Thursday, April 18, 2013

Unwittingly Prophetic Authors

An article by novelist Tom Lonergan at Huffington Post this week, My Novel Predicted Boston Marathon Attack reminded me of an old post of my own. Synopsis from cover of Lonergan's Heartbreak Hill (2002):
"The trouble with most terrorists is they think too small. This is the message Boston police receive days before fifteen thousand runners and two and a half million spectators descend on the city for the marathon........."

An edited version of my 2006 post follows:


James Michener seemed to have amazing foresight. Several of his novels featuring a particular country, in depth, were each followed some years later by the same countries coming into prominence on the world stage. In a long interview here: , he said
"I think that some of us have a deep seated sensitive antennae about what is going to happen. And somebody the other day, a fine professor, made an introduction of me, which I had not thought about, but which I had thought about a great deal since. At that time, in the world, there were about a half dozen trouble spots: the Near East, the Jewish-Arab relationships, South Africa, revolution in Poland, the emergence of Japan, the absorption in the United States of two outlying territories like Hawaii and Alaska and four or five other things. And he pointed out that I had written full-length books about all these areas before they came into prominence. And I did! There they are. Look at the dates. Now this cannot be because I was exceptionally brilliant. I am not brilliant. I'm something else. I don't know what the word would be, but it isn't brilliant."

Nevil Shute, author of one of my favourite books A Town Like Alice, wrote a couple of novels which later seemed to have been prophetic. No Highway, published in 1948 dealt with what might happen due to metal fatigue in aircraft. His ideas came close to fact with the Comet disasters of the 1950s. Another novel, What Happened to the Corbetts also published as Ordeal was written just before the start of WorldWar 2. It tells how badly aerial bombing affected a town similar to Southampton, in the south of England, and how the bombing of civilians became a major part of the war. British people of a certain age will have no trouble recognising this as fact! His novel On the Beach, a story of the world ending as a result of the explosion of atomic bombs, thankfully has not yet proved prophetic. It could still be "pending", should people forget the warning bells it rang! Shute also touched on a slightly supernatural theme in a novel called Round the Bend in which an aircraft mechanic becomes the mystical leader of a religious movement.

Seeing some correspondence between Michener and Shute, I searched around for other instances of novels which, without purporting to be science fiction, portray events which later came to pass in real life.

American author Morgan Robertson produced an early example in his story Futility. He told of a ship called Titan which sank in a way eerily similar to The Titanic sinking, 14 years later. When this book was written there were no ships of such enormous size being built. Robertson also appeared to be crystal-gazing when he later(1914) wrote Beyond the Spectrum in which he described a war in the future, fought using aircraft which dropped "sun bombs" on their targets. These were powerful enough for a single bomb to destroy a city. When this book was written, aircraft were small, flimsy, and unreliable machines capable of carrying one person. Nuclear weapons were still unimagined. Robertson's war began in the month of December, as did the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor which brought the USA into World War 2.

Michener was born 1907, Shute 1899 and Robertson 1861.

There are, of course, common sense explanations for the authors' seeming futuristic vision. These writers were not deliberately trying to predict events, as far as we know.

Michener didn't foresee actual events, but was drawn or inspired to write about countries which later came to prominence for one reason or another. He was widely travelled, highly intelligent, politically minded and had lived in all the countries he wrote about. Common sense would say that he was intuitively "putting two and two together"

Shute was a skilled aeronautical engineer as well as novelist. He had technical knowledge more than sufficient to foresee possible outcomes where the area of his expertise was involved. "An accident waiting to happen", in the case of metal fatigue, and some extrapolation of known facts in the case of aerial warfare ?

Robertson was the son of a ship's captain and spent some time as a cabin boy himself, so the sea was "in his blood", he had no doubt heard some tall tales from the old salts he must have encountered. These, with a little embroidery, might have helped him to invent his ship Titan. His Beyond the Spectrum published in 1914 is harder to explain.

Open-minded readers, sensitive to peculiar coincidences like these, might see different explanations. Novelists and short story writers continually tap into vast resources of imagination. For hours at a time, on a regular basis, their minds are "elsewhere", concentrating outside of the mundane. Isn't this akin to meditation? Could it be that as they concentrate so intently in realms of the imaginary, coloured by factual knowledge stored in their memory banks, they somehow inadvertently seep through a time barrier or into another dimension?


Anonymous said...

Such an interesting topic. I often have this 'feeling' that the future as depicted in the arts - and certainly, today that includes multi-media - is coming true; whereupon I continually wonder if mass consciousness plays some role in 'making real' the stories we tell or are told. Frankly, I wish we would imagine a brighter future than that so often envisioned by testosterone-fuelled adolescent males. (This latter qualification is echoed by some talking heads in Hollywood, who are aware of the primacy given there to the preoccupations of 14-year-old boys.)
Michener appears to have had Uranus opposite Neptune, while Shute had Uranus contraparallel Neptune, these being planetary influences I associate with 'shocking prophecies'.

Twilight said...

Anonymous ~~ I've wondered, often, why it is that authors of what's now called speculative fiction never speculate on a wonderful future ahead for us. As well as the 3 mentioned in this post Orwell, Bradbury, Wells and countless others had imaginings of darkness rather than light in store for us. As you say, mass consciousness might be connected: life reflecting art rather than t'other way around.

The Neptune Uranus link was interesting, yes - and perhaps the actual factual events came as a huge surprise to the authors too.