A forward thinking theme for Book Reading Groups: the Future as imagined in the Past

‘Future Imperfect’ might be a theme for book reading groups to pursue when planning a season of older literary novels.  There is a fascination in reading accounts in literary novels of a future world written many years ago and to see how the mind-set of the period in which it was written colours the book’s picture of its own imagined future.  Someone once remarked to me, “There’s surely no future in the prediction business.” but, in actual fact, there are many people who make a worthwhile living out of telling the rest of us what life is going to be like in 10, 20, or 50 years time.  Businesses will pay serious money attempting to reduce uncertainty.  Shell used to be famous for constructing future ‘scenarios’ to guide the company’s long term planning.  However, we can now read authors who set their books in a future that is already, in calendar terms, part of our own past.  However, close reading of these books will almost invariably reveal that, since the future is unknowable, projections into the decades and centuries ahead are conditioned by the issues and concerns that are part of contemporary thinking and debate at the time the book is being written.  For today’s reader of futuristic novels, they are commentaries on what worried the world then and should provoke reflection on not just how right or how wrong the novelists were but rather on how relevant is their message for our own today.

BraveNewWorld_HuxleyGenerally, futurologists are a gloomy lot; predicting floods, famines and enslavement of the masses if we were not, in fact, wiped out all together; but one, tongue in cheek, in 1931 predicted a Brave New World.  Aldous Huxley envisaged a society some six hundred years in the future, where natural human reproduction has been replaced by not just in vitro fertilisation but the pregnancy and ‘birth’ all occurring in the laboratory and the output being graded from Alpha to Epsilon, the lower quality Deltas and Epsilons being the ones who did all the labouring and menial work but, being chemically conditioned, never found their lot unsatisfactory.  Consumption is now a moral imperative to sustain output and employment.  Apart from hypnopaedic learning (learning while you sleep) to reinforce the conditioning message that everything’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds, whatever your societal rank, there was blanket use of the hallucinatory drug soma and reproduction-free sex was a common way of spending the afternoon.  What turns a funny novel into a social tragedy is the existence of native reserves, a tourist venue for the Alphas and Betas, and the discovery of John, illegitimate son of the current Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, who is brought back to the ‘civilised’ world.  The novel looks at the havoc this causes and which ends with two Alphas being exiled to the Falkland Islands and a tragic end for John.

Another bleak view of a future dystopia made up of three warring power groups, and which 1984-Orwellends with no relief in sight, is George Orwell’s 1984 in which one prole tempted to rebel against Big Brother is brought to heel and submission by cruel psychological terror in Room 101.  The book created its own vocabulary with Newspeak being the word to describe the state propaganda emanating from the Ministry of Truth whose slogans included ‘War is Peace’ and ‘Freedom is Slavery’.  Winston and Julia try to carry on a love affair out of sight of the ever present ‘Big Brother’ cctv but are discovered by the Thought Police and when, a long time after, they run across each other, they confess that each had betrayed the other.  Of course, Orwell’s purpose was to rail against anti-libertarian tendencies that stalked the world, such as Stalinism and what would soon become McCarthyism.  Orwell’s book was finished in 1948 and he inverted the last numbers of that year to create his title.  As with the Huxley book, 1984 quickly became a classic and a part of the canon of English Literature.  (Could that mean the Thought Police were successful after all?)

Other books which could fit into this category include The Old Men at the Zoo by Angus Wilson, about what happens when a giraffe escapes, and other things besides, but, since I have still to read it, I cannot say more.  H G Wells wrote about The Shape of Things to come but this has dropped off the modern radar. A more up-to-date book that I suggest is a mixture of future prediction, SF to a degree, and contemporary commentary is Pattern Recognition by William Gibson.  I quote here from Wikipedia:

PatternRecognition_GibsonPattern Recognition is a novel by science fiction writer William Gibson published in 2003. Set in August and September 2002, the story follows Cayce Pollard, a 32-year-old marketing consultant who has a psychological sensitivity to corporate symbols. The action takes place in London, Tokyo, and Moscow as Cayce judges the effectiveness of a proposed corporate symbol and is hired to seek the creators of film clips anonymously posted to the internet.  The novel’s central theme involves the examination of the human desire to detect patterns or meaning and the risks of finding patterns in meaningless data. Other themes include methods of interpretation of history, cultural familiarity with brand names, and tensions between art and commercialization. The September 11, 2001 attacks are used as a motif representing the transition to the new century.

I set off to explore books written in the past and purporting to foretell the future and I justify the inclusion of Pattern Recognition by its being already 10 years old.  As a way of getting to think seriously about modern data-mining techniques, which have expanded dramatically in the ten years since the book was published, and of the ways in which that accumulated knowledge of our consumer and political motivations and how to influence them, this is a seminal text. 

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