A Load of Crystal Balls

Great Failures of Prediction, AD 2000-3000

Twelve years ago I attended my first convention, which was of course a Novacon, and of course I went to every programme item -- especially the Guest of Honour speech by Ken Bulmer. You know how it is when for the first time you ... go the whole way. A thrill of almost religious ecstasy came as I sat in the con hall, and Ken Bulmer uttered his titanic words of wisdom, and with a sudden searing insight I knew that I couldn't hear a thing. It was then that the seeds of ambition were sown: "In twelve years," I thought, "if I struggle with all my might to get on in fandom, perhaps at Novacon 15 I could be the person who fetches Ken Bulmer's beer -- and I could get up close and find out what he's saying."

That was my first attempt at serious futurological speculation, and it was almost as successful as later ones. What I hadn't realized was that in twelve years of economic decline, Novacon would go so far downhill that I'd be here while Ken lurked in the bar -- and, what's more, a bar in Tunbridge Wells -- so I still can't hear what he's saying. This is the great problem of prediction: in 1973 no one could conceive of anything so starkly terrible as Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister, L.Ron Hubbard returning as a best-seller, or D.Langford on the Novacon stage. All the same, many thanks.

Newer fans may believe I've titled this talk "A Load of Crystal Balls" with a view to discussing the awesome sweep of SF prediction past, present and future. (Mainly future, because even I'm not too bad at predicting the past.) Jaded and disillusioned sufferers of past Langford speeches will have guessed that, instead, you're getting hideous revelations about The Third Millennium (A History of the World: AD 2000-3000) -- that whopping thing I wrote with Brian Stableford, which surveys a full thousand years of future human history in hope of finding something to say to our bank managers. It's one of those impressive coffee-table books of which people ask Brian, "Which area of the market is it aiming for?" and Brian says "Remainder."

Of course, it wasn't so much that Brian and I had a dizzyingly detailed joint vision of the shape of things to come, which we felt we must communicate at any cost to an expectant world. The book was first misconceived in the offices of Shuckburgh Reynolds Ltd, a packaging firm. The idea of packaging is very simple: a packager commissions manuscripts, inserts carefully hand-crafted distortions and typos, adds inappropriate artwork with misleading captions, gets the result whimsically laid out and lovingly misprinted, and indeed does everything you might expect a publisher to do except stick his name on the jacket. Packagers know the virtues of a low profile. Publishers are meanwhile spared the effort of doing any work beyond languidly handing a cheque to the packager, and in addition can remain untainted by contact with low life-forms such as authors.

To help keep authors even more firmly in their place, the actual royalties are now passed through four separate sets of sticky fingers -- bookseller, distributor, publisher and packager. The result is a bit like one of those old party games in which each person whispers to the next: the message starts off as "A hundred thousand pounds", and by the time it's relayed to the end of the line it comes out as "Half a dozen peanuts". I fondly remember the royalty statements for The Science in Science Fiction, demonstrating that the packager had raked in quite a bit more than £100,000 without any royalties at all being owed to the authors. Peter Nicholls even took legal advice, and learnt that our foes were perfectly entitled to do this, under the ancient British judicial precedent "You can't afford to take us to court, ha ha."

Of course Brian and I are convinced that this time our packager is legal, decent, honest and truthful. We have the same touching faith as those who travel to Monte Carlo knowing that this time they have a winning system, or attend Novacon in the happy belief that medical science has at last conquered the hangover. We signed our contracts, trying not to notice the way the red ink tended to clot, and it was agreed that Brian would tackle the sociology, biology, politics, economics and philosophy of the next millennium, while I dealt with the difficult subjects like physics and SF conventions.

So how do you write a book of futurology? With an alarming sense of inferiority if you try to collaborate with Brian Stableford: he dashes off 5,000 word chapters the way other people do postcards, and was solving the ethical problems of the 30th century while I was still struggling with the Great Idea Famine of 2080.

