Novel Prognostications; or, What’s the Zeitgeist Saying Now?


by Ed Simon

He undertakes to write a Chronicle of things before they are done, which is an irregular, and a perverse way.
—John Donne, from a sermon preached at Lincoln’s Inn, 1620

Between 1997 and 1998, representatives of His Majesty’s government stationed in Constantinople, Rome, Paris, and Moscow wrote a series of diplomatic missives about the chaotic state of the world, later to be compiled into an anthology titled Memoirs of the Twentieth Century. With tongue-only-slightly-in-cheek, I say that this anthology was edited earlier than it was written, for that odd volume was anonymously compiled by an Anglo-Irish vicar named Samuel Madden and first saw print in 1733. Inspired by his countryman Jonathan Swift, Madden attempted to pen a romance that would do for time what Gulliver’s Travels had done for space, presenting a prognostication about the world two-and-a-half-centuries in the future with the conceit that a guardian angel (or future time traveler) has delivered a cache of documents to the Irish minister. A sort of temporal WikiLeaks, if you will.

Madden’s twentieth-century sees a simmering cold war between the great powers, a Russia with expansionist designs on her neighbors, and a Jesuit pope sitting on the throne of St. Peter. Though Madden’s guardian angel is skimpy on the details, the author assures us that medical and communication technology has progressed in ways that would astound an eighteenth-century reader. Other details are less familiar; a George VI sits on a British throne decades after the actual monarch had died; Bourbon heads never rolled in the gutters of Paris, and so a Louis XIX reigns in France. But in other ways, the author of this strange and largely forgotten volume is prescient. Giving a diagnosis of the spiritual maladies of modernity, the editor of this epistolary describes the economic inequities of what we often call late capitalism, where the “Luxury of the Nobility and Gentry is increas’d beyond all Bounds, as if they were not only insensible of, but even rejoyc’d in the publick Calamities of their Fellow-Subjects,” which antiquated prose aside, is an apt description of what Naomi Klein has called the shock-doctrine.

Memoirs of the Twentieth Century is arguably the first of a type. With only a few minor continental antecedents, Madden’s romance is “the earliest example of British futuristic fiction” as Steven Moore writes in The Novel: An Alternative History 1600-1800. Madden makes predictions, but prophecies (using the more popular definition of that term) go back deep into antiquity. From Joseph to John Dee there have been strategies of interpreting dreams, tea leaves, and the shape of sheep livers; of bibliomancy, rhapsodomancy, cleromancy, and necromancy. Prophetic arts divine have scryed a vision into the future, yet those methods always had a veneer of the occult about them. Memoirs of the Twentieth Century uses a guardian angel as its mechanism of communication, making it seem not that far from Joseph and his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, but as scholar Paul Alkon makes clear in Science Fiction Studies, such a subject as astral messengers wasn’t so easily extractable from nascent science during the early eighteenth century. Among other “sciences,” Madden writes that he was skilled in “Anthropomantia, or divining of men… the Chiromantia by the line of the hand or Palmistry… the celestia Astrologia of the Stars… not to mention the Corpomantia, as the Greeks calls it, or in plain English, the art of divining from the dung of creature: a matter I wish from my soul the sage inspectors of our close-stools were a little better skilled.” Alkon writes that though Madden’s novel “had no apparent impact on later 18th-century fiction,” he concurs with Moore that it’s the first futuristic science fiction text in English – guardian angels notwithstanding. Even more importantly, earlier prognostications rarely had a sense that the distant future would be substantially different from the present, and while Madden is in some sense broadly guilty of the same presentism – with a French king still ruling – there are subtle indications that the minister was embracing a new myth of the eighteenth century, a fallacy which is sometimes called “progress.”

Madden writes that  “few years are past, since we improv’d Astronomy by a true system, verified by demonstration, and founded Philosophy on actual experiments,” and as with Francis Bacon in his 1626 New Atlantis, the author extrapolates from the scientific and technological shifts of the past generation to conjecture on the inevitable arc of change that could be assumed through the twentieth century. He lists past improvements in navigation, military technology, printing, that “Physicians found out either new drugs or specificks, or even the secrets of Anatomy, or the circulation of the blood,” of geographic discovers when “one half of the earth had found out the other,” so that it might be assumed even greater marvels and wonders awaited the then distant twentieth century. Madden wonders that if “we reflect, that the small compass of time, which all these great events have happen’d in, seems to promise vast improvements in the growing centuries.” As such, “it will not appear surprising, and much less absurd, that such discoveries and improvements are allotted to our posterity.”

