July 28, 2021
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    The Fiction that Predicted the Future

    September 10, 2019
    The story of cannibalism that came true Edgar Allan Poe was a prophetic master of macabre twists and turns. But most uncanny is the book he wrote about a ship wreck – and how life imitated art, writes Hephzibah Anderson. By Hephzibah Anderson Literary prophecy has a long, fervid history stretching all the way from ancient Greece and biblical Israel, and on into science fiction. Even the Beat poets dabbled in prophetic mystery – here’s Allen Ginsberg’s cry from his poem Magic Psalm: “I am thy Prophet come home this world to scream an unbearable Name thru my 5 senses”. Yet for sheer uncanny accuracy, there are few chapters quite so spine-tingling as The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Edgar Allan Poe’s only complete novel. More like this: - The 1968 novel that predicted today - The fiction that predicted space travel - Was Keats a grave-robber? A maritime adventure published in 1838, it’s chockful of seafaring staples like shipwreck, mutiny and corpse-strewn ghost vessels, along with hostile islanders and a genuinely alarming yeti-like menace. The book also recounts cannibalism, and this is where it gets truly weird. Poe summoned up in his story the same name of a man who, 50 years later in real life, would be shipwrecked and – exactly as had been described in the book - eaten by his fellow survivors. Alamy There was an aura of strangeness around US writer Edgar Allan Poe – he was “a tortured artist brushed by otherworldly traits” (Credit: Alamy) The novel is framed as a mock memoir in which the eponymous narrator Pym describes a perilous voyage. It all begins when, as a student, he becomes friends with one Augustus Barnard, the son of a ship’s captain. Augustus’s tales of derring-do on the high seas inspire in Pym an overwhelming desire to set sail, and after many a salty scrape messing around in boats, it’s agreed that Augustus will help Pym stowaway on his father’s whaler, the Grampus. Following a mutiny and a monster storm, Augustus and Pym find themselves in charge of the ship’s battered remains, accompanied by just two others, Dirk Peters and Richard Parker. Even so, their ordeal is barely underway, and Pym’s 25-chapter story is still only halfway told, when the survivors – who’ve lived for days off little more than the rationed remains of a turtle and become near-delirious with thirst – are forced to contemplate the unimaginable: sacrificing one of their number to ensure the survival of the rest. In accordance with the custom of the sea, they draw lots to determine the victim; it comes down to just Pym and Parker, and in the end, it’s Parker who loses his life in the “fearful repast”. By Hephzibah Anderson We look to fiction for eternal truths about our world and timeless insights into the human condition – either that or giddy escapism. But sometimes, in striving to achieve any or all of the above, a novelist will use the future as their backdrop; and just occasionally, they’ll predict what’s to come with uncanny accuracy. They can sit down at their desk and correctly envisage, for instance, how generations to come will be travelling, relaxing, communicating. And in the case of John Brunner, a sci-fi author who grew up in an era when the word ‘wireless’ still meant radio – the specificity of his imaginings retains its power to startle. In his 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar, for instance, he peers ahead to imagine life in 2010, correctly forecasting wearable technology, Viagra, video calls, same-sex marriage, the legalisation of cannabis, and the proliferation of mass shootings. Equally compelling, however – and even more instructive – is the process by which Brunner constructed this society of his future and our present. John Brunner As a child, Brunner devoured HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, and was captivated by the sci-fi genre (Credit: Topfoto) Born in 1934 in the Thames riverside hamlet of Preston Crowmarsh, Oxfordshire, John Kilian Houston Brunner was just six years old when he discovered science fiction. As Professor Jad Smith relates in his comprehensive study, John Brunner, with World War Two raging, the family moved to Herefordshire, where Brunner’s father intended to support the war effort by running a farm. In the chaos of the move, his grandfather’s rare 1898 edition of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds ended up shelved in the playroom. Brunner devoured it and from that moment, as he would later explain in a short autobiography, was imprinted by the genre “as permanently as one of Konrad Lorenz’s geese”. Aged nine, he wasn’t only reading sci-fi, he was writing it too – specifically, the story of a Martian named Gloop. His first rejection letter came just four years later. He was still only 17 when he finally broke into print with a page-long story, The Watchers, and his first sale to a US magazine was made