When Writers Use the Present—or the Past—to inform The Future in Their Science Fiction Novel

The Darwin duology by Dragon Moon Press, depicting the late 21st Century, by Nina Munteanu

In my 2007 novel Darwin’s Paradox and its 2010 prequel Angel of Chaos—dystopian tales set in an unrecognizable post-climate change Canada at the end of the 21st Century—the father of the main character lectures his impressionable young daughter about how climate change helped create the heathland scrub that replaced the mixed woodlands of the old Carolinian and sub-Boreal environments:

“What’s over there?” She points to a far, dark hill. 

“Woodland. This was all forest before the cities got built and the climate changed.” 

“Climate changed?” 

“Yes, honey.” He focuses on the distance. “Caused the revolution thirty years ago. Since then the Ecologists have virtually eliminated our greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, the planet will be feeling the effects of global warming for decades to come. Perhaps centuries.” 

“They saved the planet, didn’t they?” 

His brows knit. “Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t,” he says enigmatically. 

I’d originally written the novel and its prequel in the seventies, before entering university. So, you might think that I was incredibly imaginative and prescient to come up with such climate devastation. But this simply isn’t so (well, not entirely, anyway). Just as with Margaret Atwood—who says: “When I wrote the Handmaid’s Tale, nothing went into it that had not happened in real-life somewhere at some time”—I was simply reading the signs.

Margaret Atwood demonstrating a fire-proof version of her book The Handmaid’s Tale

When it came to climate change, of course, I had some help. During my days at university, studying limnology, and in the 1980s and ‘90s when I worked as an environmental scientist and consultant, I encountered evidence of a changing environment and climate; people in the environmental sciences certainly knew the dangers of climate change long before it entered the common zeitgeist.

Science fiction dystopias aren’t so much predictive as realistically projecting possibilities based on current or past social patterns (these past social patterns, as Santayana notes, have a way of returning to us when we don’t pay attention to them). This notion lies at the root of the term cautionary tale and what makes one truly harrowing or terrifying; we sense to our very core how likely these scenarios are.

My near-future climate dystopia released by Inanna Publications in 2020

Response to my 2020 cautionary tale A Diary in the Age of Water reflects this visceral reaction by readers who shared that this blur of fiction with non-fiction and sense of realism—a “this could happen” quality—totally unbalanced them and engrossed them. Comments included “unique and captivating,” “unsettling and yet deliciously readable,” “strangely compelling” “scary and comforting at the same time,” “made my heart clench,” “a book of genuine power.”

Scene from Michael Radford’s film “Nineteen Eighty-Four” released in 1984, based on George Orwell’s 1949 novel

Indeed, many successful predictions have been made in speculative fiction. In 1961, Stanislaw Lem’s novel Return From the Stars predicted the invention of the touch pad, iPhone, iPad and Kindle. The telescreens that monitored the citizens of George Orwell’s Oceania in his dystopian 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was reflected, twenty years later, in the first CCTV installed in the United Kingdom. Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report accurately predicted personalized ads, voice-controlled homes, facial and optical recognition, and gesture-based computing. Self-driving cars were showcased in many speculative books and films such as Bladerunner, and Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot.

Scene from the film Minority Report with Tom Cruise

But many speculations have also not been realized. No flying cars—OK, some companies such as Toyota, Hyundai and Tesla are working on prototypes. While NASA plans to construct a surface habitat called Artemis Base Camp so that astronauts can remain on the moon’s surface for days or perhaps even weeks, it is far from happening soon. Also, no rotating space stations and space elevator–yet.

Many envisioned totalitarian/dystopian states in speculative fiction have also not been realized (e.g. We, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Handmaid’s Tale, Hunger Games, The Dispossessed, V for Vendetta )—though one could argue that aspects of each world envisioned by an author has occurred or is occurring in some form. One need only recall Edward Snowdon’s disclosures of NSA’s insidious surveillance to see parallels with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. And as Margaret Atwood famously said in the quote above, nothing goes into her stories “that have not happened in real-life somewhere at some time.”

“The function of science fiction is not only to predict the future but to prevent it.”