It doesn't do to be too imaginative in this business -- not many people know about the Arthur C.Clarke article which in 1946 was rejected by Wireless World for its horrific and incredible vision of a future society with breakfast TV. Even if you ignore the future and carefully write in metaphorical terms about trends of the present day, as George Orwell did in 1984, some idiot will write an essay saying (I quote): "Orwell had no feel for the future ... Orwell imagines no new vices, for instance ... Nor did he foresee any difference in the role of women." (One-track mind the fellow has.) The searing conclusion is that "1984 ... does not resemble the real world of the 1980s" and is therefore "very bad science fiction." Most SF people have gained some dim idea that Orwell was writing about 1948, but I suppose this particular critic must be out of touch with SF. He's a chap called Isaac Asimov.

Then there's the Wishful Thinking approach to futurology, as seen in The Third World War by General Sir John Hackett. Here the fiendish Commies nuke Birmingham (thus explaining the alarmed Novacon committee's hasty move to Coventry), whereupon NATO conveys a diplomatic reproof by dropping four nasties on Minsk, and instantly the entire USSR falls apart from internal collywobbles. This has all the heart-stopping impact of the fabled horror-fiction climax which goes "And then he woke up...."

Brian and I were actually accused by a Radio Oxford interviewer of wishful thinking. The boring answer is that if you're going to write your way to the year 3000 without a somewhat repetitious 950 years of eating bats and fighting general elections with pointed sticks, you have to summon up a little optimism about the immediate future. "But," I assured the interviewer, "we've tried to be ever so realistic. All sorts of short-term events were thrown out of the book because they seemed like wishful thinking."

"Such as?" he said incautiously.

"Such as the prediction that in Spring 1986, Margaret Thatcher would be hit by a meteorite."

After three minutes he stopped giggling enough to tell Oxford listeners that the opinions of low persons being interviewed were not necessarily ...

Speaking of wishful thinking reminds me of the pal who pinned down Larry Niven's rosy vision of tomorrow in just six words: A future where we're all Californians. The worrying thing is that Niven thinks of this as Utopia.

Another favourite form of futurology is called Spot the Trend -- very popular among those pundits who haven't got far enough into How to Lie With Statistics to discover the warnings on page two. Thus in 1982, keen-eyed peerers into the future studied the market, drew their graphs, and discovered that by November 1985, every man, woman, child and goldfish in the United Kingdom would own 38.61 home computers. Buckminster Fuller had a similar and magnificently daft scenario in which we would all sooner or later be able to afford our own personal space shuttles, since the global economy will infallibly keep on expanding at a minimum 4% compound interest. It seems unfair to pour cold water on such a radiant vision by repulsively suggesting that inflation can occasionally run as high as 5%....

There's a bit about this kind of one-eyed extrapolation in that famous SF novel set in 1984, G.K.Chesterton's The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

There was Mr Edward Carpenter, who thought we should in a very short time return to Nature, and live simply and slowly as the animals do. And Edward Carpenter was followed by James Pickie, D.D. (of Pocahontas College), who said that men were immensely improved by grazing, or taking their food slowly and continuously, after the manner of cows. And he said that he had, with the most encouraging results, turned city men out on all fours in a field covered with veal cutlets. Then Tolstoy and the Humanitarians said that the world was growing more merciful, and therefore no one would ever desire to kill. And Mr Mick not only became a vegetarian, but at length declared vegetarianism doomed ("shedding," he called it finely, "the green blood of the silent animals"), and predicted that men in a better age would live on nothing but salt. And then came the pamphlet from Oregon (where the thing was tried), the pamphlet called "Why should Salt suffer?", and there was more trouble. [1904]

In the same book Chesterton invented the game of Cheat the Prophet. In this, the players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else.

Brian and I thought the safest way to avoid losing at this ancient game was not to play -- or at least, pretend not to play. For hours on end we shone lights into the packagers' eyes, repeating the mystic words "This is a book of speculation -- not prediction. Speculation -- not prediction. Right?" We reckoned we'd covered ourselves, then, at least until the dustjacket of the American edition, whose blurb asked: "Can we predict what fate -- and man's own irrepressible inventiveness -- holds in store for us in the next 1,000 years? Brian Stableford and David Langford believe we can." For several nights after reading this we had an alarming tendency to wake up screaming.

Our second line of defence is the fifteen-year breathing space before the third millennium actually stirs into a ghastly semblance of life (as H.P.Lovecraft would put it). General Sir John Hackett's little potboiler now looks a trifle dodgy in its daring future speculation that, in retaliation for the beer at the Royal Angus Hotel, Birmingham will be splattered on the 20th of August, 1985. Brian and I, on the other hand, needn't start shuffling evasively and making excuses until our Israeli nuke fails to hit Libya in 2011 -- by which time, modern production standards being what they are, every copy of the book will have crumbled to dust. If we were a bit late with the 2011 date, this may also apply to the authors. Despite being nice, pacifistic people, we appealed to the public's baser instincts (This Means You) by letting off further doomsday weapons at intervals throughout the 21st century, the world being saved each time from utter holocaust by a contract specifying nine more centuries of global history. Finally I grew bored and declared that Brazil's attack on Argentina by way of New Year celebrations in 2079 was the final nuclear skirmish.

Brian, in a fit of pique, retaliated by sinking Japan.

The packager was quite worried by this. "Even if it's natural causes, don't you think it'll be bad for Japanese sales? I thought maybe you could have World War III fought between Finland, Albania, Puerto Rico and Liechtenstein -- lots of excitement without prejudicing the big markets...."

We patiently explained that all the best-selling Japanese SF which didn't involve men in rubber suits tripping over Tokyo was about mighty earthquakes pulling the plug on all Japan. "That's an idea," he said, "about a monster ravaging some vast doomed metropolis. That's what genetic engineering's all about, isn't it?"

To console him, we had some 26th-century geneticists recreate Tyrannosaurus Rex, but in a sleek new vegetarian model. There was no particular economic justification for this -- even as a pet, T.Rex is never likely to replace the gerbil -- but the idea was fun and so we reckoned that people with the technology to do it would probably also think it fun. The lucky sods. Just imagine the 26th-century remake of V ... or rather, try not to. It's like John Sladek's theory that all those humanoid robots in SF represent a deep-seated science-fictional wish to create artificial people, a wish which present-day fans can only sublimate by having babies. The human shape is pretty inefficient for robots (sometime it doesn't work too well for humans either -- my own inertial guidance system developed awkward bugs at three this morning) ... but the theory is that humanoid robots will still be built as soon as they're feasible, because it's a fun idea. The Third Millennium duly contains a depressed humanoid robot who reads a lot of Dostoevsky and gets suicidal: in a heroic bid for realism he is not called Marvin.

(Unfortunately I couldn't sneak in the Langford version of the Three Laws of Robotics, as I predict they will eventually emerge.

  1. A robot will not harm authorized Government personnel but will terminate intruders with extreme prejudice.
  2. A robot will obey the orders of authorized personnel except where such orders conflict with the Third Law.
  3. A robot will guard its own existence with lethal antipersonnel weaponry, because a robot is bloody expensive.)

Meanwhile, back in the plot.... The safe way to tackle prediction -- ahem! speculation -- is unfortunately the boring way, the reliable way, the Herman Kahn way. Kahn was (and for all I know, still is) the famous fatso of the Hudson Institute, specializing in "surprise-free futures", with all the predictions heavily hedged: a typical Kahn peep into the beyond might assimilate the total political and economic picture of Earth today, process it with his fabled or fabulous IQ of 200, and in ringing tones give warning to the world that some time before the end of the century there could quite possibly be some trouble in South Africa, or not.

The basic Hudson principle was ably stuffed into a nutshell by Clive James after Kahn's 1974 BBC appearance. All predictions are made in terms of the "auto-extruding temporal unit 'fivetenfifteentwennytwennyfiveyearsfromnow'", which James respectfully suggested should be christened the Hermie:

Kahn's First Law of Ecodynamics can then be simply stated. In the space of one Hermie, anything that is happening now will still be happening only more so, unless something stops it. (The Second Law states that the fee for being told the First Law will be very large.)

