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When Science Fiction Comes True

Category: Art & Culture,Books

I write science fiction set in the near future, so I’m constantly testing my own powers of prophecy. I once wrote a story about a germaphobic couple who want to have sex without touching. They purchase the “TouchFeely” — my nod to the “Feelies” in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (1932) an apparatus that includes an electrified dildo and a sheath that respond remotely to each other. The year after the story came out, I learned about Hera and Zeus, “the world’s first internet-enabled” sex toys. These “teledildonic” devices uncannily resemble my fictional invention. I was a little disconcerted. My story is a satire about bourgeois disconnection. My characters each start affairs with the bot. One ends up choking on the dildo. But I’ll confess: I felt a perverse pleasure, too. It was as if I had conjured something into existence — the dream of every artist.

More recently, I did some research on H.I.V. vaccines for my novel, “The Old Drift.” With some help from a biologist at New York University, I came up with one that uses a particular technique to target a specific gene sequence. I felt a strange, and, again, perverse, mix of horror and wonder when I read a couple months ago that Chinese scientists had used the exact same mechanism for their “AIDS vaccine development project,” also known as the CRISPR babies, the first genetically modified humans. I’ve started to worry that, before long, the Moskeetoze(TM) microdrones that I designed for the novel will buzz to life too. Raymond Z. Gallun’s 1936 short story “The Scarab” got there first, but the TV series “Black Mirror” introduced robo-bees into the popular imagination just in advance of their emergence in the real world: Last March, Walmart filed a patent for a fleet of pollination drones.

This is the dark side of science fiction prophecy. “Wow, I was right!” can turn quickly into “Yikes, I was right!” You almost envy Cassandra, the Trojan princess who was doomed by the gods to be always correct yet disbelieved. “I was never able to predict,” William Gibson demurred in an interview with GQ. “But I could sort of curate what had already happened.” When it was brought to his attention that the global disasters he had envisioned in his 2014 novel, “The Peripheral,” seemed to be happening even before it was published, Gibson admitted: “That makes me very uncomfortable.”

What if you don’t just predict a bad idea but inspire it? Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818), widely considered the first science fiction novel, tried to forestall this: “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge.” But while science fiction aims to warn, humans are teenagers at heart: We love doing what we’re told not to. Our modern-day “Frankenstein,” Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” (1990), may even have spurred researchers to try to recover dinosaur DNA. Should the makers of sci-fi quit indulging this desire to peer into the future?

Well, no. First of all, our predictions are off a lot of the time. No one’s floating around in jet packs and hovercrafts just yet. Huxley presaged genetic engineering — his test tube babies are the true precursors of CRISPR babies — but so far we’ve passed on his multisensory “Feelies” and stuck with the good old-fashioned movies. For some reason, there’s a slew of older sci-fi films that happen to be set in 2019 — “Blade Runner,” “The Running Man,” “The Island” — so we have new proof of our flubs. The IGN piece detailing these failures of prophecy is titled “The Sci-Fi Movies That Predicted 2019 … and Got It Wrong.”


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