Tuesday, April 13, 2021

While I'm being a killjoy... retconning sci-fi predictions

Following up on yesterday's post.

Science fiction can be a great place to discuss the social and psychological impact of technological advances, but its ability to predict otherwise unforeseen developments is not actually that clear.  Arguably most commonly cited science fiction prophesies are simply slight extrapolations of contemporary technology and widely discussed proposals, the result of a tendency, particularly among 21st century commentators, to underestimate the sophistication of previous generations. This is nowhere more true than with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas

Before we go on, take a look at this picture.

If you saw this without any context, you might assume it was Verne's famous Nautilus. You'd be close but off by about a decade. By the same token, if a French reader picked up a copy of Verne's book hot off the presses in 1870, he or she would immediately have thought of the Plongeur.

In 1859 the Board of Construction (Conseil des travaux) called naval engineers for designs for a submarine and reviewed three, choosing that submitted by Siméon Bourgeois (later Admiral) and Charles Brun, naming the project Plongeur with the code name Q00.


The submarine was armed with a ram to break holes in the hull of enemy ships, and an electrically fired spar torpedo, fixed at the end of a pole though later, Admiral Bourgeois who was, after 1871, chairman of the Commission on Submarine Defences opposed to the use of torpedoes as the primary weapon in commerce warfare.

The submarine was 43 m (140 ft) long and 381 t (420 tons) in displacement.


On 18 February 1864, Plongeur was towed to La Pallice and dived to 9 m (30 ft).


A model of Plongeur was displayed at the 1867 Exposition Universelle, where it was studied by Jules Verne, who used it as an inspiration and 3 years later published his novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

For its original audience, the premise of the novel was what if a brilliant revolutionary/outlaw were to build a bigger, faster Plongeur. There was little in the book that was particularly speculative; if anything, just the opposite. Unlike Wells a generation later who who built each of his fantastic tales around some incredible breakthrough, Verne stayed close to the technology of the day. The accuracy is a hotly contentious point (with at least one fan making a dubious stand on Wikipedia), but, except for the scale, there's little tech in the book that wasn't either in use or widely speculated about, and that little hasn't aged well. 

With a few exceptions (possibly including Clarke's telecommunication satellites), most supposed cases of science fiction predicting the future involve concepts that were in the air at the time of the writing. This in no way detracts from the intellectual or artistic value of the genre. It's just a reminder that like all art, science fiction works tell us mainly about the times they came  from. What it tells us about today is normally something we bring to it.

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