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Prescience in Fiction

While foresight is the ability to foresee the future, prescience is the foreknowledge of events. Literature often exhibits surprising accuracy in predicting what lies ahead in our future. Prophecy more often results from logical extension of present trends than from visions. While anticipating the future has always been the forte of SF writers, we come across writers outside the genre displaying surprising prescience.

EM Forster’s “The Machine Stops (1909)”, predicts the decay of humanity as machines rise. Its anticipation of of the COVID lockdown — enforced isolations, online meetings and home delivery of merchandise is eery? The characters make friends and create social groups entirely through electronic means and eventually become paranoid about meeting other people in the flesh. Mary Shelly, creator of Frankenstein, forecast organs transplant that became a reality much much later. Electrical charging of a dead body to resurrect it sounds similar to electric cardioversion of patients who have suffered heart attack. In 1977, J.G. Ballard too, with his dystopic vision, anticipated social media. Jonathan Swift, in Gulliver’s Travels, was critical of the prevalent scientific literature, which he accused for not being the product of rational thinking. Swift’s “engine” that could form sentences, satirised the irrational methods of many scientific contemporaries. The description of a machine which stored all the words of the country’s lingua, is perhaps the earliest avtar of CHAT-GPT indeed!

Williams Gibson predicted Internet and virtual reality. VR headsets at present are revolutionising the entertainment industry. Among other things, he predicted Google glass. He even imagined Kennedy Centre to be located in Florida almost 100 years earlier. Ray Bradbury, who wrote “Fahrenheit 451” was deeply interested in interaction between humans and technology. He imagined a world in which huge television screens engaged audience in the events being broadcast, anticipating reality TV.

Sarah Pinsker’s ‘A Song for a New Day’, written in 2019, happens in a society affected by terrorism and a virulent pandemic. “This forces the government to outlaw large gatherings of people, and to radically alter the culture of work, such that nearly everyone works full-time from home, wearing protective gear at all times when away from home [1].”

Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ had an important character, HAL 9000, a computer quite similar to today’s SIRI. The book describes an electrical newspaper which resembles today’s iPads. Clarke also predicted internet and 3D printers. Philip K. Dick’s vision includes Soviet satellite weapons, Hydrogen as the fuel replacing oil, and human colonies in Moon and Mars. In Robert Heinlein’s ‘2063’ interplanetary travel was a reality and cancer was already conquered. Even Mark Twain, not by any stretch an SF writer, imagined long distance telephones “‘limitless-distance’ telephone” system and “the daily doings of the globe made visible to everyone, and audibly discussable too, by witnesses separated by any number of leagues [2].”

H G Wells, considered by many to be the father of science fiction, was an expert on the future of warfare — including the use of nuclear bombs. He anticipated use of airpower in warfare ‘When the Sleeper Wakes’, written in 1899 years before the first human flight by Wright brothers happened. Among his predictions are landing on the moon, genetic engineering, lasers and the second World War. Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Parable of the Sower’ had visions of global warming, powerful corporations, and social inequality. In ‘Parable of the Talents’, she has a conservative evangelist running for presidency exhorting people to “Make America Great Again.”

George Orwell predicted so many aspects of 1984 of the future that ‘1984’ has become a symbol for scenario where technology becomes a means to control society and a threat. “Big Brother,” is synonymous with abuse of government power through surveillance. Though written in 1949, Orwell described multiple technological advancements like the “tele-screen,” a large TV to monitor people’s personal lives, and the capability to identify a person based on facial expressions and heart rate, eerily similar to present day facial recognition software. “Versificator” crates music and literature — much like the generative AI used today.

Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain is a Bengali feminist social reformer. Her The Sultana’s Dream published in 1905 describes ‘Ladyland,’ where men were incarcerated so women could actually get on with their life without worrying about distractions like violence and war [2]. Among Hussain’s predictions are solar power and video calls. With free time thanks to the absence of men, the women of Ladyland invent useful things, like air-borne cars, control of control, and robotic farms. Pioneering writer Jane Webb Loudon’s future had women wearing trousers and automatons functioning as surgeons and lawyers. In her book ‘The Mummy: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century’, Loudon anticipated space travel. She mentions the use of compressed air tanks for breathing while in orbit.

In ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ (1870), Jules Verne described a submarine for the first time as well as something quite resembling the Internet. Verne’s 20th century had cities, automobiles, electronic surveillance, fax machines and a highly educated population. His “phonotelephote”, enabled video conferencing in his work ‘In the Year 2889’. It worked by transmitting images using mirrors and wires. His prediction of newscasts, news recording and skywriting have all come to reality well before 2889. Edward Bellamy’s story ‘Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887’ featured future American societies using debit cards and spent social security dividends. Debit cards and credit cards would appear more than half a century later.

In a prescient essay for the Ladies’ Home Journal predicting the events and happening of the coming century, John Elfreth Watkins Jr. anticipated X-ray and CAT scan technology: “Physicians will be able to see and examine internal organs of a live body by rays of invisible light”[3]. His foresight also included high-speed trains, satellite TV, remote transmission of images and greenhouses powered by electricity. ‘The Clockwork Man’ by E.V. Odle depicted the consequences of people merging with machines and living inside a vast cyberspace-like world. The cyborg concept gained traction when Martin Caidin’s book ‘Cyborg’ (1972) had intense speculation about bionic limbs and other artificial human organs.

J.B.S. Haldane speculated on the future path biology would take in his book ‘Daedulus; or Science and the Future’. The work proclaimed how progress in science might impact on the most intimate aspects of life, death, sex, and marriage. He predicted that in-vitro fertilization would be practiced widely. He named the process “ectogenesis”. Haldane advocated advances in ethics to keep pace with the progress in science.

John Brunner’s work ‘Stand on Zanzibar’, set in 2010, is perhaps very prophetic. America is ruled by President Obomi and is plagued by school shootings and terrorist attacks. Europe is integrated under the EU. Detroit and other major cities have seen urban decay, marijuana is decriminalised, and gay and bisexual marriages have become accepted. The inventions he imagines include TV on demand and laser printers. His electric cars would be powered by rechargeable electric fuel cells, and Honda would be a leading manufacturer.


[1] Elizabeth Yuko, Powerful books that predicted the future

[2] Mark Twain Predicts the Internet in 1898: Read His Sci-Fi Crime Story, “From The ‘London Times’ in 1904” in Literature, Sci Fi | November 11th, 2014

[3] Vanessa Cartwright, Savvy sci-fi futurists: 21 science fiction writers who predicted inventions way ahead of their time,

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