Past Novels That Were Kind of Prescient About Our Present

When it comes to years-ago literature with a lot to say about our current times, sci-fi, speculative fiction, and dystopian novels are certainly at the top of the list — and I’ll mention some titles from those genres later in this post.

But the main focus of this piece will be “general” novels of decades or centuries ago that are relevant to events in the 2000s, proving that some authors — whether their predictive powers were conscious, subconscious, or accidental — were pretty prescient.

For instance, I just read James Michener’s riveting Caravans — a 1963 novel set in 1946 Afghanistan — and it has tons of things to say about Islam, racism, gender relations, conformity vs. non-conformity, and other matters very germane to the 21st century.

Being married to an abusive/alcoholic husband in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) causes Helen to leave Arthur — an unusual decision for the time that made Anne Bronte’s novel a proto-feminist book that positively anticipated the increased independence of many women today.

George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda was published in 1876, but it was already talking about Zionism. That’s very much an issue in 2017, as are related matters such as Israeli-Palestinian relations and Trump’s disturbing decision to call Jerusalem the capital of Israel (and move the U.S. embassy there) despite that city being sacred to three religions.

By being sexually frank (to varying degrees for their times), novels such as Herman Melville’s Pierre (1852), Emile Zola’s Nana (1880), and D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) presaged the 1960s sexual revolution that continues to this day. Also, Colette’s Claudine at School (1900) was among the long-ago novels to address same-gender love with some candor.

Edward Bellamy’s utopian time-travel novel Looking Backward (1888) predicted the debit card — the use of which says plenty about our 21st-century society today. In fact, Bellamy’s book was set in the year 2000.

Then there are sci-fi, speculative fiction, and dystopian novels that ended up commenting about our present time — including the repulsive words, beliefs, and actions of Donald Trump and his Republican ilk. Here are just a few of those books (most of them obvious), listed in reverse chronological order: Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 Parable of the Sower (climate change/privatization), Margaret Atwood’s 1985 The Handmaid’s Tale (onerous male domination/sexual predation), George Orwell’s 1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four (authoritarianism/lie-filled propaganda), Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 All the King’s Men (corrupt politicians), Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 It Can’t Happen Here (fascism in America), Aldous Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World (citizens kept in line more by diversion than by brute force), H.G. Wells’ 1901 The First Men in the Moon (space exploration), and Jules Verne’s 1873 Around the World in Eighty Days (rapid travel between countries).

Your favorite novels that seemed to know something about the future that’s now our present?

Happy New Year!

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece, which has a New Year’s Day theme, is here.

73 thoughts on “Past Novels That Were Kind of Prescient About Our Present

  1. One of the reasons I choose to write about the past is exactly what you cover here. It is only a foreign country if you are looking back a certain way. You can have the predictions made as in Orwell’s 1984, about the future generally…..
    “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute…..’ as you say, the speculative fiction, you read at the time and never thought anything that much of. Or, there’s the more domestic type situation of, say Wildfell Hall. Quite a daring subject for its day but something that was happening in various households in that day and still is, but equally anticipated greater independence for women. But yeah, I think you’ve guessed I am mentioning 1984.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Shehanne! GREAT comment, including the line about the past being “only a foreign country if you are looking back a certain way.”

      “Nineteen Eighty-four” was SO prescient, even as its “commentary” was also current for its time. And reading “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” was stunning for what it covered. As you note, domestic abuse and alcoholism were rampant in that time — as they are now — but were virtually never discussed in literature from the perspective of a strong woman.

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      • I also remember ..I think it w=is Animal Far, where Orwell talks about Napoleon being absent most of the time and that is what is happening here down in Whitehall. But you are spot on re Tenant. It is not so well known as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, but the things it covered were things that were never discussed which actually make it a more realistic book than the other two. xxx for the kind comment. I just love reading and writing about the past.

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          • I guess to go back to your current post re authors influencing other authors Jane Eyre led to an avalanche of governess type books, the mystery in the house, from the likes of Victoria Holt, but also to one hell of lot of ‘governess’ style historical romance often with no mystery, books today. But the more realistic of these three books is Tenant.

