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.

Nina Munteanu Interviewed by Simon Rose on Fantasy Fiction Focus

On Fantasy Fiction Focus Nina Munteanu discusses with author Simon Rose about the writing process, the emerging hybrid publishing industry, the importance of branding yourself as an author, and what can authors do to successfully market themselves and their writing. She and Simon discuss the writing community and the importance of conventions and festivals for aspiring writers.

The interview was done in 2015 but what Simon and Nina discuss remains topical and germane.

Nina Munteanu

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. 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.