Robert A. Heinlein: The Blog Symposium

Robert A. Heinlein’s technological prophecies

Robert A. Heinlein’s fiction excelled at predicting the effects of technology, how particular tools would change society and the lives of people who used them daily. He usually didn’t predict the details, but his predictions of what technologies would mean were often uncanny.

The most dramatic example of this kind of prediction is “Solution Unsatisfactory,” a story which Heinlein wrote in 1940, which predicted the Cold War before the U.S. was even in World War II, and before the Manhattan Project. In the story, the U.S. develops a nuclear weapon and, for a brief time, is the only nuclear power in the whole world. America knows that its enemies will get the weapon soon. That much actually happened in real life, five years later.

But the story of “Solution Unsatisfactory” takes a different turn than real-life events turned out. In “Solution Unsatisfactory,” the head of the nuclear weapons project overthrows the government of the U.S. and sets up a global, international dictatorship with monopoly control of the nuclear weapon. And that’s the unsatisfactory solution of the story—the narrator of the story, the head of the nuclear weapons project, and presumably Heinlein himself all hate this option, but see the only other alternative, a global nuclear war, to be worse.

Was Heinlein’s unsatisfactory solution a nightmare scenario which we blessedly avoided? Maybe. But instead, we got 40 years of Cold War, the U.S.S.R. dominating half the developed world, and the U.S. propping up nasty dictatorships in the other half. And just because the Cold War is over, the threat hasn’t gone away; nuclear weapons are still common, as are governments and organizations willing to use them.

Heinlein was writing about these issues before nuclear weapons had been invented. He got the effects of the technology right, but he got the technology itself wrong. The weapon he predicted wasn’t a bomb, it was radioactive dust.

Also in 1940, Heinlein published “The Roads Must Roll,” a story in which enormous conveyer belts replace railroads and highways as the dominant means of transportation in the U.S. Long, thin cities grow up along the sides of these roads, just as suburbs sprouted along superhighways a decade later. In the Heinlein story, restaurants sit on the roadway itself, and you eat while in motion. We don’t have that in real life, but we do have what seems to be the same exact Denny’s replicated every three miles on the highways of southern California.

“The Roads Must Roll” is a story about the technicians essential to operating the roads, the dominant transportation system in America, and how these technicians have the power to credibly threaten to shut down the American economy by going on strike. The story played out in real life in 1981, with the threatened strike of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). Again, real life played out differently than it did in the Heinlein story; in real life, President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers.

The leader of the road technicians’ strike was the villain of the Heinlein story, I’m not drawing the same conclusion about the PATCO strike, just noting the parallel of a relatively small number of technicians in a key transportation industry able to threaten economic chaos by going on strike.

Heinlein also invented the internet. In his 1938 first novel, For Us The Living, unpublished during his lifetime, Heinlein predicts a nationwide information network, from which the hero is able to instantly access a newspaper article from the previous century, from the comfort of a friend’s home. Today, the New York Times Archive is online, with articles dating back to 1851. Heinlein’s network wasn’t electronic, though; it was a series of pneumatic tubes (maybe Sen. Ted Stevens wasn’t wrong—he was just a confused Heinlein fan), with librarians at the other end who sent you photostats of articles that you requested. But Heinlein got the effects right: It was a network, and you could get answers to a wide variety of questions, some quite obscure, from the comfort of your home.

Heinlein returns to the theme near the end of his career, in the 1983 novel Friday. The area formerly known as the United States is linked by an information network. By then, this idea wasn’t new; the omnipresent information network had been part of the furniture of science fiction for many years. But Heinlein describes what it’s like to use the Web, a decade before the invention of the real thing. He describes what it’s like to get lost on the network, following one link after another in random research. His prediction wasn’t magic, random research is as old as the library. But Heinlein brings it forward into the electronic age. And he uses this kind of random wandering as a teaching method; instead of taking a class, his heroine Friday is confronted with a series of seemingly silly questions, and in the course of answering them, she spends massive amounts of time in research, soaking up seemingly unrelated and unimportant information, until she is able to predict when civilization will collapse.

Heinlein’s first-person heroine writes that she has become the World’s Greatest Authority, a phrase she borrows from an old comedy video she came across in her random wanderings, just as you might do the same thing on YouTube today:

At one time there really was a man known as “the World’s Greatest Authority.” I ran across him in trying to nail down one of the many silly questions that kept coming at me from odd sources. Like this: Set your terminal to “research.” Punch parameters in succession “North American culture,” “English-speaking,” “mid-twentieth century,” “comedians,” “the World’s Greatest Authority.” The answer you can expect is “Professor Irwin Corey.” You’ll find his routines timeless humor.

Here is Professor Irwin Corey in a 2008 routine, age 94. Here he is on the Smothers Brothers in 1966. The real internet beats Heinlein’s invention there; I didn’t have to go through Friday’s taxonomic rigmarole, I just typed “Professor Irwin Corey” into the search box of Firefox, and Google did the rest for me.

In an earlier sequence of the novel, a character takes a call on a mobile phone she carries in her knitting bag.

CMPalmer and Jo Walton stole my thunder in describing my favorite example of Heinlein predicting the effects of technology; in this one he got both the details and the effect right. In Between Planets, the boy hero is out riding his horse in the desert when he gets a call on his mobile phone. Later, Walton notes, Heinlein predicted teenagers would pack the phone away so their mothers couldn’t get a hold of them. CMPalmer writes:

The funny thing about the scene is that when I re-read this book a few years ago, I was one or two pages past the scene when I realized that the phone ringing while on the horse was a “gee whiz futuristic moment” when the book was published in the 1940s (or so)—whereas I just pictured a guy on his horse talking on a cell phone.

The hero of Between Planets clearly wasn’t using AT&T.

Mitch Wagner is a fan, freelance technology journalist and social media strategist, who blogs about technology on the Computerworld Tool Talk Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner. He’s looking for a publisher for his first science fiction novel, and hard at work on his second.


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