The past is the new future


John Crowley reflects on science fiction and the limits of predicting the future @ Lapham's Quarterly.During a summer in the late 1960s I discovered an easy and certain method of predicting the future. Not my own future, the next turn of the card, or market conditions next month or next year, but the future of the world lying far ahead. It was quite simple. All that was needed was to take the reigning assumptions about what the future was likely to hold, and reverse them. Not modify, negate, or question, but reverse. It was self-evident that this was the right method, because so many of the guesses that the past had made about its then future—that is, my own present—had turned out to be not only wrong but the opposite of what came to be instead, the more so the further ahead they had been projected.You could, of course, riffle through the old predictions and now and then find some tool or technique, some usage or notion, some general idea of how things would get gradually better or suddenly worse, that seemed eerily to foreshadow the actual; but that was really a game, where you took some aspect of the present and tried to match it with what the past had once thought up. Captain Nemo’s submarine is driven by a heatless inexhaustible power source—Jules Verne predicted the nuclear sub! What was almost never predicted correctly was what the present world would be like: like to be in and to experience. There is a wonderful moment in Edward Bellamy’s influential futurist utopian tract Looking Backward (1888) where a character, having fallen asleep in the 1880s and awakened in the year 2000, rushes out of the house to see the new world—after fortunately finding among the hats on the hatrack by the door a hat that fits him. In the future we, at least we proper folk, will still not go “bareheaded” or “hatless” into the street, for fear of being thought mad or more