In the book we went for lots of safe options. None was safer than the infallible treatment of long-range trends in climate: is it going to get hotter or colder, and will cloudbursts or permafrost be more typical of a British midsummer? Cleverly sitting on a thousand-year fence, we have the runaway greenhouse effect and melting icecaps near the beginning of the third millennium, and a new ice age at the end. (Sell your refrigerator shares now.) In between, we predict a period of scattered showers with cloudy and sunny intervals, and on the 1st of April 2542 it will rain pork pies over western Coventry. That is the end of the forecast.

Other safe bets? Genetic engineering will obviously be big business unless present-day research runs into a brick wall or gets banned by the Moral Majority (because you can use micro-organisms to synthesize alcohol, and of course the MM disapproves of tight genes). I can reveal in confidence that one heavily funded American research team is working on genetic alteration of the digestive systems of cattle, in hope of producing a super bull which will excrete endless sequels to Battlefield Earth. My other favourite speculation on this front is a tailor-made bacillus which escapes from the laboratory and devastates the country with huge unstoppable floods of antibiotics and interferon ... but we decided The Third Millennium was a worthy and serious book, so Brian wrote all this educational stuff about artificial photosynthesis and synthetic foodstuffs, which the packagers promptly illustrated with a picture captioned The Jack Spratt Grass Chop, complete with protruding blades of grass and a little paper frill around the narrow end.

One of the wonderful points about the packaging system, you see, is that authors aren't troubled with minor things like the pictures and captions -- at least until the final layout is already being printed by a cut-rate outfit handily located in Italy. (You can imagine these black-suited mafiosi types eyeing the page proofs suspiciously and saying, "Mother of God, Luigi, what is-a this ectogenetic pregnancy?") I had to sit on our friendly packager's head and make him telex a correction to Milan when I finally saw his photo of Computer Storage Media Through The Ages. The caption referred to tape cassettes, disks and bubble memory. I hadn't realized that bubble memory looked like a large ball bearing, but what actually reduced me to gibbering hysteria was that the disk was a 45 single.

The least convincing rewrite of a caption involved a bit in the text about the failure of a nuclear fusion reactor -- this failure being very feeble and undramatic, a sort of .003 Mile Island. To illustrate this damp squib, the demon artist couldn't resist airbrushing a gigantic, devastating fireball that looked like one of Ronald Reagan's wet dreams. I had about three minutes to write my way out of this one before they cabled the final changes to Italy. Resisting the urge to alter the caption to "With one bound, Jack was free", I gritted my teeth and dictated down the phone: "Propaganda picture circulated by anti-nuclear group in 2091...."

Another good bet was the possibility of a genetically engineered plague: to be on the safe side, we put in three (one of which would have been a remarkable prediction of AIDS had the book appeared some time before we wrote it), and again the art department did us proud. The picture, captioned with something about the struggle to contain the spread of the deadly virus, showed a surgical team up to the elbows in their patient -- presumably looking for the virus and extracting it with tweezers. This time, the hasty replacement caption was something about how the disease caused huge disfiguring warts whose spread had to be contained by crack surgeons. "Are you pulling my leg?" the packager asked, as he made it more socially acceptable by altering "warts" to "cancer". Sadistic people you meet in the publishing business.

Besides being unfairly prejudiced against the harmless, everyday wart, this fellow was full of morbid worries about elongated legs. With one cerebral hemisphere he'd ask me to write a bit of light relief into Brian's 3000-word chapter on the philosophy and economics of 27th century kumquat-growing in the reclaimed Antarctic wastes. With the other half of his brain he nervously queried the names of the imaginary posthistorical characters: he didn't object to Tom Disch becoming a 21st-century US President, but was convinced that most names other than Smith, Jones and Brown were full of hidden meaning, part of a vile authorish plot to get him sued for libel. (Little did he know that the Oriental surnames were all pinched from Reading's Chinese restaurant owners.) He even cut a quite harmless line referring to "Thatchertown (formerly Sellafield)".

