By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
As the Danish physicist Niels Bohr probably never said, ‘predictions are hard, especially about the future.’ And although the job of authors of science fiction and speculative fiction isn’t to make accurate predictions about what our future lives might look like, but to entertain us by tapping into current concerns, fears, dreams, and ambitions for where humanity might be heading, it can still be fun to read stories set in the future which managed to get things right (or sometimes, not so right).
The following list comprises ten of the very best books and stories written about the future. They range from short stories that can be read in one sitting to full novels, including one rather long and challenging novel (see John Brunner below).
We’ve included a range of types of story, too, from utopias to dystopias, and from stories focused on technology to stories focused on society. But all of these stories about the future are, for our money, worth reading.
1. Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, 2000-1887.
Published in 1888, Bellamy’s short novel, which imagines a perfect future society, spawned a nationwide movement in America. It also predicted electronic broadcasting and credit cards, among other things.
Bellamy’s plan for a ‘cloud palace for an ideal humanity’ also helped to inspire the garden city movement in the US and the UK. This is the only utopian novel on this list, and it suffers from that affliction which many utopian books fall prey to (namely, lack of action and some dull passages), but it’s one of the best classic stories to imagine a brighter future for our world.
2. Rudyard Kipling, ‘With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 AD’.
Kipling (1865-1936) is now best-known for his books for children such as The Jungle Book and The Just So Stories, as well as rousing poems like ‘If—’. But he was also a sophisticated and, at times, visionary writer of short stories.
And in two short stories, ‘With the Night Mail’ and ‘As Easy as A.B.C.: A Tale of 2150 AD’, published in 1905 and 1915 respectively, Rudyard Kipling pioneered the short story set in the future, in which action rather than simple exposition is the key focus.
Set in the year 2000, ‘With the Night Mail’ features transatlantic aircraft and radio communication, with the narrator on board a mail plane travelling from London to Canada. The journey is exhilaratingly good fun to read, with Kipling’s invention and eye for detail a masterclass in what we now call ‘speculative fiction’.
3. E. M. Forster, ‘The Machine Stops’.
Is this the most prophetic story of the twentieth century? Published in 1909 and showing Forster’s (pictured right) disdain for technological advancement and the way it would make our lives poorer in an imagined future, this story attracted plenty of new readers in 2020 when so many people’s lives ‘went virtual’.
It’s all here: Zoom, self-isolation, and even the fear of other human beings. Controlling everything is ‘the Machine’, a mysterious technological entity worshipped as a god by many of the inhabitants of this future Earth.
You can read our analysis of this prescient short story here.
4. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World.
This novel by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) is, along with Orwell’s novel below, probably the most famous story about an imagined future written in the entire twentieth century. Brave New World (1932) is as much satire as dark dystopia – Huxley had made his name as a writer of social satires in the 1920s – and there’s a certain Swiftian quality to his vision of a technologically and scientifically advanced futuristic society of the year 632 AF (‘After [Henry] Ford’).
In Huxley’s joyless future, the population live in one giant World State, human relationships are discouraged, and everyone’s emotions are regulated through a drug, soma. In New London, three rules or tenets are touted above all others: ‘No privacy, no family, no monogamy’.
5. Murray Constantine, Swastika Night.
Before Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, there was Swastika Night, an ‘alternative history’ of the Second World War written before WWII had even broken out!
Murray Constantine was the pseudonym of the British novelist Katharine Burdekin (1896-1963); her true identity was only discovered in the 1980s, two decades after her death. She wrote this work of speculative fiction in 1937, when Nazism was on the rise in Europe, but the outbreak of the Second World War was still two years away.
Set centuries in the future after the Axis powers had conquered the world, the novel takes place in a world where Hitler is worshipped as a blond-haired god and the past has been rewritten or actively suppressed. Among other things, the novel is a searing feminist critique and, as well as being a forerunner to Orwell’s novel, it might also be regarded as a precursor to works like The Handmaid’s Tale.
6. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Along with Huxley’s novel and Constantine’s far less well-known future vision, Nineteen Eighty-Four is another dystopia which is focused on totalitarianism and the destruction of the individual. Orwell famously completed the novel in 1948 (although it wasn’t published until the following year), and reversed the last two digits to give the year of the novel (though he also toyed with calling it 1982).
As we have explored in our more in-depth analysis of the novel, the book is not merely about Stalinist Russia: it also has its roots in wartime Britain of the early 1940s, when the idea for the book began to coalesce in Orwell’s mind. Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist, works for the Ministry of Truth (modelled on the BBC, where Orwell used to work and attend meetings in a ‘Room 101’) where his job is to change history; a number of the novel’s terms, such as ‘doublethink’, ‘thoughtcrime’, ‘thought police’, and ‘Big Brother’, have entered the language.
7. Ray Bradbury, ‘A Sound of Thunder’.
This is one of the classic short stories about time travel. And although it involves characters taking a journey back into the distant past rather than the far-flung future, the story begins in a future time – the year 2055 – where time travel is possible and people can travel back to prehistoric times.
The story was first published in Collier’s magazine in 1952. A time-travel safari company in the United States, Time Safari Inc., allows animal-hunters to travel back in time in a Time Machine and kill a long-extinct animal, such as a dinosaur. A man named Eckels turns up ready to undertake his safari … with disastrous results. We have analysed this story in more detail in a separate post.
8. J. G. Ballard, ‘Billennium’.
This 1962 story from one of the most original authors of the twentieth century (and one of the best modern authors of the short story) is a dystopian tale set in a vastly overpopulated future, in which the world’s population is around 20 billion.
Ballard (1930-2009) is perhaps the best writer about future in all of English literature, not least because (as he always maintained) he wasn’t writing ‘about’ the future as such, but about the here-and-now. But this story explicitly sees Ballard imagining a future America in which people can barely move in the big cities.
In this overcrowded future world, people live in extraordinarily cramped rooms in vast metropolises. The story focuses on two friends, Ward and Rossiter, who find new living quarters and then discover a whole new room behind one of their cupboards.
9. John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar.
Published in 1968 but set in 2010, Stand on Zanzibar has to be one of the most prescient science-fiction novels ever written. In the book, Brunner prophesied that the population of Earth would have exceeded 7 billion by 2010 (it actually happened in October 2011), that Europe would form a sort of collective union (i.e., the EU), and that China would rise to become a competitive world power.
The novel also features a character named President Obomi, and foresaw electronic music, that the Honda company would start making automobiles, Viagra, and same-sex marriage, among many other accurate predictions. Overpopulation, though, is its core theme, and the novel is a curious mixture of world-building (delivered in numerous experimental ways) and good old-fashioned pulp-fiction storytelling.
10. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale.
Let’s conclude this pick of the best stories about the future with another novel. Atwood’s dystopian tale, first published in 1985, has – like Orwell’s before her – become a kind of modern myth, with the iconography of the novel (those hooded red-and-white clothed women) and its depiction of institutionalised patriarchy becoming go-to references in the media and in everyday discussion.
Atwood’s novel is a reminder that the future can easily see us travel backwards, with progress giving way to horrible regression in terms of women’s rights and bodily autonomy. And since Atwood published the novel, in the West as well as elsewhere in the world, echoes of the society she imagines here can all too readily be found.