It’s often said that science fiction writers are bad at predicting the future, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Accurate prediction has almost never been the primary goal of science fiction writers. Also, untold numbers of sf stories have been written over the decades. Given that output, it’s inevitable that somebody, somewhere, will nail a particular subject to an uncanny degree. This is the case with David McDaniels “Prognosis: Terminal” written for Jerry Pournelle’s anthology 2020 Visions (1974). As the book’s title suggests, it’s a collection of stories about the world in 2020, obviously written from the perspective of the early 70s.
So, how did McDaniel imagine our world next year? Giant icebergs off the coast of Los Angeles, because the coming Ice Age was the smart scientific prediction back then. Huge domes over areas of L.A. for some unspecified reason. Odd economics involving small groups of people involved in communal drug-infused art projects…or something. It’s fun stuff with a strong whiff of the New Wave about it. But it’s the astonishing portrayal of mass media and global communications that sets the story apart from the “central computer and data cubes” mindset that prevailed in much of sf.
In the future of 2020, the protagonist, playwright Buzz Hoffer, has a “pocket phone” that he folds up and…well, sticks in his pocket . At one point, “His message light glowed; he ignored it…”. He stores people in his phone with a two-digit code so he doesn’t have to remember the entire number. He types in the word “Exsolar” and receives the times and dates of three broadcast videos about new, incoming extra-terrestrial signals . He sets the phone’s timer to remind him to watch one of the live shows later. Meanwhile, display screens are ubiquitous in public spaces, one for each of the 40 channels. Buzz watches a newscast with a crowd and listens with a “privacy plug” in his hear. On and on these familiar descriptions go. The technology is mundane to the characters, just as it is for us today.
Buzz watches a news commenter say the following: “For the last several years, and with increasing efficiency, nearly every individual on earth has had the technological capability of finding out anything that was known, talking to anyone else in the world, communicating to large numbers and listening to others. Like synapses in a gigantic world-brain, we are infinitely interconnected.”
You see, they’ve come to realize, despite their advanced technology, the “Einstein Barrier” will never be breached. There will be no interstellar travel or enlightenment from real-time communication with advanced alien species. “For the next thousand years, or five hundred, or ten thousand years, we will be talking to ourselves – about everything.” These ideas give Buzz a renewed outlook on life, and he’s inspired to write a play called Twenty Billion Monkeys on a Rock.
David McDaniel didn’t live to see how much of his vision came about, having died in 1977 at 38. In the 1980 reprint of 2020 Visions, Pournelle said some of McDaniel’s technology wasn’t that far out when written in 1972, but he granted that it was moving faster than he would’ve imagined. What Pournelle didn’t imagine in 1980 was how accurate McDaniel’s implications would be for a world swimming in social media and instant communication at the precise moment the interstellar “science fiction dream” seems to be ending. We may not have flying cars and vacations on Mars, but you can occasionally find writers in the past who got lucky and got it mostly right.