Predicting The Future Is Hard — Here's Why We Should Try Anyway

The history of futurism is littered with goofy anachronisms and humiliating misses. But that doesn't necessarily mean science fiction should take its eye off the chronological horizon, says Little, Big author John Crowley.

In an essay in the latest Lapham's Quarterly (theme: The Future), Crowley explores why (as he sees it) many science fiction writers have "ceded the future," writing in alternate worlds or even backward-looking subgenres like steampunk. First, he catalogs the difficulties inherent visualizing anything beyond, say, the next couple of weeks. Witness the narrator of Edward Bellamy's futuristic utopian novel Looking Backward, published in 1888. He falls asleep and, when he awakens in the year 2000, immediately dashes out to investigate. But before leaving the house, he grabs a hat, which Bellamy apparently can't imagine ever falling out of fashion.

That's just a small scale example. Brave New World and 1984, the two great dystopias of the twentieth century, are even more revealing, demonstrating how visions of the future often aren't about the future at all but about the present. That's because they're both based on "the if-this-goes-on premise — but this never does go on. Something else does," Crowley says. But if we're honest, any vision of the future we produce necessarily remains anchored to the past because we just can't see around the inevitable corners:

No matter its contents, no matter how it is imagined, any future lies not ahead in the stream of time but at an angle to it, a right angle probably. When we have moved on down the stream, that future stays anchored to where it was produced, spinning out infinitely and perpendicularly from there.

Think of the Star Trek's unmistakable whiff of Cold War fears and Great Society hopes, where world poverty's been solved and yet Chekhov still rabble-rouses for Russian awesomeness. Think also of the way no one (or at least very few) saw the mass adoption of the Internet coming until it was on top of us, or the way newspapers only recently disappeared from visions of the future.

But there's another futuristic work that offers a better model, demonstrating what it takes to weather the uncertainties of time. Crowley points to Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, which was published in 1921 and influenced Orwell and possibly Huxley. Zamyatin imagines a radically transparent world where people with numbers as names take a glass rocket to the moon. The novel is animated less by divination than a strange loveliness: "Instead of perspicacity and authority, which in the predicting of the future are fatuous, there is beauty and strangeness, the qualities of art, which sees clearly and predicts nothing, at least on purpose."

And that's what allows visions of the future to stand the test of time, to remain relevant for more than, say, the next two weeks:

As a prediction it might bewilder or bore, but as a work of art in language-if it were as easy to turn it into a work of art as it was to think it up-it might survive its vicissitudes in the turbulence of time and emerge sometime downstream as a valuable inheritance from the past, all its inadequate dreams and fears washed away.

At any rate, you should read the whole essay, which is gorgeous and complex and thought-provoking. Crowley fans should also check out this podcast, in which he talks a bit about his work.

Image: Chrysler Turbine Car at the Chrysler pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair.