One of the defining elements of science fiction is the prevalence of predictive plot details. That portentous writing is one reason why the genre is more broadly referred to as speculative fiction in certain scholastic or literary circles.
The speculation of science fiction authors breeds fascination, criticism, and debate, which could all be considered hallmarks of excellent fiction in any genre. Those predictions are even more interesting to modern audiences, who can look back at which have come true, which have proved completely unbased, and which have yet to pass..
I’ll only travel back as far as the late nineteenth century. Relatively recent predictions are interesting enough. By looking at a few popular books — and films — from the past four decades (more or less), I’ll highlight which events we’ve missed and which, according to popular science fiction, are yet to come.
War of the Worlds — H. G. Wells
I’m talking about the original story here, not the radio drama narrated by Orson Wells or the Hollywood film starring Tom Cruise. H. G. Wells’ original story takes place during the mid-1890s, contemporary with the date of its original serialization in 1897.
The obvious major event to be found in Wells’ narrative is the Martian invasion. I don’t think it’s quite fair to label that as a prediction, but only because it hasn’t happened—yet.
Beyond the tripod alien spacecrafts lasering people and harvesting their life essence, there is a significant event that occurs near the end of the novel which could be considered a prediction: all the Martians on Earth are killed by a pathogen; it’s a pandemic to which they have no immunity. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
Beyond the clear allegorical representation and deconstruction of the binary relationship that characterized European colonialism—and the role that disease played in that historical period—Wells’ pandemic conclusion also garners consideration in the context of pandemics throughout history.
The black plague of the medieval era certainly shines as a source of inspiration for Wells. Did you know the Bubonic plague survived into Wells own time? It became known as the modern plague as it spread from the 1860s to 1903. Survivors of the Spanish flu, which spread only 21 years after War of the Worlds was published, might certainly have had Wells on their mind. Recent history has also pulled Wells’ story forward, as the Covid-19 pandemic has spread and evolved throughout 2020 and 2021. I’m sure Wells wouldn’t be surprised to hear about all the pandemics that affected earth between 1897 and today.
The period during which George Orwell’s 1984 takes place is as obvious as its prestige and influence — both in the genre of science fiction and on the greater milieu of western culture. Anyone who’s spent a guilty hour watching Big Brother has embraced the influence of Orwell, whether they know it or not.
Mass surveillance of the public is Orwell’s most significant prediction. It would be difficult to deny that those imagined ideas haven’t become real with figures like Edward Snowden entering the public eye — and escaping it. The widespread mass surveillance being conducted by world governments and agencies like the NSA is a well-known—and surprisingly well-accepted—public idea. It’s one of Orwell’s most prescient predictions, which is why the rest of his visionary commentary is so important.
When one compares the political indoctrination and psychological manipulation carried out by the Party in 1984 to the political strategies and events of the past decade, it doesn’t seem like doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime are so unusual. In fact, those predictions may have already come true too.
Mad Max 2: Road Warrior
Mad Max 2 follows its titular hero through the blasted desert landscape of Australia in the futuristic year of 1987. As the supplies of oil were exhausted, global war broke out and civilization collapsed. I can’t say I’m sorry we missed that.
The plot of Mad Max 2 evokes common sub-genres of speculative fiction: post-apocalypse and dystopia. The apocalyptic science fiction stories that take place in our past, such as Mad Max, cast a warm light on contemporary events — as our society of intelligent apes continues to avoid the total annihilation predicted by so many doomsayers in the science fiction genre. Unfortunately, not all those cataclysms have been avoided; not yet. There are plenty of global catastrophes awaiting humanity in the remaining future dystopias of science fiction.
The setting of Mad Max and the antecedent events that created it are a clear commentary on the continued use of non-renewable resources and the ongoing effects of climate change. The destruction of the environment to fuel power plants is as contentious an issue in Canada as it is in Australia, where substantial environmental ruination has resulted in acute emotional responses among residents; a feeling that professor Glen Albrecht calls Solastalgia, “the pain of losing the solace of home” (Muller, 2020, p. 39).
Christopher Nolan’s Inception represents an interesting form of speculative fiction. According to Nolan, the setting is meant to reflect the contemporary period of the film’s release: 2010. As such, Inception is an example of predictive fiction that takes place both during its current era and during our current era. That setting presents a particular challenge—for both the storyteller and the audience. Any elements of science fiction—any fantastic predictions—must reflect a level of human development that’s realistic for the current age.
The key scientific development of Nolan’s narrative, the titular process of Inception and the associated dream invasion technology, is the most speculative aspect of the film. The elements of relativity and time therein present confusing challenges to the audience, but the actual technology is presented as something not all that unusual. It’s a chemical process of mind control conducted with intravenous medical apparatus that closely resembles the equipment used in anesthesiology.
The biggest challenges to contemporary audiences watching Inception are the metaphysical, ontological elements. The actual chemical process and the required technology are easy concepts to accept as contemporary, even if they represent a level of technology that isn’t quite present in today’s world—at least, as far as we know.
Muller, P. (2020) A World Lost. National Geographic, April-2020, 30-41