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Institute of Advanced Study

Can Novelists Predict the Future?

Abstract

Sometimes novels make predictions about the future that turn out to be true.  Are they lucky guesses, shrewd insight or a sign that creative imagination can be prophetic? Drawing on my own experience as novelist and physicist, I explore the phenomenon of literary precognition.

Some predictions are strikingly precise: in Gulliver's Travels we read that Mars has two moons, though they would not be discovered until a century and a half later. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw profound meditations on the nature of time from Einstein and Proust; but before either of them, H. G. Wells was considering the possibility of time travel. Most remarkable of all, perhaps, is Poe's anticipation of Big Bang theory.

Yet prophecy need not only refer to the future: the prophet is one who interprets and transmits divine will, and it was this aspect that E. M. Forster emphasised in his consideration of the ‘prophetic' quality of fiction. Even if the novelist is not divinely inspired, he or she may be able to interpret the present and past in such a way as to point towards the future.

Insights Paper