The shock-and-awe power of prescient novels
Writers’ prophecies are rarely positive but they give food for thought and provide an edifying warning
A writer’s unshackled vision of an unknowable future is sometimes acutely prescient.
HG Wells foresaw numerous scientific, social and technological advances. He fantasised about automatic doors, airplanes, even space travel, long before they were invented, enriching his legacy as the father of science fiction.
But novelists’ prophecies are rarely positive; stories, somehow, are more gripping in their descent towards doom. Wells simultaneously feared technology’s dark side: in The World Set Free (1914) he coined the phrase “atomic bomb” in describing a future weapon of destruction.
A century earlier Mary Shelley had authored Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, the prototype for the horror genre and — nearly 200 years ahead of her time — the predictor of artificial intelligence and medical technologies such as genetic engineering.
Often, literature which peers ahead suspends the march of human progress, proclaiming that humanity’s evil nature will never be fully tamed. Franz Kafka wrote The Trial in 1914-15, foretelling 20th century totalitarianism in a tale of opacity shrouding society and destroying individuals in a frightening bureaucratic loop.
But the blueprint for a dystopian future, totalitarianism gone haywire, is George Orwell’s masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Conceptualised and written between 1944 and 1948, Orwell imagined a political order stifling humanity, a new form of terror in pervasive disguises — even in new language.
Orwell had an existing template in the Stalinist Russia that had emerged in the 1930s, but his dreadful vision could barely have been more accurate as totalitarianism spread across swathes of Eastern Europe and Asia in the post-World War 2 and Cold War decades.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, eerily and scarily, still echoes in today’s sociopolitical landscapes. The manipulation of news, censorship, detention of journalists, cover-ups: all are routine tactics used by governments from the US to Zimbabwe. A milder but nonetheless eye-opening snippet from the novel is Big Brother’s strategy of manipulating people into a state of doublethink: “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” It applies, surely, to many Britons who balance bright, propagandised attractions of Brexit with the logical reality of shrinking industry, job losses, and a weaker economy.
And Orwell’s story of the diabolical distortion of history and reality strikes hard: “The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth.” Now, in the world’s foremost liberal democracy, US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway wholeheartedly believed in “alternative facts” and, according to The Washington Post’s fact-checker project, Trump had told 8,158 lies, or misleading claims, by the midpoint of his term of office.
In Margaret Atwood’s chilling, monochromatic The Handmaid’s Tale — written in 1984 in a coincidental Orwellian symmetry — the US has undergone a coup, transforming into a Puritanical theocratic dictatorship. The new 2017 edition includes introductory comments and explanations from Atwood. She hedges on whether her novel is a prediction: “Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: if this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.”
Set ostensibly in some phase of the 21st century, Atwood was concerned that her premise would be unconvincing when the book was published in 1985. Now we know better.
Indeed, a near palpable nausea rises when reading dystopian novels that ring true. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, published in 2004, is the story of a Jewish working-class family’s struggle to stay together, and safe, when US politics suddenly swings drastically right in 1939-40. Populism, anti-Semitism, and an “America First” isolationism take hold. America totters towards Nazism.
The novel extrapolates an alternative course in real history: the US had a powerful Fascist movement at the time, supported by industrialists such as Henry Ford and the “radio priest” Charles Coughlin. The popular, pioneering airman, Charles Lindbergh, was also an influential, virulent anti-Semite. Roth imagines Lindbergh as the president, revealing him, ultimately, as an agent of Nazi Germany.
Remarkably, entire sections of the book seem written to describe the US today. Trump’s white nationalist and neo-Nazi sympathies were laid bare at Charlottesville in 2017 — and we had best see the Mueller report before we scoff at the seemingly unfathomable, unimaginable idea of Trump as a Russian sleeper agent.
But, perhaps, new political orders are not the primary threat to the world. Climate change may be an imminent existential crisis; will water cover more of the earth, while in other parts scorching heat makes less of the planet habitable and cultivatable? If hundreds of millions of people become climate refugees, where will they go, and how will this affect human relations?
If the 21st century seems a rehearsal for civilisation’s end, the conjecture for the manner of the earth’s devastation has spawned an expanding genre of fiction dubbed “cli-fi” by blogger-journalist Dan Bloom. But as far back as the 1960s, JG Ballard penned a series of books portraying the doom of man-made climate catastrophe, including The Drowned World, premised on surging sea-levels, and The Drought, in which the oceans are a cesspool of industrial waste, precluding rain and triggering humanity’s inexorable, violent descent in a quest for water.
Some fictional abstractions are horrifying and, in their prescience, an edifying warning. Perhaps literature’s greatest contribution still lies ahead: to mitigate dystopian forces not only by foretelling terrible consequences, but also by shining a light on the values of humanism and empathy. Great literature can bring people together, bridging divides far better than mere facts.