“Nobody today will believe your prophecy, nobody will care about it.” — Jules Verne
Science fiction is important for the development of new ideas in a society. It’s also helpful to understand how people will react to new innovations and what we as humans ultimately yearn for in technology. Even the Harvard Business Review has caught on to the importance of science fiction as required reading for business leaders.
With that in mind, I’ve pulled together a list of the more prophetic science fiction books I’ve enjoyed reading that frame up a digital-forward future. These books all share their author’s amazing ability to foretell how as humans we will go about experiencing a world with all the technologies that we’re creating.
One thing to keep in mind; some of the earliest books on the list predicted where we would be with technology today.
So let’s dig in! From top to bottom in order of their release:
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011)
The most recent in the list, this book is the most recommended when it comes to understanding virtual reality’s potential impact on society. This story follows Wade Watts as he navigates the OASIS; a digital world experienced through virtual reality headsets. A few books on this list are more prophetic around technology. This book is more of a narrative on where our society is going socio-economically and how things like virtual reality will be used. Virtual multi-user narratives (MUN’s) are constantly evolving and getting more robust. The use of technology as escapism into these MUN’s is a central theme in this book and something that is heavily scrutinized today.
🤔Thought-provoking Technologies: Virtual Reality, Advanced AI assistants, haptics
Rainbow’s Edge by Vernon Vinge (2007)
Set in the year 2025, this book follows a middle schooler and an old man as they get wrapped up in a massive homeland security plot. The novel looks at a few trends in consumer technology but also examines that role that government actors and security plays in a digital future. Vernor Vinge, a professor of math and a computer scientist, does an amazing job of identifying relevant trends in 2007 and draws realistic conclusions of where things could be 20 years out. In 2018, a little over halfway to the world he imagines, this book is a great read.
🤔Thought-provoking Technologies: Augmented reality/wearables, Advanced AI assistants, haptics, cybersecurity
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is One of the strongest narratives on the list and the first in a massive series. Arthur Dent learns that we aren’t alone in the universe and finds himself on an adventure across space running into aliens of all kinds. Some of the technology that Adams writes into the book have already drawn comparisons to things coming to market today. It’s worth a read or having a watch of yhe film adaptation from 2005 especially to see the hilarious “emotionally intelligent” robot that Adams foresees (spoiler alert: the robot is chronically depressed).
The Master Key by L. Frank Baum (1901)
It’s hard to imagine that at the turn of the 20th century the jury was still out on the impact of technology. Written in 1850 by Baum (who also wrote the Wizard of Oz), this book is amazing in it’s ability to capture some of the concerns that arise in a digital world. A young boy experiments with technology and finds a way to master it’s capability thus summoning a “Demon of Electricity”. This demon brings the boy electricity-driven gifts which predict some of the technology we’ve come to see today. It’s a quick read and is interesting to consider from the point of view of someone experiencing technology for the first time. Baum’s sense is that all the advanced technology will end of making our lives more complicated.
🤔Thought-provoking Technologies: Feed of global events (social media/modern media), communicator (cellphones), teleportation (air travel)
Paris in the 20th Century by Jules Verne (1863)
The oldest of most prophetic book in the list also comes with an interesting backstory. Written by Verne (of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea fame) in the mid 1800’s about what Paris would look like in 1960. This book was held back from publication due to what were then outrageous claims about technology but eventually found and published in 1994. This book looks at a society ran by engineers and the impact it has on creatives/the arts. The storyline of this book is anticipatory of the “bubble” challenges that Silicon Valley and the technology industry is facing as a whole.
🤔Thought-provoking Technologies (Keep in mind, it’s from 1863!): Skyscrapers/glass towers, elevators, computers, software.
What other science fiction books from the past or present have you found that does a good job of articulating the future?
Advanced Reading — 200-Level
Hamlet on the Holodeck by Janet H. Murray (Revised Edition 2017)
This is considered a master class in understanding how technology will shape the future of storytelling and immersive experiences. Although academic and not a novel, this book is the basis for any modern thought around experience design and digital narratives. Murray does an amazing job at predicting the future around interactive web design, virtuality reality platforms, and even today with what we are seeing in artificial intelligence. Relevant for anyone looking to get a basic primer on emerging experiential technology and one of the best comprehensive, and readable, academic works on the space.
A big thanks to Luke Stiles, Mike Whitworth, Danny Steiner, Karolina Manko, and the friends who inspired me to read these books along the way!