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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. Nick Smale
    August 22, 2012 @ 1:23 am

    In the spirit of usenet pedantry, I should probably point out that it was rec.arts.drwho, not doctorwho…


  2. Unknown
    August 22, 2012 @ 1:28 am

    T-shirts. No one ever predicted that the world would be wearing advertising slogans and silly sayings on their undershirts and showing those to the world.


  3. SK
    August 22, 2012 @ 1:50 am

    There's a third way into cyberpunk, which was mine, and which I would say is probably the best, which is to first encounter Bethke's novel Head Crash.


  4. daibhid-c
    August 22, 2012 @ 2:02 am

    "coming as they did while cyberpunk was, within science fiction, starting to give way to other approaches"

    The cruellest description of this I've ever seen was The Completely Useless Encyclopedia, which points out that, outside the New Adventures "cyberspace has gone the way of green men from Mars with ray guns. (They still use the Ice Warriors too)."


  5. Sean Neuerburg
    August 22, 2012 @ 2:29 am

    When I think about the first realistic versions of the internet in science fiction, I think of Ender's Game. In one novel (and almost as background material) published in 1985, Orson Scott Card offers newsgroups, email, discussion boards, online news magazines, tablets, internet cafes…

    I don't know if Card was the first to include these concepts (and I certainly won't stand by any of his other books), but it always struck me how dead-on he was with these details.


  6. Iain Coleman
    August 22, 2012 @ 2:45 am

    There are a couple of interesting exceptions to your "no one predicted the internet" observation: Arthur C Clarke and Philip K Dick.

    In Clarke's novel of "2001: A Space Odyssey", Heywood Floyd uses a computer to call up selected stories from various news sources on Earth, in much the same way as you might do on news websites today. Clarke didn't get the user interface right (Floyd has to punch in the appropriate number to call up the stories, instead of clicking on a link) but otherwise it's basically the same. This being a Clarke story, of course, Floyd is a sober, serious-minded professional downloading sober, serious-minded information. LOLcats play no part in the Clarkeian future.

    The guy who did get that side of things right was Dick. In "Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said", one character is addicted to what are effectively BDSM cybersex chatrooms, while in "Galactic Pot Healer" characters who have access at work to the global instantaneous communications network use it to arse around with silly games and jokes when they're meant to be getting on with their jobs. Dick didn't set out the technical workings of these systems in the way that Clarke did – he wasn't a technically-minded guy – but he did get the social aspects of global communications networks pretty much right. He has sometimes been called "The Godfather of Cyberpunk", and there is some justification to this.


  7. SK
    August 22, 2012 @ 4:03 am

    Oh, and note Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, where characters are so dehumanised and disconnected that they have to plug themselves into machines in order to share simulacra of real emotions with strangers in order to stave off the barren pointlessness of their atomised existence and desperately try to pretend that they are still part of the human race, when actually they have been reduced to barely more than the machines the protagonist hunts.

    So that's an uncannily accurate prediction of Facebook, then.


  8. BerserkRL
    August 22, 2012 @ 4:43 am

    Also, in Heinlein's novel I Will Fear No Evil (1970), one of the characters asks: "this machine … has access to the Congressional Library St. Louis Annex, does it not?" and receives the answer: "Certainly. Hooked into the Interlibrary Net, rather, though you can restrict a query to one library."


  9. BerserkRL
    August 22, 2012 @ 4:57 am

    I'm not sure at what date we pass from "sf that anticipates the internet" to "sf that is about the internet," but if Ender's Game counts as the former, then so must Vinge's "True Names."


  10. Elizabeth Sandifer
    August 22, 2012 @ 5:48 am

    It's true, though by 1985 a fair number of those things already existed – both Usenet and e-mail were around by then. Though I feel like XKCD pretty much said all there is to say on Card's prediction of the Internet:


  11. Ununnilium
    August 22, 2012 @ 7:44 am

    I always thought XKCD got it slightly wrong; the network that Peter and Valentine posed on didn't seem like freestanding blogs so much as part of some larger community – either a discussion board like Usenet or a sort of amorphous blob of posts and responses like Tumblr.


