The degree to which science fiction accurately predicts the future is not really the point; its value is more as an exploration of what people might do and what society might look like if you change things in a few fundamental ways. (And for my purposes, it's the assumptions underlying a given exploration which are most interesting.) Nevertheless it's always fun when somebody does get it right. Take this description of Britain in 1920 -- written in 1893:
Things had been looking very black in the closing years of the last century, but the pessimists of that epoch were the optimists of ours. London even in the old days was a bloated, unwieldy city, an abode of smoke and dreariness startled from time to time by the angry murmurs of labour. In 1920 this Colossus of cities held nigh six million souls, and the social problems of the past were intensified. The circle of competence was wider, but beyond it stretched a restless and dreaded democracy. Commerce had received a sharp check after the late Continental wars, and the depression was severely felt. That bad times were coming was the settled conviction of the middle classes, and to this belief was due the Coalition government which held sway during the year in which my story opens. In many quarters a severe reaction had set in against Liberalism, and a stronger executive and repressive laws were urgently clamoured for. At the opposite extreme flew the red flag, and a social revolution was eagerly mooted. 1
It's not too far off, is it: the expansion of democracy, recent war (OK, wars) in Europe, a post-war slump (if you ignore the post-war boom just before that), a Coalition government, the decline of Liberalism, the rise of Labour (the narrator is a parliamentary candidate for a non-revolutionary socialist party), fears (or hopes) of revolution. The above quote is from the 1893 novel Hartmann the Anarchist; or, The Doom of the Great City; 2 the author, Edward Douglas Fawcett, mainly extrapolated two trends of his own day, the beginnings of organised labour and the anarchist terror. In the novel he allies these to a revolution in flight, an aëronef (the Attila) powered by coal-fired electricity and which derives its lift from hydrogen gas-meters and 'an inclined plane driven rapidly through the air by a screw, a device first prominently brought into notice by the nineteenth-century experiments of Maxim'. 3 The inventor, Hartmann, and his band of merry anarchists proceed to shell, bomb and burn much of London, as the beginnings of their plans to destroy civilisation and replace it with anarchy:
"But how is the new order to take shape? How educe system from chaos?"
"We want no more 'systems,' or 'constitutions' -- we shall have anarchy. Men will effect by voluntary association, and abjure the foulness of the modern wage-slavery and city-mechanisms."
"But can you expect the more brutal classes to thrive under this system. Will they not rather degenerate into savagery?"
"You forget the Attila will still sail the breeze, and she will then have her fleet of consorts."
"What! You do not propose, then, to leave anarchy unreasoned?"
"Not at once -- the transition would be far too severe. Some supervision must necessarily be exercised, but, as a rule, it will never be more than nominal." 4
There's more than a hint here (though not much more) of both Kipling's "As easy as ABC" and Wells's The Shape of Things to Come. Other parts of the book anticipate elements of the knock-out blow, specifically the panic of crowds under air attack and the vulnerability of economies to bombing, so I'm going to have to say more about it in my thesis than I was planning to (that is, more than I was planning to before having read it!)
Edward Douglas Fawcett seems to have been an interesting chap himself. His younger brother Percy was later to become famous as an explorer; he disappeared in the Amazon in 1925 while searching for the lost city of Z. Douglas was a philosopher (writing several books about idealism) and a Theosophist; yet he evidently shared the physicality of his brother, for he was also a skilled mountain-climber, skier and motorcycle racer. He moved to Switzerland, and last completed a climb to the top of the Matterhorn at age 66, suffering a heart attack on the way up; he never climbed it again, but instead learned to fly so he could still be among the mountain peaks. According to his Times obituary, he was able to continue flying until 1950, when he was 84. The same obituary notes that Fawcett was 'well ahead of H. G. Wells' in his science fiction, not only for Hartmann the Anarchist in its depiction of the bombing of London, but also for 'his The Secret of the Desert (1894) [which] was, surely, fiction's first account of an armoured fighting vehicle in the modern sense'. 5 Must ... fight ... urge ... to look at ... irrelevant books!
Image source: Silent S. F.; it's from page 145 of the novel.
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- E. Douglas Fawcett, Hartmann the Anarchist; or, The Doom of the Great City (London: Edward Arnold, 1893), 4-5.
- Which I see occasional commenter Jess Nevins found much less interesting than I did -- in fact he calls it 'A colorless and joyless novel with little to recommend it [...] a must-avoid'! -- but that's the advantage I have as an airminded monomaniac :)
- Hartmann the Anarchist, 88.
- Ibid., 84-5.
- The Times, 18 April 1960, p. 10.