It is a common and age-old task for fiction to imagine life in the future. Although the phrase “the future” immediately calls to mind modern works of science fiction, narratives that imagine alternative worlds don’t belong solely to that genre or this time. More broadly, works of future fiction have been around since before the novel itself. Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602) are two pioneers in future writing and were written before the modern novel came into being — and these forerunners follow the model devised by Plato in The Republic (around 380 bc). Since then, writers and philosophers have written numerous works of future fiction, some of which have even been outpaced by the dogged sands of time. Though almost all of the predictions in these works haven’t come to pass, we continue to read them and write new books that speculate about tomorrow and beyond — Gary Shteyngart’s screaming, heart-felt satire, Super Sad True Love Story (2010) comes to mind. While visions of the future have run the gamut from Big Brother to Big Otter, one thing remains abidingly clear: writing about the future is an enduring pursuit of universal interest. Thus, when well executed, future fiction is literature in the sublime.
It’s interesting how much credence we give to works about the future considering the epistemic fact that the future is impossible to predict. The skeptic David Hume makes a convincing argument that we do not know if the sun will rise tomorrow, let alone the organization of society one, ten, or one hundred years from now. And yet, after reading the words “future fiction” in the above paragraph, I’m sure the names of other works that do just that have sprung into your head: Brave New World, Anthem, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451… the list is long. Despite the senselessness of the task, it seems we cannot resist imagining the future through alternative worlds. Maybe this is proof that we are romantic beings, or hopeless fools — personally, I think it’s likely that we’re both. At any rate, we do read books about the future; this much is clear. We read them, study them, enshrine them, canonize them, and instruct them in our schools. I don’t think it was unique to my education that I read all the books in the short list above before graduating from high school — though I suppose this should come as no surprise. Future fiction always furnishes us with a new perspective on the present times. In this regard, it is by its very nature instructional.
What are we to make, then, of the U.S. National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) Global Trends Report, “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds?” Published in December, the report “identifies key drivers and developments likely to shape world events a couple of decades into the future.” In other words, the report tries, like so many works of fiction, to extrapolate current trends to predict the future. The NIC publishes the report every four years after the president is elected but before inauguration day. Its purpose is twofold: to inform policy makers, namely the president, of the current state of the world and to show them where — it appears — things are headed so that they can make informed policy decisions. Their website states that the last edition of the report, Global Trends 2025, was read and consulted by leaders worldwide.
The NIC bases these Global Trend reports on information gathered by the U.S. intelligence network, think tanks, independent research laboratories, the opinions of scientists, experts in industry, academics, NASA, Silicon Valley moguls, and other foreign collaborators, then has the world’s most powerful consulting firm create data models based on the findings. In short, they use the finest data, methods, and minds available. Period. We may call these 24-karat predictions because I suspect they cost as much to produce. The predictions in the first published report, however, turned out to be very wrong.
In an article for The Atlantic, Joshua Foust reminded us that the 1997 report predicted
…by 2010, North Korea would be transformed into a normal state and tensions on the peninsula would be eliminated; the western world would see unending 2-percent growth in personal income; and precision weapons would make conflicts smaller and less costly.
Obviously, none of this happened. Instead, something resembling the opposite state of affairs obtained. How should we respond? The fact that the greatest minds of our age furnished with all the information gathered by the greatest intelligence network of all time and outfitted with the most advanced predictive modeling systems ever created cannot infer much — if anything — about what will happen in the future should be a sobering reminder of the limitations of the knowledge of man. Hume is laughing from his tomb on Calton Hill. And two words — Financial crisis!! — should remind you that this is hardly news. Next question: can we blame the NIC for the report’s inaccuracies? No — by their own admission, the report is speculative: “We do not seek to predict the future.” It is worth noting, however, that they have taken down the links to Global Trends 2010, published in 1997. I can only guess as to the reasons, but I imagine it’s because world leaders would use the newest report for a doormat if they knew how disparate past predictions have been from reality.
What’s especially interesting about Global Trends 2030 is that it culminates in a section called “Alternative Worlds.” After 107 pages of snazzy infographics on globalized workflows, widespread aging, and the advantages and disadvantages of a multipolar global economy, the experts depict four possible futures using “scenario narratives.” The introduction to the Alternative Worlds section states:
…we have fictionalized the scenario narratives to encourage all of us to think more creatively about the future. We have intentionally built in discontinuities, which will have a huge impact in inflecting otherwise straight linear projections of known trends. We hope that a better understanding of the dynamics, potential inflection points, and possible surprises will better equip decisions makers to avoid the traps and enhance possible opportunities for positive developments.
Consider the line between fact and fiction officially blurred. On the page, the report fictionalizes the four worlds in brief written accounts complete with fabricated back-stories. One is a paper given at a Davos meeting, another, an address by a noted archaeologist. My favorite scenario, called “Gini-Out-of-the-Bottle,” comes in a paper that the “2028 Editor of the New Marxist Review” selected — after “sifting through piles” of “thousands of submissions” — as the winner of an essay competition held in honor of Marx’s 210th birthday. Titled “Marx Updated for the 21st Century,” the essay is printed on hammer-and-pick stationery (no joke).