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            • You’re absolutely right — “Jane Eyre” was VERY influential. And of course it also inspired Jean Rhys’ much-later 1966 prequel, “Wide Sargasso Sea.” Interestingly, Anne Bronte wrote “Agnes Grey” — also about a governess — around the same time her sister wrote “Jane Eyre.”

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              • The Rhys book is a great book. You know sometimes I feel that bit sorry for Anne Bronte. I don’t mean that in a patronising way. I was thinking earlier that the ‘governess’ story is in some ways of its day, in that Anne herself was a governess. I you look at Becky Sharp who we also discussed, if you wren’t high enough then that was what you were low enough to be. And it was a very precarious position for many women of that time. And yet we still have ‘romances’ about them. Anne’s books are the lesser known and yet Agnes is another example that is probably true to the mark where the average governess was concerned than Jane Eyre and she wrote of things that truly were not much written of in these days.

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                • I agree that “Wide Sargasso Sea” is excellent — a fascinating alternative take on “the woman in attic” in “Jane Eyre,” and full of mesmerizing prose.

                  All true about Anne Bronte and governesses. And, yes, the good-but-not-great “Agnes Grey” novel was more realistic about governesses than “Jane Eyre” — the latter somewhat a fairy tale, albeit with plenty of harsh, depressing moments. But “Jane Eyre” is a compulsively readable book, and in fact is my very favorite novel, even with its flaws.

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  2. Aldous Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World comes to my mind Dave and I am so glad I still have the book and did not give it away.
    Move up another Century ( almost), Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff. I just requested the book from the Library. Library do not have it yet, still I am after 550 on the list. What I understand Wollf is a credible writer from USA today . I can`t wait to flip the pages although it`s been established that the current leader of US of A is an illiterate idiot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, bebe!

      “Brave New World” is about as prescient as novels come, with its citizens allowing themselves to be controlled by the government as long as they have some entertainment, feel-good drugs, etc.

      Wow — what a waiting list for that new book about terrible Trump and his toadies! Very happy about all the embarrassment the book is causing, though of course the Predator-in-Chief’s diehard low-income fans will seemingly support him until they die of no social safety net, and his billionaire buddies will keep backing him to keep the extra $$ rolling in. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A Happy New Year to you, Dave, and all of my fellow literature lovers!

    Stephen King’s “The Running Man” is about finding and using desperate people for the sake of reality TV ratings. It’s such an ugly book, filled with exploitation and corrupt government. The really sad part though is the general public who are swept up in the hype of watching people die on live TV. I read it many years ago, and remember enjoying it. But I read it recently and it just kind of depressed me. One of the scariest things comes on the first page where the young couple are watching TV which they don’t often do. And while it’s compulsory for all apartments to have them, thanks to a 2021 bill failing to go through, it was still legal to turn them off!

    And sadly, in not quite the same prescient way, the story ends with a jet plane deliberately flown into an American skyscraper. I’m pretty sure only the bad guys were harmed though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Happy New Year to you, too, Susan!

      Wow — “The Running Man” (a Stephen King novel I haven’t read) sounds incredibly prescient from its published-in-1982 vantage point. Reality TV, corrupt government, plane hitting a skyscraper…

      I suppose King already had enough money 35 years ago to have purchased a time machine. Pre-Amazon, of course…


  4. Dave: A book that looks way into the future is “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” which was written to show what happened to humanity after a nuclear war destroyed civilization in the 1960s. The book, written by Walter M. Miller Jr. and originally published in 1959, is set about 1,800 years after the 1960s. Maybe Miller just got the date of the nuclear disaster a few decades too soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bill!

      Lots of nuclear fears in 1950s-published novels. There’s also Nevil Shute’s excellent 1957 “On the Beach” about a wave of post-bomb, world-destroying radiation heading for Australia — though that novel was set closer to the then-present than the set-very-far-in-the-future Miller book you describe.

