April 1, 2011 10:20 pm

Why writers can see the future

The basic task of all fiction is to imagine things that aren’t there

In the Tintin comic book Destination Moon, written in 1952, Professor Calculus tells Tintin and Captain Haddock that he is building a rocket to fly to the moon. Haddock collapses with laughter. “Ha! Ha! Ha! The Moon! As easy as pie! A man on the Moon! You’ll be the man in the Moon! ... I haven’t laughed so much in years.” Most people in 1952 probably thought like Haddock.

Seventeen years before the Moon landing, Tintin’s creator Hergé knew it would happen, just as many writers had known it before him. (Jules Verne, writing in 1865, even knew that the spaceship would be launched from Florida.) People of action generally ignore writers of fiction, yet it’s the writers who are better at seeing the future. Perhaps we should take their visions more seriously.

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Simon Kuper

Why writers have this gift was best explained by George Orwell. Discussing a favourite novelist of his boyhood, H.G. Wells, he wrote: “A decade or so before aeroplanes were technically feasible, Wells knew that within a little while men would be able to fly. He knew that because he himself wanted to be able to fly, and therefore felt sure that research in that direction would continue.”

Wells (and Leonardo da Vinci) had the vision. Scientists, engineers and politicians simply made it happen. (By the same logic, expect time travel to happen eventually.) Wells, who also described a Moon landing in 1901, wrote what we now call science fiction, and sci fi writers tend to keep tabs on the frontiers of science. But many writers in other fictional genres manage prophecy too, because the basic task of all fiction is to imagine things that aren’t there. For instance, the Czech man of letters Karel Capek, in his 1921 play R.U.R., coined the word “robot” to describe the kind of autonomous thinking machine that won the American quiz show Jeopardy this February. Capek created it; IBM eventually built it.

Capek’s Czech contemporary Franz Kafka did even better. Kafka’s work does any number of things, but one of them is to foretell the 20th century. Though he died in 1924, The Castle foreshadows domination by inhuman bureaucracy, Metamorphosis the Holocaust, and The Trial totalitarianism.

If by 1950 you had read The Trial plus Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, then not much that happened in communist countries afterwards would have surprised you. The Anglo-American writer Christopher Hitchens, visiting North Korea in 2000, mused: “Nineteen Eighty-Four was published at about the time that Kim Il Sung set up his system, and it really is as if he got hold of an early copy of the novel and used it as a blueprint.” Orwell’s thinking was the opposite of Wells’s: he dreaded totalitarianism, and so he felt sure it would happen.

Perhaps Kim Il Sung read Orwell, but many space pioneers definitely read Tintin. The Belgian astronaut Dirk Frimout told Sam Knight for this special issue of the FT Weekend Magazine: “The first time we heard about space was in Tintin. How many astronauts have in their office this rocket of Tintin? This shows that it played a role.” Frimout’s nickname in Belgium is “Professor Calculus” (to whom he does indeed bear a remarkable resemblance). How life imitates Belgian comic books.

The attacks of 9/11 imitated American thrillers. The then-US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice testified to the 9/11 Commission: “No one could have imagined them taking a plane, slamming it into the Pentagon … into the World Trade Center, using planes as missiles.”

In fact, many recent American writers had imagined something quite similar. In Tom Clancy’s novel Debt of Honor, published in 1994, a suicide pilot crashes his Boeing 747 into the US Capitol building and kills the president and most people in the presidential line of succession. Moreover, Hollywood had for years been imagining terrorist attacks on American cities. “You couldn’t make it up,” the cliché goes. Often writers did make it up.

People of action are much worse at scenario planning. Soldiers, bureaucrats and corporate executives are schooled in dealing with things that actually exist, and to do so by carrying out other people’s policies. Despite what the business books say, thinking outside the box rarely wins you promotions.

As for politicians, they succeed by knowing what voters want, not by thinking up something new. They often get castigated for their lack of “vision”, but that’s in the job description: politicians are thought followers. If they were thought leaders, they’d never get elected. In fact, it’s when politicians latch on to writers’ utopias that we really get into trouble.

After 9/11, the people who run things briefly deferred to writers. The American army convened various Hollywood screenwriters and directors in an ad hoc working group in Los Angeles, to brainstorm about possible terrorist schemes. The project seems to have been swiftly binned. Perhaps the soldiers didn’t like being air-kissed. Still, any person of action wanting a sense of things to come should abandon the cubicle and drop in on the London Book Fair later this month.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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