Find Out What SF Writers In 1987 Thought The World Of 2012 Would Look Like

Did anybody get it right?

By David Wharton | Updated

This article is more than 2 years old

It is the job of the science fiction writer to guess what the future might look like. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it wrong…and sometimes they even get it really wrong. In the end, a knack for precognition isn’t nearly as important as creating wondrous worlds, intriguing characters, and exciting stories. Still, there’s no denying our fascination not just with what the future will bring, but with what others once thought the future would bring. In that spirit, L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest recently opened a time capsule sealed 25 years ago, filled with predictions by many notable science fiction writers in response to the question, “What will life be like in the year 2012?”

The capsule was opened during an April ceremony honoring the winners of the annual L. Ron Hubbard Writers and Illustrators of the Future contests, founded by Hubbard during the ’80s. The opening of the time capsule completed a journey begun in 1987, and revealed the predictions of genre legends such as Isaac Asimov, Gregory Benford, Frederick Pohl, and Orson Scott Card. They have posted the predictions over at the Writers of the Future website, and we’ve got the full text at the bottom.

For a man as prolific as Isaac Asimov was, it’s funny that his prediction is one of the shortest of the lot. He said, “Assuming we haven’t destroyed ourselves in a nuclear war, there will be 8-10 billion of us on this planet—and widespread hunger. These troubles can be traced back to President Ronald Reagan who smiled and waved too much.”

Several of writer Gregory Benford’s predictions have either come to pass or are expected to be on our horizon, including water shortages and a bout of millennial faiths and cults who have been rendered irrelevant by the continued ticking of the clock. The one that really breaks our heart? “Bases on the moon, an expedition to Mars…all done. But the big news will be some problematical evidence for intelligent life elsewhere.” If only, Mr. Benford…if only.

Frederick Pohl also gave our species too much credit, predicting “a world at peace” and “a world almost without weaponry.” That’s not the only swing-and-a-miss from Pohl: he also thought that we would have conquered the problems of pollution and that the average standard of living would be “about equal to a contemporary millionaire’s.” If that were the case I imagine our election years would involve a lot less passing of blame and slinging of mud.

Perhaps the most accurate and poetic of the predictions comes from Robert Silverberg, who said, simply, “We’re coming out of a time of troubles into a time of risks and promise—as we have been doing since the beginning of history. I think the 21st century will be a time of terror, surprises, miracles, and glory—with the emphasis on surprises and miracles.”

That just about sums it up, Mr. Silverberg. Now, who wants to take odds on what 2037 will look like? If you want the details of all the predictions, you can read the full text below.


Assuming we haven’t destroyed ourselves in a nuclear war, there will be 8-10 billion of us on this planet—and widespread hunger. These troubles can be traced back to President Ronald Reagan who smiled and waved too much.




… 25 years from now.

World population stands at nearly 8 billion.

The Dow-Jones Industrial Average stands at 8,400, but the dollar is worth a third of today’s.

Oil is running out, but shale-extracted oil is getting cheaper. The real shortage in much of the world is…water.

Most Americans are barely literate, think in images rather than symbols, and think the future is something that will happen to somebody else…just as today…

The outer-directed, social-issues consciousness of the USA, only nascent in 1987, will have peaked and run its course…leading to a fresh period of inward-directed values, perhaps even indulgence…though there will be less ability to indulge.

The French will still like odd Americans, unhonored in their own land (like the comedian Jerry Lewis), and will have just produced another desiccating critical theory of literature. Their food will be the same, too.

Berkeley, California will have a theme park devoted to its high period—the 1960s.

Bases on the moon, an expedition to Mars…all done. But the big news will be some problematical evidence for intelligent life elsewhere.

In science, the Icks (physics, mathematics) will be eclipsed by the Ologies (biology, psychology, ecology…).

There will have been major “diebacks” in overcrowded Third World countries, all across southern Asia and through Africa. This will be a major effect keeping population from reaching 10 billion.

