Near the end of 2014 I described the step-by-step process of creating a random SF/fantasy paperback grab-bag, and I have continued to draw books from the box, one after another. I’ve already outed myself as someone who makes notes in the margins of books (sometimes, at least) to call out a few examples of interesting things on the subject of writing, worldbuilding, and so on. I didn’t do that with every random science fiction book I’ve read since then, but I made a few at least in my old 1966 Ace copy of the short story collection The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein.

The stories in this collection, originally published mostly in Astounding in 1939, 1940, and 1962, definitely fall into the Hard SF category, much more concerned with the science and engineering being done than with the characters doing it. What I actually found more interesting than the stories themselves was Heinlein’s long introduction to the book, “Pandora’s Box”—a 1966 update of his 1952 essay “Where To?”

Heinlein sets the tone of the essay quickly with he simple declaration:“Science fiction is not prophecy.” Then more robustly:

Science fiction is almost always laid in the future—or at least in a fictional possible-future—and is almost invariably deeply concerned with the shape of that future. But the method is not prediction; it is usually extrapolation and/or speculation. Indeed the author is not required to (and usually does not) regard the fictional “future” he has chosen to write about as being the events most likely to come to pass; his purpose may have nothing to do with the probability that these storied events may happen.

Having recognized that, Heinlein boldly lists some of his own predictions of the near future including things like “Contraception and control of disease is revising relations between sexes to an extent that will change our entire social and economic structure” and “In fifteen years [1981] the housing shortage will be solved by a ‘breakthrough’ into new technology which will make every house now standing as obsolete as privies.”

Of his nineteen predictions, eight turned out to have come true (or mostly true), eleven were false, or essentially false, having not happened yet, but they might still someday. That’s not bad, being within a reasonable margin of error of 50/50. Not bad looking from 1966, when a lot of technologies we take for granted now were still either still in the realm of fiction or in their infancy (he said: “Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag”), and a period of extreme social change was only just beginning (as per his thoughts on relations between the sexes, above). This only serves to back up Heinlein’s supposition that the best laid plans of any would-be science fiction prophet will have little better than a coin toss’s chance of coming to pass. And this only made more difficult by a dramatic shift in how science and technology is done:

Even to make predictions about overall trends in technology is now more difficult. In fields where before World War II there was one man working in public, there are now ten, or a hundred, working in secret. There may be six men in the country who have a clear picture of what is going on in science today. There may not be even one.

Weirdest of all here is Heinlein calling for something he understood was necessary, but was way off in terms of how it would actually come about:

Call it the Crisis of the Librarian.

We need a new “specialist” who is not a specialist, but a synthesist. We need a new science to be the perfect secretary to all other sciences.

Enter, thirty-two years later, Google.

Happily, Heinlein was wrong about one common assumption of the Cold War era:

The period immediately ahead [of 1966] will be the roughest, cruelest one in the long, hard history of mankind. It will probably include the worst World War of them all. It might even end with a war with Mars, God save the mark! Even if we are spared that fantastic possibility, it is certain that there will be no security anywhere, save what you dig out of your own spirit.

And here he was, right in the second decade of the Long Peace, and ten years before the Viking lander made it clear that Mars was rather lacking in (at least macroscopic) Martians. See what propaganda can do to even really smart people?

All that said, Heinlein did predict, in the short stories that follow in The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein, an awful lot about the coming atomic age. Since the collection was put together in 1966, and surely included some revisions, it’s hard to credit all of these predictions to the original stories published in the 40s. Still, in this collection we can see an author who takes the science in science fiction quite seriously, working with an editor, Joseph Campbell, who took it even more seriously, as what came to be known as “Hard SF” took over from the pulp space operas and science-fantasies of the pre-war era. These early stories also fail to predict Heinlein’s own part in pushing the genre from “hard” to “soft” with his own Stranger in a Strange Land, published just a year before the story “Searchlight” and more than two decades after the rest of the stories in this collection.

A tricky, moving target, that future, isn’t it?

Even our own futures.



—Philip Athans


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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