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Are we living in a sci fi future?

By Tom Colls
Today programme

Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini

If you look out of your window, you will not see many flying cars. Most people are not walking around in all-in-one body suits and you are unlikely to be getting around by teleporter.

We are living in a time that science fiction writers have been dreaming of for more than a century.

But, as an exhibition devoted to sci fi opens at the British Library, the genre's writers have to face the fact that the world hasn't worked out quite as their predecessors imagined.

War has not vanished, nor are we living in a state of total war. We are not all raised in test tubes, despite all our fears and hopes about genetic engineering, neither are we slaves of the corporate state, however much we watch X Factor.

The future, it turned out, is a lot more normal than any science fiction writer pictured it.

"No-one's got a good track record at predicting the future - throwing darts would get you better results," says science fiction writer, and editor of the blog Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow.

"We are, as a society, no better than any other society at choosing which future to embrace."


Sci fi author China Miveille takes a tour of the 'Out of this World' exhibition

That is not to say that there are not some remarkably prescient predictions in the sci fi back catalogue, says Andy Sawyer, who has guest-curated the British Library exhibition.

Credit Cards -Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, written in 1888, predicted cash cards.
The Internet - Mark Twain, in From the London Times of 1904, written in 1898, imagined a communication network in which anyone could talk to and see anyone.
CCTV - Big Brother is watching you, George Orwell warned in 1949.
Lunar exploration - Johannes Kepler first thought this might happen in 1634.

In 1905, just two years after the first powered flight, Rudyard Kipling imagined a world in which international trade routes were under the command of air traffic controllers. This, he wrote, led to the disappearance of the nation state and an end to war.

Robert A Heinlein's book Space Cadet, published in 1948, describes a young star fighter using a mobile phone. And Ray Bradbury's 1953 dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451, mentions things that seem a lot like mp3 players and huge flat screen TVs in public spaces.

These coincidences, however, are precisely not the point of science fiction, according to three-time winner of the Arthur C Clarke science fiction award China Mieville.

For example, while HG Wells seems to predict space flight in his 1901 work The First Men in the Moon, the spaceship he describes flies by means of a gravity-repelling paint. You shouldn't take the first part seriously, Mieville explains, if you are aware of the second.

The point is, though, that science fiction has never been about predicting the future. If it happens to get some things right, then all well and good: the point is the point of any literature - to tell a good story.

The Martians from H G Wells's The War of the Worlds; as depicted by Alvim-Correa
Alien monsters have not yet attacked the earth

"Science fiction engages with the real world. To that extent it is literature which is about now, not about the future," he says.

So while some may champion JG Ballard's Drowned World - in which London is submerged by the sea - as a warning against climate change, it is no better or worse than another of his "catastrophe novels", The Crystal World, in which people and plants turn into crystals.

Cybernetics scientist Professor Kevin Warwick disagrees. The sheer number of ideas that appear first in sci fi, only later to be figured out by scientists - space flight and robotics for example - demonstrate that the genre has been very good at predicting the future, he contends.

The professor is like a character from a science fiction novel himself, having becoming the world's first living cyborg in 1998 after having a microchip implanted under his skin.

"As a scientist, you are a mini-science fiction person anyway," he says, explaining how in coming up with a scientific hypothesis you are imagining what might be possible in the future, in order to then prove it right or wrong.

"If we say 'that's science fiction, we're not going to go there', we'll never get there," he says. "If we say 'how can we do this?', we can bring it about, hopefully, and we've got a transformed world."

comic book cover released by DC Comics, Cyborg is shown on the cover of "Flashpoint."
Cyborgs make good comic book heroes and are part of modern science

But, while Professor Warwick believes that some technological advances might have been pre-empted, the big problem for both scientists and science fiction writers is that no-one can tell how these advances will change society.

And this kind of prediction, of how the societies of the future will look, is both where science fiction looks most embarrassingly wrong, but also where its importance lies, says Cory Doctorow.

