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10 Things Science Fiction Got Right

The following is a reprint from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe. A while ago, we posted "10 Things That Science Fiction Got Wrong" but believe it or not, there are many things that sci-fi got right as well. From communication satellites to robotic pets, here are a few of the things that science fiction nailed before they happened. Science fiction is supposed to predict future events - and to be entirely honest, some of us are getting impatient waiting for our own rocket cars to the Moon, which we understood we'd have by now. Be that as it may, here are some things dreamed up by science fiction writers that are part of our real world.

1. Moon Visits

Lots of science fiction writers had this one covered, but the question is: Who got closest to the real thing first? The best candidate is good ol' Jules Verne, whose 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, and the 1870 follow-up, Around the Moon, nailed a lot of the minutiae of a moon visit, including weightlessness, the basic size of the space capsule, the size of the crew (three men), and even the concept of splashdown into the ocean on return to Earth. In one of those fun coincidences, the fictional splashdown in Around the Moon was just a few miles from where the actual Apollo 8 capsule splashed down (and, interestingly enough, the fictional launch pad was just a few miles from Cape Canaveral). Verne was tremendously prolific, writing two novels a year for much of his creative life and dying with quite a few novels unpublished. It's not entirely surprising that he's credited with a number of other predictions, including trips by balloon, helicopters, tanks, and electrical engines. One "discovery" he's famously credited for, the submarine, is inaccurate, since submarines existed prior to the 1870 publication of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

2. Robots (and Robot Pets!)

"Robot" comes from the Czech word robota, which means "drudgery"; robotnik is a word for "serf." Since today's robots are typically found in industrial setting doing mindlessly repetitive work, this is a strangely appropriate term. The word "robot" was popularized in Karel Capek's 1920 play R.U.R., which stood for Rossum's Universal Robots. In the play, robots were manufactured humans who were used as cheap labor. One day they got fed up with this and decided to have a revolution and kill all the humans, proving once again that good help really is hard to find. One thing people don't seem to know about Capek's "robots" is that they're not actually mechanical - they're made out of synthetic flesh, although that flesh was then put into a stamping mill to make the bodies. The concept of robots as mechanical beings came later and was most famously popularized in fiction by writer Isaac Asimov in his Robot series. It's probably not a coincidence that a humanoid robot manufactured by Honda is called "Asimo." Robot pets, like the Sony Aibo robot dog, have also been a staple of science fiction. The most famous example of this is probably Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the Philip K. Dick novel that was the source material for the movie Blade Runner. The main character in the book is saving up to buy a realistic electric sheep for his lawn, so he'll be the envy of his neighbors (the movie had none of this suburban one-upmanship going on). Woody Allen, of all people, nailed the robot dog in 1973's Sleeper, in which we're introduced to Rags ("Hi! I'm Rags! Woof woof!"). Allen's reaction: "Is he housebroken? Or will he be leaving little piles of batteries all over the place?"

3. Cloning and Genetic Engineering

Humans haven't been cloned yet (as far as we know), but sheep, cats, cow, and rabbits have. And humans have used genetic engineering and gene therapy to improve their bodies. In June 2002, for example, it was announced that genetically modified cells helped to create functioning immune systems in two "bubble boys" who were born without immune systems of their own. The most famous work of science fiction with cloning and genetic engineering is also one of the earliest: 1932's Brave New World , by Aldous Huxley. In it, humans are "graded" into jobs and social classes based on the number of clones that were made from their originating embryos; the higher the number of clones, the less bright they are and the more menial their jobs (this was backed by a social agenda that assured each level of humanity that they were actually the best, so everyone went along with it).

4. The Internet

Okay, now, who wants to be blamed for this one? There are so many culprits. Author William Gibson is credited with coining the term "cyberspace" in his 1981 short story "Burning Chrome," and kick-started the whole media fascination with computers and the Internet and all that geekiness with his seminal 1984 novel Neuromancer. But even before Gibson, John Brunner's 1975 novel, The Shockwave Rider, posited a continent-wide information net, "hackers" who broke into the net, identity theft (when someone pretends to be someone else online), and most famously, computer viruses and worms - the terminology for these, in fact, comes from Brunner's book. Brunner imagined using viruses and worms as part of warfare - something that worries today's military quite a bit. It should be noted that in 1975 a proto-form of the Internet did exist, thought not in the scope and complexity imagined by Brunner. It existed in the form of ARPANET, a decentralized computer system that the US Department of Defense created and which by 1975 also included several research universities as "nodes." Internet features created by 1975 include E-mail, online chat, and mailing lists. The most popular mailing list in 1975? One on science fiction, of course.

