science fiction writers
“predicting the future”

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Willy Ley: Your Life in “1977”

Robert A. Heinlein: Pandora’s Box


the future

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Extrapolation is not easy, and doing it for the short term renders the predictor especially vulnerable to being caught in an error. These writers should get credit for sticking their necks out, regardless of whether they turned out right or wrong. (Read on, and you’ll see that both threw in clinkers.)

I don’t intend to make fun of the cases where they missed the mark. Both successes and failures are instructive, and their explanations of their reasoning are even more valuable. Besides, it’s not always their fault! Maybe we’ve missed paths we should have taken.

Willy Ley

Your Life in “1977”

Copyright © by Willy Ley
Written prior to 1965.

In addition to unforeseeable inventions, the life of the predictor is rendered difficult by the fact that even predictable innovations have to overcome two obstacles and it is very difficult to judge whether these obstacles will be overcome. Obstacle numero One is Tradition in the widest possible meaning of the word. Whether an innovation will be accepted in spite of an existing (and opposing) tradition is about as difficult to predict as the outcome of Russian roulette.

The second, and usually much more serious obstacle, is the capital invested in something that exists.



There just aren’t enough wavelengths to accommodate personal communications for fifteen million people. The crowding is bad enough as it is. Scientists who fired rockets for upper atmosphere research from Fort Churchill in Canada told me that one day they had trouble with their own radio communications because they kept receiving messages from and for a fleet of radio cabs in a city in South Carolina. This, of course, was a freak event, but I recall the annoyance of a cab driver in Washington D.C. who received the instructions of a laundry truck dispatcher and could not get his own messages through. Personal communicators will be fine in Antarctica and may have a place in Arizona or Alaska, but won’t do any good between Boston and Washington D.C. on the East Coast, between San Francisco and San Diego on the West Coast or around the great lakes in the middle of the continent.



When it comes to city traffic I feel that the only real solution lies in eliminating, by law, private transportation inside the city. This is what I mean: supposing you drew a line some distance outside the congested area. Beyond this line you can travel in any manner you like, but vehicles must be left outside this line. From the line on inward you have to proceed by public transportation, subways, buses and taxicabs: vehicles that keep moving all the time.



text checked (see note) Feb 2005

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This piece has appeared in several revisions, and under two titles. The original notion was a look ahead to the end of the 20th century, from its midpoint.

Heinlein returned to the piece (and its original working title) twice, in 1965 for its appearance in The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein, and in 1980 when that collection was revised and extended to create Expanded Universe. The undated portions are all (I believe) from the 1965 version.

Pandora’s Box

Copyright © 1966, 1980 by Robert A. Heinlein

Where To?

Copyright © 1952 by Galaxy Publishing Corp.

“Extrapolation” means much the same in fiction writing as it does in mathematics: exploring a trend. It means continuing a curve, a path, a trend into the future, by extending its present direction and continuing the shape it has displayed in its past performance—i.e., if it is a sine curve in the past, you extrapolate it as a sine curve in the future, not as an hyperbola, nor a Witch of Agnesi, and most certainly not as a tangent straight line.



Very little of the great literature of our heritage arose solely from a wish to “create art”; most writing, both great and not-so-great, has as its proximate cause a need for money combined with an aversion to, or an inability to perform, hard “honest labor.” Fiction writing offers a legal and reasonably honest way out of this dilemma.



The conclusions reached were: Could the Doomsday Machine be built?—yes, no question about it. What would it cost?—quite cheap.

A seventh type hardly seems necessary.

Note (Hal’s):
This item is preceded by a discussion of five distinct types of Absolute Weapon, before reporting on a seminar about a possible sixth:

— end note



“Pandora’s Box” was the original title of an article researched and written in 1949 for publication in 1950, the end of the half-century. Inscrutable are the ways of editors: it appeared with the title “Where To?” and purported to be a nonfiction prophecy concerning the year 2000 A.D. as seen from 1950. (I agree that a science fiction writer should avoid marijuana, prophecy, and time payments—but I was tempted by a soft rustle.)

AXIOM: A “nine-days’ wonder” is taken as a matter of course on the tenth day.

AXIOM: A “common-sense” prediction is sure to err on the side of timidity.

AXIOM: The more extravagant a prediction sounds the more likely it is to come true.




1980 [...]
By 2000 A.D. we could have O’Neill colonies, self-supporting and exporting power to Earth, at both Lagrange-4 and Lagrange-5, transfer stations in orbit about Earth and around Luna, a permanent base on Luna equipped with an electric catapult—and a geriatrics retirement home.

However, I am not commissioned to predict what we could do but to predict (guess) what is most likely to happen by 2000 A.D.

Our national loss of nerve, our escalating anti-intellectualism, our almost total disinterest in anything that does not directly and immediately profit us, the shambles of public education throughout most of our nation (especially in New York and California) cause me to predict that our space program will continue to dwindle.


1965 [...]
So far as I know, no one even dreamed of the change in sex habits the automobile would set off.



1980 [...]

We will not get a return of the extended family of the sort that characterized the 19th century and the early 20th . . . but the current flux of swingers’ clubs, group marriages, spouse swapping, etc., is, in my opinion, fumbling and almost unconscious attempts to regain the pleasure, emotional comfort, and mutual security once found in the extended family of two or more generations back.


1950 It is utterly impossible that the United States will start a “preventive war.” We will fight when attacked, either directly or in a territory we have guaranteed to defend.

1965 Since 1950 we have done so in several theaters and are doing so in Viet Nam as this is written. “Preventive” or “pre-emptive” war seems as unlikely as ever, no matter who is in the White House.


