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Sunday, 2 June 2013

Precog Fiction

A few days ago I wrote a review of Richard Thomas’s fascinating new book Para News for Fortean Times. I won’t pre-empt the review here, except to say the book is excellent value – you don’t just get Richard’s own views, but (by way of interviews) those of more than twenty key players in the world of parapolitics and the paranormal. If you’re interested in conspiracy theories, or in the overlap between conspiracy theories and ufology and other paranormal beliefs, or in the overlap between science fiction and any of the above, then you’ll find plenty of thought-provoking stuff in Para-News.

It was the last of these—overlaps between fringe beliefs and science fiction—that particularly set me to thinking. The basic idea is that certain themes of present-day conspiracy subculture are foreshadowed in earlier works of fiction, whether on screen or in print. The book refers to this as “Precog Fiction” – a term I’d never come across before, although I did do a blog post entitled Precogging Philip K. Dick. But that was about the foreshadowing of some of Dick’s fictional themes in earlier fiction. What about the foreshadowing of “non-fictional” themes in fiction?

Philip K. Dick himself is one of the most obvious examples of this. He may not have invented paranoia, but he certainly raised it to a fine art. Most of his novels, in one way or another, contain pre-echoes of the kind of conspiracy thinking you can find all over the internet these days. One of my favourites is The Penultimate Truth. This 1964 novel has the bulk of the world’s population living in underground squalor, led by the government to believe the surface of the planet is dangerously uninhabitable due to nuclear war. In reality, the surface is an idyllic paradise populated by the top-ranking elite. The details may be different, but the basic themes are the same. The government lies to its people, and keeps them exactly where it wants them through stage-managed wars and rumours of wars.

Everyone has heard of Philip K. Dick. Less well known is the author I’ve described as a British Philip K. Dick – John Brunner. One of the most chilling pieces of conspiracy fiction I’ve ever come across is a short story he wrote in 1974 called “The Protocols of the Elders of Britain”. This is how I described the story in Cold War Collaboration: “A computer engineer succeeds in decrypting an archive of Top Secret messages sent between the British government and its counterparts all over the world – not just friendly countries, but so-called enemies as well. It turns out they are all conspiring together to make the world a volatile and unstable place...” Not many people believed such things in 1974, but thousands do today.

A common theme in conspiracy theory is the idea that headline-making disasters are the result not of chance, but of the machinations of a small, super-powerful elite that works from the shadows. While such ideas have widespread currency today, they were almost unknown in 1948 when Eric Frank Russell’s novel Dreadful Sanctuary was serialized in Astounding Science Fiction magazine. The plot was years ahead of its time. It starts with attempts to launch rockets into space, which was common enough in the science fiction of the 1940s. But, for one reason or another, the space flights all end in disaster. It emerges they are being sabotaged by a small but powerful secret society, that believes it knows a dangerous truth about the extraterrestrial origins of humanity. The members of the society believe they are the only truly sane people on the planet, and that everyone else is suffering from a mass delusion. But are they right, or are they the ones that are delusional? The uncertainty is maintained throughout the novel in a style worthy of Philip K. Dick himself.

The term “science fiction” only came into widespread usage in the 1930s, at which time—as the name suggests—it was mainly concerned with futuristic developments in science and technology (cf. Futuristic Gadgets of the 1930s). Before then, much of what is retrospectively described as science fiction was preoccupied with the future direction of society, and had little interest in technology. As we now know, however, technology is one of the major drivers of social change – a fact that was only occasionally foreseen by earlier writers. I’ve already mentioned a couple of examples: The End of Books, with its 1895 pre-echo of iPods on the Paris metro, and The Machine Stops, with its 1909 vision of technology-facilitated social networking (see Wikipedia Prophecy).

In a similar vein, but more relevant to the world of parapolitics, is Rudyard Kipling’s short story As Easy as ABC. This was first published in 1912, although it has the still-futuristic setting of 2065. At first glance, the story could be dismissed as hopelessly outdated – the ABC of the title is the Aerial Board of Control, and the core technology of the story consists of huge dirigible airships. But the specifics of the technology aren’t as important as its role in society – to provide a single planet-wide communications infrastructure. Nowadays, we would see that as being the internet rather than a transportation network. But Kipling’s basic point is still chillingly valid – that the entrepreneurs who control the technological infrastructure are the true rulers of the world, and technology increasingly renders traditional democracy obsolete and impotent.

