Monday, 6 February 2017

How Literature Predicts The Future

by Poppy Goad



The future, in all its ambiguity is forever being made, inspired and created by the acts of those in the present and the past. However throughout literature there have been aspects in certain sci-fi books and indeed films and TV series that can look to have actually predicted the future. 

In many books written a hundred years ago the authors were writing about technology that had not even been thought about yet. For example in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne, probably one of the most forward-thinking writers of the 19th century, described electric submarines; 90 years later, the first electric submarine was invented. As well as foreseeing electric submarines, Verne also predicted everything from solar sails, lunar modules, skywriting and video chatting. It was authors like Verne and many more who were the contributors to many of the ground-breaking inventions of the 20th century.

Going outside of the prediction of inventions, some books even predicted scientific discoveries. For example, in Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift wrote about how the astronomer, whilst on the island of Laputa, noticed that Mars had two moons. 150 years later, it was proven that Mars did in fact have two moons: Phobos and Diemos.

Another novelist who predicted many a technological ingenuity was HG Wells. In books like When the Sleeper Wakes, The World Set Free, The Land Ironclads and Men Like Gods, Wells predicted the use of voicemail, automatic motion sensing doors, tanks and - although the atomic bomb in Wells’ universe was a uranium hand grenade - Wells in a manner of speaking predicted the atomic bomb, as the science behind both the fictional bomb and the physical bomb invented 60 years later are the same. 

The continues of the many authors who predicted the future through their work: Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards predicting credit cards, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World predicting mood boosting pills, reproductive technology and the problems of overpopulation; Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 predicting flat screen TVs and “thimble radios” not unlike earbuds and Bluetooth headsets; Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey  in which the electronic newspapers and particularly the “newspad” resemble many of the iPad's features invented decades later; John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar predicted satellite TV, electric cars, laser printers, decriminalization of marijuana, vilification of the tobacco industry, the fall of Detroit into poverty and (in some respects) the EU. Many more novelists have made their mark on the future through their predictions, and many more will continue to do so.

There is no doubt that sci-fi books have sculpted the way forward for the world of science, but many books have also influenced the world in a more social and political way. The most poignant prediction of time is probably George Orwell’s 1984, the classic dystopian novel written in 1948 and set forty years after the end of World War II, Orwell touches on subjects such as propaganda and censorship, which had been prevalent throughout the war, on both sides and which Orwell feared would be exploited by oppressive governments in a futuristic society. The way in which paranoia became common during the 1940s due to fear of the enemy and governments sought ways to control mass society, was captured by Orwell as he explored a society that lives in a present without a past, where history is rewritten and every conversation is monitored. Although not specifically predicting any creation of any particular invention, Orwell’s book did foreshadow the increase of surveillance and widespread invasive government spying, for example 60 years later in scandal of the NSA domestic spying. Just within the last two weeks, sales of 1984 have surged, particularly in the USA:




Through these predictions the question often asked is whether they are predictions or simply what inspired the creation and discovery of such things since the publication of the novel. This is probably a question that can never truly be answered, as the scientists behind the discoveries and inventions, even if asked would, by no account, want to taint their name by giving credit to a buried novelist.

Even if admitted that the inspiration came from words on a page read in awe at the wonders that could be, all those words will ever be is words if just left on the page. The fact that, years later, they have been brought to life and will continue to be brought to life is a wonder that goes beyond the prediction of such things. Through these books we can see how easily the world can be sculpted and created; all that is needed is an idea and then the application for the idea into the act of its physical creation or discovery. If this is all it takes then we may be, without realising it, reading and watching parts of the future of our world. You only have to look at modern day literature to see it happening in action, for example, Andy Weir’s The Martian predicted the journey of humans to Mars, and already there are plans of a trip to Mars in 2024. Even when just predictions are being made, we will never know what the future holds; we only know that we have the power to create it.


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