“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible,” wrote legendary science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, “is to venture a little way past them, into the impossible.” It’s often said that the role of science fiction is not to predict the future but to comment on the present by imagining what lies ahead. Of course, given the nature of the beast, a great many things that turn up in sci-fi assume the uncanny appearance of prophecy when viewed in retrospect. The “impossible” things that Clarke conjured up, for instance, include oral contraception, space stations, DNA paternity testing, and voice user interfaces. Below, find more instances predicted by science fiction that, with the passing of time, became science reality.
‘Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon' – Cyrano de Bergerac (1657)
In his posthumously published satirical novel, Cyrano (yes, the guy with the huge hooter) imagines himself transported to the moon in a flying machine powered by military rockets (his previous effort to get there using bottles of dew attached to his clothes proved surprisingly unsuccessful). Arthur C. Clarke himself credited the book with the first-ever description of rocket-powered spaceflight. And no one will argue with Arthur C. Clarke on something like that.
Artificial Satellite/Space Station
‘The Brick Planet' – Edward Everett Hale (1869)
A double whammy from Hale (grandnephew of Nathan Hale, revolutionary war hero executed by the British for spying, fact fans!). His novella, written in the form of a journal and first published in The Atlantic Monthly, envisages an artificial satellite launched into earth orbit as a navigational device. But the titular globe accidentally takes off with people on board, making it also the inadvertent antecedent of Skylab, Mir, and the ISS.
‘Mizora' – Mary E. Bradley Lane (1880)
Only the second known work of feminist utopian fiction written by a woman (the first being 1870’s Man’s Rights by Annie Denton Cridge), Lane’s novel describes an advanced all-female society in which procreation is achieved by parthenogenesis. Apart from men, the subterranean state of Mizora also lacks domestic animals, meaning its inhabitants eat chemically prepared artificial meat, a concept not mooted until the 1930s (Winston Churchill, of all people, was among the first to publish a paper on the subject) and not a commercial reality until the early 2020s.
‘Looking Backward' – Edward Bellamy (1888)
In its day, Bellamy’s utopian novel was only outsold in the United States by Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Apart from being widely read, it was also hugely influential, inspiring over 160 Bellamy Clubs–grassroots political organizations dedicated to the author’s progressive ideals. A time-travel tale imagining America in the year 2000, the book describes several technological advances that correspond roughly to reality, a warehouse club similar to Costco and in-home cable broadcasting for example. The most striking prediction is a card that can be used to make purchases anywhere in the country and onto which citizens have their wages loaded as credit.
‘The Great Brown–Pericord Motor' – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1891)
Possibly better known for inventing Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle also dabbled in science fiction. This sad, strange short story, first published in “The Cheshire Observer” in December 1891, chronicles the invention of a heavier-than-air, unmanned flying machine – a drone by any other name.
‘The Island of Dr. Moreau' – H.G. Welles (1896)
Welles’ description of an organ transplant in this his third novel predated the real thing by almost 60 years. The first human organ successfully transplanted was a kidney, in 1954. A disturbing tale of a mad scientist and his collection of radically vivisected “Beast Folk” (Ox-Bear-Man, Half-Finished-Puma-Woman, Sloth Creature, et al, the latter described as resembling ‘a flayed child’) The Island of Dr. Moreau, and the grisly experiments it portrays, also gave a nod to genetic engineering and cloning.
The many other things envisioned by Welles in his highly prolific career include tanks, lasers, the atomic bomb, and Siri (other voice-controlled digital assistants are available).
‘Space Cadet' – Robert A. Heinlein (1948)
The second of the Heinlein Juveniles, a series of YA novels written for New York publishers Scribner’s between 1947 and 1959, Space Cadet concerns Interplanetary Patrol recruit Matt Dodson, an archetypal callow youth transitioning to manhood via the character-building discipline of the military. Far from classic Heinlein, Space Cadet nevertheless contains the first recorded reference to a mobile phone:
‘Matt dug a candy bar out of his pouch, split it and gave half to Jarman, who accepted it gratefully. “You're a pal, Matt, I've been living on my own fat ever since breakfast – and that's risky. Say, your telephone is sounding.”