      Of course, now in 2017, we are all very relaxed about nuclear disaster with such a careful, stable president in the White House… 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hello Dave, interesting post and choices, as always.
    I immediately thought of Anna Karenina, specifically the double standard. It was alright for Oblonsky to have an affair, but not exactly for his sister Anna. Although some of her friends and relatives felt sorry for her, and realised the unfairness of the situation, society could not possibly accept this behaviour from a woman. Whereas some of Oblonsky’s friends and relatives may frown upon his behaviour; socially his behaviour is accepted and he doesn’t lose any respect over it. Tolstoy may have had old fashioned opinions about women and what there are good for, but here he did make a statement for women to be treated equally.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Elisabeth!

      And that’s an excellent/elegantly expressed mention of “Anna Karenina”!

      Whether in literature or real life, there was definitely a double standard for a man having an affair (viewed more tolerantly) vs. a woman having an affair — a double standard that might be somewhat less pronounced today (at least in some countries) but unfortunately still very much with us.

      And Tolstoy’s views were indeed a fascinating mixture of old-fashioned and more modern.

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      • Here in The Netherlands it doesn’t make much difference anymore. But you’re right, unfortunately there is still that double standard in many country, and I’m very sorry to hear that even in ‘modern’ countries that is still the case.
        Happy New Year, Dave! Let’s hope 2018 will bring more equality!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Good for The Netherlands! A more advanced country than most in various ways, from everything I’ve read and from my two brief visits.

          Happy New Year to you, too, Elisabeth! And that’s a great hope for 2018!

          (I just corrected the spelling of your name from “Elizabeth” to “Elisabeth” in my previous comment. Sorry about that.)

          Liked by 1 person

              • My mother knows her ancestry centuries back. In 1707 the first Elisabeth appeared, she was called Liskje by the Frisian (Friesland is in the north of Holland) diminutive and married a certain Andries. I’m named after my mother’s sister. On my father’s side it’s impossible, van der Meer is a very common last name;-)

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                • Amazing to know centuries worth of ancestry! It must be psychologically satisfying for your mother to have so much information about her roots. Plus it’s so interesting to know what a person’s ancestors did with their lives! Sorry that a not-unusual last name makes ancestry harder to trace on your father’s side.

                  Unfortunately, I can trace my ancestry only to the late 1800s. All four of my now-deceased grandparents came through Ellis Island from Eastern Europe, and it doesn’t help (in terms of genealogical study) that my paternal grandfather changed his name or involuntarily had it changed to the anglicized “Astor.” I don’t know what the original name was. 😦

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    • Yes, and funnily enough, the old double standard is still alive and well!

      Interestingly, Tolstoy revisits the issues raised in Anna Karenina several decades later in his short play “The Living Corpse.” Once again it is about unhappy marriage and divorce, but this time much more sympathetic towards the people who want to dissolve the old marriage and remarry, showing either that Tolstoy had changed his opinions, or was interested in exploring the same thing from a different perspective. I can’t say it’s his best work, but it does show a very modern sensibility.

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      • That is interesting! I have never read “The Living Corpse”, as you say his later work, with the exception of “Hadji Murad”, is not his best. But it is of course interesting to see how his opinion evolved. As Dave says, Tolstoy is a paradox, a modern thinker in many ways, but also terribly old fashioned.

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            • Thanks for mentioning “The Living Corpse,” Elena! It can be nice when great novelists surprise us with their evolution or with a sudden twist in their writing.

              And thanks, Elisabeth, for the mention of “Hadji Murad”! I just read a Wikipedia summary, and it sounds very interesting.

              The late-career work of iconic authors can be fascinating — “The Brothers Karamazov,” Melville’s “Billy Budd,” etc. Sometimes it’s the best stuff they’ve done or at least in the neighborhood of their best.

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                    • Thanks, Elena! After getting through a few more novels in my reading “queue,” I’ll first try a great independent bookstore in my town for “Master and Margarita.” And there’s always Amazon…

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                    • Thanks, Elena and Elisabeth! If I don’t find “Master and Margarita” at some point, I’ll buy it despite having nearly run out of space to put books. 🙂 And I greatly look forward to reading “Hadji Murad,” in of itself and for its current relevance. Some of Tolstoy’s shorter fiction is incredible.

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                    • Definitely, Hadji Murad is extremely interesting and beautifully written. Tolstoy’s wife Sofia loved it. Tolstoy wrote it ‘on the side’, he had convinced himself that he shouldn’t write anymore fiction. He justifies that with some moralistic bits, but otherwise it’s Tolstoy at his best.
                      Master and Margarita is also very interesting and hugely entertaining, you will see many things that you recognise, it has clearly been well read by other writers. So, happy reading 😉

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                    • Thanks, Elisabeth, for that interesting information and your take on “Hadji Murad”! I’m greatly looking forward to reading it. If it’s anywhere near as compelling as other short Tolstoy fiction such as “The Kreutzer Sonata,” “Master and Man,” and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” it will be compelling indeed. It sounds like it is!

                      Thanks, also, for your thoughts on “Master and Margarita.” When a fictional work “has clearly been well read by other writers” (like Gogol’s “The Overcoat”), that is a very high recommendation. 🙂

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  6. Howdy, Dave!

    — Your favorite novels that seemed to know something about the future that’s now our present? —

    Building on an acknowledged foundation comprising not only Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” but also Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We,” Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s “Player Piano” has a great deal to say about the casualties of Western technological civilization since it was published 65-plus years ago, which is unsurprising given the author’s master’s degree in anthropology.

    Most recently, I flashed on Vonnegut’s Reeks and Wrecks — aka the members of the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, aka most average Americans — as I read about the self-destructive behaviors associated with the opioid epidemic that incredibly is so widespread it has led to the lowering of life expectancy in the U.S. Alas.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    P.S. Happy New Year, Yourself! (Anyway.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, J.J.! Hope you have a great 2018!

      Glad you brought up Vonnegut. He is indeed one of those authors who can be described as a visionary in some of his work. A lot of prescient things can be said with humor and cynicism and world-weariness, and he did so.


      • I took a course in college which was entitled “The Sociological Implications of Science and Technology,” and one of the books we had to read was by Vonnegut, though I can’t remember which one. I’m sorry that I didn’t keep the syllabus from that course, because it really was quite interesting. My main takeaway had to do with the amount of water that was wasted by taking long showers, so that I’ve always taken very quick ones. Seeing what’s been going on in Flint, Michigan, and other communities, perhaps that was somehow prescient as well.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Interesting, Kat Lib! Water IS such a crucial resource/issue, and will only become more so in the future. The quality of it, the quantity of it, the privatizing of it…

          Short showers ARE a very smart, socially responsible thing!


        • Howdy, Kat Lib!

          — I took a course in college which was entitled “The Sociological Implications of Science and Technology,” and one of the books we had to read was by Vonnegut, though I can’t remember which one. . . . My main takeaway had to do with the amount of water that was wasted by taking long showers —

          Among all the novels in the Vonnegutian universe, the one most centered on the scarcity of H2O would be “Cat’s Cradle,” in which the introduction of the apocalyptic form of water known as ice-nine into the global ocean brings about the end of the world as we know it. The few remaining survivors probably would have been happy with showers of any duration . . .


          Liked by 1 person

          • Thanks, J.J., you are most likely right, and “Cat’s Cradle” is probably the one book I’m thinking of. It evidently made a big impression on me because I’ve never forgotten the importance of water and the possible scarcity of it at some point. I was staying with my sister’s family back in the late ’80’s when I was quite ill, and one of my nephews used to take showers that lasted at least 1/2 hour, which drove me crazy. In his defense, he was a cyclist who rode his bike for hours on end, so as the dutiful aunt I never said anything.

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  7. I am rummaging through my literary mind for good examples of prescience. For some reason, it drifts to prophetic literature in the Bible. While I don’t believe the book of Revelation is necessarily prescriptive, it is clearly descriptive of life then and now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Tony!

      The Bible is definitely literature in a way, and it certainly tells us a lot about what would come after — all the way up to 2018.

