John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright
johncwright

Robert Heinlein' famous predictions

From time to time, one comes across on the Internet opinions so far divergent from one's own, that a reasonable consideration of the issue, even for someone with the patience of a philosopher, is a task worthy of Hercules, or, perhaps of Job.

I came across, for example, these words of wisdom from a Mr. Justin B. Rye:

http://www.xibalba.demon.co.uk/jbr/imo.html

He proposes, inter alia: Faith is incompatible with Occam's Razor; "Dehumanising" technology is a step in the right direction; All philosophy written before the Industrial Revolution is best forgotten; Free-market "Libertarians" are a greater threat to civilisation than Marxists; No nation to which children are routinely expected to declare their allegiance can be entirely "free."

The assertions are no doubt chosen for their shock value, but they are, as a whole, so boneheaded (pardon me, I mean, of course, that they are so distant from the world view that I espouse) that even so argumentative a person as myself cannot take them seriously enough to argue with them. Since I am content to argue with flat-earthers, true believers in astrology and Atlantis and a man who says he is married to a vampire Space Elf from the Astral Plane (no, I kid you not), you must imagine my tolerance for how lunatic an idea must be before I regard it as not worth discussing is rather generous.  But even my generosity has limits: I will not argue with someone who says the pronoun "he" does not embrace both sexes, for example.

I will, however, take issue with Mr. Rye's proposition Number 9:  In the Year of Our Lord 1997, Mr. Rye held that Heinlein's predictions for 2000 AD were laughably inaccurate. This proposition is serious enough to be worth debating. My own humble assessment is that Mr. Heinlein's predictions were, on the whole, both bold and accurate, and even when inaccurate, were understandably so, that is, a reasonable guess even if a wrong one.

Mr. Rye devoted a step-by-step analysis of Mr. Heinlein's predictions here. http://www.xibalba.demon.co.uk/jbr/heinlein.html. Mr. Rye's opinions are neither amusing nor instructive, so I will not repeat them here, or take issue with them. I will follow Mr. Rye's format, substituting my judgment on Heinlein's accuracy for his.

I rate on the following scale: A = bull's-eye accurate; B = accurate, but not a bull's-eye, where the opposite of what he predicted would nonetheless seem absurd; C = A close miss, maybe "nicked the edge"; D = A clear miss, the arrow flew into the stands, and by accident killed the princess.

There are twenty predictions in all. Under each number, the first paragraph of bold text is the original prophecy, as given in the 1950 magazine article "Pandora's Box" by the S.F. writer Robert Anson Heinlein. 

The first indented paragraph after this gives the postscripts from his amended version for 1966, "Where To?"

Lastly come the afterthoughts for the 1980 version, as collected in "Expanded Universe."

My text is plain: Mr. Heinlein's is in bold font.

Prediction One:

RAH 1950: Interplanetary travel is waiting at your front door -- C.O.D.  It's yours when you pay for it.

Mr. Heinlein speaks in a folksy manner that is easy to read, but also easy to misunderstand. Is he saying we will have trips to other planets by 2000? Well, now (I write in October of 2007) we do not have interplanetary travel, while we do have satellite launches as routine operations, and space technology has ubiquitous commercial and military uses. My cellphone goes through a satellite, and so does Google maps. We also send routine robot probes to other planets, and have sent fly-by missions to the outer planets.

My interpretation is that the prediction is that there are no TECHNICAL difficulties to interplanetary travel. We simply did not have the technical know-how to put a man on the moon or a man on Mars in 1950, when the prediction was made.

To understand what he is saying, and how visionary it was at the time, let us consult contemporary voices of greater authority than a mere sciffy hack:

  • "Space travel is utter bilge." Richard Van Der Riet Woolley, upon assuming the post of Astronomer Royal in 1956.
  • "Space travel is bunk." Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of the UK, 1957 (two weeks later Sputnik orbited the Earth).

My vote: Accurate. Interplanetary travel is here, we willing to pay for robot probes, but we are not willing to pay manned expeditions.

RAH 1966: And now we are paying for it and the cost is high.  But, for reasons understandable only to bureaucrats, we have almost halted production of a nuclear-powered spacecraft when success was in sight.  Never mind; if we don't, another country will.  By the end of this century space travel will be cheap.

Let us once again contrast Mr. Heinlein with a contemporary voice:

  •  "There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States." T. Craven, FCC Commissioner, in 1961 (the first commercial communications satellite went into service in 1965).

            1965 was a mere four years from the Apollo 12 landing. My vote: Half accurate. Interplanetary travel is not cheap, and no other country picked up the tab. There is no prospect of an Orion-style nuclear drive spaceship in the near term. Heinlein could not have predicted (nor can current observers understand) the weird anti-Nuke cult which influences politics and industry.