5. The World Wide Web

... which, despite the propaganda of the 1990s, is not the whole Internet, just a subsection of it - was created in 1991 by Tim Berners-Lee and hit the big time with the creation of the Mosaic Web browser in 1993. The dynamic of the Net had been described before then. In 1990's Earth, David Brin imagined a streaming audio and video and clickable hypertext links. And in a 1989 short story, "The Originist," based in Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" universe, Orson Scott Card also created a linking system similar to today's hyperlinking.

6. Webcams?

Imagined (sort of) by every single science fiction author who ever wrote about a picture phone. There are too many of those to bother counting.

7. Waterbeds

Yes, waterbeds. Robert Heinlein used them in 1961's Stranger in a Strange Land ; the first modern waterbed was created in 1967 in San Francisco by design student Charles Hall, who dubbed it the "pleasure pit" (naughty boy). Heinlein also thought up the idea of remotely controlled machines to manipulate dangerous materials; he called them "waldoes," and that's what they're called today.

8. Communications Satellites

Science fiction master Arthur C. Clarke is famous for having thought of these in 1945.

9. Space Tourists

When millionaire Dennis Tito put down his $20 million and hitched a ride into space with the Russians, he became the first tourist in space. The idea of punting rich folks beyond the stratosphere is not new; in 1962's A Fall of Moondust , Arthur C. Clarke told the tale of some rich tourists who get stranded in a moon crater. More whimsically, author Roald Dahl imagined a "Space Hotel, USA" in 1973's Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, complete with a staff of "managers, assistant managers, desk-clerks, waitresses, bellboys, chambermaids, pastry chefs, and hall porters."

10. Miniaturized Surgery

Doctors these days use miniaturized tools to perform surgery that's less invasive and more precise than traditional surgery, a practice suggested by Isaac Asimov in his 1966 novel, Fantastic Voyage. It's worth noting, however, that along with miniaturized surgical tools, Asimov also shrunk the doctors to fit into the patient's body. We haven't managed that one yet.
The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

Just to point out, Asimov merely wrote the novelization of FANTASTIC VOYAGE; it was based on the story by Jerome Bixby and Otto Klement, screenplay by Harry Kleiner.

Jerome Bixby wrote 4 STAR TREK episodes, including the mirror universe one (Evil Spock with a beard), and the TWILIGHT ZONE episode "It's a GOOD life" (Bill Mumy sending people to the cornfield).
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Robert Heinlein may have written about waterbeds circa 1961, but he is supposed to have come up with the idea about 1939 during a long period in hospital.
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seefish3, the book is indeed called 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep'. The book takes place in a world where most animals have become extinct which is why electric recreations of animals (like sheep) have become popular. This is one of the things that set humans apart from androids. Humans feel empathy for animals, androids don't.
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How about cell phones, remeniscent of Star Trek communicators? Or hand-held internet devices (that can connect to google and wikipedia amongst other things) that remind me of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?
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In "Do Androids dream of electric sheep?"
Deckard is not saving up for an electric sheep, in fact he already has one that he is pretending is a real sheep. In that novel all real animals have high status value due to being very nearly wiped out.
Deckard's fake sheep is a source of great shame to him.

Deckard dreams of having a real sheep, hence the title of the book. You see?
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Douglas Adams could get credit for predicting portable devices that connect to a ubiquitous wireless information network.

And Ford Prefect is a hacker, though Adams never specifically called him that.
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In Between Planets, in 1951, Heinlein had his characters using personal cell-like telephones in a casual, everyday fashion, throughout the book. Just another feature of the near future, the kind of thing he did so well.
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#4 The Internet states- "most famously, computer viruses and worms - the terminology for these, in fact, comes from Brunner's book."
Brunner's book came out in 1975. In the 1973 film "West World" author Michael Critchton clearly mentions a virus like problem affecting the computer systems. So sorry, Brunner did not coin the term.
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Murray Leinster predicted the internet far before, in his story "A Logic Named Joe" published in 1945. A very funny science fiction tale by the way.
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Verne isn't credited with the concept of the submarine, he's credited with the concept of the *nuclear* submarine.

