The Predictive Power of Speculative Fiction

“Blade Runner city concept art” by Syd Mead (uploaded by Paul Hartzog) is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Times Square, New York City” by Francisco Diez is licensed under CC BY 2.0









In the defense of the critical merits of speculative fiction, there is perhaps no greater piece of evidence than the predictive prowess the genre has demonstrated time and again. From Jules Verne to Neal Stephenson, authors have been speculating about — and predicting — technological and social advancements for as long as the genre has existed.

The following is an exemplative (but far from extensive) list of predictive works:

Neuromancer book cover art falls under fair use copyright law

  • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870) — predicted the widespread use of electricity.
  • Ralph 124C 41+ by Hugo Gernsback (1911) — predicted solar power and video calling.
  • Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry (1960s) — predicted cell phones, 3D printing, and voice-recognition software.
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clark (1968) — predicted tablets.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979) — predicted audio translation apps.
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984) — predicted the pervasiveness of the internet and coined the term “cyberspace.”
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992) — predicted virtual reality.
  • Minority Report directed by Steven Spielberg (2002) — personalized advertisements, facial recognition, and motion-control software

Speculative fiction can even predict visual trends: featured above is a piece of concept art depicting Times Square for the film Blade Runner (left), released in 1982, and a picture of modern Times Square (right) from 2009.

These predictions are in part based on authors accurately extrapolating from current trends in reality, intuiting the trajectory of technological and social developments. Other times, authors’ speculations serve to inspire inventors to create real counterparts to fictional devices, as with the Star Trek inspired cellphone (such is even rumored to be the case with the development of the atomic bomb!).

However, it’s not just technological developments which speculative authors can and have predicted: perhaps more uncanny is the way in which speculative works predict the advancement and evolution of societies. Deus Ex was released in 2000, but many of the plot points and the depictions of the political and social landscapes within the game’s setting make it feel as if it had been developed post-9/11 (Butler). In the wake of rising domestic terrorism, fueled by a widening gap between the rich and poor and limited access to resources, Deus Ex imagines a future America that is essentially governed by martial law, where individual freedoms are compromised in the name of national security. Eerily enough, due to an oversight in the construction of the New York skyline during level building, Deus Ex even predicted the loss of the Two Towers to a terrorist attack.

Screenshot of the New York City skyline from Deus Ex

Speaking about the development of fictional worlds, Sheldon Pacotti, writer for Deus Ex, explained how important it was for the team to create a believable vision of reality in which to set the game: “There are always those in society who fetishize dark future visions—and Deus Ex is not immune to the tendency of science fiction to exaggerate—but throughout the project Warren and Harvey Smith, its lead designer, put a premium on plausibility. The future needed to be a believable extrapolation of the present day” (qtd. in Butler).

Screenshot of the AI “Morpheus” from Deus Ex

And they succeeded in many ways. Besides the game’s prediction of society’s and the government’s reaction to terrorism — increasing surveillance and violating privacy rights in the name of safety and security — the game also predicted the rise of social media. During an optional encounter with an artificial intelligence system named Morpheus, players witness “one of the game’s most perceptive moments” (Butler): Morpheus explains that people are amused at the AI’s ability to tell them about themselves (based on information pulled from surveillance and internet data), stating “Human beings feel pleasure when they are watched.” Praising the game’s insight, Liam Butler comments that this statement is “truer than ever. Many of us chose to sacrifice privacy and put a version of our lives in front of an audience” (Butler). Pacotti claims that envisioning a system like Morpheus “seemed quite plausible, extrapolating from the web crawlers of the time, Moore’s Law, and the universal hunger for information. What has surprised me is the eagerness with which Western governments have embraced such technologies to anticipate rather than just investigate wrongdoing” (qtd. in Butler)

This remarkable feat of predictability on the part of speculative fiction is a testament to the analytical and critical genius of its authors. It is only through a true insight into the workings of humanity and society at large that such precise predictions can be possible, proving the effectiveness of speculative fiction as a tool for analytical and critical thought.