Science fiction is by far the nerdiest of the fictions, and its bread and butter consists of robot uprisings and unexpected time travel consequences. But for every Martian invasion and robocop-related mishap it has warned about, science fiction has made some stunningly accurate premonitions.
We're not talking about broad predictions, like "thinking machines" or "interplanetary travel." That stuff's easy. It's the weirdly specific prophecies that impress us.
The first manned spaceship was launched during the month of December, by the United States from a base in Florida. The ship was made up mostly of aluminum, weighed 19,250 pounds, and cost what would now be about $12.1 billion to build. After three of the astronauts completed their moonwalk, they returned to Earth. Their capsule splashed down into the Pacific Ocean and was recovered by a U.S. Navy vessel.
Why are we boring you with history? Actually, we're not -- this is the plot of an 1865 novel by Jules Verne, whose frighteningly accurate visions of space travel lead us to conclude that he had to be some kind of time-traveling space-wizard.
Survey says ... "Space Wizard."
Though it was written over 100 years before the Apollo 11 mission, Verne's novel From the Earth to the Moon actually serves as a pretty damn accurate novelization of that mission, down to the scariest details. He was slightly off on the cost and weight of the rocket (but only slightly -- the real stats were 26,275 pounds and $14.4 billion), and in the biggest departure from reality, Verne's astronauts were shot out of a huge gun. But get this: Verne's space cannon was called Columbiad, and the Apollo 11 command module was named Columbia.
The real coincidence icing on this insanity cake is this:
"The three adventurous companions were surprised and stupefied, despite their scientific reasonings. They felt themselves being carried into the domain of wonders! They felt that weight was really wanting to their bodies. If they stretched out their arms, they did not attempt to fall. Their heads shook on their shoulders. Their feet no longer clung to the floor of the projectile. They were like drunken men having no stability in themselves."
Somehow, Verne predicted that the astronauts would become weightless in space. There was no way he could have known that at the time -- it was just some crazy bullshit he made up to make the story interesting, like that time he wrote a book about going to the center of the Earth and finding dinosaurs.
And giant mushrooms.
When most people think of Mark Twain, they imagine Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn piloting a raft down the Mississippi River to find some trouble to get into. What's less well-known is that Twain also dabbled in science fiction, so there's probably a story out there in which Huck Finn finds a spaceship and enjoys a short career of interstellar high jinks and space piracy.
It was in one of his science fiction stories, From the 'London Times' of 1904, that Twain dreamed up an invention called the "telelectroscope," which used the phone system to create a world wide network of information-sharing. Basically, Mark Twain invented the Internet. Keep in mind that he wrote this in 1898, when telephones were still fairly new and rare.
But Twain didn't stop there. His story describes "the daily doings of the globe made visible to everybody, and audibly discussable too, by witnesses separated by any number of leagues." Mark Twain is talking about goddamn social networking. He didn't just predict that the Internet would unite the world, but also that people would immediately clog it up with trivial bullshit.
"And lots of tits."
Now check out the description of the guy using it:
"Day by day, and night by night, he called up one corner of the globe after another, and looked upon its life, and studied its strange sights, and spoke with its people. ... He seldom spoke, and I never interrupted him when he was absorbed in this amusement."
The protagonist of the story, a man falsely accused of murder and sentenced to death, is cleared of all charges in the end when he essentially gets on the Internet and finds his supposed "victim" in the crowd of an event he's watching being streamed live from China.
Unfortunately, the story itself is terrible. So, unlike visionaries such as Jules Verne, whose predictions everybody listened to, Mark Twain goes down in history as a great writer of small-town America who should just stay the hell away from sci-fi.
If you think about it, the most impressive predictions are the ones that are super-specific, and completely trivial. For instance, it's easy to predict there'll be a "major war" in the future, or a radical new energy source. Those are huge issues everyone is constantly thinking about and writing about; somebody is going to hit the mark. No, it would be more impressive if a 1940s writer specifically predicted Jersey Shore.
"The future is bleak."
That brings us to Robert Heinlein's 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. The novel is really about a Martian's attempt to fit in with human society, but Heinlein built up a fabulous future world complete with 3D televisions/computers in every middle-class home. So, 10 years before the first personal computer, we have this:
"They went to the living room; Jill sat at his feet and they applied themselves to martinis. Opposite his chair was a stereovision tank disguised as an aquarium; he switched it on, guppies and tetras gave way to the face of the well-known Winchell Augustus Greaves."
That's right. Their computer had a screen saver. To prevent "stereovision" from getting too boring when it was idle, it'd display an animation of fish swimming around, presumably to provide something for the cats of the future to swipe at.
"Also, sometimes the stereovision tank looked like the window of the Millennium Falcon."
Screen savers as you know them actually used to serve the purpose of keeping freeze-framed porn from burning itself permanently into CRT monitors. Not only do people still use them for the same purpose Heinlein described, but fish/aquarium screensavers were some of the most popular.
No word on whether it came with a "flying toasters" option.