Why Was Heinlein So Wrong?

Virginia and Bob Heinlein in 1950, probably on the set of "Destination Moon"

The eclectic blog Lists of Note recently published a list of predictions that the SF writer Robert Heinlein made in 1952 for what the year 2000 would be like.  Here they are, with my comments in red for wrong and green for right:

(Source: Galaxy magazine, Feb 1952)

So let’s have a few free-swinging predictions about the future. Some will be wrong – but cautious predictions are sure to be wrong.

1. Interplanetary travel is waiting at your front door — C.O.D. It’s yours when you pay for it. Nope.

2. Contraception and control of disease is revising relations between the sexes to an extent that will change our entire social and economic structure.  Yep.

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

4. 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. Wow, no.

5. In fifteen years the housing shortage will be solved by a “breakthrough” into new technologies which will make every house now standing as obsolete as privies. Nope.

6. We’ll all be getting a little hungry by and by. Nope.

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

8. 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. Sort of.

9. 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. Nope.

10. 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 a-building. Nope.

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

12. Intelligent life will be found on Mars. Nope.

13. A thousand miles an hour at a cent a mile will be commonplace; short hauls will be made in evacuated subways at extreme speed. Nope.

14. A major objective of applied physics will be to control gravity. Nope.

15. We will not achieve a “World State” in the predictable future. Nevertheless, Communism will vanish from this planet. Mostly, depending on what you call China.

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

17. All aircraft will be controlled by a giant radar net run on a continent-wide basis by a multiple electronic “brain.” More or less.

18. Fish and yeast will become our principal sources of proteins. Beef will be a luxury; lamb and mutton will disappear. Nope.

19. Mankind will not destroy itself, nor will “Civilization” be destroyed. Yep.

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

— Travel through time Yep.
— Travel faster than the speed of light Yep.
— “Radio” transmission of matter. Yep.
— Manlike robots with manlike reactions Yep.
— Laboratory creation of life Nope, already done.
— Real understanding of what “thought” is and how it is related to matter. Nope, pretty close now.
— Scientific proof of personal survival after death. Yep.
— Nor a permanent end to war. Yep.

Heinlein’s predictions about impossibilities were a lot closer than his possibles!   He broke Arthur C. Clarke’s 1st Law: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

Still,  the hit rate here is obviously very low.  How could such a bright and imaginative guy could get so many things wrong?  Sure, prediction is notoriously difficult, but he was really off by a lot.

I think it was because he was extrapolating from the changes he saw around him, but he happened to live in a time of unsustainably high technological change. In his lifetime (1907 to 1988) he saw flight go from biplanes to interplanetary rockets. Imagining that “the first ship intended to reach the nearest star will be a-building.” would be a natural step. He had seen air travel become commoditized, so he thought space travel would too. He had seen polio and TB beaten, so he expected cancer to be beaten soon as well.

In fact, the changes that so impressed him largely stopped in the 70s. Changes in transportation stopped because the energies needed were too high – SSTs and manned spaceflight are too expensive. Medical progress slowed way down because antibiotics and vaccines only beat the easy problems. Social progress actually went backwards – the ERA was defeated, and the provision of health care and education are a bit worse than in his day, at least in the US. The major technical problems of his day – like AI, fusion power, and missile defense – are still not solved, and we’re not all that close. He lived in a time when everything was changing fast, but it slowed down a lot soon after.

That’s part of why he’s fun to read even now.  All his characters are so energetic!  They’re all excited about the bright future.   Life is visibly improving for them, in a way that it isn’t really for us.

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7 Responses to Why Was Heinlein So Wrong?

  1. Kaz Vorpal says:

    There has been no laboratory creation of life. Not even close.

  2. Charles says:

    I categorically disagree with the “red” answers to #1, #3, and #10.

    No one has been willing to fund human space travel to any extent since Apollo, so the observation that interplanetary space is available if someone will pay for it stands.

    There has been no launch of weapons toward Earth by humans in space; however, humans continue to be unable to deflect objects thrown at Earth by the Solar System. So Heinlein’s observation stands until humans can deflect rocks from space.

    Voyager, a man-made space vehicle has left the Solar System and is entering space…the final frontier.

    • kazvorpal says:

      In fact, the problem was NASA, and that problem is now halfway removed. Congress opened the door to legalizing private space flight in 1964, but NASA refused to allow it, thwarting a number of subsequent laws as well, in the eighties and nineties, until it was finally FORCED to legalize it, in 2004.

      And, in less than a decade, private space flight has created real progress toward the first sustainable, useful space flight in history, including using technologies superior to those NASA has allowed.

      Note that NASA has insisted on using what is essentially Nazi V2 technology for fifty-plus years, wasting time and money when even the Air Force had more advanced tech in the 1950s. It also thwarted and sabotaged other alternative space flight tech developed (again by the Air Force) in the 1990s.

      NASA’s goal, all along, has been nothing but looting of the taxpayer through budget bloat and inefficiency. They have never cared about giving real people access to real space flight.

      But now, of course, they are losing their ugly, coercive monopoly, and if they don’t manage to block the private companies (as they are struggling to do, even now) from progress, we’ll finally have the real thing.

      • jlredford says:

        Actually, I think that right now is a golden age for NASA and space exploration in general. There are two space stations up and a half dozen people continuously in orbit, there are a record number (15) of interplanetary probes active, and new probes are going up constantly. Click on the ‘space-ish’ tag for more.

    • jlredford says:

      I sense a bet in the air! Are you willing to put money behind the idea that manned space travel will still happen? I see that longbets.org has two such predictions already underway:

      Bet 351: “One or more space agencies will send a manned mission to Mars by 2035.”

      Bet 27: “By the year 2020, the tickets to space travel – at the least to Moon, will be available over the counter”

      Sadly, it doesn’t seem possible to bet against them at the moment.

      re: deadly space rocks – I would also be willing to bet that less than 10 people in the last 100 years have been killed by a meteorite. The Natural History Museum in London thinks that there are no recorded deaths at all, including the recent explosion over Russia.

      re: Voyagers as starships – You have a long perspective! Both Voyagers are due to pass within 2 light-years of other stars in about 40,000 years. Unfortunately, their thermoelectric piles will run out some time in the 2020s, so we won’t get a lot more info out of them.

      • kazvorpal says:

        If you think private, manned space travel is unlikely in the near future, you’re not paying any attention to the industry.

        Yes, the whole asteroid thing is another fearmongering fraud cooked up by NASA. I learned that when I worked AT NASA. Was it likely? No. Then why are you talking as if it is? Because it helps justify our budget.

        It’s funny to note that the whole “Voyager has left the solar system” thing is another NASA scam. If you do some research, you’ll find that NASA has announced “Voyager is leaving the solar system” something like seven different times. They have simply found that it generates them some PR, which they can parley into more wasteful funding, so they keep inventing new ways to pretend it’s happening again…different definitions of “the edge of the solar system”.

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