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.

Why Sci-fi Should Be Given a Try

A conversation with myself:

“I read Octavia E. Butler’s riveting Kindred and Andy Weir’s compelling The Martian this month. I should write a blog post about science fiction!”

“But you haven’t read THAT much sci-fi. You’re no expert!”

“Well, if I define sci-fi loosely enough to also include speculative fiction, time-travel novels, apocalyptic books, and so on, I think I could pull together something credible.”

“Okay, but try to avoid discussing things like ghost stories, horror novels, dystopian classics, and fantasy fiction. Those aren’t quite sci-fi (I think), and are better as topics for their own blog posts.”

“Noted. And don’t forget that people who may have more sci-fi knowledge than I can add their thoughts in the comments area.”

“True — and people with even less sci-fi knowledge than you (if that’s possible 🙂 ) can comment, too. After all, most of us have at least watched Star Wars movies and/or various Star Trek offerings.”

“But I haven’t seen The Man With Two Brains.”

“So, how are you talking with yourself?”

Sci-fi is fascinating. Most of us are curious about what the future might bring, about what the past was like (in time-travel books that go backward), about space travel, about faraway worlds, etc. And of course sci-fi set in the future is often a way to metaphorically and exaggeratedly discuss how things (such as social conditions) are in the author’s present time.

The sci-fi genre has its roots in the 19th century (if it dates back further, please correct me in the comments area). Mary Shelley was definitely a pioneer, with her iconic Frankenstein (1818) and apocalyptic The Last Man (1826) — the latter set in the 2090s.

Edgar Allan Poe flirted with time travel in his 1844 story “A Tale of Ragged Mountains,” and Jules Verne began his legendary career in the 1860s. Robert Louis Stevenson put some sci-fi elements in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Edward Bellamy went utopian sci-fi with Looking Backward (1888), and Mark Twain plunged full-on into time travel with his pessimistic A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).

Then H.G. Wells closed the 19th century and opened the 20th with his incredible run of sci-fi classics The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), and The First Men in the Moon (1901). Yes, the two lunar travelers in that last book went inside the moon.

A few decades later, various 20th-century masters arrived on the publishing scene. You know their names: Isaac Asimov (who I was privileged to meet in 1986), Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, the still-living Ursula K. Le Guin, etc. And you know their prominent works — such as the Foundation novels (Asimov), The Martian Chronicles (Bradbury), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Clarke), Stranger in a Strange Land (Heinlein), and The Left Hand of Darkness (Le Guin).

Past and present sci-fi notables also include Douglas Adams, Orson Scott Card, Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, Frank Herbert, Ann Leckie, Anne McCaffrey, Joanna Russ, and Connie Willis, among others.

Some of the above have also written in other genres, but achieved much of their fame from sci-fi work. Then there are authors who primarily focus(ed) on more “general” fiction, but delve(d) into the sci-fi realm on occasion. One current example is Margaret Atwood, whose self-described “speculative fiction” includes works such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake. Also, Marge Piercy went partly sci-fi with Woman on the Edge of Time, as did Virginia Woolf with Orlando. Kurt Vonnegut is by no means a pure sci-fi writer, but there are certainly elements of that genre in his novels such as the time-travel-tinged Slaughterhouse-Five. The same can be said for Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand.

Some novels — such as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods — mix sci-fi and fantasy. Others — including Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — contain apocalyptic scenarios with some sci-fi aspects.

The Martian? The Wall Street Journal called it “the purest example of real-science sci-fi for many years,” and the 2011 novel certainly has many classic sci-fi trappings: space travel, a disaster, smart/stranded protagonist, an epic fight for survival, plausible-sounding technology, etc.

Kindred (1979) is a fascinating/searing fictional work that looks at slavery and more through a sci-fi/time-travel lens as protagonist Dana (an African-American woman) is repeatedly pulled from 20th-century California to America’s pre-Civil War South.

What are your favorite sci-fi novels? What do you think of the genre?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

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 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.