  12. Ununnilium
    August 22, 2012 @ 7:48 am

    Interestingly, there's one short story that almost perfectly predicts the form and use of the modern Internet, and it's from 1946:


  13. Ununnilium
    August 22, 2012 @ 7:58 am

    I'd say that a significant part of the end of cyberpunk was the realization that computers weren't just going to be mainframe monoliths that only evil '80s-style corporations could afford – in other words, tools of the existing order. The fact that personal computing meant that this power was democratized was as big a surprise as the importance of computing in the first place, I'd say. (Indeed, the recent flaps about SOPA and ACTA and all of that have been the corporations trying belatedly to take back control – only to find that not only is it too late, but that other corporations have already formed that are dependent on this status quo.)


  14. BerserkRL
    August 22, 2012 @ 8:07 am

    Also, Larry Niven's teleportation stories are excellent predictors of everything about the internet except the actual internet.


  15. BerserkRL
    August 22, 2012 @ 8:12 am

    On the subject of good and bad infotech predictions: in Star Trek TNG and DS9, the characters all read and write using things that look like a cross between a Kindle and an iPad. So, points for that. BUT whenever they want to give someone a report they hand them the whole iPad. So the captain ends up with a stack of iPads to read. So, gotta deduct some points there — especially for DS9, since at that point email had become widespread in the real world.


  16. BerserkRL
    August 22, 2012 @ 8:14 am



  17. Roderick Thompson
    August 22, 2012 @ 8:24 am

    The earliest fiction I know of that tries to imagine the social effects of a world-wide network of mechanical communication and automation is E.M. Forster's 1909 short story, The Machine Stops. There was a wonderful adaptation by the BBC in the late sixties, which has been posted in various places online.


  18. Jesse
    August 22, 2012 @ 10:00 am

    It's kind of funny that SNOW CRASH is regarded as a cyberpunk classic today. I have very clear memories of when it came out — I was shelving the science fiction section at a Borders at the time — and I remember the initial reactions to it. On the negative side: "Oh dear, someone's trying to revivify the corpse of cyberpunk." On the positive side: "Hey, look! Someone's taking the piss out of cyberpunk!"

    (Me, I liked it, though my interest started dribbling away around the time we got to the speedboat chase. I think THE DIAMOND AGE and CRYPTONOMICON are much better.)


  19. David Anderson
    August 22, 2012 @ 10:05 am

    I prefer Cryptonomicon to the Baroque Cycle.
    Partly because I think the Baroque Cycle has, despite all the picaresque and occult trappings, bought a little too far into a whiggish conception of the Enlightenment and scientific revolution (one that's not a million miles from the one Phil was criticising back at Ghost Light).
    And also, because with the Baroque Cycle the asides are really just Showing My Research. It's highly entertaining Showing My Research and I wouldn't cut it and Stephenson is taking full advantage of having created for himself a genre convention that allows it. But Stephenson's asides on twentieth century culture in Cryptonomicon are more personal and more fun.


  20. encyclops
    August 22, 2012 @ 10:05 am

    SK: your Do Androids?/Facebook comment gave me chills. Well played.

    Philip: great post. I loved Neuromancer and its sequels (Gibson's been a game of diminishing returns ever since, unfortunately, though I enjoyed Pattern Recognition), probably in part because Gibson's always been good at the kind of details that make the world feel real and I appreciate that.

    Snow Crash, on the other hand, stars a character named "Hiro Protagonist," which at the time seemed like it could not possibly be more juvenile, a huge unnecessary THIS IS SATIRE, DUMMY sign waving in my face, which went a long way toward discouraging me from taking it seriously or falling in love with it. That said, I got through the whole thing and gave The Diamond Age a chance, which is great because I enjoyed the latter a lot more. That said, I don't doubt Snow Crash is today more interesting than Neuromancer for a lot of reasons, and certainly ought to have more of a relationship with Doctor Who.

    However: "Gallifreypunk" is a mouthful. "Whopunk" sounds more like an accusatory question. How's about "timepunk"?


    • Beatrix Traven
      May 1, 2023 @ 7:19 pm

      That eye-rolling character name turned me off from reading SC until very late, nearly ten years after this post. . .but now that I have I realize that among other things a feint, that obscures a couple of the more seriously interesting things about the book:

      1) Underneath all the flash of the Metaverse and libertarian dystopia and ancient mind-viruses, a major running theme of the book is America’s long-term fall from grace, consumed by the sins of its past: most notably the pioneering of nuclear warfare and the ensuing proliferation, but its racist history is very present as well. Hiro’s very specifically defined biracial background connected to his father’s time in Japan grounds his initially outlandish-seeming name in something real and tragic.