before he turned 18. By then, he’d dropped out of his private school and given up a scholarship to Oxford in order to focus on his writing. He used the pen name Ellis Quick, an anagram of ‘I Sell Quick’ And yet, fear of failure dogged him, and in years to come, his staggeringly prolific career would swing between award-winning highs and penurious lows. He considered a good working day one in which he bashed out at least 5,000 words on his Smith Corona electric typewriter, and pseudonyms enabled him to contribute multiple stories to sci-fi magazine Science Fantasy. Trevor Staines, Keith Woodcott, John Loxmith, and Henry Crosstrees Jr – they were all Brunner. In total, his backlist numbers more than 80 novels and short story collections. CND march Brunner and his wife Marjorie Sauer were early, active members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (Credit: Getty Images) In his early 20s, Brunner placed an ad in the personal column of the London Weekly Advertiser and met his wife, Marjorie Sauer, a divorcee 14 years his senior. Within four months of meeting, they’d moved in together. Until her death, she was crucial to his career, acting as a business manager and even working as a jobbing gardener to help support them, because while Brunner could claim to have sold around two million paperbacks worldwide by the time he turned 30, the realities of the science-fiction market made making ends meet a constant challenge. And, though he dabbled in poetry, fantasy and horror, even trying his hand at erotic fiction (he used the pen name Ellis Quick, an anagram of ‘I Sell Quick’), sci-fi was where his heart lay. It was, he said, “par excellence the literature of the open mind”. 'Spot-on predictions' Brunner’s best writing is turbo-charged with ideas. He grappled with some of the key themes of his era: artificial intelligence, racism, drugs, the environment, space travel, and hi-tech warfare. He and Marjorie were early, active members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), whose marching song Brunner even wrote the lyrics to. “Don’t you hear the H-bomb’s thunder/Echo like the crack of doom?” its opening lines ask. In The Shockwave Rider he created a computer hacker hero before the world knew what one was He fed his powerful imagination – of which vivid nightmares seem to have been a lifelong manifestation – with journals such as New Society and The New Scientist, and if some of his predictions now read like wacky sci-fi clichés, others have proven spot on. For instance, in his 1962 novella Listen! The Stars! he conjured up the ‘stardropper’, an addictive portable-media-player-like gizmo. In 1972, he published one of his most pessimistic novels, The Sheep Look Up, which prophesies a future blighted by extreme pollution and environmental catastrophe. And his 1975 novel, The Shockwave Rider, created a computer hacker hero before the world knew what one was. It also envisaged the emergence of computer viruses, something that early computer scientists dismissed as impossible. He even coined the use of the word ‘worm’ to describe them. Pollution in Lahore Brunner’s 1972 novel The Sheep Look Up prophesised a world blighted by extreme pollution, not unlike this image from Lahore, Pakistan from 2017 (Credit: Getty Images) Brunner won plenty of plaudits. If the likes of Martin Amis were snooty about him (Amis declared The Sheep Look Up "a massive, chaotic, jangling hotchpotch"), plenty of others praised his creativity, clever plotting and philosophical acuity. He won, too, almost every sci-fi prize worth winning, including the Hugo Award for best science-fiction novel, which had never before gone to a Brit. Nevertheless, Brunner’s gripes about heavy-handed editing and in-fighting within the claustrophobic sci-fi scene gave him a prickly reputation. By middle-age, much of his work had fallen out of print in the UK, and he’d been forced to sell his London home and move to Somerset. He was also up against medical woes, and Marjorie’s death in 1986 dealt a painful blow. ‘Crystal ball gazing’ Today, his name is little known beyond sci-fi aficionados, and he’s chiefly remembered for Stand on Zanzibar. Big, ambitious and formally experimental, it’s a science-fiction thriller that depicts a world confronting population control. By 2010, Brunner declared, the world’s population would top seven billion (he was a year out – this actually happened in 2011), and in his fictional world, governments have responded globally with draconian eugenics laws, harnessing genetics to determine who can and cannot be allowed to have children. US healthcare Brunner assumed that by 2010, the US would be providing universal healthcare for all (Credit: Alamy) The novel centres on two New York City roommates, Donald and Norman, the former a dilettante WASP who’s actually a spy, the latter an African-American business executive. Driving the plot is some international political intrigue surrounding a breakthrough in ‘techogenetics’ – the use of genetic engineering to create a super