The Future of the Past

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The Future of the Past

Books about the future, written in the past

Recently I was reading the book The Wonderful Future That Never Was and I started to think about books that were written about the future. The Wonderful Future that Never Was is almost like a look at an alternate Earth, where all our wildest technological dreams come true. Flying cars, personalized jet packs, and solar's all here. One of my favorite illustrations, done in 1957, shows a housewife hosing down her living room, because everything in the home is waterproof. There’s even a drain in the middle of the floor.

Science Fiction has predicted many things correctly, such as hand held computers and video phones, but for everything they got right, there are teleporters, moon bases, and flying cars that have yet to materialize. This list looks at some books and movies that have made predictions of the future. Some of these ideas are ridiculous in retrospect, and some of them have come true.

The Wonderful Future that Never Was by Gregory Benford
If we were playing a game of "one of these books is not like the other" this would be the one to choose. These are predictions of the future, while the rest of the list is science fiction. These predictions are made by "Popular Mechanics" magazine between 1903 and 1969 about what they thought would be possible in the near future. It is fascinating to flip through the pages and see what people 50 years ago thought would be possible today. Just thinking about the personalized jetpack I will never have makes me a little sad.

Visions of tomorrow : Science Fiction Predictions That Came True / edited by Thomas A. Easton and Judith K. Dia
This book, in a way, is the opposite of The Wonderful Future that Never Was. The stories are fictional, and they feature “outlandish” ideas that did come true. Tanks and solar power are written about decades before they became a reality. The anthology features stories by H. G. Wells, Fritz Leiber, and Isaac Asimov.

2001 by Arthur C. Clarke
In the year 2001 a self-aware computer flies five astronauts to Saturn. In case you haven't heard, things end badly. Also, there is a monolith. In 1968, when this book was written, humans had not yet been to the moon. Clarke assumed that by the year 2001 we would be traveling to other planets, and that we would be able to sleep for several months while a computer did the driving. 2001 is also a fantastic movie directed by Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick and Clarke worked on the basic story together, then Clarke wrote the book, while Kubrick made the movie. They're different, and both are worth your time.

1984 by George Orwell
In the year 1984, the government rules with an iron fist and Big Brother is always watching. Telescreens are installed in everyone’s house and act as surveillance devices. The Thought Police seem to know what everyone is thinking, and they severely punish any individual idea or thoughtcrime. 

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
The Earth is involved in a thousand year war with a faraway enemy. Soldiers travel through space and time to fight. On the trip to the battlefront and back home, soldiers travel so quickly that they age months, while centuries pass on Earth. Private William Mandella returns home to a world more alien that the war he left.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
In the year 2075 the moon is used as a penal colony. The total population is approximately 3 million, and they live in underground cities. Generally speaking, colonies don’t appreciate rule from afar, and the inhabitants of the Moon are no exception.
If we want to have cities and 3 million people on the Moon in 60 years, we'd better get to work.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said  by Philip K. Dick
After a second Civil War, the United States has become a police state. In the year 1988 Jason Taverner is a television celebrity with 30 million viewers. One day he wakes up in a strange hotel with no identification. Not carrying I.D. is a crime punishable by imprisonment. He phones friends and relatives who claim not to know him; in fact, no one knows him. Jason has become non-existent overnight. He races to acquire identification, and establish who had the power to make him disappear, and why.

Out of the Silent Planet (Space Trilogy, #1) by C.S. Lewis
Most people know C.S. Lewis as the author of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the rest of the Chronicles of Narnia. Out of the Silent Planet is the first part of another series he wrote called the Space Trilogy.  It tells the story of Dr. Ransom who is kidnapped by two men and taken to another planet, where he is to be their human sacrifice. Ransom’s sacrifice will allow his captors to plunder the planet’s natural resources. 

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
Originally a collection of short stories, Bradbury rewrote them to form a single narrative telling the story of Mars’s colonization. The book covers a timespan between 1999 and 2026 and reads more like a history than a story. Characters come and go from the narrative and rarely appear in more than one chapter.

The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells
Two men build a spaceship and travel to the moon. One is a scientist seeking knowledge, the other wants gold. They find neither; rather they find a race of creatures intent on repelling these two human invaders.

From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne
Sometime after the Civil War, a gun club based in Baltimore decides to build a huge canon and a projectile big enough to fit people. Three gentlemen climb into the projectile and are shot at the moon. There is a sequel called Around the Moon.  You may also like A Trip to the Moon, a short film by Georges Méliès, which is loosely based the previous two books in the list. You can watch the entire film on Youtube - it's 12 minutes long. Recently it was colorized, and the band Air wrote a new score for it.  I include it here just for fun.