Saturday, March 08, 2014

Past and Future Echoes

During the week we rented a DVD of the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting. The title I recognised, but neither of us could recall ever having seen the film. It was written by, and starred, the then very youthful-looking Ben Affleck and Matt Damon; also with a leading role, Robin Williams.

It's an enjoyable movie. One piece of dialogue, spoken by Matt Damon as Will Hunting, stood out for me as foreshadowing events and atmospheres we, in 2014, recognise even more clearly than cinema-goers of 1997 would have done. First, a wee bit of background: Will Hunting, though not formally trained or highly educated is a natural genius in mathematics, has a photographic memory and extremely sharp powers of perception in all spheres - except in recognising the incongruity of his own situation. He had settled for a janitor's working class existence and mildly wild-boy lifestyle, until his talent was discovered by an MIT professor. In the scene from which this dialogue is taken, Hunting has attended an interview with officials of the NSA (we know them well - or at least, they know us!) arranged for him by the professor. His speech during the interview:
Why shouldn't I work for the N.S.A.? That's a tough one, but I'll take a shot. Say I'm workin' at the N.S.A. and somebody puts a code on my desk, somethin' no one else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it, maybe I break it. And I'm real happy with myself, 'cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East. And once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels are hidin'. Fifteen hundred people that I never met, I never had no problem with, get killed. Now the politicians are sayin', 'Oh, send in the Marines to secure the area,' 'cause they don't give a shit. It won't be their kid over there gettin' shot. Just like it wasn't them when their number got called 'cause they were out pullin' a tour in the National Guard. It'll be some kid from Southie over there takin' shrapnel in the ass. He comes back to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, 'cause he'll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks.

Meanwhile he realizes the only reason he was over there in the first place was so that we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And of course the oil companies used the little skirmish over there to scare up domestic oil prices. A cute little ancillary benefit for them but it ain't helpin' my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. They're takin' their sweet time bringin' the oil back, of course, maybe they even took the liberty of hirin' an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and fuckin' play slalom with the icebergs. It ain't too long 'til he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So now my buddy's out of work. He can't afford to drive, so he's walkin' to the fuckin' job interviews, which sucks because the schrapnel in his ass is givin' him chronic hemorroids. And meanwhile he's starvin' 'cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat, the only blue plate special they're servin' is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State.

So what did I think? I'm holdin' out for somethin' better. I figure, fuck it, while I'm at it, why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.

That dialogue was written around 17 years ago, by a couple of actor friends who, we now know, both have well-defined political views. Echoes of these were likely to be felt in this film. 17 years isn't a long time in the great scheme of things, so I shouldn't have been surprised to hear Will Hunting's speech, which seems, if anything, even more relevant today than in 1997. This isn't one of the better examples of fiction writers' involuntary prescience, a topic I've blogged about in the past, and one which continues to intrigue me.

A couple of sci-fi novels with very scary prescience are J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World and The Burning World, written in 1962 and 1964 respectively. I haven't read them yet, but the saying "read 'em and weep" will follow any thought I might have of acquiring the books.

Here are some other examples, featured as part of of an archived 2006 post of mine, Accidental Prophets, re-aired in 2008:

James Michener seems to have had 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 favourites, 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 WorldWar2. 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! 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" however, 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, 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 a book called Beyond the Spectrum. In this book, 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, aeroplanes 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 WW2.

Michener was born 1907, Shute 1899 and Robertson 1861.

There are common sense explanations for the authors' apparent ability to see into the future, these men 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 "putting two and two together", or using intuition.

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.

Those are explanations for skeptics. Someone more open-minded, and sensitive to peculiar coincidences like these, might see a different explanation. Novelists and short story writers continually tap into vast resources of imagination. For hours at a time, 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 with knowledge stored in their memory banks, they somehow inadvertently seep through a time barrier or into another dimension?
With oblique reference to the above, I read this week that plans are afoot to make a movie version of Harlan Ellison's 1965 award-winning short science fiction story, 'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman. This should be interesting!

