It’s the 70th anniversary of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – a book which predicted so much of the darker side of modern life. Here Writer at Large Neil Mackay looks at how science fiction has often become science fact

BIG Brother, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, the two minutes hate. When George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was published 70 years ago this summer his terrifying fictional vision of a totalitarian future was just that – fiction. Today, though, the book, which Orwell wrote in the last months of his life on the Isle of Jura, has become frighteningly true.

Orwell was able to predict with chilling prescience the future in which we now live – just as so many writers and film-makers have, from EM Forster foretelling the internet to Star Trek envisioning mobile phones. Once a writer imagines the future, it’s not long before scientists, politicians or society at large turns it into a reality.

Big Brother and ... the telescreen

Orwell’s most chillingly accurate prophesy was the telescreen – a combined TV, security camera and listening device in the home of every citizen. From CCTV and facial recognition technology to the Alexa Amazon device and big data, modern society has accepted almost unquestioningly the right of the state to observe us and companies to harvest information about us. It’s hardly surprising that one of the most popular reality TV shows called itself Big Brother – and pandered to our voyeuristic desire to watch and control others.

Big Brother was, of course, the dictator who ran the Britain of Nineteen Eighty-Four – where poster warned “Big Brother is Watching You”.

The two minutes hate and thoughtcrime

Every day, citizens in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four gather to unleash two minutes of hate against perceived enemies of the state who have committed the offence of thoughtcrime – of thinking ideas they should not have been thinking. Offenders are rounded up by the thought police.

It sounds very like a social media storm where unlucky victims are pilloried for daring to say something deemed offensive. Think of the actor Matt Damon who said this during the height of the MeToo movement: “There’s a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation. Both of those behaviours need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated.” His words, though true, were subject to outrage.


In 1984, language is twisted and manipulated by the state to control the people. So a concentration camp becomes a “joycamp”, the Ministry of Truth is really the Ministry of Propaganda. Politicians today use their own form of Newspeak to befuddle the people and twist reality – think of phrases like “collateral damage” to describe civilian casualties of war.

The Machine Stops and ... the internet

The Machine Stops was written by EM Forster in 1909. In the tale, obese humans live underground dependent on “the machine” – which provides for all needs and entertainment. Humans speak to each other via a kind of text messaging and internet service within the machine.

Humans barely move or interact – no-one cares about the natural world. In the end, the machine stops and what passes for “civilisation” stops with it.

Minority Report and ... personalised adverts

You know how creepy it is when you’ve browsed some book online and then adverts for the same product pop up everywhere you look on the web? Welcome to Minority Report.

In the 2002 film, inspired by a Philip K Dick story, technology has advanced so far that it can predict crimes yet to be committed. Businesses can scan a person’s mind and display bespoke adverts on billboards just for them. Today, General Motors has already created billboards that change according to the car you are driving.

Minority Report also saw Tom Cruise using touch screens – pinching, pulling and swiping – long before such technology was a reality.

Star Trek and ... pretty much everything

“Enterprise, this is Captain Kirk, come in Enterprise.”

On Star Trek, crew members have a communicator – a clever little gizmo that fits snuggly in your hand and lets you talk to anyone, anywhere. It’s also a GPS device. Pretty much your prototype mobile phone in the 1960s. Star Trek also had a “replicator” – technology that could build anything you wanted. In effect, creator Gene Roddenberry was predicting the 3D printer.

If that’s not enough future predictions, Star Trek also imagined the iPad. Programme-makers even called it a PADD or personal access display device. Creepily prescient. Other predictions in Star Trek include Bluetooth – remember Uhuru’s big earpiece? – Google Glasses and virtual medical diagnoses.

Blade Runner and ... the rise of China

The Los Angeles of the future seen in Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie looks like a Chinese supercity of today – ironically, the film was set in the year 2019. In the movie, Chinese and Asian culture is on the rise. Adverts feature Chinese goods and celebrities (the film also paints a portrait of a world in thrall to consumerism). LA residents speak a mix of English and Asian languages. Today, Mandarin is predicted by many linguists to overtake English as the international language one day.

Blade Runner, like a number of other movies including Total Recall, also envisions a future where space has been privatised. Companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX are currently trying to carve up the cosmos for corporations – something which would have horrified Philip K Dick, who wrote the short story Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? which inspired the movie.

AI and ... robots

Steven Spielberg’s 2001 futuristic fairytale AI delves into a world populated by androids, almost indistinguishable from humans. In AI, robots are used to serve humanity’s baser instincts. They are killed for sport, and exploited for sex. Current inventions such as the sex robot took Spielberg’s dark fictional vision and turned it into fact.

Robots first appeared in the acclaimed Czech play Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Capek. The play captures all the concerns we still have today about robotics and AI. At first, Capek’s robots are happy slaves, but they rebel and destroy the human race. Today, scientists debate the threat of the “singularity” – when robot intelligence surpasses human intelligence and humanity risks being sidelined or even eliminated, as Stephen Hawking warned. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger and Terminator and you get the picture.

The Handmaid’s Tale and ... women’s rights

We once thought of Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed 1985 dystopian novel as a warning of a future that may come to pass, not a prophesy of a future that would come to pass. However, the assaults on women’s rights around the world feel more like The Handmaid’s Tale every day.

