Retro‐futurology is the study of retro futures, from the “Golden
Age” of science fiction – or to be specific, the study
of attempts by major SF authors to predict the future, taking
advantage of hindsight to evaluate exactly how wrong they
were. Well, I came up with the word, and that's what I've
decided to use it for.
My collection consists of pages for each of the canonical “Big
Quoting O Keen‐Eyed Peerer into the Future! and
(a late addition) Visit to the World's Fair of
My original plan back in the nineties was that this collection
would be titled “Mocking the Prophet”, but as things turn out,
that gets entirely the wrong kind of Google‐hits these days.
Fables and Prophecies
I should take a moment to emphasise once again that science
fiction and futurology are two different things. If you're
an SF writer with a plot in mind and you need a matching imagined
future to set it in, a crystal ball wouldn't necessarily be
useful – instead what's often wanted is a setting with
as few distractingly unfamiliar background features as the
author can get away with to justify the fantastic goings‐on in the
foreground. And if that foreground plotline is about an
alien invasion, that doesn't mean the
author believes in the imminent arrival of Martian War Machines
any more than Tolkien believed in dragons.
And something I didn't want to cram in on the Heinlein page
itself, about his title, Pandora's Box. It
was the opening of that box that ended the Golden Age of Greek
mythology. Heinlein never had any very good reason for
mentioning Pandora, whose name means “all‐giving”, but her husband
is highly relevant: Epimetheus (“hindsight”), brother of
Prometheus (“forethought”)! I can picture the domestic
arguments already – “Come on, Prometheus, what do you
think this hope thing was doing in a box of plagues in the
Meanwhile, a different mythology provided a handy excuse for not
publishing my own predictions for 2050 at
http://www.xibalba.demon.co.uk: as far as
Xibalba was concerned, the end
of the world was due in 2012
(though in the end it was five years
20 ⁄ 20 Hindsight Appendix for 2002
During the long years when it was too late for postscripts to my
RAH page and too soon for an
ACC page, I got bored and wrote the following
Appendix, which is retro‐futurology in a slightly different
sense. The idea is, if you were a would‐be visionary in 1950
trying to come up with your own list of predictions for the end of
the century, but unlike Heinlein you had access to a genuine
crystal ball, what features of recent history could you
predict that would be surprising to your contemporaries and get
you a score of twenty out of twenty?
Some of the following suggestions are already based on
contributions from email correspondents, and further feedback is
welcome, especially from elderly American SF fans. But
before you ask, the reason I don't nominate President Mandela (the
UN's favourite terrorist) is that he wouldn't have become
surprising until the 1960s.
Artificial satellites (starting with the Soviet Union's
“sputnik”) will transform meteorology, astronomy, and
telecommunications. By 2000 satellite navigation systems
will be a well established dashboard accessory.
The USA will put a dozen men on the moon in 1969–72, but
after this, space exploration will be left to machines. As
the new millennium dawns, there will be no human beings in space.
Wegener's continental drift hypothesis will be accepted,
revolutionising geology; meanwhile Piltdown Man will be proved a
fraud, and evidence will mount that the dinosaurs [PS: make that
“non‐avian dinosaurs”!] were rendered extinct by a cataclysmic
Fermat's Last Theorem will be proved using techniques so complex
they probably wouldn't have fitted in the book, let alone the
Atomic weapons will dominate geopolitics, but will never again be
used in anger. The US will only fight wars with Third World
nations, and will almost always win.
Most homes will contain coherent‐light “ray guns” used for
playing music and radar‐style microwave emitters used for cooking
Youth music (“rock” and its successors) will become an industry
to rival the movies, making many of its stars and many more media
moguls immensely rich.
The basis of the genetic code will be understood to the extent
that researchers will be capable of cloning (and patenting!)
animals; forensics will be revolutionised by the possibility of
identifying criminals from genetic “fingerprints”.
Major organ transplants will be almost routine operations by the
century's end; smallpox will be extinct in the wild, but the
common cold will still be common and TB will be making a
Tobacco will be recognised as carcinogenic, killing hundreds of
thousands of Americans a year; smoking will be prohibited in an
increasing range of public places.
Pocket telephones will become commonplace, but videophones
won't. Instead in 2000 AD it will be fashionable to
use punctuation marks in text telephone‐messages to represent
facial expressions ;-)
Supersonic passenger jets will become available as a
status‐symbol form of transatlantic transport, but will never
break even; none will be flying at the end of the year 2000.
China will end up only nominally Red, and the USSR will dismantle
itself (earning its last leader a Nobel Peace Prize); the US will
be left as the world's only real superpower. Poland will be
in NATO, and queuing to join the European Union, but Cuba will be
Japan will lead the world in reliable high‐technology consumer
goods, based on micro‐miniaturised transistors.
Robots will be widely used in manufacturing, and chess‐playing
machines will beat the human world champions, but walking,
talking androids will prove impractical.
Personal computers will fit in your lap, cost a few hundred
dollars, and surpass toys like ENIAC by many orders of magnitude
(doubling in computing power per dollar every eighteen
months). They will be linked into a vast international
network… largely used for distributing junk mail, pirated music,
There will no longer be “plenty more fish in the sea”, and there
will be increasing public alarm over deforestation,
overpopulation, and other “ecological” issues. The world
will get obviously warmer, due largely to pollution from the
ever‐increasing use of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, a series of
disasters will leave atomic power plants generally regarded as an
expensive and dangerous failure.
An assassinated black civil rights campaigner called King will be
the first American since Washington to have a nationwide holiday
named after him.
The contraceptive pill will influence sexual mores enormously,
and the laws against homosexuality will be replaced by laws
against discrimination on the basis of gender or sexuality.
However, a new, lethal, and incurable STD will infect over a
third of the population in parts of Africa, and kill half a
million people in the United States.
The UK, Israel, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines will each
have female leaders, while all US presidents will be white male
millionaires… and one of them will be Ronald Reagan!