Jul 2, 2009
The following is a reprint from Uncle
John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe. A while ago, we
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
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
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his creative life and dying with quite a few novels unpublished.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
Leagues Under the Sea.
2. Robots (and Robot Pets!)
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
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
The concept of robots as mechanical beings came later and was most famously
popularized in fiction by writer Isaac
in his Robot
It’s probably not a coincidence that a humanoid robot manufactured by
Honda is called "Asimo."
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?,
novel that was the source material for the movie Blade
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
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
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
4. The Internet
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
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
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.
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"
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
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
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
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
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
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!