Just a week ago, an Alabama woman faced criminal charges after being shot and losing her baby. Ohio wants to effectively ban nearly all abortions. In The Handmaid’s Tale, religious extremists run rampant across America, calling the shots. Today, fundamentalists in the USA have never before had so much clout.

Brave New World and ... medicine

In Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, the drug Soma is used to keep the population calm and happy. Today, some four million people in the UK are long-term users of anti-depressants.

Huxley also imagined a future where embryos are cloned and genetically modified – a prophecy of our ethical concerns today, including the danger of “designer babies” following the decoding of the human genome. When the clone Dolly the Sheep was “invented” in Scotland many spoke of the coming of a “Brave New World”.

The book also envisions a world where movies have become “feelies” – with the audience physically immersed in the film. With the coming of virtual reality, “going to the feelies” may soon be a common phrase.

The Running Man and ... reality TV

Based on a Stephen King story, the film The Running Man sees Arnie forced to compete in a reality TV show where he is hunted and faced with being killed for the entertainment of viewers. We haven’t quite got there yet, but the excesses of reality TV where unimaginable back in 1987.

Today, we’ve got reality shows such as Naked and Afraid which sees contestants stranded stark naked in the rainforest, surrounded by predators, and left to survive with nothing but a knife and a fire-starter. The extreme emotional and mental humiliation heaped on contestants in other shows like Big Brother is also, self-evidently, a cruel sport meant to entertain us.

The Six Million Dollar Man and ... bionics

“Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.”

So went the famous opening monologue in the 1970s series The Six Million Dollar Man, which starred Lee Majors. The show was based on the book Cyborg by Martin Caidin. Austin was horribly injured and given a robotic eye and arm, and bionic legs.

Today, prosthetic, robotised limbs are no longer the stuff of science fiction and have changed the lives of those who have suffered life-altering injuries.

Snow Crash and ... Second Life

Novelist Neal Stephenson imagined what he called a “metaverse” in his 1992 novel Snow Crash – where people lived inside a computer-simulated world as “avatars” of themselves. In 2013, there were more than one million people living in the world of Second Life – an online universe where player-citizens could buy imaginary clothes, rent imaginary land and build imaginary homes. Reuters had its own reporter in Second Life. People married in Second Life – real relationships were broken up because of “cyber-affairs” in Second Life. Sweden even opened an embassy in Second Life.

District 9 and ... immigration

The film District 9 is a parable of xenophobia and racism which tells the story of an alien spaceship stranded in South Africa. The insect-like alien refugees are consigned to camps and treated as a sub-species. When the film was made in 2009 it was seen as harking back to the worst excesses of the 20th century and a warning to the future for mistakes not to be repeated.

As we can see from the migrant crisis on the southern border of the United States, where families are being locked up in what opponents have termed “concentration camps”, some warnings are never heeded.

Iron Man and ... military hardware

Iron Man has been fighting baddies in his exoskeleton bodysuit since 1963 – but the US military is fast catching up with him. The United States Special Operations Command should begin testing its Talos suit any time now. Talos, or Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, is a robotic exoskeleton that’s bulletproof, weaponised, gives the wearer additional strength and perception, and monitors all vital signs.

Like drones, which have featured in numerous sci-fi outings such as the infamous Sentinels in The Matrix, exosuits are just the latest fiction to be made fact by the military. HG Wells imagined giant metal war machines crawling across the land in his 1903 story The Land Ironclads. Just over a decade later, the tank was fighting on the frontlines of the western front in the First World War.

Jules Verne and ... space travel

In 1865, Jules Verne’s From The Earth To The Moon, imagined a manned landing on the lunar surface. In 1900, HG Wells reprised the idea in The First Men In The Moon. Both writers were way off the mark in terms of the science that eventually got us there, and what awaited us when we arrived, but they were right in predicting that one day humans would walk on the Moon.

Today, our fiction is brimful of sci-fi writers imagining the life that awaits us on Mars. From the movie The Martian to the docu-drama series Mars, it seems the human imagination has never been so fixated on the idea of stepping foot on to the Red Planet.

There are plans for a US mission to Mars sometime around 2033 – so within 15 years we could see yet another idea which first began with a prediction on the page or on the screen becoming a reality.

Star Wars and ... the hologram

“Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”

The words of Princess Leia in hologram form in one of the most famous scenes in the 1977 film Star Wars. Today, holograms are prohibitively expensive but very real. In 2012, a hologram of Tupac Shakur appeared onstage rapping beside Snoop Dog – Shakur had been dead for 16 years.

Idiocracy and ... social media

The 2006 satire Idiocracy imagines a future world where everyone is as thick as two short planks. If you wanted a prediction of what the world would look like after the invention of social media and its possible worst effects, this is it.

Other future visions which came true

The cartoon The Jetsons predicted the smartwatch in 1962.

Videophones appear in the 1927 movie Metropolis.

The credit card – which took off in the 1920s – was predicted in the 1887 novel Looking Backward.

Ray Bradbury predicted earbud headphones in Fahrenheit 451 – he refers to them as like "seashells" or "thimble radios".

And who can forget KITT, the driverless car from Knight Rider, starring David Hasselhoff – first imagined back in 1982.