RAH 1980: And now the Apollo-Saturn Man-on-the-Moon program has come and gone.  [...]  Is space travel dead?  No, because the United States is not the only nation on this planet.  [...]  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, [...] what is most likely to happen [is] that our space program will continue to dwindle.  It would not surprise me (but would distress me mightily!) to see the Space Shuttle canceled.  In the meantime some other nation or group will start exploiting space -- industry, power, perhaps Lagrange-point colonies -- and suddenly we will wake up to the fact that we have been left at the post.  [...]

He predicts that, despite the heady possibilities of an O'Neill colony and a Luna base, by 2000 the space program will continue to dwindle. This prediction is accurate.

He predicts other nations or groups will start exploiting space. Here is a current list of nations with space agencies: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_space_agencies. I do not think I need to tell an audience of science fiction readers about the Indian and Chinese space efforts, or about Spaceship One from Scaled Composites winning the Ansari X Prize. So this prediction is also accurate.

His prediction that we will wake up by 2000 is inaccurate. There was some talk in the current administration of manning a mission to Mars: but it would require an effort sustained across several administrations to see this through. I am doubtful

My vote: his prediction is not a bullseye, but consider if an futurologist from 1950 had predicted the opposite (no space travel, no rockets out of the Earth's atmo) how absurd that would seem. By that standard, I give him credit for this one.

Grade: B

Prediction Two:

RAH 1950: Contraception and control of diseases is revising relations between the sexes to an extent that will change our entire social and economic structure.

This prediction can be called inaccurate because it overstates the case: our ENTIRE social and economic structure has not changed from 1950. We still have joint-stock corporations, for example, and fractional reserve banking.

However, Mr. Heinlein is once again merely being folksy. What he means is that sexual mores will change beyond recognition. Can anyone reading these words recall, or ask his parents or grandparents to recall, what the standards were in 1950, when this prediction was made?

I can tell you what the law was: Griswold v. Connecticut was decided in 1965. Before that date, the use of contraceptives in Connecticut and in other jurisdictions, even between man and wife was illegal. Pornography, which nowadays flows from every computer, was illegal in all 48 states. Adultery, instead of winning the applause of the Democrat Party and the National Organization for Women, was illegal in all 48 states, and carried a jail term.

1950, when this prediction was made, was three years before Kinsey published his famous (or notorious) study, and homosexuality was regarded as a mental illness, and a felony. Sodomy was illegal in all 48 states, and was a felony. In 1955, Arkansas lowered the jail term penalty from five years to one. In 1960, New York downgraded the crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.

If you read this to mean that sexual mores will change beyond recognition by AD 2000, I judge this to be an accurate prediction.

RAH 1966: [...]  I am tempted to call it a fulfilled prophecy.  [...]  But the end is not yet; this revolution will go much farther and is now barely started.  [...]

Heinlein is correct. The prophecy was fulfilled, and the evolution (or degeneration) had barely started.

I will draw the readers attention, for example, to a case in Maine were a public school was giving an eleven-year-old girl contraceptives, on the theory that statutory rape is permissible if the girl is having "safe sex." http://www.mrsdutoit.com/index.php/main/single/3043/

RAH 1980: [...]  The sexual revolution: it continues apace -- Femlib, Gaylib, single women with progeny and never a lifted eyebrow [...].  Prediction: by 2000 A.D. or soon thereafter extended families of several sorts will be more common than core families.  The common characteristic of the various types will be increased security for children under legally enforceable contracts.

If we include Europe in the reckoning, single-parent families are more common than traditional nuclear families. If we consider the "traditional" nuclear family to be, as the standards of 1950 held it to be, a situation where both man and wife came to the marriage bed as virgins and did not divorce, clearly and unarguably that situation is so far in the minority as to be unheard-of, and, indeed, by the common majority opinion of these days, such a standard is regarded as absurd, perhaps even sinister or psychopathic.

He is dead wrong about increased security for children. The grimmest and most unthinkably evil aspect of the sexual revolution is the increase in the child murder rate. No, I am not talking about abortion, I am talking about children killed by their mother's live-in boyfriend.

He is also dead wrong about childrearing being enforced by legal contracts. This is because Mr. Heinlein never studied law. Marriage is not a contract; it is nothing like a contract; the idea that a contract for sexual favors or childrearing services would be held enforceable at law is nearly zero. Law works by precedent. The precedent is that pre-nuptual and post-nuptual agreements are void as against public policy. The law is that parents cannot dispose of their responsibilities as childrearers by private contract: you cannot just drop off your kid at your exgirlfriends house, pay her a sawbuck and have her raise the child. All these matters are controlled by family law courts, and this is not likely to change in the future.

If Heinlein had predicted that family law courts would establish paternity and paternal duties rather than Churches and community custom, he would have been nearer the mark.

