Seeing the Future
By Jamie Schultz
There are a million stories about seeing the future—speculative fiction is thick with them, and with good reason, since there’s nothing more speculative than cracking open the future and having a look around in there. Arguably, that’s what the word means, at least once you couple it to a great deal of uncertainty. They come in technological versions, magical versions, oblique and direct and everything in between. I’m fascinated with these kinds of stories, in large part because the future is one area of exploration that is walled off to us, which of course makes one wonder about it that much more.
There are lots of different ways to classify “seeing the future” stories, but one of the most fundamental is by malleability. One branch, dating back to the Greeks and the story of Cassandra, is your basic “the future is fixed, and you are screwed” kind of story. These can be fantastic stories, but they lend themselves to one of two approaches: straight up horror, where everything foreseen comes to pass, and you basically sit back and watch as every terrible portent unfurls itself into an unavoidable series of events; or a sort of ironic approach, where, despite foreknowledge of some terrible event, the protagonist’s effort to prevent said terrible event ends up causing it or proving maddeningly irrelevant. The film 12 Monkeys comes to mind as an example of this kind of story. Massive amounts of effort, and in the end, it all ends up being beside the point. That doesn’t make them bad stories, but that does tend to create a kind of desperate or, at best, ironic fatalism.
In the other main branch, the future can be affected. These are the types of stories that really appeal to me, in part because of their flexibility, and in part because they tend to be less fatalistic. There’s an undercurrent of optimism in these stories that may be bleak, but at least the moral of the story is not that the optimism is fundamentally misguided. A classic example is Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, in which the protagonist sees a terrible vision of disaster befalling the world after a particularly awful politician gets elected, and sets out to stop him, permanently, heedless of the consequences for himself.
Of course, one of the sources of dramatic tension can be playing a guessing game with the audience of which kind of story they’re experiencing—is the future fixed, or not? In Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death or Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds, much of the tension comes from just this—wondering whether or not the awful thing that has been prophesied will actually come to pass.
This ties in to a crucial element of “seeing the future” stories, something so obvious that there would hardly be a story without it: The would-be prophet always sees something bad. The question is usually, then, whether the bad thing can be avoided, and if so how. One of the more interesting approaches to handling this is in Asimov’s venerable Foundation series. The fascinating thing about this is that the future is “seen” through statistical science, and the prophet, Hari Seldon, not only sees the grim future that looms over humanity, but also sees a better future and a path toward achieving it. That is, not only is the future malleable, but those with enough knowhow can look ahead and figure out how, specifically, to change it for the better. There’s a sort of optimism about the capabilities of technology for leading humanity to utopia, or at least out of the desert, that is fairly uncommon. And, of course, even Asimov and his contemporaries were less than sure that the technological predictions of the future would be universally positive—witness Minority Report and even one of Asimov’s own stories, where a block-sized supercomputer can pick out would-be criminals, a task so depressing it makes the computer attempt to kill itself.
Speaking of the suicidal supercomputer, one of the interesting things about prophecy stories is that viewing the future is almost always regarded as a bad thing for the prophet. In many cases, this is due to the burden of the gift itself—seeing things that the prophet would rather not, or afflicting the prophet with a responsibility to act, a responsibility that is itself a gigantic weight. It can come with other burdens, too. In Wendig’s Blackbirds, the protagonist, Miriam Black, can see when somebody is going to die, and she can’t do anything about it. This ends up having the effect of alienating her from humanity, leading her to a seedy existence between the cracks of society, even without burdening her with additional responsibility. All the way back to the Old Testament, prophets were regarded as having a tendency, if not an outright requirement, to go mad.
Part of the reason viewing the future is typically coupled with dire side effects is, I think, from a not-so-latent fear of the category of things we don’t know, and therefore are labeled, “Things we are not meant to know.” It’s a staple of fantasy and science fiction (and, hell, literature in general) that knowing things we are not meant to know is harmful if not outright fatal. Another reason is likely that of dramatic necessity—any character that knows the future and isn’t somehow crippled by that knowledge would be godlike, and either remove a whole lot of the drama from a story or render it pointless (or at least in any type of story where the future is malleable).
Probably due to a relatively modern suspicion of concepts like destiny, as well as a conscious attempt to avoid lapsing into fatalism (my writing can be dark enough already, thank you) I write malleable futures. In my novel Premonitions, the futures glimpsed by the main character are eminently malleable, and in fact she changes them all the time. The hard part is that, as in reading entrails or listening to the voices of gods on the wind, her visions are difficult to interpret, and in some cases extremely metaphorical. They also tend to crowd out her experience of present-tense reality, if not carefully managed—a callback to those mad Old Testament prophets, and, like those prophets, she lives perpetually in unsteady balance on a knife edge between sanity and insanity. As a result of trying to manage this, she—again, like a mad prophet—has ended up living outside regular society, though in her case, due to the need to pay copious sums for the black market concoction that controls her visions, she has become a criminal rather than a hermit.
I doubt I’ve added anything to the canon, in terms of the wealth of fantastic “seeing the future” stories we have. I do hope, though, that I’ve drawn on the rich history of these kinds of stories and managed to put my own interesting spin on them.