Ray Bradbury

There are, in most cases, no technological impediments to the flying car, the jetpack, and moon-bases; only cultural ones. “These SF predictions ought to be viewed as visions of where we could be, as opposed to where we will be, or, keeping Bradbury in mind, visions of where we don’t want to go and, thankfully, have mostly managed to avoid to date,” says Steve Davidson of Grasping for the Wind. “Perhaps it’s all cultural,” he adds. Science fiction writer and futurist David Brin says that he is “more interested in exploring possibilities than likelihoods, because a great many more things might happen than do.”

In his book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism Peter Frase writes: “the importance of assessing possibility rather than likelihood is that it puts our collective action at the centre, while making confident predictions only encourages passivity.” In his 2010 essay, David Brin cites Orwell’s 1984 as a “self-preventing prophecy” that helped prevent the scenario (at least in its fullest).

George Orwell wrote his dystopian satire in 1949 about a mind-controlled society in response to the Cold War. The book was a metaphor “against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism,” said Orwell in his 1947 essay Why I Write, adding that, “Good prose is like a windowpane.” Was Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four a failed novel because the real 1984 didn’t turn out quite like his 1984? Hardly. Hugo Award-winning novelist Robert J. Sawyer argues that we consider it a success, “because it helped us avoid that future. So just be happy that the damn dirty apes haven’t taken over yet.”

References:

Brin, David. 2010. “The Self-Preventing Prophecy: Or How a Dose of Nightmare Can Help Tame Tomorrow’s Path.” in Abbott Gleason et al. eds., On Nineteen Eighty-Four: Orwell and Our Future. Princeton University Press, Princeton, p.222.

Frase, Peter. 2016. “Four Futures: Life After Capitalism.” Verso Press, London. 150pp.

Country road in the Kawarthas during a foggy morning, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Reconciling Yesterday’s Future with Today’s Past

Metropolis man on clock

A worker tied to “the machine” in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

Metropolis posterOur predictions and visions of the future are certainly predicated on our perceptions of the present and the past. So, what happens when yesterday’s “future” collides with today’s past? Well, retro-fiction, alternate history and steam-punk, you quip, eyes askance with mischief: edgy sociopathic Sherlock Holmes with bipolar or obsessive /compulsive tendencies; flying aircraft carriers in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, robot-like workers of Metropolis

But what of the vision itself? History provides us with a panoply of realized predictions in speculative fiction:

In 1961, Stanislaw Lem’s novel Return From the Stars predicted the invention of the touch pad, iPhone, iPad and Kindle. The telescreens that monitored the citizens of George Orwell’s Oceania in his dystopian 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was reflected, twenty years later, in the first closed circuit TV (CCTV) installed in the United Kingdom. Almost a century before the Internet was conceived, Mark Twain alluded to the future of a global, pervasive information network. In his 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey Arthur C. Clarke discussed a future where people scanned headlines online and got their news through RSS feeds. In his 1888 novel Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy describes a “future” society in 2000 where money is eliminated due to the proliferation of plastic credit cards. Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report accurately predicted personalized ads, voice-controled homes, facial and optical recognition, and gesture-based computing. Other advances and usage of technology have been predicted in speculative literature, including body scans, RFIDs, spy-surveillance, and touch screen interfaces.

Minority Report movie

Tom Cruise’s character using gesture-based computing in the film “Minority Report”

FlyingCar 1950s

1950s ad for flying car of future

But there have been many speculations not realized. Where are the flying cars? Where are the moon colonies, rotating space stations and space elevator? What of the envisioned totalitarian states not realized; civilizations not demolished; utopias not developed?

Are those past dystopian or utopian visions failed attempts at predicting a future that eluded their writers? Or is it a question more of defining vision in speculative writing?

Ray Bradbury suggested that “the function of science fiction is not only to predict the future but to prevent it.”

2001 a space odysseyThere are, in most cases, no technological impediments to the flying car, the jetpack, and moon-bases; only cultural ones.  “These SF predictions ought to be viewed as visions of where we could be, as opposed to where we will be, or, keeping Bradbury in mind, visions of where we don’t want to go and, thankfully, have mostly managed to avoid to date,” says Steve Davidson of Grasping for the Wind. “Perhaps it’s all cultural,” he adds.