However, the core of his prediction was that the sexual revolution would continue apace. In 1980, the Court decisions concerning Sodomy laws and Gay Marriage were still two decades in the future, and by no means easy to foretell. 

My vote: Again, consider the opposite futurologist in 1950 confidently predicting that contraception would remain illegal and abhorrent, adultery would carry a jail penalty, and that unnatural acts would never receive public acceptance. By that standard, Heinlein's prognostication is a bull's-eye.

Grade: A

Prediction Three:

RAH 1950: The most important military fact of this century is that there is no way to repel an attack from outer space.

Again, this is open to interpretation. The century is over, and no nation launched an attack on another nation with space-based weapons. However, the ability of the ICBM (which flies in the troposphere, i.e. outer space) to land an atomic missile on a city or other major civilian target was the single fact that prevented the Soviet Bloc from conquering the world. Is the fact that no one can stop an air raid from space a more important military fact, than, say, the existence of the atom bomb? Is it a more important military fact than the utility of computers to organize command and control, or more important than space-based global positioning systems?

RAH 1966: I flatly stand by this one.  [...]  This prediction is as safe as predicting tomorrow's sunrise.  Anti-aircraft fire never stopped air attacks; it simply made them expensive.  The disadvantage in being at the bottom of a deep "gravity well" is very great; gravity gauge will be as crucial in the coming years as wind gauge was in the days when sailing ships controlled empires.  The nation that controls the Moon will control the Earth -- but no one seems willing these days to speak that nasty fact out loud.

The moon is simply not an important military asset as of 2000 A.D. No one controls it and no one sees the need. This prediction is flatly wrong. The sunrise did not come up. Indeed, the main geopolitical fact controlling the Cold War was the threat of global thermonuclear exchange leading to a series of proxy wars in nasty Third World pestholes. No atomics were used in these wars. Had we had the ability during the Korean or Vietnam War to drop atomic missiles from Luna onto enemy cities, we would not have used them. It would have made no difference.

My vote: inaccurate.

RAH 1980: I have just heard a convincing report that the USSR has developed lasers far better than ours that can blind our eyes-in-the-sky satellites and, presumably, destroy our ICBMs in flight.  Stipulate that this rumour is true: It does not change my 1950 assertion one iota.  Missiles tossed from the Moon [...] arrive at approximately seven miles per second.  A laser capable of blinding a satellite and of disabling an ICBM to the point where it can't explode would need to be orders of magnitude more powerful in order to volatilize a chunk of Luna.  [...]

If anything, not merely space technology, but all weapons technology, has been downgraded in its importance to military outcomes since 1980. In the current war, our high-tech warriors are fighting men who use videotapes, the internet, and improvised roadside bombs to kill targets of little or no military value. Had we placed a military base on the moon in 1960 or 1980, it would have had no effect on the surprising outcome of the Cold War, and it would be having no effect on the current Jihadist War.

And his assessment of the inability to stop in incoming missile can be called accurate, if you like. As of 2007 AD, we do not have a working missile defense. I am not convinced we might not have such a thing within the next eight years, but that depends more on political and less on technological factors.

My vote: A miss, but not a wild miss. There are some military applications of space.

Grade: C

Prediction Four:

RAH 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.

Again, there is some interpretation here. Perhaps he means a pre-emptive atomic strike on Moscow, such as that which no less a figure than Winston Churchill was advocating, and which the Truman Administration, by ignoring Churchill's urging, condemned two generations of the West to live in daily expectation of the thermonuclear destruction  at the hands of psychotic Communist thugs. If so, the prediction is accurate: We did not launch any atomic wars in order to save ourselves from the threat of an enemy first strike.

RAH 1966: 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.  Here is a new prediction: World War III (as a major, all-out war) will not take place at least until 1980 and could easily hold off until 2000.  [...]

Accurate. No major all-out war comparable with World War II has happened, and no such war is in contemplation. Indeed, not even a battlefield war is likely to take more than a month or two. Americans do not even remember and cannot understand what an all-out war is. We now routinely expect wars to be fought by small highly-trained cadres of volunteers. The idea of mobilizing the whole population and placing the economy on a wartime footing, complete with gas rationing, is not in the foreseeable future.

RAH 1980: I am forced to revise the 1950 prediction to this extent: It is no longer certain that we will fight to repel attack on territory we have guaranteed to defend; our behavior both with respect to Viet Nam and to Taiwan is a clear warning to our NATO allies.  The question is not whether we should ever have been in Viet Nam or whether we should ever have allied ourselves to the Nationalist Chinese.  I do not know of any professional military man who favored ever getting into conflict on the continent of Asia; such war for us is a logistic and strategic disaster.  But to break a commitment to an ally once it has been made is to destroy our credibility.

A miss. No one of Heinlein's generation, the Greatest Generation that fought World War Two, could have expected the nation to be so pro-Communist that we would pull out of Vietnam when we had effectively won the war and simply let all those innocent people die. Most people even now cannot understand the thinking, then or now, behind pre-emptive surrender to a despicably weaker and despicably evil foe.

My vote: a wild miss. We just started pre-emptive war in Iraq, and one of the reasons given for the war was that the danger of waiting until the enemy achieved a nuclear strike capability was too great to justify waiting for a casus belli.

Grade: D

Prediction Five:

RAH 1950: In fifteen years the housing shortage will be solved by a "breakthrough" into new technology which will make every house now standing as obsolete as privies.

RAH 1966: Here I fell flat on my face.  There has been no breakthrough in housing, nor is any now in prospect.  [...]

RAH 1980: I'm still flat on my face with my nose rubbed in the mud; the situation is worse than ever.  [...]

My vote: a clear miss. Housebuilding is not open to assembly-line principles.

Grade: D

Prediction Six:

RAH 1950: We'll all be getting a little hungry by and by.

Heinlein, while eerily accurate in some ways, had a blind spot when it came to overpopulation, which turned out to be a myth.  A clear miss.

(No 1966 postscript.)

RAH 1980: Not necessarily.  In 1950 I was too pessimistic concerning population.  Now I suspect that the controlling parameter is oil.  In modern agriculture oil is the prime factor -- as power for farm machinery (obviously) but also for insecticides and fertilizers.  Since our oil policies in Washington are about as boneheaded -- counterproductive -- as they can be, I have no way to guess how much food we can raise in 2000 A.D.  But no one in the United States should be hungry in 2000 A.D. -- unless we are conquered and occupied.

The problem of hunger in America is not a real problem. Deaths from being overweight is a greater problem among our "poor" (who are not at all poor by any historical standard). 

My Vote: a clear miss, and Heinlein reversed himself in 1980.

Grade: D

Prediction Seven:

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

A clear miss. Modern art is uglier and more preposterous than ever.

(No 1966 postscript.)

RAH 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.  But, while "fine" art continues to look like the work of retarded monkeys, commercial art grows steadily better.

My vote: saying that commercial art looks better in the 1980s than in the 1970s is not a prediction.

Commercial art has declined in quality from 1950 to 2000, at least from a technical standpoint. Compare the draftsmanship of, for example, Alexander Raymond's FLASH GORDON with that of Peter Chung's AEON FLUX. Compare the draftsmanship of advertisements in 1950 with that of 2000. Art is phonier than ever.

My vote: A horrific miss.

Grade: D

Prediction Eight:

RAH 1950: Freud will be classed as a pre-scientific, intuitive pioneer and psychoanalysis will be replaced by a growing, changing "operational psychology" based on measurement and prediction.

A bold prediction by 1950 standards, when Freud was regarded as being true beyond dispute. However, operational psychology based on "measurement and prediction" has not come about. Some amazing advances have been made in neurochemistry, and drugs can cure or limit mental diseases that Freudian psychoanalysis cannot and could not cure, or even address.

(No 1966 postscript.)

RAH 1980: This prediction is beginning to come true.  Freud is no longer taken seriously by informed people.  More and more professional psychologists are skilled in appropriate mathematics; most of the younger ones understand inductive methodology and the nature of scientific confirmation and are trying hard to put rigor into their extremely difficult, still inchoate subject.  [...]

Nope. Heinlein is talking here about reducing psychology to a science with the rigor of physics; he is speculating that we are on the brink of studying man as if man were not possessed of that one thing that can never be reduced to analytical measurement: human consciousness. There is no hope, now or ever, of human beings reducing human beingness to numbers. Ridiculous.

My Vote: I consider Heinlein to have "nicked the edge" of the target by guessing that Freud would be out of fashion. As far as I know, "operational psychology" refers to an attempt to study psychology without reference to metaphysical or philosophical concepts, and it died with Skinner and Pavlov.  However, psychology is not my field: if anyone has better information on this, please feel free to comment.

Grade: C

Prediction Nine:

RAH 1950: Cancer, the common cold, and tooth decay will all be conquered; the revolutionary new problem in medical research will be to accomplish "regeneration," i.e., to enable a man to grow a new leg, rather than fit him with an artificial limb.

My vote: a clear miss. There is no cure for cancer, and we have new diseases, unheard-of in 1950, for which we have no cure and no clear prospect of a cure, not to mention the development (by the unintended consequences of Darwinian selection of human efforts to expunge them) of vaccine-resistant strains of common diseases.

RAH 1966: In the meantime spectacular progress has been made in organ transplants -- and the problem of regeneration is related to this one.  Biochemistry and genetics have made a spectacular breakthrough in "cracking the genetic code."  It is a tiny crack, however, with a long way to go before we will have the human chromosomes charted and still longer before we will be able to "tailor" human beings by gene manipulation.  The possibility is there -- but not by year 2000.  This is probably just as well.  If we aren't bright enough to build decent houses, are we bright enough to play God with the architecture of human beings?

