The Urge to Prophesy

Back when I was in high school (Cascade High 1976: Home of the Bruins, School of Pride), one of the trendier ideas being talked about was Futurism — literally, the “study of the future.” I remember watching some film with Orson Welles narrating it at his most pompous “I am from the elite, and this is what we are all talking about at our wine and cheese parties” best. And being a dumb kid from the suburbs, I took him at his word because he had a beard, an important-sounding voice, and his thoughts seemed really smart, almost English smart, which, as every American high schooler knows, is as smart as a person can get. The only thing more potent than getting Welles to intone something about The Future was to get an English guy to do it. That more or less established whatever was being asserted as a Scientific Fact.

The thing is, as I discovered as I got out of high school, the English accent only had this mesmerizing power on Americans. The English were immune to it and quite happy to chuckle loudly when one of their own offered nonsense in a tone of superiority. In particular, I noticed that one Englishman had great and gleeful fun with the whole 19th- and 20th-century habit of prophesying. His name was G. K. Chesterton, and he opens his great novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill this way:

The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called, “Keep to-morrow dark,” and which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) “Cheat the Prophet.” The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.

The urge to prophecy has always been with us, but it reached a mania in the 19th and 20th centuries. The same people who were convinced that saying “But this is the 20th century!” constituted a philosophical disproof of the miraculous also believed, with a miraculous faith, that they knew exactly what their great-grandchildren would be doing a century from now. Chesterton captures the mania that gripped our race a hundred years ago:

In the beginning of the twentieth century you could not see the ground for clever men. They were so common that a stupid man was quite exceptional, and when they found him, they followed him in crowds down the street and treasured him up and gave him some high post in the State. And all these clever men were at work giving accounts of what would happen in the next age, all quite clear, all quite keen-sighted and ruthless, and all quite different. And it seemed that the good old game of hoodwinking your ancestors could not really be managed this time, because the ancestors neglected meat and sleep and practical politics, so that they might meditate day and night on what their descendants would be likely to do.

But the way the prophets of the twentieth century went to work was this. They took something or other that was certainly going on in their time, and then said that it would go on more and more until something extraordinary happened. And very often they added that in some odd place that extraordinary thing had happened, and that it showed the signs of the times.

So, for instance, in my youth I was taught about Global Cooling and the imminent Ice Age we faced because, well, somebody had run a couple of computer models (computer modeling was the wave of the Future, after all) and figured out that the temperatures seemed to be heading south. Therefore it always would continue. For the same reason — the conviction that whatever was in the headlines today would stretch to infinity — it was also a fact that the Future held out famine in India and Mexico, as well as the permanent eclipse of the Republican party due to Nixon’s fall, the annihilation of the salmon stocks in Washington state, and the eventual permanent global domination of disco. What was happening in 1976 was going to go on happening more and more and more, until it was the only thing happening everywhere and for all time.


I think about this because we just watched 2010 the other night. It’s the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it was made in 1984 (how’s that for a confluence of two significant years?). What most people may remember about the film is that it makes the same cardinal mistake of mixing genres that Star Wars: The Phantom Menace made, with the effect of making me need to scream “ARGH!” in a huge digression that I will now subject you to before I resume my main point. The invaluable John C. Wright explains:

The reason why a collective groan of disbelief rose up to heaven from the massed fans of STAR WARS because of one line in one scene in PHANTOM MENACE, when the Jedi says Jedi powers are based, not on a mystical energy field binding the galaxy together, but due to microscopic bodies in the bloodstream, the groan was because the genre boundary had been crossed.

A mystic energy field is something everyone sort of recognizes from New Age ideas, or Theosophy, or Oriental humbug. It is a simple and clear idea, and it is a mythic idea, from a fantasy story or a fairy tale, including fairy tales taking place “Once upon a time long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” The mystic energy field fits the mood and fits the tone because it fits the genre of the fairy tale. Microscopic psionic organisms are a “nuts-and-bolts sf” sort of idea, not from fairy tales but from “hard” SF, the sort of thing Larry Niven might invent to explain esper powers of Gil Hammond or of the Thrint slavers, but not the sort of thing found in Andrew Lang. It was tin-eared on the part of George Lucas, it broke the mood and thus broke the hypnotic spell of the story, and that is why every fan groaned. It violated the boundary between fairy tale conventions and hard sf conventions.

In exactly the same way, 2010 makes the huge blunder of trying to tell a hard SF story about what happens after the immense mythic tale of 2001, a tale which was intended to leave you with an image and a feeling rather than a thought. The myth, of course, is the Darwin Mythos: Humanity, through struggle and trial, progresses ever onward and upward toward a rebirth as the New Man (with help from all-but-divine aliens who remain, to the end, completely inscrutable). Dave Bowman, the winner of humanity’s evolutionary struggle to reach Jupiter, is literally born again, transformed, and then returns to earth as the Starchild, the next leap in evolution. (It’s no accident that Discovery is designed by the filmmakers to resemble a giant sperm cell.)