Early on in the story, there is a striking scene in which the protagonists, approaching a young woman sitting on a veranda, find themselves caught in an electric force field. “We heard the click of a switch, and almost fell forward as the currents round our knees were withdrawn. The girl laughed, and laid aside her knitting. An old-fashioned controller stood at her elbow, which she reversed from time to time, and we could hear the snort and clank of the obedient cultivator half a mile away... ‘Come in and sit down,’ she said. ‘I’m only playing a plough’.”

This is interesting both from the technological point of view (a mechanically operated plough would have been a novelty in 1912, let alone a remotely controlled one) and the social point of view (a middle-class young woman in charge of heavy farm machinery). But perhaps most striking is the descriptive term itself – “playing a plough”. This must surely be the first example in history of what nowadays would be referred to as “gamification of the user interface”!

The above are just a few thoughts that sprang to mind when I came across the phrase “Precog Fiction” – you can find many other fascinating examples in Richard’s book Para-News. Two of his examples actually relate to works I’ve mentioned recently in this blog (The Devil Rides Out from Phascinating Phacts and Quatermass and the Pit from Cosmic Relics)... although the specific “Precog” aspects hadn’t occurred to me before Richard pointed them out.


Peni R. Griffin said...

Among writers, it is a common thing to find that later events in one's life are prefigured in earlier works. Sometimes (this is certainly the case with my instances, which you'll excuse me from sharing as they're personal) it's a matter of the creative part of you processing signals that your conscious mind is avoiding, downplaying, or working around. Other times it seems more like true precognition - I don't have time to track down a good citation, but Diana Wynne Jones often said that her books (which are fantasy) tend to come true on her and she had numerous examples to cite throughout her life. It is hard for an outsider to know (and may have been hard for her to tell, too) how seriously she took this, and how much it was evidence of precognition and how much it was a result of her ability to make narrative sense of the random world.

In the cases you cite, I would say that it's a simple matter of science fiction writers being alert, aware, and uninhibited enough to describe trends in the earliest stages, before anyone else knows they're trends. It is, after all, a science fiction writer's job to factor character into technology and both into society, and imagine how they'll interact.

Andrew May said...

On the last point, you're absolutely right of course. I called the post "Precog Fiction" because I liked the phrase, but I know it's not really precognition. Its just that writers of imaginative fiction tend to think through the possibilities long before the rest of the world does.

Your first point is really interesting, and something that had never occurred to me. The three writers I mentioned whose biographies I'm reasonably familiar with (Dick, Russell and Brunner) all seem to have become markedly paranoid in later life, long after they had started to write about such things in fiction. It may be something along the lines of "the child is father of the man".

Ross said...

Regarding Dick's "paranoia," it might be useful to consider Norman Spinrad's words on the subject: "Everything Phil thought about the government always turned out to be true. Anybody who really saw what was going on in the early Seventies would be regarded as paranoid and crazy until Watergate broke." (From DIVINE INVASIONS: A LIFE OF PHILIP K. DICK by Lawrence Sutin.)

Andrew May said...

Absolutely - that's really what I meant when I said that imaginative writers work things out long before ordinary people do. What changed with Watergate was that for the first time the mainstream press reported that people in high office had been deliberately deceitful -- so even the laziest thinker had to admit it was true. But there were plenty of indications throughout the 60s for anyone who cared to read between the lines - the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy assassination, the Tet offensive in Vietnam, etc.

Kid said...

Hi Andrew,

I see that you've dropped out of my blog. If it was because of someone's comment, I did actually come to your defence, so I hope you appreciate that I can't be held accountable for other people's views. Or perhaps it's just a mistake?

Regardless, all the best.


Andrew May said...

I was following your blog on Google Reader, then when Google said it was being discontinued I panicked and switched to a Blogger follow. But the Blogger interface is horrible, so after much searching I've found another RSS reader called Feedly. Now that I'm using that I've reduced my public Blogger follows to people I know personally. But rest assured I am still an avid follower of your blog via Feedly. I really enjoy your posts, and you have a very pleasant manner when replying to comments (even badly thought-out ones like mine!).

Kid said...

Glad to hear you weren't scared away, as I always enjoy reading your comments, Andrew. I'll leave my avatar in your members list, even 'though I usually work on a reciprocal approach. Cheers.

Andrew May said...

Oh, you've made me feel guilty now so I've refollowed you. I never think to look to see who's following me!

Kid said...

You've made me feel guilty now, so I'd better add a link to your site in my blog list as well.