The quote “‘it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future” is usually attributed to physicist Niels Bohr. But if he really did say those words, it seems the Danish scientist was enunciating an idea that was already circulating in his country. And despite the truth behind that proverbial warning, humans have succumbed to the temptation of predicting the future for many centuries. The science fiction genre in particular gives free rein to speculation, while eliminating any risk of great blunders. After all, it’s only fiction. Below are some works from the genre that have shaped our vision of the future, featuring ideas that could potentially become a reality midway through this century.
1. “1984”, de George Orwell (1949)
Written back in 1949, George Orwell set his most famous novel in a year that now almost seems like the distant past, and his dystopian vision had not been borne out by the real 1984. However, the British author’s book also opened a window onto the second half of the 21st century. The novel suggests that by 2050 oldspeak, present day English, will have been completely replaced by newspeak. The Orwellian dystopia speculates on the loss of human freedoms, with the manufactured and compulsory language used as an instrument for thought control.
Experts now study how language evolves, how it changes over time and is a product of its era, thus indicating that the way we communicate will also have changed by midway through this century. Moreover, 1984 endures as a stark warning against a slide toward the persistent threat of totalitarian policies.
2. “A Sound of Thunder”, Ray Bradbury (1952)
Time travel has been constant trope of science fiction since H. G. Wells caught the public’s imagination with the concept in his 1895 book The Time Machine. And while physicists generally agree that the possibility of time travel is extremely remote, or nonexistent, this enduring human ambition continues to crop up repeatedly in fiction. In 1952 Ray Bradbury published A Sound of Thunder, a story set in 2055, when a company called Time Safari Inc. organizes dinosaur hunting trips for wealthy clients.
To prevent any interference with past events, which could have unpredictable consequences, the hunters are required to use an elevated walkway and may only kill animals that are already on the point of death. However, one of the travelers leaves the walkway to chase down a T-Rex, and returns to 2055 with a butterfly crushed under his boot. Only to discover that this tiny interference has radically changed the course of history.
3. “A Space Odyssey”, Arthur C. Clarke
Arthur C. Clarke’s space series began as a collaboration between the British author and the US filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Inspired by Clarke’s story The Sentinel (1948), the two joined forces to work on a script for 2001: A Space Odyssey, which premiered in 1968. Clarke also wrote an accompanying novel, which would be followed by three more books set in 2010, 2061 and 3001. The saga represents an epic anthology on the future of humanity, whose origin and destiny has been shaped by an alien intelligence. Time has proven Clarke’s predictions to be rather premature, albeit based on solid scientific foundations, which is hardly surprising given the author’s scientific background. In 2061: Odyssey Three, published in 1987, Clarke forecast that midway through the 21st century humans would have expanded across the solar system on muon-catalyzed fusion-powered spacecraft, a technology currently not regarded as energetically viable.
4. “Sunshine”, Danny Boyle (2007)
In 2007 the British film director Danny Boyle made what is his only science fiction movie to date, based on a script by the writer and director Alex Garland. The story takes place in 2057, following the crew of spacecraft Icarus II as they haul a nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan Island on a mission to reignite the dying sun. Boyle and Garland brought in technological and scientific experts from a number of institutions, including NASA, to consult on the movie.
Our star still has billions of years of life ahead of it, but the physicist and science popularizer Brian Cox had the idea of depicting the sun’s early death in a fictional piece, based on a theoretic phenomenon called Q-ball, although this was eventually not detailed in the script. Boyle’s film focuses particularly on how interplanetary travel could psychologically affect passengers, while also serving as an allegory for the impact of climate change on human survival.
5. “Contact”, Carl Sagan (1985) / Robert Zemeckis (1997)
BOOK & MOVIE
The astrophysicist and science popularizer Carl Sagan died in 1996 without achieving his ambition of living to witness the discovery of an alien civilization. However, he depicted one vision for such an encounter in Contact, a story originally intended for a movie script, but which eventually saw the light of day as a novel after the film production fell through. As an enthusiast and supporter of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), Sagan imagined first contact being established via radio signals, followed by a journey through spacetime on an alien craft.