This became a challenge. Gully Foyle of Tiger! Tiger! makes a guest appearance as a chauvinist exploiter of asteroids, but something happened at the copyediting stage to his line "Packager, I kill you deadly!" Several fans were sneaked into the book in suitably flattering roles -- the section on free-fall industry makes reference to alcohol production via the Martin Hoare Infinite Fermenter, whose creator boasts of being responsible for 99% of all zero-G hangovers. We were severely handled by polyglot critics after another boozy reference, to a spurious German plonk manufacturer called Misttafelwein GmbH. I was of course shocked and amazed when it was explained to me that in German, the Mist bit conveys the same impression as that American beer which tastes like it sounds: Schlitz.

Our packager had his revenge, though, by slipping in a final picture of two chaps silhouetted against a sky packed with unlikely numbers of stars, planets, galaxies, quasars, and Carl Sagan. I'll give you his caption verbatim.

The authors gaze into the universe and contemplate "the end of progress". In fact they are at home in Langford's recreation area, examining a holo-projection of the sky as viewed from Epsilon Eridani, to which they will begin to journey shortly after publication of this history.

Now that last bit is really wishful thinking.... The true caption should be the words of the taller of the two figures as he points dramatically at an airbrushed blob: "The universe, or the remainder shelf? Which shall it be, Stableford? Which shall it be?"

I shall not record Mr Stableford's reply.

Brian had actually been jaundiced about Pictures of the Author ever since we'd visited Shuckburgh Reynolds Ltd for an editorial conference about the literary merit of my excuses for late delivery, and mighty packager David Reynolds had said: "Dave, I'm just pasting up The Science Fiction Sourcebook and I want your photo!" He rushed me outside for a lightning snapshot, with Brian trailing plaintively behind saying "What about me, I've written more books than him." The reply was, "Ah, it's not what you write, it's the name you write under." In the paste-up there was a big white space among the L's, but the corresponding slot in the S's was already full of Olaf Stapledon. The message for aspiring SF authors is clear. If you want your photo in the reference books, aim for an unoccupied page. Avoid such pen-names as Asinine, Heineken or Clap.

The final futuristic joy of The Third Millennium was to be a holographic cover ... or rather, a little square holographic bit in the middle of the jacket. The idea is that in the sort of lighting you get in bookshops, the wondrous 3-D image can't actually be seen, and people will buy the book so they can take it outside. What really happens, of course, is that they peer into what looks like a wrinkled scrap of aluminium foil, see their own reflections, and think "I'm not buying this, it's full of appalling distortions about me."

This amazing hologram was supposed to show a 2001-ish space scene, and what went wrong is still shrouded in mystery. Did the strings show? Did they discover too late that The Blue Danube doesn't photograph well? Did the plasticene spaceship look too much like something from a Playgirl centrefold? There are some things, as the packagers were swift to tell us, which authors were not meant to know. Instead they substituted an off-the-peg hologram that they thought was just wonderful. Brian and I stared blankly at it: "What the hell has a nautilus shell got to do with the book?" The answer, according to the dustjacket proof, was that it symbolized world unity. I suppose a dead shellfish that's been sawn in half is as representative a symbol as any.

Anyway, the publishers went wild about this cover, perhaps because the mere idea of holograms reminded them happily of credit cards. They danced in the streets. Their reps visited all the bookshops with advance copies, proudly saying "Wonderful, isn't it?" And the bookshop people warmly replied: "Yes, it's a triffic hologram. Rilly ... triffic. I thought just the same when I saw it on one of Jonathan Cape's books last week."


The replacement replacement hologram is even more baffling in its symbolism. All over the country on publication day, people scratched their heads and thought, "How is the essence of the third millennium conveyed by a picture of two bloody acorns?" Only the authors could decode the packagers' secret, subliminal message that this book had been written by a pair of nuts.