      2) The technical deuteragonist, Y.T., arguably edges him out as the most interesting and sympathetic character, and doesn’t seem to be talked about enough: her bildungsroman character arc is at least as fundamental as Hiro’s save-the-world-get-the-girl arc, she’s the one who really embodies the ‘punk’ half of the equation to Hiro’s ‘cyber’, and the material connection between those two halves is likewise encoded in the book’s themes: Hiro represents America’s striving to face and overcome those past sins, while Y.T. in her youth represents the possibility of hope for a better future.


      • Beatrix Traven
        May 1, 2023 @ 10:18 pm

        All that said, I think SC is far from perfect, and I much prefer Cryptonomicon’s almost-but-not-quite-sf techothriller approach to the arc of the mid-to-late-20th century. I’m hesitant to even try the Baroque cycle, because I anticipate Stephenson’s approach applied to that era of historical fiction expanded to multiple volumes would feel very much like an even more rambling variation of The Sot-Weed Factor or Mason & Dixon, and I’m skeptical that he could pull it off as well as Pynchon or Barth.


  21. Sean Cunningham
    August 22, 2012 @ 10:35 am

    I first read Snow Crash while working as a Pizza Hut delivery driver.

    Guess my favourite chapter.


  22. Adam Riggio
    August 22, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

    Looking for anticipations of the internet in science fiction written and published in the days before widespread computer technology can certainly be fun (and it's a great way to humblebrag about how well-read we are). But the reason that game lets us show off how well-read we are is because of how much you have to hunt for imaginings that anticipate something like the modern internet.

    Let's face it: no matter how many counter-examples we can dig out of the nooks and crannies of sci-fi over the decades, on the whole, Phil is right about this. When it comes to the vast majority of sci-fi — all the major trends, the most common ideas, the most popular images, the tropes by which we generally identify what sci-fi is as a literary, film, and television genre are spaceships, aliens, and interstellar travel. And the genre got the future development of humanity completely wrong. Just consider the title of Space:1999. Jules Verne's speculations about rocketry and submarines were generally correct, which led people to think of sci-fi as the genre that anticipated the future. But reality no more follows the imagination of sci-fi writers than it does anyone else.

    One thing your games of digging for images of the internet was demonstrate how not-very-well-read-at-all I am in science-fiction literature. I've never actually read any Neal Stephenson before, though this essay has made me decide to jump in. I think I'll start with Cryptonomicon, though. Having done some cursory research, its ideas seem more in tune with what I tend to think about in my own work. Plus, for a book that's nearly 1200 pages long, it's really cheap online.


  23. Ununnilium
    August 22, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

    Oh, definitely agreeing. Though, to be fair, sci-fi totally anticipates the future – ALL the futures. It's how we pick which of those futures we want.


  24. C.
    August 22, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

    open question to the Eruditorum crowd of a certain age: when did the "Internet" begin for you—that is, when did it go from a niche thing to something your parents might know about?

    My experience: started using email in '92, via my college computer lab. Got into usenet around then. First web page that I ever saw was in spring '94, via a guy I knew in the lab who had the Mosaic browser (I recall it was the MTV home page, a paltry box that was overwhelmed, on his computer, by background wallpaper that was a multiplied photo of Winona Ryder's face–some things never change…well, the actresses do). By summer of 1995, at my first job, the idea of the Web seemed fairly established ("a place you go to find weird things and maybe buy stuff") and by the following summer, my mother asked me about it, and thus, in my mind, inaugurating the mass-acceptance phase.


  25. BerserkRL
    August 22, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

    We also have to consider the fact that in many cases where sf correctly predicts the future, it has done that by actually influencing the future — as with Heinlein's Waldo arms, flipcover cell phones looking like Star Trek communicators, etc.


  26. BerserkRL
    August 22, 2012 @ 5:11 pm

    1994: I get my first modem. 1995: everybody I know has a modem.