This is wrong on several levels. Advances in organ transplants have been spectacular since 1950; but we did not have "a long way to go" to map the human genome. I supposed you could say it was not completed by 2000, but by 2003.

RAH 1980: I see no reason to change this prediction if you will let me elaborate (weasel) a little.  "The common cold" is a portmanteau expression for upper respiratory infections which appear to be caused by a very large number of different viruses.  [...]  Good news: Oncology (cancer), immunology, hematology and "the common cold" turn out to be strongly interrelated subjects: research in all these is moving fast -- and a real breakthrough in any one of them might mean a breakthrough in all.

I am not sure if this is a prediction at all, rather than a comment that one cure might effect several diseases. If it is a prediction, it predicts that the cure for cancer, found by 2000 AD was also found to stop the common cold.

My Vote: a clear miss, achoo, and Gesundheit. I think in my next SF book, I will simply say the common cold will continue not to be cured up until 802,701 A.D.

Grade: D.

Prediction Ten:

RAH 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.

If you count robot probes, this one is accurate. We have landed on or made close passes by every body in the solar system, and discovered over 50 exosolar planets.

But he loses points on the "first ship intended to reach the nearest star." Nothing of the kind is even on the drawing board as of AD 2000.

RAH 1966: Our editor suggested that I had been too optimistic on this one -- but I stand by it. 

As above.  

RAH 1980: My dollar is still on the table at twenty years and counting.  Senator Proxmire can't live forever.  In the last 10½ years men have been to the Moon several times; much of the Solar system has been most thoroughly explored within the limits of "black box" technology and more will be visited before this year is out.  Ah, but not explored by men -- and the distances are so great.  Surely they are... by free-fall orbits, which is all that we have been using.  But [...] if your ship could boost at one-tenth gee [you could manage round-trips to Mars in 14½ days, or to Pluto in as many weeks].  Most of you who read this will live to see constant boost ships of 1/10 gee or better -- and will be able to afford vacations in space -- soon, soon!  [...]

A clear miss. There are no constant-boost ships in production or on the drawing board. Vacations in space are hardly a routine matter.

Near miss. We have explored the solar system, merely in in the way expected. But there is no constant boost ship, and no interstellar ship.

Grade: C.

Prediction Eleven:

RAH 1950: Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag.  Your house telephone will record messages, answer simple inquiries, and transmit vision.

(No 1966 postscript.)

RAH 1980: This prediction is trivial and timid.  Most of it has already come true and the telephone system will hand you the rest on a custom basis if you'll pay for it.  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 [...].

Bull's-eye. My phone cannot answer simple queries, but when I call a business, I can be lead through a phone menu to have the system, without a human operator, do things as complex as bank transactions.

Grade: A

Prediction Twelve:

RAH 1950: Intelligent life will be found on Mars.

Sorry, no. This prediction was unsupported by what was known of Mars even in 1950.

RAH 1966: Predicting intelligent life on Mars looks pretty silly after those dismal photographs.  I shan't withdraw it until Mars has been thoroughly explored.  [...]

Sorry, no. We are now debating the possibility of bacterial life, maybe, at one time.

RAH 1980: The photographs made by the Martian landers of 1976 and the orbiting companions make the prediction of intelligent Martian life look even sillier.  But the new pictures and the new data make Mars even more mysterious.  I'm a diehard because I suspect that life is ubiquitous -- call that a religious opinion if you wish. 

Very well: it is a religious opinion, and one without proper theological grounding.

On of the most surprising things about the universe is that, if our currently accepted theories of the origin and evolution of life are not wildly inaccurate, the galaxy should be teaming with so many ancient millions of civilizations that the discovery of even one percent of them, a few ten thousands, would be inevitable. To have discovered no exosolar civilizations at all, no life at all, is wildly unlikely.

Well, the wildly unlikely seems to be happening. As for Heinlein's religion, his faith in life on Mars seems to be less theologically sound than the speculation of C.S. Lewis that the other intelligent life in creation is holding us in quarantine. Something weird is going on. Why are the stars silent?

Grade: D. I would grade lower if I could, because the sober science of Heinlein's day could not realistically support the notion of intelligent life on Mars. What? A civilization with no lights, no radio, no detectable energy use, no Great Wall of China, no Holland, no sign visible to your nearest neighbor that you are there?

Prediction Thirteen:

RAH 1950: A thousand miles an hour at a cent a mile will be commonplace; short hauls will be made in evacuated subways at extreme speeds.