1965 [...]
The degree of our backwardness in the field is hard to grasp; we have never seen a modern house. Think what an automobile would be if each one were custom-built from materials fetched to your home—what would it look like, what would it do, and how much would it cost. But don’t set the cost lower than $100,000 or the speed higher than 10 m/h, if you want to be realistic about the centuries of difference between the housing industry and the automotive industry.

I underestimated (through wishful thinking) the power of human stupidity—a fault fatal to prophecy.


Housing construction


1950 The cult of the phony in art will disappear. So-called “modern art” will be discussed only by psychiatrists.

1965 No new comment.

1980 One may hope. But art reflects culture and the world is even nuttier now than it was in 1950; these are the Crazy Years.




1950 By the end of this century mankind will have explored this solar system, and the first ship intended to reach the nearest star will be abuilding.

1965 Our editor suggested that I had been too optimistic on this one—but I still stand by it. It is still thirty-five years to the end of the century. For perspective, look back thirty-five years to 1930—the American Rocket Society had not yet been founded. Another curve, similar to the one herewith in shape but derived entirely from speed of transportation, extrapolates to show faster-than-light travel by year 2000. I guess I’m chicken, for I am not predicting FTL ships by then, if ever. But the prediction still stands without hedging.

1980 My money is still on the table at twenty years and counting. Senator Proxmire can’t live forever.

Note (Hal’s):
I actually lived in Wisconsin the last time Sen. Proxmire ran for reelection. There was no way I would ever vote for the guy, even though I was unable to find out his opponent’s name until I filled out my ballot; Proxmire’s anti-research stance boiled down to the notion that we should not, ever, learn a damn thing. And his successors, both the willfully stupid politicians and the criminally cost-cutting managers, have quite possibly fiddled away any chance of this prediction coming true ever, let alone last century.

But to give the devil his due: Proxmire’s campaign finance report was a wonder. All the expenditures were for stationery and postage expended in returning contributions, with a letter explaining that he didn’t accept any. That is a politician worthy of note. (The next race for his seat set a new national spending record, I’m sorry to report.)

— end note


1980 [...]
In the year 2000, with modern telephones tied into home computers (as common then as flush toilets are today) you’ll be able to have 3-dimensional holovision along with stereo speech. Arthur C. Clarke says that this will do away with most personal contact in business. I agree with all of Mr. Clarke’s arguments and disagree with his conclusion; with us monkey folk there is no substitute for personal contact; we enjoy it and it fills a spiritual need.


1980 [...]
Mars won’t need solar power from orbit; it will be easier to do it on the ground.

But don’t be surprised if the Japanese charge you a very high fee for stamping their visa into your passport plus requiring deposit of a prepaid return ticket or, if you ask for immigrant’s visa, charge you a much, much higher fee plus proof of a needed colonial skill.

For there is intelligent life in Tokyo.


1980 [...]
Our airplanes are pretty durn wonderful . . . but our method of handling air traffic at fields is comparable to Manhattan without traffic lights.

I shall continue to fly regularly for two reasons: 1) Mrs. Heinlein and I hope to go out in a common disaster. 2) Consider the alternatives: AMTRAK (ugh!), buses (two ughs!) and driving oneself.


Air travel

1950 Here are things we won’t get soon, if ever:

Travel through time.

Travel faster than the speed of light.

“Radio” transmission of matter.

Manlike robots with manlike reactions.

Laboratory creation of life.

Real understanding of what “thought” is and how it is related to matter.

Scientific proof of personal survival after death.

Nor a permanent end to war. (I don’t like that prediction any better than you do.)

Note (Hal’s):
Anyone else recognize the first five of these as major elements of Star Trek?

— end note

1950 [...]
It is a crisis in the organization and accessibility of human knowledge. We own an enormous “encyclopedia”—which isn’t even arranged alphabetically. Our “file cards” are spilled on the floor; nor were they ever in order. The answers we want may be buried somewhere in the heap, but it might take a lifetime to locate two already known facts, place them side by side and derive a third fact, the one we urgently need.


In 1900 the cloud on the horizon was no bigger than a man’s hand—but what lay ahead was the Panic of 1907, World War I, the panic following it, the Depression, Fascism, World War II, the Atom Bomb, and Red Russia.

Today the clouds obscure the sky, and the wind that overturns the world is sighing in the distance.

The period immediately ahead will be the roughest, cruelest one in the long, hard history of mankind.

1965 [...]
The problem of government has not been solved either by the “Western Democracies” or the “Peoples’ Democracies,” as of now. (Anyone who thinks the people of the United States have solved the problem of government is using too short a time scale.) The peoples of the world are now engaged in a long, long struggle with no end in sight, testing whether one concept works better than another; in that conflict millions have already died and it is possible that hundreds of millions will die in it before year 2000. But not all.




My confidence in our species lies in its past history and is founded quite as much on Man’s so-called vices as on his so-called virtues. When the chips are down, quarrelsomeness and selfishness can be as useful to the survival of the human race as is altruism, and pig-headedness can be a trait superior to sweet reasonableness. If this were not true, these “vices” would have died out through the early deaths of their hosts, at least a half million years back.

I have a deep and abiding confidence in Man as he is, imperfect and often unlovable—plus still greater confidence in his potential. No matter how tough things are, Man copes. He comes up with adequate answers from illogical reasons. But the answers work.

Last to come out of Pandora’s Box was a gleaming, beautiful thing—eternal Hope.



text checked (see note) Feb 2005
The arrangement follows the version in Expanded Universe; some typo corrections are based on The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein.

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