"Science fiction writers do tell you an enormous amount about something really important, which is our aspirations and fears about what technology is going to do to society," he says.

Humanity is kept afloat in a pretty dangerous place by a thin raft of technology, he explains, and science fiction moves this relationship "from the abstract to the visceral".

"You learn a lot more about what we as a society think is happening to [us] by the futures we embrace, than you would about the future by looking at those futures."

Do you think we are living in a world that sometimes feels like a science fiction novel? What do you think will happen in the future? Here are some of your comments.

The point of science fiction is not to predict the future, it's to ask the moral questions of how society and the individual should behave with the advent of certain technologies. Whether these technologies come to pass or not is less relevant.
Philip Hannay, Chester

Obviously we will remember the predictions that were right rather than the ones which were inaccurate, which science fiction seem much more miraculous.
Liz Matthews, Bath, UK

I've always thought that evolution (technology)tends to happen in spurts then levels out for a couple of centuries. I think we are entering the end of a particular technological related 'spurt', so that if we visited the earth in a century or so it wouldnt be radically different technologically than it is today.
V Campbell, London, England

Some of the biggest changes are the ones nobody predicted. I was recently rereading a 1950s sci-fi author I loved as a teen, and was struck by the total absence of women in positions of authority.
Gillian Ball, Coventry, UK

No mention for Philip K. Dick? His vision for the near future - written predominantly in the 60s and 70s - is often very similar to our present. Whenever I ride the London Underground's escalators the curious mix of brand new LCD monitors mounted on decaying victorian architecture, running adverts on an endless loop, selling objects no one really needs instantly puts me in mind of Dick's writing.
Justin Hobday, Bedford, Beds

What will happen in the future? Probably lunch and then later on the heat death of the Universe. There may be some stuff in between...
Chris, Leicester, UK

When life became about prioritising material acquisition and celebrating inanity and idiocy, the dreams of yesterday took a long-term back seat. The combined wealth of the richest ten people on the planet could probably fund development of a viable form of nanotechnology which could eradicate global disease and famine. But where's the profit in that eh?
Dan, Nottingham, UK

According to some scientists - the future will be exactly like the past, only far more expensive.
Rich Roberts, Southampton

We aren't as advanced as we thought we would be. The complete eradication of war would be something I'd love to see in my life-time but unfortunately, the most advanced technology is that of weaponry - the US Navy's Heat Ray / And Laser Cannon for example - all very Star Wars. It is sad to say that more money goes into created human suffering that it does to prevent it. Until this changes, we'll continue to see a slow over-all increase in new, life changing technology.
Matt McLeary, Edinburgh, Scotland

It's sad to note that we would probably need more war not less to advance technologically at a quick pace. Look at the great leaps made during WW2 - Radar, jet engine, rocket engine, programmable digital computers….. to name a few.
Chris, Beds, UK

If you look at what's happening with smartphones, we should all go augmented. This augmented reality and the huge leaps in tech from this area, mixed with social networking, NFC and payment systems is totally sci fi. With AR the future is already here - just unevenly distributed - we should know we just came back from Hong Kong!
Dan Sodergren , Manchester, England

"...neither are we slaves of the corporate state." Oh really? Huxley wasn't too far off on this one, in my view.
Gavin, Reading, UK

Everybody is now walking about with almost all the knowledge humans have obtained in their pocket. Sounds like the future to me.
Steven Amderson, Fife, Scotland

As an avid sci fi reader who grew up with the excitement of the Apollo missions, I feel somewhat cheated by the last 40 years. Where is my robot servant, my hovercar, my space plane, and my holiday on the moon? While we have seen some things that could lead to these: a robot vacuum cleaner, the Moller Skycar, the Space Shuttle, and Virgin Galactic; development has been painstakingly slow and I am now unlikely to see any of these fully developed in my lifetime.
Nick, Watford, UK

Perhaps the ideas in science fiction are actually self-fulfilling prophecies... would science have ever explored the possibilities had fiction not suggested them in the first place?
Herbie Millar, Belfast, Northern Ireland

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