How and why is it that our contemporary view of dystopian and utopian speculative fiction has shifted from an open-minded imaginative acceptance of “predictions” nested within a cautionary or visionary tale to a knowledge-based demand for largely unattainable predictive accuracy?

GeorgeOrwell 1984 signetGeorge Orwell wrote his dystopian satire in 1949 about a mind-controlled society in response to the Cold War. The book was a metaphor “against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism,” said Orwell in his 1947 essay Why I Write, adding, “Good prose is like a windowpane.” Was Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four a failed novel because the real 1984 didn’t turn out quite like his 1984? Hugo Award-winning novelist Robert J. Sawyer suggests that we consider it a success, “because it helped us avoid that future. So just be happy that the damn dirty apes haven’t taken over yet.”

Dystopian and utopian literature, like all good allegory, provides us with scenarios predicated on a concrete premise. What if we kept doing this?…What if that went on unchecked?… What if we decided to end this?…

LookingBackward EdwardBellamyA hundred years before 1984, Edward Bellamy published Looking Backward, “a romance of an ideal world”. It tells the story of a young man who falls into a hypnotic sleep in 1887, waking up in 2000 when the world has evolved into a great socialist paradise.  It sold over a million copies and ranked only behind Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ as the top best-seller of the era. Looking Backward laid out a futuristic socialism, or was it a socialistic future?

At any rate, it influenced a large number of intellectuals and generated an unprecedented political mass movement. The book spawned experiments in communal living and fed socialist movements that promoted the nationalization of all industry and the elimination of class distinctions. Bellamy’s book was cited in many Marxist polemic works. Groups all over the world praised and embraced its ideals: Crusading Protestant ministers, American feminists, Australian trade unionists, British town planners, Bolshevik propagandists, French technocrats, German Zionists, and Dutch welfare-state advocates.

Bellamy’s conviction that cooperation among humans is healthier than competition formed the basis of Looking Backward. He predicted a revolution in retail that resembled today’s warehouse clubs and big-box stores. He also predicted a card system much like a modern debit card and people using enhanced telephone lines to listen to shows and music.

SF vs literary jet pack

“Socialism, of course, had different connotations in the 19th century when it rose, principally as a backlash to the brutalities of industrialization and the exploitation of the workers by the ruling class,” says Tony Long of Wired Magazine. Bellamy’s socialism is perhaps best described as a syndicalism than what most of us think of as socialism today. Long somberly adds, “Were he alive today, Bellamy might note, with interest, that while the worst excesses of the industrial age are gone, the exploitation continues. Had Bellamy lived to the ripe old age of 150, he no doubt would have been disappointed to find capitalism running amok, and his fellow man no less greedy and self-serving than in his own time. But he didn’t live to be 150. In fact, Bellamy was still a relatively young man when he died of tuberculosis in 1898.”

 

So, what happens when history catches up to the vision?

BraveNewWorld-AldousHuxleyIn a foreward to a later printing of Brave New World years after it was first published, Aldous Huxley explained why, when given the chance to revise the later edition, he left it exactly as it was initially written twenty years earlier:

Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is almost an undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.

Art also has its morality, and many of the rules of this morality are the same as, or at least analogous to, the rules of ordinary ethics. Remorse, for example is as undesirable in relation to our bad art as it is in relation to our bad behavior. The badness should be hunted out, acknowledged and, if possible, avoided in the future. To pore over the literary shortcomings of twenty years ago, to attempt to patch a faulty work into the perfection it missed at its first execution, to spend one’s middle age in trying to mend the artistic sins committed and bequeathed by that different person who was oneself in youth–all this is surely vain and futile. And that is why this new Brave New World is the same as the old one. Its defects as a work of art are considerable; but in order to correct them I should have to rewrite the book–and in the process of rewriting, as an older, other person, I should probably get rid not only of some of the faults of the story, but also of such merits as it originally possessed. And so, resisting the temptation to wallow in artistic remorse, I prefer to leave both well and ill alone and to think about something else.

And with that, I leave you with a quote:

“…the past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form. Both are illusions.”–Eckhart Tolle

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Snowing in New York City (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.