In the Old Testament’s book of Deuteronomy, God lays out a very simple method for determining if someone is a false prophet: Does what they predict come true? Science predicts that if you smoke, you are more likely to get cancer. Science predicts that the Earth will take 365.25 days to revolve around the sun. Science predicts that the apple will accelerate at 9.8 m/s/s to the ground if you drop it.
Science has foretold many of our modern discoveries. Pointing to a gap in the Evolutionary Tree, the Scientist describes what will probably be found there and where. Then it comes true. So many fossils in the neighboring branches of Homo Sapiens were found because Science told Paleontologists where to look, and what to look for.
As I write this, Gravity Probe B has taken orbit around the Earth. It will test one of Einstein’s theories made 45 years ago. Just last year, the Nobel prize was awarded to the inventor of the Einstein-Bose state of matter, also created out of Einstein’s theories. Thus, Scientists from a half-century ago direct our purposes today. Just as Scientists today theorize the directions of tomorrow.
Science predicts the future.
Through Empirical observations and deductive reasoning, Scientists prophesize what tomorrow will look like with more accuracy than any psychic or scripture. These go beyond the predictions of biology, chemistry, physics, and the other Natural Sciences. They encompass the Historical Sciences as well. The lessons we take from our ancestors are an easily begotten Wisdom, bypassing the harsh tutor of experience.
Understanding History, the Natural World, and other bodies of knowledge allows us to speculate on what tomorrow will bring. Envisioning the future is mere Science Fiction to some, but there are others who take it much more seriously. These are the Futurists.
What is Futurism?
Many of us are raised with the notion that Science Fiction is merely fanciful and escapist, failing to address the human condition. One need only look to the mountains of flighty SF like Star Wars, Flash Gordon, The Fifth Element, Alien, and other films concerned solely with entertainment value, forsaking the possibility of leaving a lasting message.
Yet much of today’s world was anticipated in Science Fiction. Jules Verne predicted a voyage to the Moon. William Gibson predicted the Information Revolution. Computers, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and robotics were all predicted by Science Fiction authors, but how significant were their predictions?
The answer to that question depends on where we look. If we look to when these books were written and then rank their importance influencing the invention of the things they prophesy, we won’t find much. Verne’s “Voyage to the Moon,” where a capsule fired from a cannon was the means of transportation, was a far cry from the complex Rocket Science that eventually succeeded in making the journey.
What Verne’s book did accomplish was to plant the seed in people’s minds. He got people to look up at the night sky and see it with fresh eyes, a new perspective. His work inspired readers to fantasize about the possibility of space travel.
This is the purpose of Futurism, Science Fiction that rises above sheer entertainment value, affecting the present with their inspirational visions. I like the following quote as a way of describing its approach:
“Infinite Gratitude to all things Past.
Infinite Service to all things Present.
Infinite Responsibility to all things Future.”
– Zen Saying
In the above example, “Voyage to the Moon”, we saw a futuristic vision meant to inspire, but Futurism also takes another approach, a cautionary one. Films like Soylent Green or books like “1984” present terrifying visions of futures that are entirely possible. They warn of environmental catastrophes, totalitarian societies, genetically engineered monstrosities, all within the realm of reason. These tales portray the consequences of a society that does not remain aware and vigilant.
Using history as a means of predicting trends and the body of Natural Science as a means of predicting effects, we may speculate on the future with some degree of accuracy. By keeping both the past and future in our vision, we may make informed choices about our present. “If you don’t go far enough back in memory or far enough ahead in hope, your present will be impoverished.” – Ed Lindaman, Futurist
These are merely four examples of great futurist works. More appear each day in our bookstores and theaters, and there are endless works already in our collective body of knowledge waiting to be rediscovered:
HG Wells, The Time Machine
A cautionary tale about the ultimate end result of Class Divisions. In the future, the Wealthy have evolved into physically and mentally weak beings, while the Labor Class have evolved into monsters living below ground, coming out each night to feed on the feeble humans above.
While we cannot imagine Wells’ vision coming to fruition anymore, his novel served as apt social commentary for his time. It reduced his modern, civilized society to a primitive state, where the hierarchy becomes reversed. The book is still chilling, taking us to the end of the Earth’s time and back again, providing us a warning about falling into stasis and the need for growth.
George Orwell, 1984
One of the most powerful warnings of a Totalitarian future, George Orwell predicted many of the rhetorical techniques abused by today’s politicians and pundits to control how we think. He also portrays the abuse of surveillance technology, another issue society grapples with more and more each day. We have seen Orwell’s bleak future play out in North Korea, but he was more concerned with how easily free societies could fall into the trap of “Big Brother.”
While the title may suggest a vision that never came to light, the significance of the year “1984” in the book is even greater following its passing. In the world Orwell describes, no one knows what year it is. Some characters assume it is 1984, but their memories are so muddled that last year might have been 1984 also. As media and government find more powerful ways to influence us, this book seems more important than ever.
Star Trek presents a positive view of the future. A Utopian balance of Democratic Principles, Communitarianism, Egalitarianism, and Moderation. A society where all work for the common good because it inspires us to do so. The original series was groundbreaking for the 1960s, because it included a mixture of races and genders in the main cast. The science is often deus ex machina, but the Social Commentary is often very significant and thoughtful.
If anyone doubts the positive effects of the Start Trek vision on society, one need only look to the fans. The documentary Trekkies surveyed this cultural phenomenon and revealed a world of individuals pursuing a wide variety of intellectual pursuits inspired by the Star Trek universe.
David Brin, The Uplift Saga
A visionary series of novels that take place in a distant future, with a sort of intergalactic United Nations. Patron races “uplift” more primitive races into sentience. War and oppression are not eradicated, but are tempered through a complex bureaucracy of rules and oversight.
Brin believes in Egalitarianism, Democracy, Reason, all the virtues of Science and they come out splendidly in his books. They are portrayed as a struggle, as Democracy always is, and Reason will always succeed, ultimately, just not always the way we expect it. These books are another portrayal of a positive future, achieved through the Virtues of reason.
There are more authors: Michael Crighton, Margaret Attwood, Stanislaw Lem, Greg Bear, Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan, William Gibson, Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, Mary Shelly, Charlie Kaufman, Phillip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut Jr… Not all Science Fiction need be Futurist in order to garner respect. All sub-genres have their merits. For the purposes of fostering a Futurist mindfulness, the most intelligent and thought provoking visions stand above the rest.