Predicting the future


Universe Column for January 16th 2005

by David Alton

Predicting the future can be a fool’s game. But in contrast to the fooleries of the astrologers and clairvoyants we have been blessed by a whole canon of futuristic literature. Some great writers have prophetically and accurately seen where society was headed.

H.G.Wells and George Orwell, for instance, famously foresaw the true nature of totalitarian socialism and mechanised drudgery in books like Animal Farm and 1984; while Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World, penned in 1932, foreshadowed the State’s control of reproduction through the manipulation of in vitro fertilisation techniques.

Huxley predicted the use of human cloning to enable the State to be served by sub-humans programmed to love their servitude. His was a crie de coeur against what he described as ” a long-term project which will take generations of totalitarian control to bring to a successful conclusion, a foolproof system of eugenics, designed to standardise the human project and to facilitate the task of the managers.” When he wrote those words in 1946 he said “technically and ideologically we are still a long way from bottled babies.” Sixty years later, we are not.

Brave New World also foresaw the suppression of Christianity. Towards the end of the book there is an exchange between the Savage (a rare “native” born by natural means and who has escaped from his reservation) and the Controller. The latter reveals to the Savage a secret collection of suppressed books, everything from The Bible to The Imitation of Christ. The Controller then quotes the banned works of Cardinal Newman to explain why the concept of religion and belief in God are so dangerous: “We are not our own any more than what we possess is our own. We do not make ourselves, we cannot be supreme ourselves. We are not our own masters. We are God’s property.” Such dangerous and subversive ideas sap the energy of a totalitarian liberal society and have to be eradicated.

Alongside these great books I would rank C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and P.D. James’ wonderful story The Children of Men, published in 1992.

Where Huxley envisages eugenics and cloning, Lewis foresees experiments on human beings, the abuse of power, the corruption of ethics and the subversion of academia. The conceited young university don, Mark Studdock, would willingly sell his soul for approval and recognition. What will he have to do assist the not-so-nice National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments? Lord Feverstone, its Director, tells him: “Quite simple and obvious things at first – sterilisation of the unfit, liquidation of backward races, selective breeding. Ultimately we will create a new type of man.”

P.D. James sets her story in 2021 – a quarter of a century after the world’s last baby was born. What she calls the Omega generation is violent, self-regarding and cruel, and reliant on imported cheap labour from Third World countries. James spells out all the attendant horrors of ‘the quietus’ – in which expensive-to-maintain elderly and dependent people are disposed of via euthanasia. A chillingly familiar Harriet Marwood – a member of the small Council which now governs Britain – is “the wise old woman of the tribe the universal grandmother, reassuring, comforting…when she appears on television to explain the latest instruction it’s impossible not to believe that all is for the best. She could make a law requiring universal suicide seem eminently reasonable, half the country, I suspect, would immediately comply.” Marwood and the other members of the Council all have their counterparts in Parliament and Government today.

From Wells and Huxley, to Lewis and James, this genre of futuristic writing remains a potent and attractive way of trying to open our eyes to the way things are going. I suppose the question is, how much of the fiction has to become fact before we take off our blind-folds?