“Blade Runner,” the movie based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” takes place in a futuristic November 2019. In reality, replicants and floating cars have failed to materialize. Compare that to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which, when it was published in 1985, was deemed “powerless to scare,” according to one New York Times critic. At the time, the idea of global pandemonium seemed dubious, even in fiction. Live Aid had united billions, NASA was eyeing Mars and on-screen, John Hughes freed teenagers from their trappings. The gloom of the Cold War seemed to be lifting. And yet, almost 35 years later, here we are in a dystopian patriarchy.
Clairvoyance is a hit-and-miss aftereffect of writing stories. Arthur C. Clarke would be heartbroken to know that the closest we’ve come to space tourism is Elon Musk, but Mary Shelley might rejoice in the news that, 136 years after “Frankenstein,” doctors would perform the first successful kidney transplant.
It’s not often a writer can throw a dart into the future and hit treble 20. Here are six who did. (Caution: spoilers.)
The Victorian mystery that predicted trolling
“The Invisible Man,” by H.G. Wells: Weapons experts could argue that Wells’ “War of the Worlds” was his most prescient book, imagining hordes of Martians armed with chemical weapons and invasive plant life. But that book’s predecessor, 1897’s “The Invisible Man,” truly glimpsed the future. Albino optics student Griffin has perfected a drug that renders him transparent, and he uses it to commit incognito attacks on those around him: burglary, arson, kidnapping. Uncomfortably human, Griffin is a raging voice doomed to feel ignored. His spirit lives on in every expletive posted under local news stories on social media.
An Alexa precursor’s battle cry
“Murmur,” by Tim Earnshaw: Earnshaw’s underrated L.A. trilogy is some of the most enjoyable science fiction ever published. In each installment, the protagonist overhears the theme tune from “Bewitched” and then succumbs to a bizarre phenomenon. The hero of 1999’s “Murmur” is Pacific Coast creative Ken Leverton, who begins to hear objects talking to each other: ATMs, forks and data cables all babble away, while his old suitcase recounts a holiday he’d forgotten. Then the products turn nasty, reveling in their disdain for humans, or “dumb muds” as they call us. Is this what we should expect when Alexa gets sick of repeatedly playing “Mr. Brightside”?
The aliens with a head start on climate change
“The Kraken Wakes,” by John Wyndham: Master of the cozy catastrophe, Wyndham unknowingly stepped into the 21st century when he penned “The Kraken Wakes” in 1953. Aliens abandon their home planet and relocate to the Mariana Trench, where they begin harvesting cruise ships. When man retaliates with nukes, the invaders begin to blowtorch the polar ice caps. Our heroes, Mike and Phyllis Watson, watch in disbelief as sea levels slowly rise, forcing their retreat to Cornwall (now an island), and causing the British government to flee to Harrogate.
Super-fast forays into dial-up
“Snow Crash,” by Neal Stephenson: When Stephenson unleashed “Snow Crash” in 1992, the term “surfing the internet” had only just been coined. Certainly, the idea of MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) seemed niche. But that’s what Fortnite is today, and that’s what this book’s Metaverse is, with its billions of users so dependent on computers that they’ve started to succumb to the machines’ viruses. Although not as prophetic as E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” — which, in 1909, may have planted the seed for FaceTime with a mother chatting with a projected image of her faraway son — “Snow Crash” scores extra points for its uncanny vision of private armies and refugees herded onto city-sized rafts.
Carving up the U.K. 11 years before Brexit
“Divided Kingdom,” by Rupert Thomson: In 2005, the U.K. is “a troubled place, obsessed with acquisition and celebrity.” So the government decides to preemptively “quarter” the country based on temperament in this nightmare tale. Long before Brexit made the country’s constitutional voting map look like Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons,” “Divided Kingdom” split Britain into four colors, each matching one of the vital humors, including green for melancholic, yellow for choleric and blue for phlegmatic. Our hero, Thomas Parry, has been designated sanguine/red blood, but one night finds his chance to jump the border. If this vision of Britain wasn’t isolationist enough, Thomson’s first book, “Dreams of Leaving,” depicts an English village that no one is allowed to leave.
Making America great, part one
“It Can’t Happen Here,” by Sinclair Lewis: This newspaper has already detailed how Trumpism was cloned from Lewis’ dystopian satire. But frankly, the similarities between Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, the populist president, and today’s Republican administration are so strong that they’re worth underlining. A leader who brands himself champion of the “Forgotten Men”? Check. Swipes at “highbrow intellectualism”? Deposed allies? Broken electoral promises? It seems it was all there in 1935, right down to the Canadian visa frenzy. “Nineteen Eighty-Four” might be the most lasting political book ever written, but “It Can’t Happen Here” predicted 2016 and beyond with such aplomb that it should be filed under astrology.
Bass is a feature writer who has contributed to the Guardian, the New York Times, New Statesman and New Scientist.