'1984' and 19 other dystopian novels that predicted the future
Science fiction (and the larger genre of speculative fiction to which it belongs) has been obsessed with the future since H. G. Wells first wrote about a time traveler who leaped forward to 802,701 A.D. in “The Time Traveler.” In science fiction, the future offers a blank slate of possibility, a place where humans can travel to distant planets faster than the speed of light, upload their brains to the cloud, or build computers that think like humans. The technology they envision can portend, and occasionally inspire, the real technology of the future.
Dystopias are a different kind of science fiction, ripe with possibility for imagining the most terrible future that could strike humanity. They’re constantly asking “What if?” What if we don’t solve climate change? What if everyone was connected to the internet all the time? What if what’s happening now gets worse? Ray Bradbury once wrote, “People ask me to predict the Future when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it.” For most writers of dystopia, the goal isn’t to guess what will happen; it’s to provide a cautionary tale to ensure what they envision doesn’t come to pass.
Sometimes, for better or for worse, the futures science fiction writers envision do come to pass. Seventy years ago this summer, George Orwell released “1984,” a novel about an authoritarian government run by “Big Brother” that uses propaganda and surveillance to keep its citizens in line. In January 2017, the book unexpectedly hit the Amazon best-seller list, as have other classic dystopias, as people read them and feel a resonance between the world the novels describe and the reality of 2019.
In honor of “1984’s” 70th birthday, Stacker looked at news outlets, book blogs, tech websites, and more to compile a list of 20 dystopia and science fiction books that in one way or another predicted our future. Some imagined a technology that has become fundamental to our everyday lives long before it was invented. Others, like “1984,” discuss themes and present social systems that seem like they were ripped from the headlines, with varying degrees of optimism.
Click through to discover which book predicted the moon landing two centuries before it happened, which book series predicted Donald Trump’s candidacy, and add a few titles to your end-of-summer reading list.
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- Author: George Orwell
- Date published: June 8, 1949
The oppressive regime George Orwell imagined in “1984” is full of predictions, but among the most famous is its depiction of how governments and other powerful people can work to redefine and eliminate objective truth. Winston, the main character, spends his days in the Ministry of Truth working to edit history to make sure it lines up with whatever the government says are the facts, even if they change every day. In a world of “alternative facts” and fake news clogging up our Facebook feeds, it seems to some people that a world where the government can decide that “2+2=5” isn’t that far away.
The Handmaid’s Tale
- Author: Margaret Atwood
- Date published: Sept. 13, 1985
Written during a rise in conservative Christian ideology in the 1980s, Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” imagines a totalitarian patriarchal society rooted in Christianity where fertile women (or “handmaids”), of which there are very few, are forced to bear children for men in power. The themes in Atwood’s novel, especially those involving a woman’s lack of bodily autonomy or reproductive rights, have resonated in the modern day as more states have passed laws that ban abortions, limit access to birth control, or make it more difficult for women to access healthcare. Costumes from the television adaption of the show have been used by women as symbols of protest around the world since the show aired.
- Author: Mary Shelley
- Date published: Jan. 1, 1818, revised in 1831
“Frankenstein” is often considered one of the first science fiction novels. The classic tale has also foretold several scientific advancements. Building a monster from human parts certainly resembles organ transplants. One recent study suggests it may have also predicted the evolutionary biology concept of “competitive exclusion,” which holds that life’s ability to expand will be limited when people and animals have to compete for resources, demonstrated by Dr. Frankenstein refusing to build his creation a wife for fear that they’ll create a new breed of creatures that will wipe out humanity.
- Author: William Gibson
- Date published: July 1, 1984
William Gibson’s groundbreaking novel not only created the cyberpunk genre in science fiction but also predicted the internet as we know it. “Neuromancer” coined the word cyberspace, which is described as “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions...a graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system.” Gibson himself resists the label of predicting the future, instead claiming that he’s “generating scenarios,” some of which just happen to come true.
Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy
- Author: Douglas Adams
- Date published: Oct. 12, 1979
Douglas Adams’ zany, spacefaring “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series opens with an alien race destroying the Earth to make room for a galactic highway bypass. Luckily, that prediction has yet to come to pass; what he predicted was instantaneous audio translations which technology companies have unveiled over the past several years. In “Hitchhiker’s Guide” the characters looking for fast language translations have to put a Babel fish in their ear, but Skype and Google have opted to use computers instead.
Stand on Zanzibar
- Author: John Brunner
- Date published: September 1968
Set in the year 2010, John Brunner’s “Stand on Zanzibar” takes place in a world that looks surprisingly similar to the decade we live in now. His world faces widespread mass shootings, deeply polarized partisan politics, and simmering racial tensions remain despite some African Americans reaching positions of power. The novel’s chief concern, however, is overpopulation, which has fueled several crises, and the brutal eugenics program that results thankfully looks nothing like actual 2010 America.
The World Set Free
- Author: H. G. Wells
- Date published: 1914
The development of the atomic bomb was one of the most significant technological developments of the 21st century; it was also predicted by H. G. Wells 30 years before its invention. In “The World Set Free,” Wells describes uranium hand grenades that can be dropped from planes and explode infinitely after impact. The book might not have only predicted the bomb—physicist Leo Szilard read the book and gave it partial credit for inspiring his discovery of nuclear chain reactions.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
- Author: Robert A. Heinlein
- Date published: July 1969
“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” describes a moon colony’s revolt against its leaders on Earth. The book takes many of its cues from the American Revolution, but some have pointed out that Heinlein’s depictions of a diffuse movement led by the people provide insight to insurgency campaigns in 21st-century Iraq and Afghanistan.