The Crazy Years surrounding the turn of the century will have petered out, millennialfaiths will be boring again, and the attitudes expressed in this collection of predictions will seem very outmoded and “twen-cen.”

I will be old, but not dead. Come by to see me, and bring a bottle.



Because we will be in a trough between 20th-century resources and 21st-century needs, in 2012 all storable forms of energy will be expensive. Machines will be designed to use only minimal amounts of it. At the same time, there will be a general expectation that a practical cheap-energy delivery system is just around the corner. Individuals basing their career plans on any aspect of technology will concentrate on that future, leaving contemporary machine applications to the less ambitious or to those who foresee a different future. The most socially approved-of individuals will constitute a narrowly focused aristocracy, and will be at the mercy of dull functionaries and secretive rebels who actually perform the day-to-day maintenance of society. It should be noted that most minimal-energy devices process information and microscopic materials, not consumer goods. The function of “our” society may depend on processing information and biotechnology to subjugate goods-producing societies. These societies may be geographically external, or may be yet another social stratum within central North America. In either case, crowd-management technologies will have to turn away from forms that might in any way impair capital goods production. Social regimentation will then have become so deft that most people will regard any other social milieu as pitiable.



A Message to Those Alive in 2012

Greetings! In writing these guesses about the technology that you will be using, I am assuming that there have been no gross discontinuities in human life from such catastrophes as nuclear war or an airborne mutation of the AIDS virus. From the standpoint of 1987, one type of technology that holds great promise for the next generation is nanotechnology, which involves the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules instead of the large solid objects that 1987 technology manipulates. With nanotechnology, it becomes possible to create structures in which every atom has a specific place and function. Such structures could for example, contain immense densities of information, rivaling and surpassing that of the human brain. This information would be contained in tiny volumes, as small as individual bacteria, so that the information could be processed much more quickly than by 1987’s computers, be they made of carbon or silicon.

The techniques for nanotechnology were already being developed in 1987. Tunneling microscopy and X-ray holography can be used to visualize objects on an atomic scale. Molecular beam lithography and trapping of individual atoms by laser beams or magnetic fields have been used to move and place atoms as the experimenter desires. These techniques will surely be refined to the point where we become capable of doing engineering on the nanoscale as we can now do on the macroscale. It was this mastery of atoms and molecules which led to many of the most prominent features of the world you now inhabit.



Written on the Eastern Air Shuttle between Boston and N.Y.

What will life be like in the year 2012? There will have been no nuclear war, and the threat of such a war will have been removed by the mutual nuclear disarmament of the major powers. SDI, Reagan’s ill advised Star Wars program will have come to nothing.

Japan will be the central economic power in the world, owning or controlling a significant part of European and American industries. This “economic dictatorship” will be beneficial to Japan’s client states, since Japan benefits by keeping its customers healthy and wealthy. Indeed, a peaceful and prosperous world community will owe its existence to this Pax Japanica.

Many diseases will be curable: diabetes and gout, for example, will be treated by ‘genetic engineering’ techniques. Multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease will be effectively cured. However, AIDS will not yet have been controlled. It will have become the leading cause of death worldwide with millions of new cases each year.

The American economy will have experienced a gentle yet relentless decline. Our children will not live such comfortable lives as we do. The spread between the rich and the poor will have grown, and crime will have become so prevalent as to threaten the social fabric. The rich and the poor will form 2 armed camps. Most automobiles and heavy machinery will be manufactured in Japanese owned planets located in America. Yet, agriculture and higher education will be our most successful exports. There will be no fast trains connecting American cities, but a network of levitated superconducting trains will be under construction in Western Europe and in Japan.




Dear People of the Future,

In my day there were professional entertainers, and fake psychics, who specialized in telling total strangers all sorts of intimate details about themselves. The process was called “cold reading”. I’ve never done it before, but I think I can do it for you. I think I can tell you quite accurately what your lives are like as you open this time capsule.

