From sci-fi predictions to modern-day technology: is truth stranger than fiction?

  • In ‘Stand on Zanzibar’, the US is under President Obomi’s leadership
  • Jules Verne envisaged the moon landing, teleconferencing and submarines in the 1800s
  • The sci-fi novel ‘1984’ describes how Big Brother is watching us
  • In 1898, Nikola Tesla predicted wireless technology and even drone warfare
  • Only the future will tell

There’s something quite thrilling about witnessing sci-fi stories turning into reality. Things like escalators, helicopters, submarines, electric cars and tablets were, at some point, all figments of someone’s imagination. Not only have some of these sci-fi writers and visionaries managed to correctly predict inventions, but cultural and societal shifts as well. In this article, we will look at some incredible predictions by various authors that actually came true.

In ‘Stand on Zanzibar’, the US is under President Obomi’s leadership

‘Stand On Zanzibar’ by John Brunner was published in 1969 and is widely recognised as the most prophetic, almost creepy science fiction novel to date. The novel describes a future America that eerily resembles the one that exists today. The US, under President Obomi’s (!) leadership, is dealing with a lot instability and violence. Terrorists attack buildings within the country and pose an increasing threat to US interests. School shootings happen left, right and centre. Detroit is an abandoned wasteland, teeming with shuttered factories and boasting a new style of electronic music. Cars are powered by rechargeable electric fuel cells, with General Motors and Honda being the major suppliers. Some men and women still get married but more and more people of the younger generation choose low commitment, short-term hookups. Pharmaceutical drugs to improve sexual performance are widely used, marijuana has been decriminalised and bisexual and gay relationships have become mainstream. While racial tensions are still part of society, blacks have moved into positions of power as a result of affirmative action.

Not the Soviet Union, but China is now the US’s most powerful rival but instead of overt warfare, the competition between the nations is played out via trade, economics and technology. In other parts of the world: Israel is still the centre of political tensions in the Middle East and in terms of economic development, Africa remains far behind the rest of the world. European nations have formed a union in order to improve their influence on world affairs and their economic prospects. While most European countries are critical of US initiatives, Britain tends to side with the US. Satellite has enabled TV news channels to go global and people can now choose to view movies and TV shows whenever they want via TiVo. Aeroplanes offer inflight entertainment with news and video programs on screens at each individual seat. Computer documents are generated with laser printers and people present themselves on video screens via avatars.

These are just some of the things that actually came true but of course, Brunner got many details wrong as well. His work is however still the most uncanny of all sci-fi writers’ predictions. Its overall theme of the hidden cost of our obsession with human perfection is still as relevant today as it was when he wrote Stand on Zanzibar.

The book cover of Stand On Zanzibar by John Brunner
‘Stand On Zanzibar’ by John Brunner was published in 1969 and is widely recognised as the most prophetic, almost creepy science fiction novel to date.

In the 1800s, Jules Verne already envisaged the moon landing, teleconferencing and submarines

World famous French novelist Jules Verne, one of the most inventive sci-fi writers of the 1800s, often wrote about underwater- and air travel, projectiles and space, long before any scientific progress happened in these fields. Often considered the ‘father of the science fiction genre’, a man ahead of his time and even a prophet, Verne made an incredible number of predictions that came true. In one of his most famous works, From The Earth To The Moon, he basically predicted the lunar landing of Apollo 11 in 1969, over a century before it happened. In this novel, the astronauts were launched in an aluminium capsule from a site in Florida, and the dimensions of the projectile described are eerily close to those of Apollo 11. Verne even predicted weightlessness. In the same way the Apollo capsule with the three astronauts landed in the Atlantic Ocean after the moon exploration, the aluminium pod described in his novel also splashes down into the sea.

In his novel ‘In The Year 2889’, Verne introduced the ‘phonotelephote’, a home console that sends and receives sound and even moving images over vast distances, by using ‘sensitive mirrors that are connected by wires’. Sounds very much like the videoconferencing technology we use today.

Excerpt from the novel:
“The first thing Mr. Smith does is activate his phonotelephote, the wires of which communicate with his Paris mansion. The telephote! Here is another great triumph of modern science. The transmission of speech is an old story; the transmission of images by means of sensitive mirrors connected by wires is a thing but of yesterday. A valuable invention indeed; Mr. Smith this morning is full of blessings for the inventor, when by its aid he is able distinctly to see his wife despite her great distance.”