      As I also mentioned in a response below before seeing your comment, human behavior hasn’t really changed a huge amount over the millennia, though things like technology have. I guess in some ways there’s less racism, sexism, and homophobia than thousands of years ago — though attitudes like that can ebb and flow, and vary from place to place.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Good morning, Dave, and a very Happy New Year to you and all of the commenters here! Just a few thoughts. From “The Martian Chronicles,” by Ray Bradbury, the archeologist from one of expeditions to Mars, says “”We’ll rip it up, rip the skin off, and change it to fit ourselves,” and that “we Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things,” referring to Earth. So true, but so many of our leaders don’t seem to realize this. Also, the colonization of Mars comes from the very real possibility of a nuclear war on Earth and the devastation that would bring. I worry about this myself, but alas, I’ve no means to a rocket ship to get me anywhere but here!

    I also thought of Jane Austen, and how so many of her female characters turn down proposals from men that they aren’t in love with, e.g., Elizabeth Bennet turning down Mr. Collins, Fanny Price not accepting Henry Crawford’s proposal, Emma spurning the advances of Mr. Elton, and Anne Elliot refusing her future brother-in-law. I think at the time Austen was writing her novels, a young woman without means was expected to accept any reasonable offer of marriage. Austen herself was never married nor did she have any children, and I found this very encouraging and prescient in the idea of a single woman having a full life on her own terms. Even though those heroines eventually found love and marriage, for a time they were considered “old maids” or “spinsters” but I don’t think that’s true today.

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    • Happy New Year to you, too, Kat Lib!

      You mentioned excellent examples relating to this topic in the works of Ray Bradbury and Jane Austen!

      Bradbury was so prescient in many of his stories and novels, in ways environmental (as you noted) and more. There was of course also the anti-book/anti-intellectual nightmare of “Fahrenheit 451,” which resonates a huge amount today with the Trump regime and the equally awful Republican Congress.

      And, yes, Jane Austen was feminist in her way, especially for her time, with that author’s female characters insisting on the right marriage if they were going to get married. As you know, Edith Wharton explored that in another way in “The House of Mirth,” in which Lily Bart had the integrity not to marry just anyone even though she desperately needed the money.

      In reference to your wry rocket-ship remark, “the one percent” would monopolize all the space-bound seats if the Earth was about to implode — even though some of those ultra-rich are the ones who would’ve caused the implosion with their unbridled greed.


      • Of course I completely agree with your comments about Lily Bart. And yes, I’d like to believe that there were many women novelists who chose to write books or star in movies rather than just be an appendage to a man — think Princess Leia for one. I think this is the one year anniversary of Carrie Fisher’s death, which still makes me sad. But I do think we women have a long road to go, even with the strides we’ve made. But how many women are still not in any kind of power situation or anything else that has any meaning going into the 2018 elections? One can but hope!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Carrie Fisher IS missed, Kat Lib. One of the brainier and more complicated of movie stars. (And of course she was an excellent and often-funny writer, too.)

          And, yes, progress for women but so much discrimination and other problems in a still-patriarchal world that affects women’s work lives and personal lives.


  9. Great list! As for past novels illuminating present problems, gotta add some Dostoevsky to the group and his musings on how easily the mob are bamboozled and misled, and how quickly the oppressed become the oppressors. “Demons” is the most obvious story about the connection between populism and authoritarianism, but The Brothers K has some interesting musings on the problems of elitism vs. populism, and “Notes from Underground” has some stuff about people acting against their own self interest in order to assert their free will that rings alarmingly true, about human nature in general and the current political situation in particular.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Elena! An eloquent and very astute comment!

      Yes, Dostoevsky was such a wise writer who often saw the shape of things to come — concerning everything from human emotions to societal issues.

      “…how quickly the oppressed become the oppressors” — so true. One can look at the United States, which began as a revolutionary country (for wealthy white men, at least) and went on to do some pretty bad things during the century-plus after Dostoevsky’s 1881 death.

      “…populism and authoritarianism” — that’s Trump in three words, though of course his populism is fake.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I think in The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, from The Brothers K, the Grand Inquisitor talks about how easy it is to use fake populism to control the majority, who don’t want to take on the burden of controlling themselves. Not because they’re bad people, but because self rule is so hard. Extremely worth reading more than a century after publication.

        Liked by 2 people

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