For example, you live in a world at peace. Something like the World Court, as an arm of something like the United Nations, resolves international disputes, and has the power to enforce its decisions. For that reason, you live in a world almost without weaponry; and, because you therefore do not have to bear the crippling financial burden of paying for military establishments and hardware, all of you enjoy and average standard of living about equal to a contemporary millionaire’s. Your health is generally superb. Your life expectancy is not much less than a century. The most unpleasant and debilitating jobs (heavy industry, mining, large-scale farming) are given over to machines; most work performed by human beings is in some sense creative. The exploration of space is picking up speed, both by manned colonization and robot probes, and by vast orbiting telescopes and other instruments. Deforestation, desertification and the destruction of arable land has been halted and even reversed. Pollution is controlled, and all the winds and the waters of the Earth are sweet again.

This is a very short description of your life, but it could be made even shorter. A single word can describe it: it is very close to what every previous age of mankind would call “Utopia”.

How do I know these things?

It isn’t because I’ve made a probabilistic assessment of present-day trends. Quite the contrary. All the evidence of what is going on in the world today leads to the conclusion that none of these good things are going to happen, because our country, the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world (and, I have always thought, the best) is bankrupting itself to recruit and train terrorists in Latin America, give arms to terrorists all over the world, develop and employ fleets, armies and weapons systems which have no purpose except to pound any country which disagrees with us into submission. Since, unfortunately for us, the people who disagree with us have terrorists, fleets, armies and weapons systems of their own, the most plausible future scenario is all-out nuclear war.

It is therefore clear that to make the predictions above is to bet recklessly against the odds.

It’s still a good bet, though.

In fact, I don’t see how I can lose it. Anyone opening the capsule to read these lines will have to agree that my low-probability predictions pretty well describe the actual turn of events…because if the high-probability ones of mass destruction and species suicide should prevail no one is likely to be around to read them.



A computer will win the Campbell & Hubbard Awards.



Probate and copyright law will be entirely restructured by 2012 because people will be frozen at death, and there will be electronic means of consulting them. Many attorneys will specialize in advocacy for the dead.



Predictions for 2012

We must count ourselves lucky if anyone has leisure enough in 2012 to open this time capsule and care what is inside. In 2012 Americans will see the collapse of Imperial America, the Pax Americana, as having ended with our loss of national will and national selflessness in the 1970s. Worldwide economic collapse will have cost America its dominant world role; but it will not result in Russian hegemony; their economy is too dependent on the world economy to maintain an irresistible military force. A new world order will emerge from famine, disease, and social dislocation: the re-tribalization of Africa, the destruction of the illusion of Islamic unity, the struggle between aristocracy and proletariat in Latin America—without the financial support of the industrialized nations, the old order will be gone. The changes will be as great as those emerging from the fall of Rome, with new power centers emerging wherever stability and security are established. The homogeneity of Israel will probably allow it to survive; Mexico and Japan may change rulers, but they will still be strong. If America is to recover, we must stop pretending to be what we were in 1950, and reorder our values away from pursuit of privilege.



We’re coming out of a time of troubles into a time of risks and promise—as we have been doing since the beginning of history. I think the 21st century will be a time of terror, surprises, miracles, and glory—with the emphasis on surprises and miracles.




If we had a time-phone, now in 1987, we would beg you to forgive us. We have burdened you with impossible debts, wasted and polluted the planet that should have been your rich heritage, left you instead a dreadful legacy of ignorance, want, and war.

Yet, in spite of that, we have a proud faith in you. Faith that you have saved yourselves, that you are giving birth to no more children than you can love and nurture, that you have cleansed and healed your injured planet, ended hunger, conquered crime, learned to live in peace.

Looking toward a better future for you than we can see for ourselves, we trust that you will use your computers and all your new electronic media to inform and liberate, not to dominate and oppress, trust that you will employ the arts of genetic engineering to advance the human species and make your children better than yourselves. We know that you will be inventing new sciences that would dazzle us, opening brave new frontiers, climbing on toward the stars.

