What Some of the Greatest Science Fiction Writers Thought 2012 Would Be Like
Back in 1987, L. Ron Hubbard created a time capsule of sorts. He challenged his fellow science fiction writers, along with a smattering of famous scientists, to write letters to the people of 2012 offering their visions of what the world might look like in another 25 years. (Yes, that Hubbard -- the Scientology guy. But he was a well-known SF writer before he started the church, and it was in that guise that he threw down this challenge.)
So here we are, in the high summer of 2012, and it's time to go back and see just how much they got right -- and wrong.
The full collection of letters Hubbard got for his time capsule is here. A lot of the greats offered their thoughts. There's Fredrick Pohl, the genre's legendary editor (who's still at it, after 70 years in the business); Jerry Pournelle, writer of political and military SF, who also did some speechwriting for President Reagan; Roger Zelazny, who mined the world's great mythologies for his stories; Gregory Benford, astrophysicist-turned-Hugo winner; Nobel Prize-winning physicist Sheldon Glashow; and Isaac Asimov, arguably the greatest of them all.
I invite you to go read the whole thing, because it's fascinating to see what some of the most forward-thinking and imaginative storytellers of that time saw when they cast themselves toward today. It's a portrait of the hopes and desires of an earlier generation -- some of them uniquely of their time, others the same dreams that every generation carries for its children. And looking at what they got right -- and what they got wrong -- offers some insight into the way we think about our own future now.
Here's my commentary on some of the topics they touched on.
Asimov and Benford both relied on mid-'80s projections that the Earth's population would be at or over 8 billion by now. We should take some encouragement from the fact that they overestimated that figure by a billion souls. Unlike climate change, where our experts' most dire worst-case predictions have consistently undershot what reality delivered, the reverse is true for population. Over the past 40 years, we've succeeded in bending the expected population curve downward significantly -- and that's a really important win for the future of the planet.
The old lions had high hopes for the emergent technologies of the time: nanotech, biotech, genetic engineering. Their letters ooze with envy: they'd love to be here among us here in 2012, enjoying what they imagine will be the abundant fruits of these ripened technologies. (And some of them are indeed still among us -- even old Fred Pohl, who's in his 90s and published his most recent book just last year.)
Unfortunately, almost none of their expected harvest has come to pass. We are not yet storing computer information in atoms (as Gerald Feinberg, the Columbia physicist who discovered the tachyon, suggested). Using genetic medicine to end diabetes, gout, MS, and Parkinson's (as Glashow forecast) is within just a few years' reach now, but we're not actually there yet. Dave Wolverton did accurately describe the GMO food that's on every American's plate now -- though he underestimated the degree to which some of us would be very creeped out by it.
Almost everybody, save writer's writer Gene Wolfe, thought we'd be well into space by now. Zelazny congratulates us on our space colonies. Benford wonders how things are on Mars. We're still wondering, too.
The Big Thinkers, as a group, might be surprised at how healthy we are. In 1987, AIDS was just hitting its full stride as a global health crisis. The first treatments were finally emerging, but nobody knew how far the disease could go or how fast it might overtake humankind. So it's clear that some of them considered it their solemn duty to prepare us for the worst.