Literature is occasionally prescient, and not just science fiction. It’s fascinating to see some of what authors imagined many decades ago come true, or at least partly true. That’s much more impressive than my prediction that this blog post will soon have a second paragraph.
One of my favorite prophetic moments in a novel is when Looking Backward describes an early version of a debit card. Edward Bellamy’s utopian time-travel book was published in 1888 — roughly 90 years before debit cards were introduced in the 1970s.
Then there are early sci-fi giants Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, both of whom wrote novels about flying to the moon. Verne’s speculative travel method in From the Earth to the Moon (1865) is a big space cannon, while Wells, in The First Men in the Moon (1901), posits a spherical ship made of a material called “cavorite” that negates the effects of gravity. But even informed authorial guesses only go so far; for instance, when Cavor and Bedford reach the moon in Wells’ novel, their experiences are, um, very different than Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s would be in 1969.
(Wells also authored The Shape of Things to Come, whose title is part of this post’s headline.)
Verne wrote another novel, Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) that had its veracity proven less than two decades later — in 1890. That’s when journalist Nelly Bly finished circumnavigating the globe in 72 days, even stopping in France to visit Verne!
Dystopian novels can also give us a glimpse of the future. George Orwell of course didn’t invent the idea of a vicious totalitarian state keeping its cowed population under surveillance while controlling the media and engaging in perpetual war, but he certainly crystallizes a lot of that in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Today, those onerous surveillance, media, and war scenarios are everywhere.
In Brave New World (1931), Aldous Huxley depicts a populace kept docile in a different way. Most people in that novel are too busy with drugs, consumerism, and other “pleasures” to think about more important things. Today, there are even more distractions — many of a digital nature — to keep lots of citizens too busy and entertained to be very aware of politics and of how economic elites are ruthlessly getting their way.
The subjugation of women by a sexist, hypocritical religious theocracy in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) certainly has all kinds of echoes in today’s Christian Right and Republican Party.
More than a century before Atwood’s novel, Anne Bronte’s protofeminist The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) presaged the time when many women would courageously leave abusive relationships rather than remain stuck in them.
Five years earlier, Georges (1843) featured a partly black title character — making partly black author Alexandre Dumas prescient in showing that an admirable, three-dimensional, non-stereotypical person of color could carry a novel. A fact, of course, that should never have been debatable.
Also prescient in a way was Wilkie Collins, who wrote a novel (The Woman in White) containing what may have been a closeted lesbian character (Marian Halcombe) — and saw that 1859 book become a bestseller. Nowadays, it’s thankfully a given that a prominent gay or lesbian character would not be a novel’s death knell.
Another 19th-century classic, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876), was a proto-Zionist work despite its author not being Jewish. The novel, and the way its Jewish characters envisioned what became modern-day Israel, helped influence prominent Zionists such as Theodor Herzl.
Which characters, moments, inventions, and other content have you found prescient in literature?
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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.