Stories set in the future are often judged, as time passes, on whether they come true or not. “Where are our flying cars?” became a plaintive cry of disappointment as the millennium arrived, reflecting the prevailing mood that science and technology had failed to live up to the most fanciful promises of early 20th-century science fiction.
But the task of science fiction is not to predict the future. Rather, it contemplates possible futures. Writers may find the future appealing precisely because it can’t be known, a black box where “anything at all can be said to happen without fear of contradiction from a native,” says the renowned novelist and poet Ursula K. Le Guin. “The future is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in,” she tells Smithsonian, “a means of thinking about reality, a method.”
Some authors who enter that laboratory experiment with plausible futures—envisioning where contemporary social trends and recent breakthroughs in science and technology might lead us. William Gibson (who coined the term “cyberspace” and will never be allowed to forget it) is well known for his startling and influential stories, published in the 1980s, depicting visions of a hyper-connected global society where black-hat hackers, cyberwar and violent reality shows are part of daily life. For other authors, the future serves primarily as a metaphor. Le Guin’s award-winning 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness—set on a distant world populated by genetically modified hermaphrodites—is a thought experiment about how society would be different if it were genderless.