While Madden made an implied promise of enumerating those discoveries and improvements, he left such conjectures to later prognosticators like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, with Moore unfairly claiming that the author “doesn’t describe any technological advances or even try to imagine what the 20th century might be like,” even while he does accurately predict the Suez Canal, Russia’s rise to prominence, and the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel. Society is Madden’s primary concern –  Memoirs of the Twentieth Century largely functions as anti-Catholic polemic rather than a work of scientific prediction, more an exercise in warning about a Machiavellian Jesuitical pope pulling the levers of power in Rome and Paris, and a fantasy of the Ottoman Empire falling and being replaced with a deism-embracing Tatar aristocracy (for real…). Alkon writes that “by any criterion known to me” Memoirs of the Twentieth Century is “failed satire.” He explains that “Madden’s few palpable hits lose their force in a welter of tiresome religious satire and other incoherent attacks… miss their mark or hit their target too bluntly,” which is why though we still read Swift, we’ve forgotten his younger contemporary. Regardless of Madden’s failures in satire, Alkon emphasizes that Memoirs of the Twentieth Century remains exemplary because it is the first in that aforementioned genre – the novel of prognostication which is clearly not written in the prophetic mode, and that expresses, however feebly, that those who will come after us will exist in a world different from that which we inhabit today.

Not just the prediction of events as in a Nostradamus, because events are simply things that happen, but Madden was able, however subtly and ham-handedly, to prognosticate cultural shifts as well. Arguably a more important task, for predicting that this-or-that person will be king, or that this-or-that army will cross this-or-that border is one thing, and something whose exactitude is impressive, but it’s also less important than reading the tea-leaves of cultural change. The difference between a parlor trick and a policy brief. Memoirs of the Twentieth Century predicts our contemporary era as one of increasing authoritarianism and nationalism, and though Madden didn’t foresee the eclipse of Christendom, our ideological polarization is credibly as sectarian as the Cold War détente he envisioned between Catholics and Protestants. Madden just extrapolated from his own era into the future; the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are just extensions of the authoritarianism, nationalism, and sectarianism that sees their origin in earlier time periods. But that’s precisely my point, which is that fiction – particularly the novel – can be a finely wrought mechanism that puts an author’s ear to the ground.

Which is what Memoirs of the Twentieth Century actually heralds, a new form of divination which might as well be called novelmancy. A certain amount of sense that the development of novelmancy requires the development of the novel, and as the eighteenth century is the dawn (with a few antecedents) of that form, it’s reasonable to expect that a Madden would sooner or later develop. We can disagree about the aesthetic or critical quality of Madden’s book, we can disagree about how accurate any of his predictions are, but in a long line of predictive novels – of texts which are engines of prognostication from Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World –  Memoirs of the Twentieth Century is the first example of novelmancy. While I’d avoid claiming anything overly occult for novelmancy, beyond the occultism which I ascribe to all literary production, I’d imagine what’s most fair to say about novelmancy as a methodology is that it’s a manner in which authors of a certain sensitivity, awareness, and prescience are able to synthesize either consciously or unconsciously the trends, beliefs, personalities, movements, and shifts of an era to derive conclusions about what a likely future may be. Therefore, if one author can derive a certain understanding of what the future may herald, what would a reading of several texts that make prognostications tell us about what our likely fate may be?

As part of this argument’s theoretical scaffolding, it’s worth considering briefly what the “history of the future” is, for part of novelmancy’s innovation rests on the ways in which the early modern period derived a new understanding of historical progress. If the novel is a modern literary form, emphasizing individuality and interiority in manner that previous genres could not, then it also largely reflects a differing understanding of the arc of history as well, an understanding that simultaneously developed alongside the novel. Walter Benjamin writes in his 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History” that “There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth,” and indeed novelmancy is one clause in that agreement, though one which connects our current generation to future ones. Where novelmancy differs from more antique methods of divination (beyond any claims to its objective empiricism) is that it doesn’t merely predict events, it’s not an issue of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams of lean and fat cows, of withered grain, and imagining feasts and famines. Rather novelmancy is modern, and as such it has a modern understanding of time and history. Novelmancy is done with the understanding that the present is fundamentally different from the past and that the future will be different from the present.