Ignore for a moment the anachronism of someone sifting through thousands of paper essay submissions in the year 2030 to absorb the chimera that is “Alternative Worlds.” This is scary and this is cool. A government agency is handing the president a report in which they’ve “fictionalized” the future and they expect him to make policy decisions with their projections in mind. Our tax dollars are literally creating speculative fiction. And while the authors of these scenarios could learn a lot about character development from an intro to creative writing class, what they’ve written is future fiction. Global Trends 2030 shows the major characteristics that I’ve identified — imagined empires, utopian and dystopian societies, an instructional purpose, widespread readership and appreciation despite past failures; it’s all there.
I’ve struggled while writing this post to decide whether Global Trends 2030 should be treated as a farce or as some proof that fiction about the future has tangible value. On the one hand, I want to laugh when the NIC states that they’ve disrupted their own projections with “discontinuities” to encourage us to think nonlinearly about the future (—so you took your best guess, formulated by experts and supercomputers, and arbitrarily messed it up to remind us that shit happens?). On the other hand, the fact that a government agency tasked with advising policy makers about the future chose to use fictional scenarios — rather than CG-augmented “dramatic representations” of cable television fame — to help readers process 100+ pages of analytic reasoning and data tables makes a powerful argument for the value of fiction and fantasy alike. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about the report. I will say, however, that fiction does seem particularly suited to portray the future. As Churchill famously said, “The empires of the future are the empires of the mind,” and what are works of fiction if not empires of the mind built with ink and paper.
From another perspective, the Global Trends Report is merely one symptom of larger societal mores. To put it bluntly: we are obsessed with the future. Earlier, I said that writing about the future was an enduring pursuit of universal interest. This seems to be even truer in the wake of the Global Trends Reports. And while early works of future fiction prove that we’ve always been interested in the future, soon after the Industrial Revolution, this interest became a fascination. Allow me to identify some Global Trends: the acceleration of technological progress that began during the Industrial Revolution—and which has only hastened since the advent of the microchip, the personal computer, and the Internet—has enabled man to see significant change during his lifetime. Concurrently, global conflict during the World Wars spread terror and destruction and evinced the fragility of life. It is only natural, then, for us to wonder what will come after we are gone because we now realize just how exciting or terrible the future can be and just how quickly the fate of mankind can change.
If the first half of the 20th century roused our concern for tomorrow, the postmodern era has steered the attitude toward mania. 24-hour news networks now provide updates in real time on unfolding crises and events, while satellites, our watchtowers in low Earth orbit, remind us that we are each a small part of global change. We are constantly told that we live in dire times or that we are standing on the precipice of some new catastrophe. It makes sense, then, that we now pay futurists — experts whose sole job is to predict the future—to tell us about tomorrow and have even founded Future Studies programs in universities. The soothsayers of Shakespeare’s day are alive and well, and have traded their staves for PowerPoint clickers.
In the world of literature, this blooming passion for the future can be seen in the proliferation of science fiction, a once distinct genre that now bleeds into everything. The New Yorker’s June 2012 issue was devoted, for the first time ever, solely to Science Fiction; David Foster Wallace’s too popular Infinite Jest (1996) takes place in a near future with an advanced entertainment network that bears an eerie resemblance to Netflix, a service that would become popular five years later; and author George Saunders continues to write literary fiction that takes place in some postmodern twilight zone that can be described as, if nothing else, futuristic-ish. Furthermore, we continue to revere authors for their prescience — sometimes, only after it’s validated. In his September 2012 essay in the Los Angeles Review of books, Cornel Bonca wrote on Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (2003), a book that was largely dismissed by critics after its publication but which has since, as Bonca explains, gained credit for its grim depiction of a wayward multi-billionaire asset manager who drives through Manhattan to get a haircut only to be impeded by anti-capitalist riots, prefiguring the 2007 economic downturn and Occupy Movement. This justification compels Bonca to retroactively declare: “Don Delillo has once again taken on the mantle of artist-prophet.”
Now, let me ask a novel question: if future fiction is the literary indigo of our age, what will the future of fiction hold? Will novelists like Gary Shteyngart become futurists while futurists like Michio Kaku become novelists (Kaku’s “nonfiction” book Physics of the Future (2011) concludes, like the Global Trends Report, with a fictitious vision of the future: “A Day In The Life In 2100”) in some sort of literary singularity? Already, this conflation has occurred for writer/futurist Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), among others. I don’t have answers to these questions — though if given four years, a platoon of data-table-waving experts, and a supercomputer, I’m sure I could scrape something together. Through all of this, though, one thing remains certain: writing about the future will have an important future in our lives, as it has had an important past.
James David Lamon is a liberal arts grad now finding himself, professionally. He lives and writes in Austin. Follow him on twitter @JamesDavidLamon