Can Fiction Predict the Future?



The comment came in a tweet: “Finished my reread of A Light Shining last night. I found the section ‘The Violence’ to be remarkably prescient.”


The section has to do with a relatively short-lived religious and civil upheaval in Britain – short-lived but turning the country upside down. Even when I reread the section, I see the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, in London in 2017, in Brussels, in Orlando, in San Bernardino, and other places.


Except that section of the novel was written in 2005.


My wife says there are some things in my novels that give her the creeps, as if I knew what was coming.


I didn’t. I just wrote the story that was in my head. It’s all fiction.


In 2012, I outlined the main ideas of the rest of the Dancing Priest series to my publisher. The fourth novel (now in process) would be about a specific issue, taken largely from a similar issue in the United States but transported to Britain. Two weeks later, he sent me reports from several British news media. My idea was sudden news in Britain, and it wasn’t fiction.


I didn’t predict what happened. Instead, what I think was happening was picking up an idea here, a suggestion there, and something related over there, and then the ideas fusing into something that became part of a fictional story.


This is not unlike the situations I found myself in during my professional career.


Developments, trends, and emerging issues would often look obvious to me, and they wouldn’t look obvious to anyone else. I wouldn’t “predict the future” but I would say “This is what we’re dealing with, and this is what I think we need to do.” It became even more difficult with the arrival of social media, because the company would need to respond in minutes when the company often didn’t think social media mattered at all. Until it did. Which was almost all of the time.


I can see the same processes working through my novels. I read a lot – magazines, blogs, social media, books. I read people I agree with and people I don’t. I try to break out of my worldview bubble to understand what people are thinking and, more importantly, how they think. If there’s any predictive element to any of this, it’s understanding how people think.


The chief villain in my third novel Dancing King is a PR operative named Geoffrey Venneman. The character is not based on any real individual. But how he thinks comes from a composite of people I’ve known. He’s not a type but a composite of types, and not all of them bad. He’s resourceful, does his research, and verifies things himself. He’s also an astute judge of character, except when he sizes up Michael Kent-Hughes, the story’s hero. While the reader (and author) are appalled at what he does, the fact is that he’s operating in a time when it’s not about right or wrong but about winning.


In 1898, an author named Morgan Robertson published a novella called Futility. He created a ship called the Titan, loaded it with wealthy people, and wrecked it on an iceberg. Fourteen years later, people remembered it, and drew the uncanny parallels (including ship length, top speed, and claims of being unsinkable) to the Titanic.


Robertson didn’t predict the sinking of the Titanic; but he more likely considered the culture and how people thought, which shaped the story in his head.


Fiction can’t predict the future. But it can give the future a good run for its money.


Top photograph by Aziz Acharki via Unsplash. Used with permission.

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