So enmeshed are we in ideologies of progress that it can be sobering to consider that such a concept has a history. Consider medieval and Renaissance depictions of biblical scenes, all of those paintings of the crucifixion in which Lombard or Breton aristocracy dwell in the background watching the events of Golgotha. Think of all of those depictions of scenes from the Hebrew scriptures, Judith wearing the clothing of a Renaissance matron, David depicted as an Italian youth. In the fifteenth century French painter Andres d’Ypres’ The Crucifixion, which hangs in the Getty Museum, the sacrifice at Calvary presents Christ and the two the condemned men surrounded not by first century Jewish mourners dressed for the Levant, but by French aristocrats. Longinus upon horse-back looks not like a legionnaire with his spear, but like a Saracen in richly gold threaded robes. Behind the hill is not the sunbaked sandstone of Herod’s Temple, but a European gothic castle as if from a fairy-tale. In medieval tapestry and illuminated manuscript, King Solomon is depicted not as a Judean, but as a European monarch; when the Virgin Mary is presented, it’s not as a woman of ancient Judea, but as a French, or Italian, or German maiden. There are reasons for representing biblical scenes with your contemporaries, ranging from the same reasons why contemporary audiences enjoy hackneyed Shakespeare adaptations to an implicit typological argument which emphasizes divine eternity and the present’s inevitably presence in a past where all of time can be collapsed into God’s singularity. A more prosaic reason as well – the artists who made those depictions might not have considered how the past looked different from their present.

Under the influence of Renaissance humanism in fourteenth and fifteenth century Italy, which was to be distilled and dispersed through the rest of Europe in subsequent generations, there was an understanding which developed that the past was a foreign country. Suddenly there was an awareness that previous generations neither looked like us, lived like us, or perhaps even thought like us. What the Whiggish historian Herbert Butterfield described in his 1949 The Origins of Modern Science as being that the “men of the Renaissance were in a peculiar situation… What they saw behind them… were the peaks of classical antiquity… the summit of human reason.” Such is a perspective on the centuries of the Renaissance derived from the nineteenth century Swiss historian Jacob Burkhardt’s triumphalist view, holding that this was an era in which a rediscovery of pagan and classical learning reinvigorated the present, and that this was in part made possible by considering all those Greek and Roman antiquities, those monumental ruins, those manuscripts depicting a past so different from the present and realizing that things have changed. We can perhaps question the accuracy of this model – there are good reasons to. But something undeniable that for whatever the reason, women and men began to imagine distant generations as not simply being our partners.

Appropriately enough considering the theme of this essay, examine Rembrandt’s painting Belshazzar’s Feast, made between 1635 and 1638 and now displayed in the National Gallery of London, which presents the scene from Daniel in which the hand of God writes upon the wall a prophetic warning to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. When Rembrandt imagines the monarch, he is depicted not as a Low Country burgher, but as a Chaldean ruler; Nebuchadnezzar wears not a crown or tiara, but a turban. God’s hand writes not in Latin letters or in Dutch, but rather in Hebrew letters and an Aramaic that Rembrandt learned from his friend Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel. Perhaps there are inaccuracies here; perhaps there is a problematic Orientalism. But Rembrandt’s imagining attempts to move beyond Holland in the seventeenth century; whether it falls short or not, he gestures towards verisimilitude. A dispatch from the ongoing Renaissance discovery of the past; a recognition that when we look to previous centuries there is a heterogeneity of time.

