Science Fiction and Prophecy

Science Fiction and Prophecy March 18, 2019

Having written about science fiction as prophecy here not long ago, I was struck by a recent article in the New York Times by Namwali Serpell. Here is one briefer and one longer excerpt:

Maybe because we’re living in a dystopia, it feels as if we’ve become obsessed with prophecy of late. Protest signs at the 2017 Women’s March read “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again!” and “Octavia Warned Us.” News headlines about abortion bans and the defunding of Planned Parenthood do seem ripped from the pages of Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1985). And Octavia Butler’s “Parable” series, published in the 1990s, did eerily feature a presidential candidate who vows to “make America great again.”

The writer Harry Turtledove tweeted a link to that article with an exclamatory comment: “Science fiction does not predict the future. Not. Not! [expletive] NOT! It uses the imagined future to comment on the real present.” Margaret Atwood often claims something similar, echoing Gibson’s protestations. Despite manifest evidence of her acute forecasts — the rise of the Christian right, in vitro meat, sexbots modeled on real people, apocalyptic climate change, live aquatic jewelry — she says: “I’m not a prophet. Honest, I’m not a prophet. If I were a prophet I would have cleaned up on the stock market years ago. … They’re saying things about ‘Oryx and Crake’ and ‘MaddAddam’ are all coming true. But that’s based on things people were already working on when I was writing the books. It’s just that I was looking for those things and other people weren’t.” Maybe science fiction’s future is actually just a lens on the present.

Some writers do like to don the mantle of prophet. In 1983, Isaac Asimov published a set of 2019 forecasts. He was right about some things: “The mobile computerized object, or robot, is already flooding into industry and will, in the course of the next generation, penetrate the home.” But it’s embarrassing to see how hopeful he was about us: Asimov thought computers would have freed us from the most tedious forms of labor by now. He imagined we’d have fixed pollution, developed technology “based on the special properties of space” and even settled on the moon. This rosy picture might seem surprising, given science fiction’s proclivity for doom and gloom. Yet given our headlong plummet toward the death of this planet, to picture any future at all feels optimistic these days. It assumes that, when the apocalypse comes, we will still be here to witness it.

Stories are one of our oldest technologies. They let us have vivid experiences — beautiful, moving ones, but also horrifying, dark ones — and then close the book, or the laptop, unscathed. They give us a kind of perverse pleasure in reverse: not of seeing the worst come true, but of seeing the worst without it coming true. And this is the other reason I don’t think writers should give up on the art of prediction. Writers don’t just see into the future or possess special insight into the present; we also construct a kind of machine for virtual hindsight. We create an immersive simulation of the future that we can all experience and look back on, so that we might decide together whether we want these dreams to come true after all.

I notice in particular how widespread the view is that prophets predict(ed) the future. What prophets past and present have done and do is precisely what Turtledove articulated: “It uses the imagined future to comment on the real present.”

Of course, it can be easy to miss this when reading the edited compilations of prophetic writings from our perspective, with the benefit of hindsight. For the most part, those things which simply didn’t come to pass have been left out, or altered. The classic example, mentioned regularly in treatments of redaction criticism, is Amos’ statement “I will destroy it from the face of the earth. Yet I will not totally destroy the descendants of Jacob” (Amos 9:8). The second part seems to many scholars to be an addition to the first part.

Another particularly clear example is to consider Omri, the king who is viewed by the Deuteronomistic History (see in particular 1 Kings 16:25) as the worst in Israel’s history. Look and see what the books named after prophets have to say about him. Basically, nothing. Why? Not only because our earliest prophetic books are later. But because Omri’s reign was a time of prosperity. Those who opposed him theologically may well have predicted doom and gloom. Nothing happened, at least not during his lifetime. The prophetic writings in the Bible are edited compilations of oracled and occasionally also stories. From the perspective of hindsight, we not only discern between individuals but between individual sayings. It would be interesting to be able to hear what these ancient Israelite prophets proclaimed and predicted that wasn’t recorded. But that would require yet another kind of science fictional technology.