Indeed, his fictional vessel was named after an early submarine (by Robert Fulton) called "Nautilus." In return, the first nuclear submarine was named "Nautilus" after his fictional one.

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WWW / hypertext has many precursors including Ted Nelson (Computer Lib / Dream Machines, 1974), and further back with Doug Englebart (60s), and Vannevar Bush's 1945 Atlantic Monthly article "The Way We May Think" about the Memex machine.
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Rob F: that's true, but those aren't science fiction stories, those are actual computer science talks. You could also cite Apple's Hypercard, as an example.

That said, I find the case for the web pretty week... 1989 is seriously the best that's available? There *has* to be a mention of hypertext in sci-fi before then.

(The movie Starship Troopers has one, but I'm guessing that wasn't part of the source book?)
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It's a little inaccurate to say Arthur C Clarke "predicted" communication satellites. The concept of geostationary satellites existed prior to Clarke. However, Clarke wrote a scientific paper (NOT a science fiction story) describing the use of satellites for communications. The impact of his work on the actual development of communications satellites is a little fuzzy, but he is often credited with INVENTING them, which is certainly different from PREDICTING them.
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Indian stories also have some science fiction in them. In the epic "Ramayan", the antagonist Ravan is portrayed to have 10 heads. There is one instance in "Mahabharat" where a body torn apart sticks together again !!! May be somone has the Indian author's list like this !!!
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Asimov did not write Fantastic Voyage: it was an adaptation from the movie of the same title; he did, however, write Fantastic Voyage II, which was much better and more science-fictionally accurate.
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In Mons, Belgium, one can visit the Mundaneum ( a museum dedicated to a.o. Paul Otlet (1868-1944) who set up an encyclopedia of the universe on millions of index cards. He predicted that one day people would not read books anymore, but have some sort of screen on their desk to which they could have the appropriate index card transported by an ingenius mechanical system.
Moreover, all screens would be connected by a system of telescopes with which one would be able to browse through someone else's card system.
How's that for a precursor of the WWW?
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let's not forget in 2001, A Space Odessy, that magical oven the ship had on it, where you could cook your food and reach in without oven mitts and gingerly take out a hot meal.

and of course, Robert A Heinlein had a secretary in a short story whose phone rang, and she reached in her pocket and took it out...

we are IN the future!
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Every one of these entries is wrong, in some degree. Verne was not the first writer to imagine a voyage to another world by some mechanical means, Asimov was not the first to write about mechanical humanoid robots, Huxley was not the first person to think of duplicating people, the internet was written about long before brunner and gibson, Brin was generations late in predicting hyperlinks and WWW, the entry on webcams is nonsense because it contains no specific information, Heinlein did not invent the waterbed, nor is the reference cited by him even his earliest, Clarke was not the first to think of comm satellites (although he did think of the idea of geostationary satellite networks), clarke was not the first to describe space tourists, and microsurgical instruments were correctly described by another sf writer long before fantastic voyage. I like your blog, but don't waste everyone's time printing this poorly researched crap.
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Mark Twain's "From the London Times of 1904" had as the crucial plot element a device called the "telectroscope" which functioned as a webcam. It even had sound.
The very first communications satellite came from Edward Everett Hale, (more famous for his story "The Man without a Country) in his story "The Brick Moon", in which light signals could be flashed around the world from the artificial satellite of the title.
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Arthur C. Clarke also envisioned 3D video games in a 1950s novel, the title of which escapes me. In that book, humans a million years in the future all live underground, and have a virtual reality-like game in which they fight monsters in dangerous caves.

By the same Tolkien, the same decade had a writer who presaged D&D. :)
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I'm wondering why Bradbury was left out. iPods and big screen TVs? I think Bradbury's world in Fahrenheit 451 is the closest to our world today of any sci-fi prediction of a future. Sure, we haven't gotten to burning books yet, but look at Bush & Harper administrations and note the type of population that elected such people. Sure, the Internet is a valuable resource of information, however, the majority is using it only for pleasure. That's my 2 cents anyhow.
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