If the Renaissance was the era in which the past was discovered, then the Enlightenment was when the future was found. During the eighteenth century, the heterogeneity of time which had been previously extended to the past was projected into the future. The discovery that the past was radically different from the present was logically extrapolated into the inevitable conclusion that the future would also be different from the present, an understanding that is indicated in Madden’s novel. While it’s true that Memoirs of the Twentieth Century lacks the full imaginative possibility of later speculative fiction, it’s the genesis of Anglophone depictions of a future that is still different from the present in which it was written, no matter how marginal that difference may be. Such a progressive view of the arc of history, emerging right at the time that the novel developed as a form, inevitably leads to the possibility of novelistic speculative fiction, and thus the methodology which I’ve called novelmancy. When reading Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, what’s notable is not the accuracy or the lack thereof, not the predictions or their accuracy. What’s notable is that Madden sat down in the early eighteenth century and tried to envision 1997, that he tried to imagine 1998. That in his mind he attempted to form a picture of us, for Madden knew that we would not be like him – at least not exactly.

Memoirs of the Twentieth Century may be a novel prognostication, but it inaugurated endless examples. I’ve mentioned antecedents, a notable one being Bacon’s New Atlantis. Technically a proto-novel within the utopian genre, Bacon imagines a perfect island society named Bensalem where a priesthood of scientists at an institution called Solomon’s House derived technologies ranging from synthetic plastics to organ transplants. Though easily categorizable as nascent speculative fiction, New Atlantis isn’t quite the novel of prognostication that Memoirs of the Twentieth Century is, even if Bacon’s hypotheses about technology are far more prescient, simply because he doesn’t identify such innovations with the future, but rather with an imagined land in his own present. Novels of prognostication which followed Madden are numerous, arguably the main-stay of science fiction, with a range of prediction from Mary Shelley’s post-apocalyptic 1826 The Last Man, to Verne’s 1863 Paris in the Twentieth Century which predicted both alternative energy and the internet, and Edward Bellamy’s 1888 utopian socialist Looking Backward: 2000-1887, not to speak of the more obvious examples of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. These novels are a sampling of thousands of predictive speculative fiction texts, giving a sense of the contradictory visions which motivate the very form.

Imagining the future isn’t the only criterion which defines science fiction, but it’s perhaps the most obvious. Margaret Atwood observes in her critical anthology In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination that “if your writing about the future isn’t forecast journalism, it will most likely be something people will call either science fiction or speculative fiction.” With a humility concerning science fiction’s efficacy as a diagnostic tool, Atwood writes that the “future can never be truly predicted because there are too many variables.” And, it might be added, all of these conflicting novels can’t all be correct, Bellamy’s future utopia can’t exist alongside Shelley’s apocalyptic one. Not in spite of that fact, but precisely because of it, Atwood holds that “You can… dip into the present, which contains the seeds of what might become the future.” Atwood is correct – no single novel can accurately predict the future in its totality; she is also right that when we say that these novels contain prognostications, that they are ideally based on a sensitive reading and expansion of the present into the future. Madden’s was but one voice, and most of what he predicted was wrong. Still, his was a mind sensitive enough to extrapolate certain trends forward, with at least some accuracy.

But what if you didn’t rely on one novel, and instead took a collection of novels to extrapolate forward what a likely future may be as dependent on a given present? What if you harnessed the collective, crowdsourced popularity of certain futurist narratives in our present? Assuming that there was a particular power in having all of those sensitive, subtle, empathetic authors predictions pooled together in the same way a bunch of computers can be linked into an array? The contours of this argument are that no particular author has any exact prescience, but that if certain literary trends emerge in how we imagine the future, it could be claimed that a wide enough variety of authors are picking up on particular trends that we might surmise that if certain conditions in our present continue, we can anticipate particular futures.

Literary critic Franco Moretti in Distant Reading conceives of a method of literary critical analysis which doesn’t rely on the hermetic exegesis that defines traditional New Critical close reading, but which rather treats the mass of literary texts as a field to be mathematically analyzed for patterns. He writes that for distant reading, often accomplished through computational analysis, the point is to “focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes – or genres and systems.” Using Moretti’s logic to think about novels of prognostication, what if a “distant reading” of speculative fiction texts would aid in helping us to in some sense “predict” the likely future based on our current moment? Where certain divergent book plots can be excluded, but what is important is what the larger number of books that talk about the future happen to be saying about those coming decades and centuries? The pooling of all those creative, empathetic, imaginative resources into a collective act of prognostication. The psychoanalyzing of literature’s body communal; the use of our culture’s literary corpus as the raw material in calculating an expected teleology.