We live again through you.


Jack Williamson




But the Writers of the Future Contest has asked me to read your palm, nevertheless. Twenty-five years is not great length on the scale of the history, and thus I am conservative, limiting myself to the following five predictions—one for each finger. And indeed, they are less prediction than certainty.

• The Thumb—Power: America and the U.S.S.R. preserve an uneasy accord, each testing the other’s will within well-defined limits. No major nuclear war has taken place. Soviets are more like Americans (and Americans more like Soviets) than anyone else.

• The Index Finger—Learning: Vestiges of reading, writing, and spelling remain in the curricula of the public schools. Those who can read a few hundred common words are counted literate. The schools train their students for employment—how to report to computers and follow instructions. (Called interaction.) Fifty million adult Americans are less than fluent in English.

• The Fool Finger—Entertainment: Sports and televised dramas are the only commonly available recreations. The dramas are performed by computer-generated images indistinguishable (on screen) from living people. Scenery is provided by the same method. Although science fiction and fantasy characterize the majority of these dramas, they are not so identified.

• The Ring Finger—Love: There is little sex outside marriage, which normally includes a legal contract. A single instance of infidelity is amply sufficient to terminate a marriage, with damages to the aggrieved party; this is a consequence of the two great plagues of the past 25 years. (I do not include the one we call AIDS, because it began well before this was written.) The population of the planet is below six billion. People live in space and on the moon, but their numbers are not significant.

• The Little Finger—Minority: A literate stratum supplies leadership in government and most (though not all) other fields. Its members are experimenting with sociological simulations that take into account the individual characters and preferences of most of the population. Its aim is to increase the power of the literate class and further limit literacy, without provoking war with the U.S.S.R. or alienating the rising powers—China and the Latin American block. A literate counterculture also exists.

• Its products, too, are largely science fiction and fantasy; it tries to broaden the literate base, in part in order that its output can be read. It is of course to you of this counterculture that I write to say, take  heart! Twenty-five years is no great length upon the long scale of history. In my time too, the age was dark. But we are summoning the sun.



In 2012 We will see:

1) That economic cycles caused by rises in technological levels will begin to level out—countries that have a falsely inflated economy will be forced to export their technologies to third-world countries where people are willing to work for less money. This will lead to a situation where knowledge, the key to our technologic success, will be spread across the world. We’ll see rapid decreases in starvation levels, but will still be plagued with political turmoil.

2) Men’s Rights—We will see a reaction to the women’s movement. Men will demand to be portrayed by the media as the sensitive, caring creatures that they are. They will also demand equal rights in custody battles where children are seldom awarded to a father because our society chooses to believe a mother is a better care-taker by nature.

3) Introduction of x-ray microscopes in the early 2000’s will lead to rapid progress in gene splicing. Look for rapid growth in medicine and mining, and food production. We may also see bacteria being engineered to simulate parts of the immune system (which could cure immune disorders such as AIDS and allergies).



It is good to see that a cashless, checkless society has just about come to pass, that automation has transformed offices and robotics manufacturing in mainly beneficial ways, including telecommuting, that defense spending has finally slowed for a few of the right reasons, that population growth has also slowed and that biotechnology has transformed medicine, agriculture and industry—all of this resulting in an older, slightly conservative, but longer-lived and healthier society possessed of more leisure and a wider range of educational and recreational options in which to enjoy it—and it is very good at last to see this much industry located off-planet, this many permanent space residents and increased exploration of the solar system. I would also like to take this opportunity to plug my new book, to be published in both computerized and printed versions in time for 2012 Christmas sales—but I’ve not yet decided on its proper title. Grandchildren of Amber sounds at this point a little clumsy, but may have to serve.

Header image by the late, legendary science fiction artist Robert McCall.