  27. BerserkRL
    August 22, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

    I'm a fan of Ken MacLeod's neo-cyberpunk novels. His two main political influences are free-market libertarianism and Troskyist Marxism, so how can I resist?


  28. BerserkRL
    August 22, 2012 @ 5:15 pm

    It was first recommended to me by a friend who was a pizza deliverer.


  29. BerserkRL
    August 22, 2012 @ 5:18 pm

    This comment has been removed by the author.


  30. BerserkRL
    August 22, 2012 @ 5:22 pm

    This comment has been removed by the author.


  31. BerserkRL
    August 22, 2012 @ 5:24 pm

    This comment has been removed by the author.


  32. BerserkRL
    August 22, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    But I should add —

    1977 or 78: I first use a modem, connecting a terminal at my high school to the mainframe at the local university.

    And some time in the late 70s, my mother, introducing a visiting lecturer at our local church, said "Within a few years, information will be on tap in every home the way water is now."


  33. Archeology of the Future
    August 22, 2012 @ 6:32 pm

    Growing up in the working class north of England, the internet was something that one computer in the school library had by the time I left school in 96.

    There was no internet for me apart from seeing web addresses in other media until I was at university and using library computers in 1999. I didn't have an email address until 2001 and actual home access to a dial-up connection at the end of that year.

    So I effectively lived in the pre-internet age until I was 24, limited to knowing through what I could actually get my hands on. My life would have been completely different if the internet had trickled down to our particular income bracket / cultural self image.

    My Dad still doesn't have the internet at home, nor a mobile phone.

    The internet just didn't touch us, despite me having grown up on William Gibson.


  34. Nick Smale
    August 22, 2012 @ 11:01 pm

    Even the "mainframe monoliths" were a surprise to the 'golden age' writers. Asimov's 1930s/40s Foundation trilogy for instance, supposedly set tens of thousands of years in the future, seems to take place in a world without information technology (I may be mis-remembering, but I think there's a sequence at one point where the calculations for an interstellar journey are worked out using a slide rule). When Asimov returned to his Foundation universe in the 80s, he had to shoehorn in information technology as a new future development…


  35. Spacewarp
    August 23, 2012 @ 5:08 am

    Because SF is primarily interested in the select few (generally the protagonists), it only really predicts the technology required for the resolution of the plot. Hence we get advances in travel, communication, teleportation, or weaponry. SF consistently forgets that in the real world it's the ordinary population who drive technical advances, desiring new ways to get drunk, shag and be entertained. The internet took off because it's the greatest source of porn, music and videos ever. What kind of story could ever have anticipated that?

    Even Larry Niven, with his transport booths turning the whole Earth into one big endless party didn't think to consider what the couch potatoes of his world would be doing (although he edged close to it with his description of "wireheads").


  36. Spacewarp
    August 23, 2012 @ 5:16 am

    Crikey. 1997 at the age of 30, when I was working for a small Computer Consultancy as part of an IT Team of 3, and had to help administer the mail server. First experience of email and internet browsing. In fact that was the year I got my first free web-based email address…which I've still got and I've just realised is 15 years old!


  37. Jesse
    August 23, 2012 @ 5:31 am

    Things to do if I invent time travel:

    1. Prevent 9/11.

    2. Kill Hitler.

    3. Deposit a buck in an interest-bearing account in 1899.

    4. Write a social-realist novel set in 2012 filled with references to smartphones, social media, email, YouTube, satellite TV, etc., then publish it in 1950, then come back to the present and bask in my reputation as the most prescient sf writer ever.


  38. Spacewarp
    August 23, 2012 @ 6:24 am

    @ Jesse

    Oh come on now! Considering what blog you're commenting on, 1 has always got to be "Take 405-line-capable Video Recorder back to mid-1960s Britain."


  39. Ununnilium
    August 23, 2012 @ 7:55 am

    Spacewarp: Well, you can have a story concerned largely with the types of leisure activities the protagonists enjoy – see The Great Gatsby, or the Wooster & Jeeves novels, for instance. The problem is, no one thought to merge that style of storytelling with science fiction until – well, until the era we're going over in the blog just now.