From the Earth to the Moon
- Author: Jules Verne
- Date published: 1865
One of the early pioneers of science fiction, Jules Verne made several astonishing technological predictions in his books that ultimately came true. “From the Earth to the Moon,” for example, predicts the moon landing over 200 years before it happened; Verne’s story describes a crew of three men who are shot out of a gun to the moon. The details, including the location and name of the launch, the dimensions of the ship, and several calculations Verne provides are incredibly accurate for the time it was written.
Looking Back: 2000–1887
- Author: Edward Bellamy
- Date published: January 1888
Edward Bellamy’s novel transports his protagonist to Boston at the beginning of the 21st century (or end of the 20th, depending on how you count it) and plants him in the middle of an egalitarian utopia. In the world of “Looking Back,” women are fully fledged members of the workforce (which would have been unthinkable in the late 1800s) and every American gets a “credit card” which work allows them to access an equal amount of “credit” to make purchases. Though we haven’t reached complete economic equality, the cards otherwise function exactly like the credit cards today.
Ralph 124C 41+
- Author: Hugo Gernsback
- Date published: 1925
The Hugo Award, which honors the best of the best in science fiction, probably wouldn’t have been awarded to Hugo Gernsback’s serialized novel “Ralph 124C 41+,” which very few sci-fi fans take seriously today. The book is largely remembered for correctly predicting quite a bit of the technology we use today, including video chat, electric cars, solar power, and radar, not for the story the technology is used in.
2001: A Space Odyssey
- Author: Arthur C. Clarke
- Date published: April 28, 1968
“2001: A Space Odyssey” shows one of its characters checking the news on a “Newspad,” a technology, which predicted the tablet computers we use to check the news today. The Newspads used in the movie adaptation, which Stanley Kubrick developed alongside Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, looks strikingly similar to Apple’s iPad; Samsung offered shots from the movie as proof that their Galaxy tablet didn’t violate Apple’s iPad patent in a lawsuit.
- Author: David Brin
- Date published: 1990
David Brin’s work is famous in science fiction circles for accurately predicting the future. His 1990 novel, “Earth,” depicts what the world looks like in 2040 and anticipated so many of today’s trends that there’s an entire wiki dedicated to documenting what Brin correctly forecasted. Among the things “Earth” got right: the levees breaking on the Mississippi (as they did during Hurricane Katrina), global warming and sea levels rising, and the universal use of the internet.
- Author: Isaac Asimov
- Date published: 1951
Considered a science fiction classic, Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation Trilogy” features the Encyclopedia Galactica, which one character describes as “a giant summary of all knowledge” in the world compiled by thousands of researchers. In that way, Asimov’s Encyclopedia works almost identically to Wikipedia, which is edited by thousands of people every day to compile information about pretty much anything you could ever want to learn about.
- Author: Bruce Sterling
- Date published: September 1994
Long before the Bitcoin boom made headlines and introduced the world to cryptocurrency, Bruce Sterling wrote “Heavy Weather.” Though mostly focused on a group of storm chasers, he dedicates a short passage to an instantaneous electric currency “unbacked by any government, untraceable, completely anonymous, [and] global in reach.” Sterling accurately describes how today’s cryptocurrencies work, over a decade before an anonymous programmer developed the technology that would make it possible.
Brave New World
- Author: Aldous Huxley
- Date published: 1932
The bleak future Aldous Huxley paints in “Brave New World” features a world where babies are genetically engineered in labs and sorted into groups based on their abilities as children. This possibility seems closer than ever with the announcement that CRISPR gene-editing technology had been used on babies. Some of Huxley’s predictions have already become reality; the mood-altering soma drugs used by almost every adult in the book share an eerie similarity to the widespread prescription use of Valium and other psychotropic drugs.
The Drowned World
- Author: J. G. Ballard
- Date published: 1962
In British author J. G. Ballard’s most prescient science fiction novel, “The Drowned World,” London and other cities are entirely flooded (but almost no water remains anywhere else) and tropical temperatures have enveloped the globe thanks to industrial pollution. Scientists have found that climate change has led to increased droughts, heat waves, and flooding in 2019. According to recent reports, if humanity doesn’t curb emissions by 2030, we won’t have to wait for 2145 for Ballard’s post-apocalyptic vision to be wholly realized.
- Author: Sabrina Vourvoulias
- Date published: Oct. 15, 2012
“Ink” imagines an America where foreign-born people are “inked” by the government to indicate their immigration status; these immigrants are subjected to unlawful deportations, laws that forbid speaking languages other than English, and later, unlawful confinement. The book seemingly portended the Trump administration’s crackdown on legal and illegal immigration and the anti-immigrant sentiment that has surged during the Trump presidency, four years before he was elected.
- Author: M.T. Anderson
- Date published: Sept. 23, 2002
M.T. Anderson’s bleak young-adult dystopia that posited a world where people access information through connects implanted directly in their brains. While our technology hasn’t quite progressed that far, Anderson’s future posited that these “feeds” would give people constant access to information and the ability to stay connected, at the price of being constantly bombarded by advertising tailored to their preferences by data-mining corporations. Facebook and Twitter haven’t directly implanted themselves in our brains, but given that most people check their smartphones dozens of times a day, it’s close enough.
Parable of the Talents
- Author: Octavia Butler
- Date published: November 1998
Octavia Butler conceived of her “Earthseed” series as her “if this goes on” book and extrapolated what the world would look like in the mid-2020 and beyond from the headlines of the '90s. The second book, “Parable of the Talents,” takes place in 2032 and features, among other things, a movement of white violence stirred up by a Texas senator running for president on a platform to “make America great again.” To overcome their own Trumpian character, Butler’s protagonist, a black woman, bands with other people of color and starts her own community, suggesting it’s necessary to work together to combat white nationalist violence.