Harlan Ellison's story is set in a dystopian future where strict adherence to time regulation rules everything, including life and death. It's basically a satirical diatribe on social regimentation. In the story one Everett C. Marm, disguised as Harlequin rebels, albeit a whimsical rebellion, against the time regulations and the Master Timekeeper known as Ticktockman.
“Why let them order you about? Why let them tell you to hurry and scurry like ants or maggots? Take your time! Saunter a while! Enjoy the sunshine, enjoy the breeze, let life carry you at your own pace! Don't be slaves of time, it's a helluva way to die, slowly, by degrees...down with the Ticktockman!”

“And so it goes. And so it goes. And so it goes. And so it goes goes goes goes goes tick tock tick tock tick tock and one day we no longer let time serve us, we serve time and we are slaves of the schedule, worshipers of the sun's passing, bound into a life predicated on restrictions because the system will not function if we don't keep the schedule tight.”
Let us hope that author Harlan Ellison had not tapped in to any future truth!


mike said...

I suppose that any SciFi writing has the potential to produce fact, if given enough time. The SciFi genre was in its infancy the past century, so it's too soon to know the possible correlations. Your post has reminded me of the "Dick Tracy" cartoon series with the 2-way, wrist telecommunication devices (radio and TV!) and the tycoon's (Diet Smith) futuristic inventions. And there's always Isaac Asimov and his robotics and atomic devices, and Arthur C. Clarke's orbiting satellites.

Future reality isn't limited to SciFi, either...novels can make that list, too:

“Capitalism: Teach a man to fish, but the fish he catches aren't his. They belong to the person paying him to fish, and if he's lucky, he might get paid enough to buy a few fish for himself.” Karl Marx

mike (again) said...'s the Karl Marx article I was searching for:

"Marx Was Right: Five Surprising Ways Karl Marx Predicted 2014"

LB said...

Twilight ~ I think the folks who are most tuned-in to reality (present and future) are often the ones who are the least invested in avoiding it.

Our world has become so complicated, with most of us so far removed from the essentials, we've forgotten what they even are - how to grow our own food, build our own homes, support our communities and care for our bodies and environment. We've become so enamored of the illusion (pleasure, comfort, success, money, power), most of us have forgotten how to use our minds and hearts to discern what matters most.

Instead we take a pill, push a button, hop in our cars, and buy or sell things we don't really need or can't afford.

There was a time when a lot of us believed in the illusion simply because it worked for us. I think we've reached a critical turning point, where many more of us are about to discover what people who are without wealth and power -or, who've chosen to live more mindfully (or simply)- have known all along.

I predict we're nearing the tipping point, about to fall off the edge of another progress trap. With fewer jobs, less affordable housing and access to healthcare, those of us who have managed to avoid reality up until now won't be able to for much longer. Not to mention the reality of our food supply and environment.

Where I live, I keep wondering what's going to happen when all of the low-income folks who fill all of those low-paying jobs that help make it such a desirable place to live can no longer afford to live or work here anymore. Are they going to create a robots to replace them? And if so, who will they get to make the robots?

It sounds a lot like the plot of "Elysium" doesn't it? Starring Matt Damon, btw.:) We'll see.

LB (again) said...

Twilight ~ Did you know Matt Damon's Ascendant is *exactly* conjunct your Sun and my Moon? Fun fact.:)

Twilight said...

mike ~ That's true, yes - along the lines of, but rather more likely than,The infinite monkey theorem, which states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.

Yes, there are lots of examples in Sci-fi, also lots of ideas that didn't happen, or at least haven't yet. I'm more intrigued by the non-sci-fi types such as the Titanic example.

Thanks for the link re Marx - that's a nice set of examples.
He, (as did Michener, Shute and Robertson), arrived at his conclusions using in-depth knowledge and a spot of intuition as to where certain paths would lead, and was right in several instances.

Twilight said...

LB ~ We do seem, at times, to be living inside of a science fiction novel - this is more apparent to those of us of "a certain age", with memory of how things used to be.
Taking things a few steps further, it would indeed remind us of the "Elysium" storyline....Matt Damon again.
He was in "The Adjustment Bureau" too and some other futuristic films.

(again)...No, I didn't know that - a very fun fact indeed! :-)