I love science-fiction novels — particularly vintage sci-fi — but it grates sometimes when the authors get their visions of the future so horribly wrong or when they fall for fads and scare campaigns.
For example, how could sci-fi authors in the 1960s not predict the rise of feminism and equality? Women in classic sci-fi are generally only portrayed as wives, home-makers, receptionists or personal assistants. For example, while Asimov’s Foundation series contains a few strong female characters, there are no female pilots, traders, politicians or doctors. Given that the series is set 50,000 years into the future and technology and science have advanced rapidly, you would think that society would have changed by then also.
Sci-fi novels are filled with advanced technology that has failed to eventuate (for example, flying cars, spaceships and laser guns). Moreover the majority of this technology is analogue, contains vacuum tubes (cathode ray TVs) and slide-rules and hardcopy books feature prominently. Most didn’t predict mobile phones, digital watches, flat-screen TVs, the internet, computers or even calculators.
However, given the rapid advances in that era in aviation and rocketry in particular, it’s easy to see why many authors assumed that these technologies would continue to evolve quickly.
Moreover, a world with flying cars and interstellar travel is far more interesting to read about than one where people are able to watch Justin Beiber videos on their smartphones.
Politics and the collapse of communism
While a man derided by many as a dumb actor, Ronald Reagan, foresaw the demise of the Soviet Union, sci-fi authors did not. In many science fiction novels, the USSR is not only depicted as being intact in the future but also as wealthy and technologically-advanced as the West.
It was pretty obvious to many economists that communism was an inherently flawed system (economically, politically and socially) that would lead to poverty, oppression, economic stagnation and mediocrity. (That said, most politicians, the media and academics failed to see the inherent problems and failings of communism until the Berlin Wall actually came down. Even the CIA estimated the size of the USSR’s economy to be several orders of magnitude above what it actually was.)
Perhaps some of the most popular themes in sci-fi take place in our world after some sort of catastrophe.
Some of the biggest scares of the era included over-population, resource depletion, nuclear armageddon (and the resultant nuclear winter) and pollution. The Club of Rome, Paul Ehrlich and others were responsible for some hysterical predictions:
"The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death."
- Ehrlich, The Population Bomb. (As noted by others, the book went on to predict that “by the 1980s most of the world’s important resources would be depleted. He forecast that 65 million Americans would die of starvation between 1980-1989 and that by 1999, the US population would decline to 22.6 million”.)
“By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”
- Ehrlich, Speech at British Institute For Biology, September 1971.
“In ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish.”
- Ehrlich, speech during Earth Day, 1970
“By 1985, air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half.”
- Life Magazine, January 1970
The Limits to Growth (1972) projected the world would run out of gold by 1981, mercury and silver by 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, and copper, lead and natural gas by 1993. It also stated that the world had only 33-49 years of aluminium resources left, which means we should run out sometime between 2005-2021.
- Donella Meadows et al.
Carl Sagan and others published a paper in favour of the concept of nuclear winter in 1983. As has been pointed out by many (including late sci-fi author, Michael Crichton), this theory relies on an equation where pretty much all the variables are unknown and, thus, cannot be proved. In short, nuclear winter was just another shoddy scare campaign relying on pseudo-science.
Eventually Sagan was embarrassed and his theory even further discredited when he claimed that if Saddam Hussein made good his threat to set fire to Kuwait’s oil wells in the first Iraq war that the subsequent pollution would dramatically reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth by half and lead to “a year without summer”, crop failure and mass starvation.
As we can see today, none of these scares eventuated. This wasn’t by blind luck, chance or government intervention. It is simply the case that humans generally are lousy predictors and the public, media and politicians are gullible for whatever scare or scam is coming along next.
Again, I accept that it’s far more interesting to theorise about a world that is beset by these sorts of problems (and books about them would be more popular) but evidence shows that authors like Asimov actually believed some of these scare campaigns (particularly those of over-population, food shortages, and pollution).
Perhaps as an economist I like to highlight these mistakes since I feel like I’m continuing a tradition: economists like Julian Simon and Colin Clark (who incidentally was an old flatmate’s grandfather) were the voice of reason in arguing so eloquently against these scares and managed to heavily embarrass Ehrlich many times.