RAH 1966: I must hedge number thirteen; the "cent" I meant was scaled by the 1950 dollar.  But our currency has been going through a long steady inflation, and no nation in history has ever gone as far as we have along this route without reaching the explosive phase of inflation.  Ten-dollar hamburgers?  Brother, we are headed for the hundred-dollar hamburger -- for the barter-only hamburger.  But this is only an inconvenience rather than a disaster as long as there is plenty of hamburger.

As of 2007, the hamburger I bought today cost $ 6.79, and that included drink and a side order of French Fries. Turning to my handy dandy inflation calculator, (http://www.westegg.com/inflation/) this comes to $0.83 in 1950 dollars. By my recollection a burger was four bits in the 1950's and a coke was a nickel, so this is an increase of about 28 cents increasing in price. On the one hand, the burger was twice the size and the coke was five times the size of the 1950's burger, and I got it delivered to my car window in about one minute.  On the other hand, the waitress did not speak English. All-in-all, I'd call it a wash. Heinlein is still spooked by Malthus, and daydreams (daynightmares?) of overpopulation and Soylent Green style Food Riots.

RAH 1980: About those subways: possible, even probable, by 2000 A.D.  But I see little chance that they will be financed until the dollar is stabilized -- a most painful process our government hates to tackle.

This is bogus. The problem is technological, having nothing to do with price stabilization. Delivering groceries overnight is worth a certain amount of money to the consumer, whose buying habits ultimately determine the costs and benefits of developing new systems of transport. Delivering groceries in half the time twelve hours rather than twenty-four, six rather than twelve, is not worth twice the price.

There are superhighspeed magnetic trains, but, no. This one is a miss, even adjusting for inflation and so on.

Grade: D

Prediction Fourteen:

RAH 1950: A major objective of applied physics will be to control gravity.

A clear miss. He is talking about generating gravity without mass. According to the standard model, and even nonstandard models, this is impossible.

RAH 1966: This prediction stands.  But today's physics is in a tremendous state of flux with new data piling up faster than it can be digested; it is anybody's guess as to where we are headed [...].  This is the Golden Age of physics -- and it's an anarchy.

Mr. Heinlein is blowing smoke here, I am afraid. In 1966, there was no prospect of a unified field theory, there was no even theoretical way to generate gravity artificially, no way, even in theory, to bend space or manipulate dimensions or generate gravitons, or even to discover if gravity is quantized, or … I am simply amazed he did not list this with time travel and matter transmission as a fantasy. It would require a major revolution, as big as Newton, as big as Einstein, to form a scientific model that would permit gravity to be anything other than a side-effect and a defining characteristic of mass. 

RAH 1980: I stand by the basic prediction.  There is so much work going on both by mathematical physicists and experimental physicists as to the nature of gravity that it seems inevitable that twenty years from now applied physicists will be trying to control it.  But note that I said "trying" -- succeeding may take a long time.  If and when they do succeed, a spin off is likely to be a spaceship that is in no way a rocket ship -- and the Galaxy is ours!  (Unless we meet that smarter, meaner, tougher race that kills us or enslaves us or eats us -- or all three.)

He would have been better advised to cry defeat on this one, as he had with his prediction about intelligent life on Mars.  Why not wish for an interialess drive or a perpetual motion machine while you are at it? 

Grade: D. I would grade lower if I could. This is an outrageous prediction, even given the state of physics in 1950, and I would take points away for his the hemming and hawing of 1966, and 1980. 

Prediction Fifteen:

RAH 1950: We will not achieve a "World State" in the predictable future.  Nevertheless, Communism will vanish from this planet.

Another prediction that is remarkably bold by 1950 thinking. Remember, in the immediate postwar period, it was universally held that only a United Nations, a successful League of Nations international police body, could prevent World War Three, which most people predicted (with some justice) to be no more than ten years off.

No one except Ludwig van Mises (HUMAN ACTION was published in 1949, one year before this prediction was made) held that communism was an unstable and unsustainable economic system. No one.

RAH 1966: I stand flatly behind prediction number fifteen.

In 1966, to predict the downfall of communism was not just bold, it was practically an act of supernatural prophecy. Only Ayn Rand (1957) cried that  Communism was evil as well as economically foolish. The other enemies of the Soviets thought they were evil and strong. In 1957 Sputnik was launched: every reasonable indicia indicated that the Soviets were ahead of us in technology, better organized, larger, and not crippled by the confusion and anarchy (so the economists of the time termed it) of the capitalist system.

RAH 1980: [...]  I shan't weasel as I am utterly dismayed by the political events of the past 15-20 years.  At least two thirds of the globe now calls itself Marxist.  Another large number of countries are military dictatorships.  Another large group (including the United States) are constitutional democratic republics but so tinged with socialism ("welfare state") that all of them are tottering on the brink of bankruptcy and collapse.  So far as I can see today the only thing that could cause the soi-disant Marxist countries to collapse in as little as twenty years would be for the United States to be conquered and occupied by the USSR [...].!

