4. Writing and the Future
So far this series we have looked at various ways in which the novel can anticipate future trends and developments, both on a personal level and in the context of the broader changes that define society. Fiction can, of course, look forward to the future, but this is not something that can ever be undertaken in isolation. Even science fiction, the genre that most specifically looks at what will befall humanity in times to come, is anchored in the past and present. In fact, science fiction is all the more interesting because, in looking forward to the future, it reveals aspects of our current world outlook: our fears, hopes and dreams. The writer, after all, is writing in the present and does not, as previously discussed, possess any supernatural powers beyond a rational brain and an inbuilt but refined sense of intuition. As such, any successful predictions of things to come can occur only by percipience, that is, by a writer’s vision of the world in its totality. Ultimately, our conception of the future can be nothing more than a mental projection, conjured by the imagination and based on the possibilities of the present.
Take, for instance, H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel The War in the Air, written in 1907. It is a book that eerily anticipates the use of aircraft in modern warfare, and yet it also reveals more generally a fear of industrial war on a global scale, a fear that would be justified by the outbreak of the First World War. It shows that in the decade leading up to 1914, the idea of international war was a very real concern, at least for those with vivid imaginations, or for readers and writers of science fiction. However, H.G. Wells clearly goes beyond the immediate future, and in fact the plot of The War in the Air bears more resemblance to the Second World War in its description of a transcontinental conflict that ends in a stalemate between superpowers. Indeed, at the heart of the novel lies the seed of the great 20th century fear – the extermination of mankind resulting from international conflict and the exponential development of the technology to do it with. It is a fear that persists in the 21st century.
Milan Kundera points out in The Art of the Novel that the most prophetic writer of the last century was probably Franz Kafka, a novelist who envisioned the terror of the totalitarian state before the Soviet gulag and the Nazi concentration camp. And yet Kundera also argues that Kafka’s greatness lay not in his powers of divination, but in his ability to see things about the world that were simply not apparent to others:
“Kafka made no prophecies. All he did was see what was “behind.” He did not know that his seeing was also a fore-seeing. He did not intend to unmask a social system. He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial human practice, not suspecting that later developments would put those mechanisms into action on the great stage of history.”
So what are the concepts currently appearing in fiction that will go on to define the 21st century? Perhaps it’s best to remind ourselves of another Kundera quote:
“Chasing after the future is the worst conformism of all, a craven flattery of the mighty. For the future is always mightier than the present. It will pass judgment on all of us, of course. And without any competence.”