Newspaper reporters who came to interview us were clearly of much the same opinion. The science reporter from the Telegraph wrote us up as typical mad scientists, probably in revenge for my chortle when he mentioned his complete ignorance of esoterica like nuclear fusion, or indeed nuclei. (Brian managed to switch the interview to future sociology before I could demonstrate the principles of fusion power using two sugarlumps and a spot of senseless violence.)

The Reading papers all wanted to know what we, as local authors, had predicted about the future of Reading. Unfortunately the book's only mention of the town is on the back flap, where it's confidently predicted that Brian will teach sociology at Reading University in 1985 ... fortunately the local reporters aren't too bright and were easily fobbed off with a passage about how in the 28th century, Reading still survives despite the rival attractions of information acquisition by direct brain transfer.

The newspapers also sent photographers, who just like us had different views about the way the future was going to be. The Reading gutter press always thinks authors should have an insane gleam in their eyes, and the camera men spend their time trying to arrange eldritch reflections from a candle, thus producing snapshots of a future in which authors are all drunk, blind, unable to afford electric lighting, and very badly photographed.

A lady from the Telegraph felt the third millennium should look surreal, futuristic and stark, and frogmarched us off to hunt for suitable backgrounds in Reading University. Having posed us by a starkly surreal fire escape, she instructed us to stare into the bright sky and point out nearby supernovae to each other: my glasses immediately turned black like Zaphod Beeblebrox's, and Brian displayed his reaction to the future by bursting into tears. As a punishment we were made to fumble our way down a steep wet slope covered in nettles, to be photographed at the bottom wondering how we'd ever get up again and contemplating the future of ointment; next we had to peer precognitively round a wall, with me balancing on an lethally insecure beer-crate (that was the photo that got used); we finally drew the line when invited to pose in a particularly futuristic-looking tree.

By contrast, a visiting American camera artist reckoned the future would be ever so egalitarian. In his utopian vision, elitist differences between human beings would be firmly ironed out. As a result, all his snaps of the two of us show me hunched up with hideous grimaces of pain -- trying not to be heightist and look taller than my fellow man. Brian is about five-foot-six. On the whole, the nettles were more comfy.

You'll have noticed that I've talked more about the book's hidden infrastructure than the actual contents. We need to keep a few of our secrets: Rog Peyton, book tycoon, has pictured to me his vision of a possible future in which I reveal so many high spots of The Third Millennium that nobody feels they need spend £12.95 to read the rest, and as a result the Andromeda bookstall has a huge pile of unsold copies which fall on a certain author and break both his legs.

So I'll finish with extracts from the long list of people the book is going to annoy -- quite apart from those who only just found out its price. Many Americans including Greg Benford and Jerry Pournelle will be peeved by the rude remarks on their nice Star Wars defence project, which is unfavourably compared to the Maginot Line. Conversely, the Guardian got very shirty at what they thought was a slighting reference to solar power: there are some things about which Man must not make jokes.... The Soviets should be hugely miffed by the commonplace skiffy suggestion that their version of Marxism is the last of the world's great, doomed religions. It is of course impossible to write an honest book which won't outrage the government of South Africa, so they hardly count. Fundamentalist fellow-travellers will go into fits at the notion of an interstellar drive being invented by a team whose leaders are two happily married chaps. Conservationists and astronomers will resent the casual way we blow up the asteroid Ceres in order to promote a Bob Shaw novel. If anyone from Birmingham ever reads the book (unlikely though it seems), they may not be too happy to find a bit about their city going bankrupt owing to investment in a maglev subway system. The Channel Ferry people will, as always, boil with rage at a fortuitous mention of the opening of the Channel Tunnel (complete with an electronic Times headline: CONTINENT NO LONGER CUT OFF). And finally, the authors will definitely suffer severe emotional shock should they ever again open the book and inadvertently read the picture captions.

I won't ask for questions from the floor, owing to my hearing trouble -- I've never been able to understand what floors say. Instead, let's conclude with a genuine, daring prediction about the short-term future now confronting us. This is a hot tip, so get your bets on now: In one minute or less, the bar is going to be packed full.