Now, C. S. Lewis remarks of myth that it is a story with a satisfying shape, like a tulip or a vase. Myths differ from other stories in that other stories depend a great deal on the way in which you tell them. David Copperfield in summary form doesn’t move us; much depends on Charles Dickens’s considerable gifts as a storyteller and creator of character. With a myth, even a simple summary has the power to move because what matters is the shape of the story, not the details of character. And indeed, one of the things to notice about 2001 is how utterly unengaging the human characters are. HAL is more human than they are. And yet, the shape of the myth remains powerful. A mysterious power chooses the human race for glory, and, through millennia, we struggle onward until, in the bright dawn of a new millennium, in the twinkling of an eye, we are changed! All our struggles for survival and progress finally bear fruit in the bright promise of a new birth of an entirely new kind of man! Even I, who think the myth pernicious rubbish, can still appreciate its power as myth (much as one can appreciate the cinematic power, though not the content, of Triumph of the Will).

Now the problem with 2010 is that it attempts to glue a bunch of hard science fiction accessories, gewgaws, and knick knacks on to the satisfying shape of Stanley Kubrick’s elegant and satisfying vase. So instead of just leaving us with that final image of the Starchild and humanity’s apotheosis, 2010 plunges back into the boring world of international politics, and some guy who is tormented about HAL’s breakdown, and early 1980s preachifying about our need to All Get Along Since the Russians Love Their Children Too. Bowman, instead of just remaining a satisfying concluding image of a myth, starts showing up and announcing that Something Wonderful is about to happen. All our mythic curiosity gets going and we wonder, “What could be more wonderful than the transformation of humanity we witness in 2001?”

Answer, in a nutshell: The aliens have decided to turn Jupiter into a star so that its moon Io can become a hatchery for a new evolutionary science project. That’s it. That’s all. Somehow, this moves humanity so much that we forget the nuclear war with the invincible Soviet Union and all learn to live in peace. Bowman is never heard from again. So much for the transformation of the human race. We’re back to Russians and Americans in a tense detente, held back only by the fact that they now have two suns in the sky and the occasional thought, “There are inscrutable aliens out there who only involve themselves in our affairs every couple million years. Hmmm, I doubt they care much if we had a third world war in addition to our first two. Evolution is, after all, about the survival of the strong and the destruction of the weak.”

Forgive me, but: ARGH! Talk about ruining the illusion and spoiling the myth.


However, much as I needed to get that ARGH off my chest, I must now return you to our regularly scheduled article. Because my main point is not that 2010 merely spoils the myth, it’s that it does so in a particular way foreseen by Chesterton in that introduction to the Napoleon of Notting Hill (which is, by curious coincidence, set in 1984, the year 2010 was made). You see, back in 1984, the filmmakers, like all prophets of that time, assumed the eternity of the Soviet Union, because the Soviet Union was what was happening at that moment. In this, of course, they followed in the footsteps of another prophet, George Orwell, who foretells the rise of an omnicompetent totalitarian state rather like Stalin’s Russia and warns us that if we want to get the hang of what the future will be like, we had best imagine “a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.” That line comes, by strange coincidence, from Orwell’s 1984.

The thing is, though, that within less than a decade, the Soviet Union was gone, and without the nuclear holocaust the prophets of 2010 foresaw. Our biggest worries in the 1990s (that holiday from history) consisted of fretting about how Bill Clinton defined the word “is.” When history resumed for us, it took a turn nobody (except Chesterton’s friend Hilaire Belloc) foresaw, when the might of the West was shaken to its core by some cave dwellers in Afghanistan who suddenly reminded us that Islam is still here, with the force of a billion believers at its back and ready to give deadly challenge to the watery post-Christian secularism of our civilization.

None of this is remotely foreseen by the clever people who were looking forward to 2010 in 1984. What was their glorious consummation — the Something Wonderful that would bring peace and joy and universal harmony to all mankind trapped in the Cold War nightmare? Well, what 1984 foresaw as wonderful in 2010, we in the year 2011 aren’t so keen on. After all, a civilization no longer living in the sure and certain terror of Global Cooling and a New Ice Age now lives in sure and certain terror of Global Warming and would not be deeply thrilled to find our planet heated by yet another sun in the sky, courtesy of our Alien Evolutionary Overlords.

Happily, as ever, all the things the prophets foresaw — in 1904 (when Chesterton wrote The Napoleon of Notting Hill, set in 1984), 1948 (when Orwell wrote 1984), 1984 (when 2010 was made), and even in 2010 (when bards sing laments for Anthropogenic Global Warming and prophets foretell our Islamic/transhumanist/post-Christian/insert-current-trendiness-here future) — all of them have this great virtue: that we have the option to listen politely and then go away and do something else. I plan on doing just that, and I have no idea how that will pan out. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.


Image: 2010 © 2006

Mark P. Shea


Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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