To round off this post, here are a couple of links to posts of mine, more than ten years apart. Blogging probably has a chastening effect on anyone that might be inclined to predict the future. It is even easier to see how wrong someone can be not just about major events and trends, but even where a TV show like LOST is headed…

The Parables of the Sower

How Far We’ve Come: Things I’ve Learned from Star Trek


"Biblical reference to Ruth who did not want to be part of her people anymore ..."

Doctor Who: Fugitive of the Judoon
"Thankyou. I love this classic Asimov story."

How It Happened (Isaac Asimov)
"Might I also add a couple of things which reminded me of The Time Machine. ..."

Doctor Who: Orphan 55
"The revelation has been done before--see Planet of the Apes--but it works because it's true. ..."

Doctor Who: Orphan 55

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • David Evans

    I don’t think Asimov would be embarrassed by his predictions. He starts by saying that he does not consider a future that contains all-out nuclear war, because “too few of us will be alive” for it to be interesting. Therefore he is not discussing a future that is certain to happen, only an interesting one. By the same token a future in which we fail to grasp the opportunities open to us is not very interesting. We absolutely could have had Moon bases, space-based manufacturing and solar power satellites by now, and have been in a good position to detect and deflect the next asteroid impact. We chose not to.

  • When I do my overview talk about science fiction. I talk about science fiction doing predictions. I mention the number of hits. I also mention that science fiction predicted the landing on the moon as well as television. I also point out that no one put the two together. No predictions about millions of humans watching the landing and walks. Predictions and prophecy are at best not even good guesses.

  • aw

    The reason why Omri is not criticized in the prophetic books is because they were written long after he died, not because of prosperity. (And he’s not considered the worst king in the book of Kings; a few verses later Ahab is criticized as worse than Omri.) Jeroboam the son of Joash also had a prosperous reign, but it was in his reign that Amos prophecied.

    • aw

      Also, your assertion that failed biblical prophecies were suppressed seems not to be true in light of the fact that Jeremiah 26:18-19 explicitly notes that one of Micah’s prophecies failed and yet still accepts him as a true prophet

      • In Kings we get stories about prophecies against Ahab. My point is that we don’t get anything comparable for Omri. Was no one challenging him? Or did they just not get preserved?

        Of course, another major aspect of this is that the anti-Phoenician movement against Ahab and his alliance through marriage may have played a key role in the development of Israelite monolatry, and that aspect of the message of prophets from then on.

        • aw

          Was no one challenging him? Or did they just not get preserved?

          That is a question that can’t be answered definitively because there are no sources for what prophecies were said at that time.


          1. Omri is not a glaring omission. Many kings, good and bad, are mentioned in Kings with no stories of prophets who opposed them. There’s nothing to indicate that this is a case of suppressing a prophecy that turned out to be untrue.

          2. Prophecies that turned out to be untrue weren’t systematically suppressed (as I wrote above, Jeremiah explicitly notes that Micah’s prophecy, which is also preserved in the eponymous book, failed to come true).

          So I don’t think this is a good example of prophecies not being preserved on purpose because they didn’t end up being true. I think that a person from that time who was faced with a prophecy that didn’t come true would most likely reinterpret it, or otherwise find some explanation why it didn’t turn out as expected (as in Jeremiah’s case).

          P.S. The idea of monolatry in connection to opposition to Ahab is well-documented in the Bible, but in my opinion, an anti-Phoenician movement being the cause of it is only speculation by scholars.

          • We can trace the development of the concern that moves Israel’s theology in the direction of monotheism over the course of Israelite literature. On the one hand, there is the introduction of the imagery of marital unfaithfulness that we see enter for the first time with Hosea, who presumably viewed God and God’s relationship with the nation through the lens of his own experience. On the other hand, there is the strong anti-Ba’al element in the 9th century that seems not to have been about monotheism or even monolatry per se, but the acceptance of Phoenician Ba’al on an equal level with the nation’s own deity.

            As we see from the names of Saul’s sons, it wasn’t that long before this that one could be a devotee of Ba’al and have that theophoric element in the names of one’s children and still be considered an acceptable choice for king of Israel.