race. Meanwhile, extremism is rife. ‘Muckers’ go on killing sprees (there have been three mass killings in the US in the past four months, we’re told), politics has become bitterly partisan, and religious zealots frequently turn to violence. The oracle of the age is Shalmaneser, the first computer to be classified as a ‘megabrain’, and there’s a teeming social network that allows media organisations to put out hits of news and receive real-time fan feedback. People casually pop Xanax-style 'tranks' and phones are connected to Wikipedia-like encyclopaedias Though it divided critics on publication, Zanzibar has come to be regarded as a classic of New Wave sci-fi, better known for its style than its content. This seems a pity. When an excerpt appeared in New Worlds magazine in November 1967, an editorial claimed that it was the first novel in its field to create, in every detail, “a possible society of the future”. There’s irony in some of what Brunner got wrong. He assumed, for instance, that the US would have at last figured out how to provide adequate, inexpensive medical care for all by 2010. Other inaccuracies are sci-fi staples – guns that fire lightning bolts; deep-sea mining camps; a Moon base. And yet, in ways minor and major, that ‘future society’ nevertheless seems rather familiar today. For example, it features an organisation very similar to the European Union; it casts China as America’s greatest rival; its phones have connections to a Wikipedia-style encyclopaedia; people casually pop Xanax-style ‘tranks’; documents are run off on laser printers; and Detroit has become a shuttered ghost town and incubator of a new kind of music oddly similar to the actual Detroit techno movement of the 1990s. Detroit Much of what Brunner imagined became reality, including Detroit as a ghost town and incubator of a new kind of music, similar to Detroit techno (Credit: Getty Images) So how did Brunner do it? To start with, he spent nearly three years reading up on topics from the role of genetic inheritance in disease to links between population spurts and urban violence. He also spent a month in the US in 1966, visiting Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York. Then, breaking with his usual work routine, instead of outlining his plot, he filled 60 pages with thoughts before hammering out a first draft. As he went, he devised a series of ‘parallel thought exercises’ to generate ideas. As Smith describes it, he imagined a Victorian time-traveller pitching up in the 1960s, and then pondered how he’d go about explaining to them everything from the telephone to the sexual revolution. The first was relatively simple, but accounting for the vast differences in cultural mores required him to examine countless cultural assumptions. “Then, he reversed the process, asking himself what those assumptions might mean for the future, how present environments might already be making us aware of those to come”, Smith explains. For instance, the ‘hobby-type saboteurs’ that pop up throughout the novel, getting their kicks through recreational violence, came to Brunner after he clocked the prevalence of Peter Pan syndrome on both sides of the Atlantic, and then read about kids vandalising public transport for fun. Ultimately, it is Brunner’s process that makes Zanzibar’s crystal-ball-gazing predictions so enduringly fascinating: he arrived at them via a combination of careful observation, listening and reading – that and a zany imagination. He was looking to the future, but it was only by being fully immersed in the present that he was able to see it with such unnerving clarity, effectively turning his typewriter into a time machine. He died in 1995, appropriately enough while attending a science-fiction conference. There is an aura of all-round strangeness pervading Poe’s short life and enduring legacyThis was pay-cheque work for Poe – or so he’d hoped. Newly wed to his child bribe (who also happened to be his first cousin) and desperately hard up, he’d been assured by his publisher that readers preferred longer works. Yet the initial response to his novel was far from favourable. Some critics took exception to its lashings of violence, others to its nautical inaccuracies. Poe himself eventually joined in, calling it “a very silly book”. Alamy In Life of Pi, the tiger is named Richard Parker, after the Poe character (Credit: Alamy) In the decades that followed, opinion began to shift. Jules Verne, conventionally considered the father of science fiction, liked it so much that he published a sequel in 1897, titled Antarctic Mystery. Poe’s book has also been said to prefigure Moby Dick, and has inspired authors from Henry James to Arthur Conan Doyle. Baudelaire translated it, and the great Argentinian short-story writer, Jorge Luis Borges, declared it to be quite simply Poe’s greatest work. And Yann Martel, let’s not forget, ingeniously named Life of Pi’s tiger Richard Parker. Striking synchronicity So what of that macabre parallel between fact and fiction? Well, it