Such an approach bares a similarity to the mathematical sociology which defines “psychohistory” in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. In that series of novels, Asimov imagines a science that develops among the scholars of a galactic empire which is able to identify and analyze all cultural and social trends so as to predict the future with exactitude. As a character says in the first book of that series, “psychohistory is a statistical science and cannot predict the future of a single man with any accuracy,” and so it is with novelmancy. Almost a “Mass Algorithmic Zeitgeist Reading” if you will. This is not reading tea-leaves, but rather guessing at what exactly the zeitgeist of our era might have in store for us. Furthermore, the future is always changing as the arrow of time moves forward, and the year 2050 is not the same in 2000 as it was in 1950 – the future looks very different to Madden than it does to Bellamy than it would to Huxley. This is not to say that any were “wrong,” for the future is a fickle thing. Unlike the past, the future is always shifting, always changing, always mercurial. She is a variable thing, for there are an infinite number of futures. An undulating liquid field of pure potentiality. Which one of those possibilities is the most likely during a giving present is always changing, and it’s the task of novelmancy to see what vibrations all of those authorial ears to the ground happen to be picking up.

What exactly is the history of our future as it is right now? While not personally privy to the most sophisticated of computational technologies, a bit of fiddling around on the Ngram Viewer program available for free at Google can give you an idea on the occurrence of particular words and combination of words across twenty million books printed between 1500 and 2000, and thus glimmers of what occupied the mass of humanity during particular years. For example, overall instances of the word “utopia” spiked between 1500 and 1550, when utopian romances would have made a significance percentage of the literature then being produced, with a smaller spike in the mid seventeenth century, and then a decline only to inch slowly with an upward slope over the course of the following centuries, albeit never gaining those enthusiastic heights which greeted its coinage as a term in the Renaissance. By contrast, instances of the word “apocalypse,” though there are some predictably early modern spikes when millennialism was in theological vogue, actually hits its height of popularity towards the year 2000, and has been climbing ever since. Get out your literary barometer, turn on your novelistic radar. You’re not imagining that pressure; the beeping isn’t just in your head. Put your ear to the ground and listen to the horseman galloping, your nightmares of apocalypse aren’t just your own. It’s something that we’ve all been dreaming together.

Critic Frederic Jameson once wrote that it’s “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” and as we face ecological calamity brought about by our economic totalism, it’s worth considering what anecdotal novelmancy tells us, the ways that literary prognostication seems to herald that apocalypse. Thinking about Jameson’s adage, when was the last era that really imagined the possibility of future social arrangements free of capitalist exploitation? When was the socialist moment last embraced by novel prognosticators? Bellamy’s utopia seems distant, we’ve rather traded dreams for nightmares, or our authors (with antenna up) have noted the likelihood of the later rather than the former. The last great utopian work of speculative fiction was the Star Trek franchise, the last bit of non-capitalist imagining which sees humanity surviving into a post-scarcity world. Otherwise, drawing from Orwell, Huxley, and Atwood, the collective imagination of our speculative fiction writers has welcomed not utopia, but warned of dystopia.

If Gene Rodenberry’s tea leaves saw something hopeful in the post-war consensus, in the positivism of technological progress celebrated in the mid-twentieth century, then the tea leaves seem to say something different today. More Cormac McCarthy, The Walking Dead, and Stephen King’s The Stand in our discontented age of late capitalism. If there is a causal relationship between literature and reality, some sort of symbiosis whereby novels don’t merely predict but in some sense shape, then there becomes a very real concern about what our dreams and nightmares might be. Perhaps the din of ecological apocalypse is too loud, its heat vapors too scorching. If there is any charged potentiality in imagining a better world, if there is any significance in dreaming into reality some forgotten utopian promise, now is the moment for it. Maybe the last juncture when such dreams are even possible, before they’re forever precluded in apocalyptic finality. We must dream for our survival, for whether or not it’s possible to collectively imagine a better world into existence, we must have the blind faith which prays that we can.


About the Author:

Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.