A movie version was eventually released in 1997. While the novel was set at the transition from the 20th to the 21st century, some SETI researchers believe we could confirm the presence of life elsewhere in our galaxy by midway through the current century, either via the detection of some kind of transmission or biological signatures on an extrasolar planet.
6. “Arrival”, Denis Villeneuve (2016)
There are countless films depicting the arrival of an alien species to Earth, but the majority are based on the premise of an aggressive invasion. Although intellectual figures, such as physicist Stephen Hawking, have warned that an apocalyptic scenario could be possible, some science fiction works have explored the potential for a friendly encounter.
But this poses a difficult problem: how would the two species communicate in a mutually understandable language? Stephen Spielberg explored this idea in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), in which rudimentary communication is established using musical notes. In 2015 Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve directed Arrival, based on the award-winning novella The Story of Your Life (1998) by Ted Chiang. The makers of the film, which was critically acclaimed as one of the best of the genre so far this century, consulted with linguistic experts on how communication could be established with beings radically different from any life known on Earth. The reflection on conflict revolves around an interesting hypothesis called Sapir-Whorf or linguistic relativity, which posits that language shapes our understanding of the world.
7. “Westworld”, HBO (2016)
All modern fictions on robotics and artificial intelligence unquestionably owe a debt to I, Robot, published by Isaac Asimov in 1950, which practically invented the sub-genre of conflict between humans and their synthetic creations. In 1973 the movie Westworld, written and directed by Michael Crichton (author of Jurassic Park), introduced the concept of a computer virus, even before they existed in reality. The film is set in the late 20th century at a futuristic theme park, and depicts the creation of androids designed to fulfill the fantasies of humans, until the machines begin to malfunction and rise up against their creators.
In 2016 HBO launched a new series based on Crichton’s film, the second season of which is set to hit the screens in 2018. The show harnesses an old psychological theory called bicameralism, which is now largely discredited, but which serves to explore how artificial beings may acquire self-awareness and agency. Some reports set the series in the year 2052, a date which coincides with the predictions of futurologists such as Ray Kurzweil on the development of artificial intelligence over the coming decades.
8. “The Martian”, de Ridley Scott (2015)
The film by Ridley Scott (2015) and the original book by Andy Weir (2011) both examine the more practical and detailed aspects of potential Mars colonization. Our neighboring planet has always stood as a target for human interplanetary adventure. In 1950 the Mars Chronicles by Ray Bradbury told the story of an attempt to conquer Mars during the first half of the 21st century, albeit taking a more poetic than scientific approach. In Bradbury’s time much was still unknown about the red planet, but discoveries have since revealed that establishing a colony on Mars would be an enormously complex endeavor. However, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, believes it could be a possibility by midway through the century.
9. “Blade Runner 2049”, de Denis Villeneuve (2017)
It was probably Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) that ushered in the sub-genre of biology fiction. As the grandson and brother of prestigious biologists, the English author examined the dangers of biological determinism and mental manipulation. However, Huxley set his fiction midway through this millennium, rather than this century. The future depicted in Gattaca (1997), examining eugenics and genetic discrimination, seemed closer at hand. The film, by Andrew Niccol, was critically acclaimed and attracted numerous awards. However, some geneticists criticized its dystopian view of genetic engineering.
More recently Denis Villeneuve directed the much-awaited sequel to Blade Runner (1982), which, like its predecessor, is also inspired by aspects of the Philip K. Dick story Do androids dream of electric sheep? (1968). However, while the replicants in the novel were robots, the two cinematic versions envisaged replicants as designer biological beings. The original film probed the limits of humanity in the event of bioengineering being used to create customized individuals, while the latest movie blurs said limits to conclude that any amendment to our genetics would not create different categories of humans, but instead a single humanity that differs from its current configuration. The allegories depicted in Blade Runner could have real-life parallels, with debate currently ongoing over the use of molecular tools to correct defective genes.
Once the techniques are perfected, it would be difficult to prevent said expertise from being used not only to prevent diseases, but to also cherry pick our children’s genetic traits.
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