The Crystal Ball of Science Fiction

British writer H G Wells
British writer H G Wells

Science fiction doesn’t always become reality. We are still waiting for massive spacecraft to make interstellar journeys, as in Star Trek, or to have titanic battles with each other, as in Star Wars. But it is interesting to see how futuristic writers have looked into their crystal balls and forecast, sometimes quite accurately, the shape of the future. The seeds of the future are with us already. If we stop and think carefully about trends in our world today, we can often see where those trends are headed.

What we call “science fiction” are stories set in an imagined future. Authors have been setting stories in imaginary places for centuries. In 1627, Sir Francis Bacon in England published a novel called New Atlantis, in which a group of sea travellers are blown off course by a storm and reach a mythical island called Bensalem. The people of this place live in ways that are advanced compared to Bacon’s England. Science plays an important role for Bensalem’s people. They have an advanced university, to encourage scientific research, and implement the results of this research in the life of their society.

Illustration from the title page of New Atlantis by Sir Francis Bacon
Illustration from the title page of one edition of New Atlantis by Sir Francis Bacon

The British writer H G Wells is known for many engaging futuristic writings, such as The Time Machine, which dealt with time travel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, which dealt with medical experimentation to create monsters, The War of The Worlds, which anticipated Star Wars by describing the invasion of Earth by creatures from Mars with advanced technology, and The First Men in the Moon, which anticipated space exploration.

H G Wells, like Francis Bacon, was a person who enjoyed looking into the future and trying to imagine what it will be like for us. Wells didn’t only write fiction. He also wrote non-fiction works. In 1920, he published a three-volume work called The Outline of History in which he predicts that eventually there will be one government for the whole world.

Incidentally, Wells was accused by a Canadian woman named Florence Deeks of having plagiarised much of this work from a book she had written, called The Web, which she has submitted to the Canadian branch of a British publishing company, but which was rejected.

The United Nations is the closest thing we have to a world “government”, and it is not correct to describe it as a government. It is a standing diplomatic body where independent governments meet to discuss matters and agree on common solutions. But it might be possible for a world government to evolve in the future.

Wells saw world government as our salvation from annihilation by war. Given that he was writing just after the end of World War I, his concern is understandable. Wells wrote: “given a world law and world security, a release from the net of bickering frontiers, world-wide freedom of movement, and world-wide fellowship, a thousand good things that are now beyond hope of dreaming would come into ordinary life.”

Photo: Trotsky
Leon Trotsky

In a way, uniting the world under a common philosophical system has been the goal of all kinds of ideologues, such as Marxist leader and theorist Leon Trotsky, who predicted a world revolution where workers everywhere would overthrow oppressive and corrupt rulers and unite in creating a new world. Trotsky was critical of the Soviet state under Stalin for having betrayed the ideals of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Eventually he was brutally murdered by Soviet agents while living in exile in Mexico.

Picture: Trotsky RB book cover
The cover of an English version of Trotsky’s book The Revolution Betrayed (1936)

A world-wide workers’ revolution is a far-fetched idea today, and probably was far-fetched when Trotsky suggested it. Was it as far-fetched as space travel was when H G Wells wrote The First Men in the Moon? If a world government is unlikely to happen via a workers’ revolution, could it come about by some other means? Some science fiction authors are writing about the idea.

Picture: cover of Radio Freefall novel
Cover of the novel Radio Freefall by Matthew Jarpe, published by Tor.

In his very amusing and enjoyable novel Radio Freefall, American writer Matthew Jarpe describes the efforts of a communications mogul called Cheeseman to take over the world through gaining control of the Internet and the flow of world-wide communication via a corporation called WebCence, which gains control of the Internet by being asked by governments to police the Internet and protect them from hacking and cyber threats. Jarpe writes: “In order to take over the world, the world itself first had to be transformed into one whole entity that could be held and controlled. So that was step one. Unification.” Jarpe explains how the various groups that make up the world’s citizens were convinced that unification was a good thing: big business, the workers, the “democratic” politicians and the non-democratic leaders. The first phase of unification was the joining together of regional groups of countries into trading blocs, which led to these joining into mega-countries, which amalgamated, and eventually the few isolated smaller countries that were left all gave up and joined too.

Let’s play a game of the imagination, seeing as we are imagining what the future might turn out like. Imagine, for a minute, that in the future there will be no distinction between literary genres, that Bacon’s New Atlantis, H G Wells’ The Outline of History, Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed and Jarpe’s Radio Freefall will all be regarded as musings about what might happen or what the author would have liked to see happen. This is an invitation to see the commonality among these works, rather than to focus on perceived differences.

It is interesting to try to place these works in a spectrum. Radio Freefall is written as a sci-fi novel under today’s definitions of literary genres. And yet it presents some interesting political comments. The books by Trotsky and H G Wells are presented as part fact and part theory, and yet the truth of the “facts” that are identified depend entirely on the philosophical viewpoint of the authors. Trotsky talks about social classes in a Marxist manner as though those things are real, but he starts to erode or augment that system, depending on how you look at it, by identifying a new class, the Soviet bureaucrats, who used to be workers but became attached to and dependent on the Soviet state and promoted that State for its own ends.

Picture: Russian Bolshevik-era poster
Russian Communist poster showing a colossal V I Lenin pointing the way.

Wells has his own concepts that he assumes are true. Wells would have understood Marxism but probably disagreed with it. Is there common ground between Wells and Trotsky? Can we read the works of the two authors as presenting two versions of the same thing, i.e. historical analysis? What’s the difference, after all, in terms of correspondence with reality, between the Communist posters of the heroic and benevolent V I Lenin pointing the way to a utopian classless society and the cover of Radio Freefall?

And then we have Bacon’s work. Clearly intended to be a fantasy, but in the sense of a parable, of presenting a more pure version of the world he lived in. The residents of the fabled island of Bensalem are Christians, which in Bacon’s day was a mixture of all types of beliefs based on various sources. And on top of that stratum Bacon builds an edifice of fable in order to illustrate and promote his ideas about the importance of science, which is based not on faith or fables at all but rather on on observation and reason.

Looking at all of these writings, and comparing them, and examining the assumptions that frame them as members of one genre or another, or as presenting fact or theory or opinion or fiction or whatever, confirms that there are many different ways to describe our human experience.

Is there a common streak of optimism running through the literature we have considered? A wish for the future to be a better place? The Latin motto from the New Atlantis title page says: Time Brings Forth Hidden Truth. But the future is an elusive quarry, as we have seen. Perhaps the hidden truth is already here, now. “How near the truth, yet how far we seek.” Not just in other places. In other times, too.

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