went seemingly unnoticed until a descendent of the real-life Richard Parker brought it to light. Nigel Parker wrote about the striking similarities between Poe’s work and the subsequent fate of his forebear – about how Parker was one of four shipwrecked survivors, who ate a turtle before resorting to cannibalism – with Parker the victim. Nigel Parker relayed all this in a letter to author and parapsychology buff Arthur Koestler, who had requested from the public tales of “striking coincidence”. Koestler was so taken with the synchronicity that he published the letter in The Sunday Times in 1974. It’s an eerie footnote that feeds into an aura of all-round strangeness pervading Poe’s short life and enduring legacy, that casts him as an archetypal tortured artist brushed by otherworldly traits. The episode sits alongside the mystery of his untimely death, at 40, just four days after he’d turned up delirious on the streets of Baltimore, dressed in someone else’s clothes. The idea that he could peer into the future somehow compliments his enthusiasm and flair for cryptography or code-making, which he incorporated into his 1840 story The Gold-Bug, and seems peculiarly of a piece with his long list of phobias, including insanity and the fear of being buried alive. He was, to quote JW Ocker’s award-winning literary travelogue, Poe-Land, “an angel of the odd”. Alamy An illustration for The Tell-Tale Heart – Poe was a pioneer of horror fiction and his work is still influential today (Credit: Alamy) Rationally, we know that it was one spooky coincidence, nothing more, and yet it captures the imagination in a particular way. There is a hardwired human nostalgia for a time when storytellers were also oracles. Moreover, Poe did display a marked gift for prescience. For instance, his 1840 story The Businessman features a narrator who survived a traumatic head injury in boyhood, and leads a life of obsessive order interrupted by outbursts of violence. Eight years later, railway employee Phineas Gage had a large iron spike slice through his skull. He lived but with a radically changed personality, giving doctors their first glimpse of the role that the frontal lobe plays in social cognition. Their diagnosis of frontal-lobe syndrome was notably similar to Poe’s imaginings. Likewise, his final work, Eureka, a delirious non-fiction prose poem dedicated to Alexander von Humboldt, succeeded in anticipating a number of 20th-Century scientific theories and discoveries, including the Big Bang. Stories foretold In terms of anticipating what would engage readers in decades to come, Poe foretold the modern horror story, unlocking Gothic fiction’s castles and dungeons and letting its psychological terrors roam the world of his readers. It’s with good reason that Stephen King calls his horror-writing peers “the children of Poe”, crediting the author with writing the first horror tale featuring a sociopath, The Tell-Tale Heart. Poe advanced, too, the emerging genre of science fiction, sending a man to the moon more than 30 years before Jules Verne did, and more than half a century before HG Wells. He hadmore than a touch of the prophet, clairvoyant and futurologist about himIn 1926, when pioneering eccentric Hugo Gernsback famously attempted to define sci-fi – or “scientification”, as he dubbed it – he named just three writers: Verne, Wells and Poe. And, of course, Poe invented the detective story, an achievement that has made possible great swathes of literature and television, one that’s acknowledged annually by the Mystery Writers of America, whose gongs are named after him. Getty Images Poe has become so famous that he even has a US football team, Baltimore Ravens, named after one of his works (Credit: Getty Images) Ultimately, it’s the nature of his celebrity that seems so predictive of the world we live in today. Because having been orphaned by the age of three, and having led an abbreviated, woebegone adult existence of grinding poverty, addiction and relative obscurity, in his afterlife Poe has attained fame that transcends his strange, slender body of work. He has become a huge brand, bigger even than Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson or William Shakespeare. After all, what other author has an NFL football team – the Baltimore Ravens – named after his work? Not only do his works continue to inspire primetime TV series and bestselling novels, but many of them feature the author himself as a character, and his merchandise line runs to scatter cushions and ‘Poe-ka’ dot socks patterned with his mournful, moustachioed mug. Alamy Poe has become a brand as big as Shakespeare and Dickens (Credit: Alamy) “Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying,” Ursula K Le Guin once wrote. Poe was certainly a gifted teller of untruths in life and literature both, but as the grisly fate of Richard Parker underscores, he also had more than a touch of the prophet, clairvoyant and futurologist about him.

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