  40. Ununnilium
    August 23, 2012 @ 7:56 am

    Oh yes. This is a thing that happens repeatedly; something in the real world that no one predicted that everyone struggles for a time to integrate. Mainframes were well-integrated by the '60s – see, for instance, Colossus: The Forbin Project.


  41. BerserkRL
    August 23, 2012 @ 8:49 am

    "In the Year 2889," a short science-fiction story by Jules Verne's son Michel, is "concerned largely with the types of leisure activities the protagonists enjoy." (This is true as well, though to a lesser extent, of his father's novel Paris in the Twentieth Century.) And I suppose of a number of futuristic utopias and dystopias, including News From Nowhere, Men Like Gods, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Logan's Run.


  42. BerserkRL
    August 23, 2012 @ 8:53 am

    And speaking of Men Like Gods (published in 1923), here's an excerpt predicting wi-fi and voicemail:

    "For in Utopia, except by previous arrangement, people do not talk together on the telephone. A message is sent to the station of the district in which the recipient is known to be, and there it waits until he chooses to tap his accumulated messages. And any that one wishes to repeat can be repeated. Then he talks back to the senders and dispatches any other messages he wishes. The transmission is wireless."


  43. BerserkRL
    August 23, 2012 @ 8:55 am

    Yup, I've encountered slide rules in many early sf stories.


  44. C.
    August 23, 2012 @ 12:28 pm

    Another "they really missed it" thing is smoking. '40s-'60s SF is chock full of chain-smoking astronauts, space station workers, Mars colonists, etc.–the assumption apparently was that mid-century US/UK smoking rates would remain unchanged for centuries.


  45. Nick Smale
    August 23, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

    I had an old Apple Mac I'd bought while doing some graphic design freelancing back in my late 20s. I wasn't doing that anymore, though, so it was sitting unused in my spare room. But I'd heard about this new Internet thing, so I bought a cheap modem, signed up for a £10-a-month Demon account, plugged in my Mac, held my breath and jumped in…

    I remember being blown away the first time I looked at a website. "This page is coming to me, right now, from a computer inAmerica*!"

    .Net Magazine taught me that there was a thing called usenet, so I took a look at it in Netscape Navigator. I quickly found rec.arts.drwho and subscribed, expecting calm discussions of a beloved but long cancelled TV show. But no, it was a hotbed of controversy, full of people like Paul Cornell, Jon Blum and Kate Orman passionately defending something called "The New Adventures". Intrigued by the discussion, I popped into my local Manchester sci-fi shop Odyssey Seven and picked up a copy of No Future…

    The rest, as they say, is history.


  46. Ununnilium
    August 23, 2012 @ 7:50 pm

    Berserk: There's always exceptions, naturally. But nobody did it as a rule – except in those few types of stories where building up the small details of the world was already part of the point.

    (Also, awesome.)


  47. Ununnilium
    August 23, 2012 @ 7:56 pm

    To be fair, that's way more of a social change, and we're mostly talking about technological ones here. Naturally, the two are intertwined, but smoking in space goes on the pile with gender roles, the Cold War, and overpopulation – a discussion worth having, but one different from the one we're having here.


  48. Matthew Blanchette
    August 24, 2012 @ 8:55 am

    …and, again, to be fair, but doesn't the Enterprise in Star Trek VI have a "No Smoking" sign? 😉


  49. BerserkRL
    August 26, 2012 @ 6:59 pm

    But in the future, they'll have medically harmless cigarettes and smoking wil be in again.


  50. goatie
    September 3, 2012 @ 6:01 am

    I think Stepehenson's real gift is in finding the unfortunate, unintended use for technology. My favourite moment in any of his books is the bit about the guy with the video implants who gets hacked and is faced with a spam advertisement that runs in his head 24 hours a day, forcing his suicide. Classic sci-fi was all about "look at these amazing things we'll be able to do" and Stepehenson cut that mentality deeply with "yeah, but then bad people will be able to do this…"

    And this is how I know that programmable nanotech will best benefit thieves, who can program tiny robots to become the correct key for any door. (Or, honestly, program the robots to disassemble the door, but that may be too obvious for anyone trying to be sneaky about their actions.)


  51. Froborr
    October 5, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

    I ye gods, I hated Snow Crash. I guess it was a parody..? But not being familiar with the genre it was parodying, to me it just read as OTT and stupid.


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