“Oh!” Matt fumbled in his pouch and got out his phone. “Hello?”‘
In another scene, a cadet avoids talking to his family by stashing his phone in his luggage, which suggests that impressive though they were, Heinlein’s powers of prognostication fell short of Airplane Mode.
‘Predatory Things of the Century' – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1965)
First published outside the Soviet Union in 1976, the Strugatstky brothers’ dark cautionary tale contains a short passage in which two characters seem to discuss a paintball gun:
‘It was something like a toy machine gun, with a comfortable grooved handle and a flat rectangular cartridge that was inserted from below, like a magazine. “What is this thing?” I asked.
“Blooper,” he said gloomily. “Give it here.” I gave him the toy.
“Blooper,” I said.
“Which means they blurt it out.”
“What if you hit me?”
“Well, now this won’t be washed off in a year, the wall will have to be changed.”'
A decade-and-a-half later, Paintball was officially invented when Wall Street trader Hayes Noel and author Charles Gaines got into an argument over whether a pampered city-dweller could survive in the wild against a man who had grown up in the great outdoors. Chancing on a commercial paint gun in a farm catalog, they decided to settle the dispute like men! The showdown, effectively the first Paintball competition, took place on June 7, 1981, in New Hampshire, with rules drawn up by Noel and Gaines’ mutual friend Bob Gurnsey.
Audio Translation Device
‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy' – Douglas Adams (1978)
Translators may be ten a penny now, but when Douglas Adams was beavering away on his magnum opus, originally a radio series for the BBC, they were the stuff of, er… science fiction. An elegant solution to the age-old sci-fi conundrum of how alien lifeforms communicate, Adams’ translator took the form not of a boring black box but rather a small, leech-like yellow fish. Described as “possibly the oddest thing in the universe”, the babel fish works by feeding on brainwave energy from the temporal lobe then crapping it out as a telepathic matrix that allows the user to instantly understand anything said to them in any language. The only drawback is that the fish must be inserted into the user’s ear, which, given the word ‘leech’ features prominently in its description, might have you reaching for the phrasebook instead.
‘Burning Chrome' – William Gibson (1982)
First read out loud at a sci-fi convention in 1981, and published in Omni magazine the following year, Gibson’s short story contains the first use of the word cyberspace, a ‘mass consensual hallucination’ occurring in computer networks, an idea Gibson expanded on in his 1984 debut novel Neuromancer. In his afterword to the 2000 reissue of Neuromancer, sci-fi author Jack Womack contends that Gibson’s concept of widespread interconnected digital technology may well have influenced the development of the internet, particularly the invention of the World Wide Web by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in the late 1980s.
Electronic Dance Music
‘Paris in the Twentieth Century' – Jules Verne (1994)
It seems a bit of a late entry for the “father of modern sci-fi” (inverted commas added to placate the Welles contingent), especially since he died in 1905. In fact, Verne wrote the book in 1863 but was persuaded by his editor, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, to pigeonhole it on grounds that its pessimism and lack of originality might harm his career, then riding high on the success of Five Weeks in a Balloon. “I am surprised at you,” Hetzel wrote to Verne. “[it is] lackluster and lifeless.” This proves two things: 1. Hertzel was an idiot, and 2. So was Verne. For some reason, he followed the advice and stashed the manuscript in a safe (presumably, his pigeonhole was full), where it remained, gathering dust until his great-grandson happened on it by chance in 1989.
The publication of a lost Jules Verne novel caused quite a stir, one fully justified by the book’s content. Not only did Verne envision Paris in 1960 crunking to the beat 120 years before the invention of the Roland TR-808, but he also foresaw it lit with electric streetlamps, swarming with gasoline-powered cars, crowded with skyscrapers and department stores, and awash in such outlandish gadgetry as fax machines, elevators, wind turbines, automated security systems, weapons of mass destruction, and the electric chair.