feelies” and stuck with the good old-fashioned movies. For some reason, there’s a slew of older sci-fi films that happen to be set in 2019 — “Blade Runner,” “The Running Man,” “The Island” — so we have new proof of our flubs. The IGN piece detailing these failures of prophecy is titled “The Sci-Fi Movies That Predicted 2019 … and Got It Wrong.”

The writer Harry Turtledove tweeted a link to that article with an exclamatory comment: “Science fiction does not predict the future. Not. Not! [expletive] NOT! It uses the imagined future to comment on the real present.” Margaret Atwood often claims something similar, echoing Gibson’s protestations. Despite manifest evidence of her acute forecasts — the rise of the Christian right, in vitro meat, sexbots modeled on real people, apocalyptic climate change, live aquatic jewelry — she says: “I’m not a prophet. Honest, I’m not a prophet. If I were a prophet I would have cleaned up on the stock market years ago. … They’re saying things about ‘Oryx and Crake’ and ‘MaddAddam’ are all coming true. But that’s based on things people were already working on when I was writing the books. It’s just that I was looking for those things and other people weren’t.” Maybe science fiction’s future is actually just a lens on the present.

Some writers do like to don the mantle of prophet. In 1983, Isaac Asimov published a set of 2019 forecasts. He was right about some things: “The mobile computerized object, or robot, is already flooding into industry and will, in the course of the next generation, penetrate the home.” But it’s embarrassing to see how hopeful he was about us: Asimov thought computers would have freed us from the most tedious forms of labor by now. He imagined we’d have fixed pollution, developed technology “based on the special properties of space” and even settled on the moon. This rosy picture might seem surprising, given science fiction’s proclivity for doom and gloom. Yet given our headlong plummet toward the death of this planet, to picture any future at all feels optimistic these days. It assumes that, when the apocalypse comes, we will still be here to witness it.

Stories are one of our oldest technologies. They let us have vivid experiences — beautiful, moving ones, but also horrifying, dark ones — and then close the book, or the laptop, unscathed. They give us a kind of perverse pleasure in reverse: not of seeing the worst come true, but of seeing the worst without it coming true. And this is the other reason I don’t think writers should give up on the art of prediction. Writers don’t just see into the future or possess special insight into the present; we also construct a kind of machine for virtual hindsight. We create an immersive simulation of the future that we can all experience and look back on, so that we might decide together whether we want these dreams to come true after all.

Namwali Serpell is the author of the novel “The Old Drift,” which will be published on March 26.

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 15 of the Sunday Book Review. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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