Science fiction’s prophetic dystopias: Niall Ferguson Spectator essay sheds light on Prometheus winners Bradbury, Orwell, Stephenson and Zamyatin while drawing timely comparisons to Huxley

How can science fiction be used to explore and perhaps take steps to prevent the darker possibilities of the future?

Writer-historian Niall Ferguson examines the benefits and prophetic classics of science fiction in an intriguing essay in The Spectator magazine.

Several Prometheus-winning authors – including Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), Sinclair Lewis (It Can’t Happen Here), George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four), Neal Stephenson (The System of the World, Snow Crash) and Yevgeny Zamyatin (We) – are discussed with intriguing and incisive commentary in Ferguson’s recent article, “How Science Fiction Novels Read the Future.”

Here’s how Ferguson’s essay begins:

“The pandemic is not quite over, but we are getting used to its inconveniences. What disaster will be next? An antibiotic-resistant strain of the bubonic plague? Climate collapse? Coronal mass ejection? Will the next catastrophe be natural — perhaps a massive volcanic eruption, the likes of which we have not seen for more than two centuries, since Tambora in 1815? Or will it be a manmade calamity — nuclear war or a cyberattack? And might we inadvertently descend into a new form of AI-enabled totalitarianism in our efforts to ward off such calamities?

To all these potential disasters it is impossible to attach more than made-up probabilities. So what can we do about them? The best answer would be that we should strive to imagine them. For the past two centuries, this has been the role of science fiction,” Ferguson writes.

Perhaps with some oversimplification, Ferguson views dystopias as “histories of the future.”

“This sounds like a contradiction in terms, but as they have always echoed present fears (or, to be more precise, the anxieties of the literary elite), they show us which worries of the past had a role in history,” Ferguson writes.

Ray Bradbury (Creative Commons license)

“As Fahrenheit 451 author Ray Bradbury once said: “I am a preventer of futures, not a predictor of them.” But how many policy decisions have been influenced by dystopian visions? And how often did these turn out to be wise ones?

“The 1930s policy of appeasement, for example, was based partly on an exaggerated fear that the Luftwaffe could match H.G. Wells’s Martians in destroying London. More often, though, nightmarish visions have failed to persuade policymakers to act.”

The article also mentions “levels of state surveillance undreamed of by George Orwell,” a well-trod subject and sadly a frequent reference these days.

George Orwell (Creative Commons license)

But Ferguson doesn’t deny the more positive aspects of sf in inspiring better visions.

“Science fiction has been a source of inspiration, too,” he writes.
“When Silicon Valley began thinking about how to use the internet, they turned to writers such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. Today, no discussion of artificial intelligence is complete without reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey, just as nearly all conversations about robotics include a mention of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  or the movie it inspired, Blade Runner.

Ferguson’s essay also references several less-discussed writers and novelists whose dystopian fiction seems surprisingly relevant to today.

One of his earliest historical references is to Mary Shelley – not just her classic cautionary fable Frankenstein but especially her “equally revolutionary” 1826 novel The Last Man.

“With its vision of mass extinction following a plague and a depopulated world, it was the first truly dystopian novel,” Ferguson writes.

His essay also discusses a Prometheus Hall of Fame winner (Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here) and a Prometheus Best Novel finalist (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) as good examples of dystopian fiction “as much concerned with political catastrophe as with natural and technological disasters.”

“The nightmare here is Stalin-like totalitarianism.,” he writes.

“Fahrenheit 451 (published in 1953 but set in 1999) describes an illiberal America where books are banned and the job of firemen is to burn them.”

(Though the novel is sometimes interpreted as a critique of McCarthyism, Bradbury’s real message was that the preference of ordinary people for the vacuous entertainment of TV and the willingness of religious minorities to demand censorship together posed a creeping threat to the book as a form for serious content.)”

We, the 1994 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

Ferguson also makes apt comparisons between China’s current surveillance-state, social-credit-controlled dictatorship with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s early dystopian novel We, inducted in 1994 into the Prometheus Hall of Fame.

“The most famous prophets of surveillance states — Orwell and Huxley — have been outflanked when it comes to making sense of today’s totalitarian states. Take China, which better resembles Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We: a book written in 1921 but suppressed by the Bolsheviks.

Yevgeny Zamyatin (Creative Commons license)

It is set in a future “One State” led by “the Benefactor,” where the “ciphers” — who have numbers, not names, and wear standardized “unifs” — are under constant surveillance. All apartments are made of glass, with curtains that can be drawn only when one is having state-licensed sex. Faced with insurrection, the omnipotent Benefactor orders the mass lobotomization of ciphers, as the only way to preserve universal happiness is to abolish the imagination.”

Huxley’s Brave New World

Perhaps the most intriguing insights in Ferguson’s far-reaching essay are about how Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World turned out to describe a more realistic dystopian future, with its softer forms of oligarchic social control, than Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

His essay, in fact, might inspire LFS members to consider nominating Huxley’s more prescient dystopia for future Prometheus Hall of Fame consideration.

Aldous Huxley in the early 1950s (Creative Commons license)

“In a remarkable letter written in October 1949, Aldous Huxley — who had been Orwell’s French teacher at Eton — warned him that he was capturing his own present rather than the likely future. “The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Huxley wrote, “is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion… Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.”

“Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) is a very different dystopia. Citizens submit to a caste system, conditioned to be content with physical pleasure. Self-medication (“soma”), constant entertainment (the “feelies”), regular holidays and ubiquitous sexual titillation are the basis for mass compliance. Censorship and propaganda play a part, but overt coercion is rarely visible. The West today seems more Huxley than Orwell: a world more of corporate distraction than state brutality.”

That’s a rather grim conclusion, so I’d rather end this blog by quoting one of Ferguson’s more amusing comparisons:

“If, as Paul Samuelson joked, declines in US stock prices have correctly predicted nine of the last five American recessions, science fiction has correctly predicted nine of the last five technological breakthroughs.”

Bio note: Ferguson, a Scottish historian based in the United States, is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is the author of 16 books, including Civilization, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, The Great Degenerationand The Ascent of Money.

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to the full set of published appreciation-reviews of past winners.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights and differences.

Through recognizing the literature of liberty and the many different but complementary visions of a free future via the Prometheus Awards, the LFS hopes to help spread better visions of the future that help humanity overcome tyranny, slavery and war and achieve universal liberty and human rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

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Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

2 thoughts on “Science fiction’s prophetic dystopias: Niall Ferguson Spectator essay sheds light on Prometheus winners Bradbury, Orwell, Stephenson and Zamyatin while drawing timely comparisons to Huxley”

  1. An aspect of Brave New World that is not often enough remarked is that its global state’s policy is essentially driven by the fear of “underconsumption”: the idea that the products of an industrial economy will not find sufficient demand to all be sold, leading to recurring depressions. The fear of underconsumption was central to Keynes’s General Theory, which indeed set out to rehabilitate the idea from Jean-Baptiste Say’s demonstration that general underconsumption was impossible. Huxley envisions a society organized for frantic mass consumption and indeed using industrial techniques to manufacture its own mass of consumers. Similar concerns also motivated the social credit theories presented in Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon, and one of Keynes’s chapters offers praise for the Social Credit theorists.

  2. Thanks for posting this. I would never have found the original essay otherwise.

    Ferguson’s line near the end “the genre can play an important role in helping us think clearly about the future” refers to science fiction in general, but for me emphasizes why specifically libertarian science fiction is so important.

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