Featured photo credit: Albert Robida [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Jules Verne and HG Wells are considered giants in science fiction, if not THE giants. While they were not the only ones who wrote science fiction in their time, what set them apart from all of their contemporaries was their uncanny ability to predict the technologies that we today have come to take for granted. You could even claim that we are now all living in a world that these two writers once dreamed about. Though in many cases they denied that they were prophets of any sort, you have to admit that their fingerprints are all over our world.
Jules Verne was born in Nantes, France on the 8th of February in 1828 and much of his work was published during an era in French history referred to as La Belle Époque, or the Beautiful Epoch. During this era, optimism for the future and faith in science and technology were at an all-time high, and one could argue that he contributed to the zeitgeist with his scientific romances.
The technology most associated with Verne is the submarine. In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, he described the Nautilus of Captain Nemo in ways that far outstripped the prototypes the engineers were tinkering with at the time.
What most people don’t realize is that Verne also imagined helicopters powered by electric batteries in his novel Robur the Conqueror. The one who first imagined something like a helicopter is, of course, Leonardo da Vinci, but it was Verne who imagined a full-scale rotor driven, battery-powered skyship. We once had then in the form of dirigibles, and they are now making a comeback.
H.G. Wells was born in Kent, England on the 21st of September 1866 and, unlike Jules Verne, many of the technologies he wrote about were weapons. Since Wells was a socialist and was concerned about how the British empire was affecting the populations it had conquered, his stories tended to be reflections about society and inequality. And while he did not write directly about these topics, he did explore how technology had a hand in them.
The most fearsome of the technologies that Wells imagined was the heat ray that his Martians used in The War of the Worlds, a weapon that is coming into being today under the nomenclature of ‘directed energy weapons’. Of all his stories, this is the one that comes readily to mind when his name is mentioned, perhaps because such weapons have become a staple of science fiction.
But the most significant prediction of Wells is that of atomic power in the form of the atom bomb. In the novel The World Set Free, published just before the end of the Great War, Wells imagined bombs that could wreck an entire city but could be small enough to fit into a handbag. While the bombs that menace us today are nowhere like those he imagined (his bombs exploded repeatedly), he was right that we would eventually be living under the spectre of nuclear proliferation.
My personal favorite of all of the predictions of Wells is that of our hyper-connected world. In Men Like Gods, he describes a world that many will recognize as our current, mobile phone-dependent reality, complete with all the convenience that it entails, except that instead of that world being over a thousand years in the future from his time, it took less than a couple of hundred to realize.
So how did these two giants of science fiction manage to predict all this? First, they were both curious, second, they both kept abreast of news about the technological developments of their time, and third, they were not afraid to ask the question “what if?”
What is the benefit of thinking like these two writers? Back in 1970, Alvin Toffler published Future Shock, a book that described how people are overwhelmed by the accelerating pace of change back then. That was 40 years ago, and the acceleration has increased by many magnitudes.
Sites like New Atlas, Popular Science, Discovery Magazine, and Smithsonian are good places to start. Maybe sign up for a weekly newsletter you can skim your eyes over. If you find that you like it, you could try the sites on this list.
Adopting the attitudes of Messers Verne and Wells will allow you to recognize, anticipate, and cope with the changes that are coming your way — and trust me, they are legion! Just take a look at what leading British futurists expect in the next fifty years: