Books That Predicted the Future

This blog is from Rhian, the Collections Manager at Central Library.

On the 6 June we will be taking part in the UK’s first ever start-to-finish reading of George Orwell’s 1984 by screening it live from Senate House, London (the inspiration behind Orwell’s Ministry of Truth) into Central Library. And if that wasn’t quite enough dystopia for one week, we will also be showing the film adaptation starring Richard Burton and John Hurt on the 7 June, alongside our own ‘Room 101 experience’.

Orwell’s nightmarish totalitarian future seems in many ways completely different from the society we live in now but in other ways the novel, with its telescreens and doublespeak seems scarily prescient.

Writers of futuristic fiction are not really aiming to try and prophesise what might happen in the future but are always trying to comment on their own society, like Orwell’s critique of Stalinist communism in 1984, but this doesn’t stop us looking out for what things may actually have come true.

19841984 by George Orwell

1984 hit the bestseller list again in January 2017 a week after Trump was elected American president when his advisor Kellyanne Conway used the phrase ‘alternative facts’ in a CNN interview.  Many people commented that this phrase reminded them of Orwell’s 1984 world where history is continuously being rewritten and language and thoughts are controlled through ‘Newspeak’ and ‘Doublethink’. In a world of fast moving social media and information online that can be deleted or edited as quickly as it is published, alternative facts can be spread quicker via the internet than Orwell could have ever imagined.

Facts MatterThis is where libraries can really shout about their amazing role as champions of facts and accurate, verified information. The Library and Information Association CILIP is running a Facts Matter campaign for the General Election, have a look at their webpage for more info and to see how you can support.

Orwell imagined a world full of telescreens, that could watch your every move but could he have imagined that we would carry our very own telescreens in our pockets? Although we can’t be watched through our smartphones yet our every moves are being tracked by various apps, designed to make our lives easier but it is not too far-fetched to see how this could be used for more sinister purposes. And of course, our computers can easily be hacked and our actions traced online, it might not be Big Brother yet but we can certainly feel like we are being watched!

NeuromancerNeuromancer by William Gibson

William Gibson is regularly called a prophetic writer, he coined the term ‘cyberspace’ when the concept of the internet barely existed and he didn’t even own a computer himself. His novel Neuromancer, written in 1984, defined the cyperpunk genre and has had such a massive influence on popular culture, inspiring film such as The Matrix. Even Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can be seen as a doppelganger of Molly Millions the female techno-assassin in Gibson’s novel. I loved this book when I first read it, over 20 years after it was published, and I would recommend all his other works, especially his most recent book The Peripheral that again takes the reader into a dystopic future.

Although always asked how he makes his predictions he says,

‘What I think I do is not predict what’s going to happen, but allow people momentarily to see how totally weird the present is. And I think that’s what people actually get from my work. To look up and see how the world really is and go, agh! But then they’ll duck back into where they live, which is where I live, too. It’s like I’m trying to expose our unthinkable present.

But the cultural assumption about what I do is that I’m predicting things. So I go through the motions. And sometimes I get it right. But really, often I don’t get it right.’

So although it is amazing how much of the tech stuff has come true, there are a few things that are missing. For example, you won’t find a mention of mobile phones and even though virtual reality is often hailed as the next big thing (facebook recently paid $2.3 billion for the Oculus Rift headset system) it has yet to reach the immersive, sensory experience envisioned in Gibson’s novels. However, with every new hacking scam, global corporate takeover, new social media network or online game we are coming one step closer to the exhilarating yet terrifying world described in Neuromancer.

oryx and crakeOryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

One of Margaret Atwood’s other dystopian novels The Handmaid’s Tale has finally arrived on our TV screens, hooray! Lots of people have drawn comparisons between the book and modern events. The Guardian wrote an interesting article about how feminist science fiction has predicted the future which talks about Handmaid’s Tale amongst other important books.

signed oryx and crakeHowever, I am going to talk about my favourite Margaret Atwood book, Oryx and Crake. I am always re-reading this novel and I was lucky to get my copy signed when she visited the Ilkley Literature Festival a few years ago.

It describes a world, where humanity has become nearly extinct due to a mysterious plague, before which powerful corporations have performed increasingly extreme genetic experiments, the rich barricade themselves within gated communities, business is conducted through hacking and espionage and the environment remains an afterthought which has disastrous consequences.

Atwood has said that ‘For MaddAddam, [the series which Oryx and Crake is part of] I relied on initiatives that were already under way or contemplated, or that–given the other breakthroughs being made–could actually be done. Biotech is not only a game changer, but potentially a planet changer as well.’

And since the publication of the trilogy some of the stranger ideas have become a reality. The highly intelligent genetically engineered pigs called ‘pigoons’ who roam the post-apocalyptic earth were originally designed to grow bespoke organs for humans. Although this sounds far-fetched scientists in the US announced in June last year that they were attempting to grow human organs in pigs with the intention to transplant them into people (initial trials looking to do this were halted in the 1990s amidst fears of pig viruses infecting humans but modern science has eliminated this possibility).

Of course other topics covered in the book like species extinction and fears around the environment are increasingly relevant today and Atwood’s book serves as a warning about possible threats to the planet.

As a final note, I thought it was more than a coincidence that this article about Margaret Atwood’s call to defend libraries, popped up on my twitter feed, whilst I was writing this post. In it Atwood says

‘There are an infinite variety of tyrannies and dystopias, but they all share one trait: the ferocious opposition to free thought, open minds and access to information…This is why the library matters so much. It is a democratizing and liberating force like none other…It is a place for minds to meet minds and hearts to move hearts’.

I thought this was a fantastic statement and amazing to think that every time we go to a library, learn something new or do something creative and individual we are doing our bit to ensure the horrible futures depicted in some futuristic fiction don’t ever come true.