In perhaps his most popular novel, ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea’, Verne introduces his readers to Nautilus, a colossal submarine created by Captain Nemo, boasting a formal dining room and many other luxuries. A powerful agent, electricity, reigns supreme on board of the sub. It is powerful, rapid, facile and obedient. It illuminates and warms the ship and powers various mechanical devices such as pumps, instrumentation and the main propulsion. The story was written in a time where practical applications of electricity were only some decades old and an entire century before it was feasible to build these types of vessels.

Journeying to the moon, teleconferencing and exploring the depths of our oceans, all of these concepts had already been dreamed up by others as well. But it was Verne’s speculative, hypothetical solutions to these challenges that created a sense of possibility that hadn’t existed before. For instance, when Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon in 1969, he credited Jules Verne with inspiring the lunar mission more than a century earlier.

The sci-fi novel ‘1984’ describes how Big Brother is watching us

‘1984’ by George Orwell must be one of the most profound dystopian novels ever written. Published in 1948, the book has had a significant impact on the world and many of the nightmares of Oceania have become reality – a world governed by fear and monitored by omnipresent dictator, ‘Big Brother’. As a result of 1984, ‘Orwellian’ has become a commonly used term to describe ‘secret surveillance, official deception and misrepresentation of historical facts and the use of euphemisms to hide the truth by an authoritarian or totalitarian state.’ Orwell hoped that, by writing 1984, he could contribute to preventing this type of state from ever becoming reality. But with Edward Snowden’s recent revelations, we’ve realised that Orwell’s dystopian view of the future is very much alive. Not only are the NSA and associated organisations involved in targeted surveillance of world leaders, they are colluding in massive population surveillance as well.

Our modern existence is centred around the seemingly benign type of surveillance of social media. Platforms such as Facebook work because we allow them to use our personal data so that they can offer us recommendation-based services. Even though social media seems relatively harmless, it does make it complicated to distinguish between unhealthy surveillance and mere data-tracking. Little by little, we have indeed given up our personal freedoms and our right to privacy. We have passively allowed surveillance to creep into our lives. In Orwell’s novel, the willingness to give up privacy is a result of fear. But our current loss of privacy is a result of the benefits and convenience brought about by technological developments. Think high-tech communication technology, instant access to information and social networking. In the novel as well as in our modern world, our governments have taken away our right to privacy and in both instances, the citizens have allowed it to happen.

The impact of loss of privacy and constant surveillance is already felt by the average citizen and because of this, we are now beginning to see behavioural changes in society. Some studies indicate that almost 50% of people think they are being watched by the government, which is a reason for them to change the way they use the Internet. Some journalists no longer openly voice their opinion on certain matters or write about certain topics because they are aware of being monitored and afraid of landing on a target list. This type of behaviour clearly diminishes the values of our society. It is therefore critical that we keep opposing data retention and keep resisting efforts to facilitate government surveillance, not only in our personal capacity but also as companies because we may be sacrificing far too much.

Some quotes from:

  • Big Brother is Watching You.
  • He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.
  • Until they became conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.
  • The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.<
  • If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.
  • Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.
  • For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?
  • The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power.
  • One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.



In 1898, Nikola Tesla predicted wireless technology and even drone warfare

Nikola Tesla, Serbian-American inventor, physicist, mechanical- and electrical engineer and futurist is best known for his contributions to the design of the AC (alternating current) electrical systems. However, he also predicted television, smartphones and even drones. Renowned for his achievements and showmanship, he registered around 300 patents in the course of his life and our modern society owes a lot to this ‘mad scientist’. Traces of his inventions are found in many of the devices we use today.

In the 1926 issue of Collier’s Magazine, Tesla said:
“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is…. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.

Tesla also predicted drone warfare. In 1898 he was granted a patent for an ‘apparatus for controlling mechanism of moving vehicles or vessels’: a vessel that wouldn’t need any type of mechanical or electrical connection such as cables and wires. Instead, the vessel would be controlled with ‘impulses, waves or radiations received through the atmosphere, water or earth – as long as the vessel remained within range of these impulses, waves or radiations’. We call them radio-waves. He claimed that the destructive power of the device would be so great that it would bring nations together and create world peace. Unfortunately, the drones as we know them today have not exactly achieved this world peace Tesla spoke of.

Only the future will tell

Scientists aren’t the only ones capable of coming up with incredible inventions. In fact, many of our most unexpected and most disruptive technological achievements were, either fully or in part, inspired by outlandish ideas from the brains of science fiction authors or mad physicists. From the examples in this article we can see that we are in fact living in the future some authors predicted many moons ago. Only the future will tell which other science fiction stories will come true and which ones we’ll be rolling our eyes at later.

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