A prediction that is flatly and utterly wrong. Communism collapsed for the reasons outlined by Ludwig von Mises in 1949. Socialism is a system where economic calculation is impossible: without a market system, economization of resources, including human labor, is impossible. Socialism is a system that rations everything and wastes everything. Might as well throw your money into a bottomless well.

Grade: A, but downgraded to a B for his prediction of 1980, which was the reverse of the truth.

Prediction Sixteen:

RAH 1950: Increasing mobility will disenfranchise a majority of the population.  About 1990 a constitutional amendment will do away with state lines while retaining the semblance.

(No 1966 postscript.)

RAH 1980: I goofed.  I will be much surprised if either half of this double prediction comes to pass by 2000 -- at least in the form described and for the reasons I had in mind.  The franchise now extends to any warm body over eighteen and that franchise can be transferred to another state in less time than it takes the citizen to find housing in his/her new state.  Thus no constitutional amendment is needed.  But the state lines are fading year by year anyhow as power continues to move from the states to the Federal government and especially into the hands of non-elected bureaucrats.

My vote: He goofed. No one in 1950 could have predicted the sudden and astonishing seizure of power by non-elected feds: it was alien to the independent spirit that existed at that time. No one in 1950 really grasped that the constitution of government had changed, if not forever, at least for the next half century, with the election of Franklin Roosevelt.

Grade: D.

Prediction Seventeen:

RAH 1950: All aircraft will be controlled by a giant radar net run on a continent-wide basis by a multiple electronic "brain."

Oddly enough, this is one prediction that should have come true, and only the mind-boggling inefficiency of your government at work prevents it.

(No 1966 postscript.)

RAH 1980: This prediction still stands -- although it may be my wishful thinking.  Such a system was designed over thirty years ago; Congress wouldn't buy it.  [...]

My vote: He goofed. Clear miss. Air traffic control machines still use vacuum tubes, ferchrissake. There is only one manufacturer that makes them, and the only one they sell to is the federal government, whose buying and selling are controlled by the non-elected bureaucrats mentioned in the prediction above.

Grade: D, but we should upgrade it to a C because the folly and waste of the federal government in preventing this obvious upgrade to the air traffic system is unimaginable. No one, not even Cassandra herself, could have foreseen this.

Prediction Eighteen:

RAH 1950: Fish and yeast will become our principle sources of proteins.  Beef will be a luxury; lamb and mutton will disappear.

Not only is this not a bold prediction, it falls within the commonly accepting thinking, the myths current in the late fifties. Heinlein is a little ahead of fashion for saying it in 1950. It is the old, old error of Malthus, that even Malthus did not believe in the second printing of his famous essay.

RAH 1966: I'll hedge number eighteen just a little.  Hunger is not now a problem in the USA, and need not be in the year 2000 -- but hunger is a world problem and would at once become an acute problem for us if we were conquered... a distinct possibility by 2000.  Between our present status and that of subjugation lies a whole spectrum of political and economic possible shapes to the future under which we would share the worldwide hunger to a greater or lesser extent.  And the problem grows.  We can expect to have to feed around half a billion Americans circa year 2000 -- our present huge surpluses would then represent acute shortages even if we never shipped a ton of wheat to India.

I am not sure I can call someone predicting "a whole spectrum of political and economic possible shapes" a real prediction. Worldwide hunger was shrinking at the time this was written, to the best of my knowledge, and is at an all-time low. Isn't India a net exporter of wheat these days? Someone correct me if I am wrong.

RAH 1980: It would now appear that the USA population in 2000 A.D. will be about 270,000,000 instead of 500,000,000.  I have been collecting clippings on demography for forty years; all that the projections have in common is that all of them are wrong.  Even that figure of 270,000,000 may be too high; today the only reason our population continues to increase is that we oldsters are living longer; our current birthrate is not sufficient even to replace the parent generation.

My vote: a near miss. The opposite prediction, that world hunger will be solved by Star Trek style utopian niceness, would be absurd. But the problem with world hunger is a problem of politics, not a problem of overpopulation or limitations of resources or techniques. India, as of 2000 AD suffered no famines, and even China, now that her rulers allow for private farming, suffers no famines. All famines from 1950 to 2000, the time period covered by the prognostication, were caused by socialism.

Grade: C, if we grade generously. We still have some world hunger.

Prediction Nineteen

RAH 1950: Mankind will not destroy itself, nor will "civilization" be destroyed.

Since scholars and intellectuals as august as A.J. Toynbee and Oswald Spengler  were predicting the second fall of Rome for all Western civilization, not to mention science fiction routinely predicting global atomic Armageddon, to make this prediction took quite of bit of guts. You might argue that, if it proved false, no one would be around to debate the issue, but there were survivors of the Fall of the Western Roman empire. 

RAH 1966: I stand by prediction number nineteen.

Since the West as actually in a weaker position confronting nuclear-armed communism, and since scholars and intellectuals, by 1966, were also discussing the possibility of megadeath via ecological or overpopulation catastrophe, this prediction was even bolder than it had been in the 1950's.

For comparison, note that CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, which popularized the image of post-nuclear world holocaust, was published in 1959; Rachel Carson published SILENT SPRING in 1962; Paul Erlich published THE POPULATION BOMB in 1968, propagandizing the concept of "overpopulation" so well that it still vexes and frightens intellectuals today, even though we are currently suffering from underpopulation (which was one of the causes of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, by the way).

RAH 1980: I will stand by prediction number nineteen.  There will be wars and we will be in some of them -- and some may involve atomic weapons.  But there will not be that all-destroying nuclear holocaust that forms the background of so many S.F. stories.  There are three reasons for this: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the People's Republic of China.  Why?  Because the three strongest countries in the world (while mutually detesting each the other two) have nothing to gain and everything to lose in an all-out swapping of H-bombs.  Because Kremlin bosses are not idiots and neither are those in Peking.  If another country -- say Israel, India or the South African Republic -- gets desperate and tosses an A- or H-bomb, that country is likely to receive three phone calls simultaneously, one from each of the Big Three: "You have exactly three minutes to back down.  Then we destroy you."  After World War II I never expected that our safety would ever depend on a massive split in Communist International -- but that is exactly what has happened.

This is a bold prediction, considering that Jimmy Carter was president from 1977 to 1981, and during his term the Cold War was given up for lost. Mutually Assured Destruction was regarded as the most hopeful scenario as the West declined, either slowly to fall to the inevitable victory of communism, or rapidly but in utter futility to destroy itself in a thermonuclear paroxysm resisting the inevitable victory communism.

My Vote: Accurate. None of the nuclear powers, not even Pakistan or India, used a nuclear weapon in war as of 2000 AD, which is the time limit of the prediction.

Grade: A. Not only did we not destroy ourselves, we did not even come close.

Prediction Twenty: The Negative Predictions

RAH 1950: Things we won't get soon, if ever:

  1. Travel through time.
  2. Travel faster than the speed of light.
  3. "Radio" transmission of matter.
  4. Manlike robots with manlike reactions.
  5. Laboratory creation of life.
  6. Real understanding of what "thought" is and how it is related to matter.
  7. Scientific proof of personal survival after death.
  8. Nor a permanent end to war.  (I don't like that prediction any better than you do.)

RAH 1966: I see no reason to change any of the negative predictions which follow the numbered affirmative ones.  They are all conceivably possible; they are all wildly unlikely by year 2000.  Some of them are debatable if the terms are defined to suit the affirmative side -- definitions of "life" and "manlike," for example.  Let it stand that I am not talking about an amino acid in one case, or a machine that plays chess in the other.

Since he qualifies number "e" to exclude laboratory creation of amino acids, he is on firm ground here. We are no where near the ability to create a new species, much less create new life from nonlife. As of 2000, it is still cutting-edge technology to clone a sheep. No one has created a flying unicorn from scratch.

RAH 1980: I see no point in saying more.

All these are spot-on, and not very bold predictions. Those things that science fiction writers invent for the sake of drama, but which have no basis in physics, are easy to list, and he has done so.

The only one on the list that is even arguable (I will not argue it, but the argument could be made) oddly enough, is number "g." There have been a sufficient number of independent studies of people who have "died" on the operating table, or come close to it, and shown no signs of life or brain activity, and woken up, and spoken about the things they saw and were told while officially dead, and their accounts contain enough parallels and similarities, that to explain the matter without admitting the possibility of life after death strains the imagination, and requires farfetched ad hoc coincidences.

The other one where he is arguably wrong is h. Remember, we are only dealing with the period between 1950-2000. If we define war to mean major mobilization of the entire population, a full-scale nuclear exchange, a total war, the answer is yes: World War III never happened. A major war of that kind is not in contemplation until and unless a major disaster or corruption from within dislodges the United States from her unique global supremacy.

Grade: A, but downgraded to a B because these predictions were so easy to make. "No time travel by AD 2000" is not really a hard prediction. I also predict no genii from a lamp will turn the South Pole into an Italian Ice and feed it to the Midgard Serpent.

FINAL SCORE !

 

  1. b
  2. a
  3. c
  4. d
  5. d
  6. d
  7. d
  8. c
  9. d
  10. c
  11. a
  12. f
  13. d
  14. f
  15. b
  16. d
  17. c
  18. c
  19. a
  20. b

As a professional predictor of the future, Mr. Heinlein is a pretty darn good science fiction writer. I doubt anyone else could have done better.


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