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The ancient prophecy is a staple of fantasy. This child will kill his father and marry his mother. Not by the hand of man will this being fall. The source of the information is often vague, but once we’ve heard the prophecy, we know it’s going to come true—somehow.
There’s a comparable science fiction trope: the long-term Plan. But the Plan functions rather differently. Let’s take a look at the two together.
Foretold and Foredoomed
An entire story may be built around the unavoidable destiny that lands on an unlikely or reluctant hero. Or the mysterious message from the past may relate merely to one aspect of the story—perhaps the only way to accomplish some task (“the penitent man will pass”). Either way, in the words of TV Tropes, Prophecies Are Always Right.
As the examples on the Tropes page indicate, this is not strictly true: writers can subvert or otherwise play with the fulfillment of a prediction. But there wouldn’t be much purpose in introducing the prophecy if it didn’t have some relevance to the plot. Most commonly, this is because it’s valid.
The device goes back to some of the earliest stories we have. The Greek tale of Oedipus, for example, involves a prediction that a child will bring disaster on his city by killing his father and marrying his mother. The very actions by which his father tries to avert this outcome turn out to produce it.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth provides a slightly less antique example. The title character is emboldened to stage a revolt by the “prophetic greeting” of three witches (Act I, Scene 3). Macbeth is further heartened by hearing that “none of woman born” will harm him, and that he won’t be beaten until “Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him,” (Act IV, Scene 1). Both statements turn out to be true, but not as Macbeth interpreted them: his opponents approach his stronghold holding “leavy screens” of branches (Act V, Scene 6), and he is slain by Macduff, who was birthed by Caesarean section (Act V, Scene 8). In both these cases the message appears to be that you can't fight fate: the prophecy will come true despite all attempts to prevent it.
The motif carries through to modern fantasy as well. Harry Potter’s Divination teacher, Professor Trelawney, is generally played for laughs, but her serious predictions come true. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch is right to fear the “old rhyme” that her reign will end when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve are enthroned in Cair Paravel (ch. 8).
Fated but Free
The Lord of the Rings provides some interesting examples. TV Tropes lists a number of vague premonitions by various characters. But a more specific case occurs when the Witch-King of Angmar, secure in Glorfindel’s prediction that “not by the hand of man will he fall” (Appendix A, I.iv), boasts that “No living man may hinder me!”, and is met by Éowyn’s defiant “But no living man am I!” (Return of the King, book V, ch. 6, p. 116).
The main issue of the story, however, is subject to no such foreknowledge. No prophecy gives a hint as to whether the Ring will be destroyed and Sauron defeated. As TV Tropes points out, free will as well as fate exists in Tolkien’s world. There is no certainty of outcome in this world’s battles. As Chesterton puts it: “I tell you naught for your comfort, yea, naught for your desire / Save that the sky grows darker yet and the sea rises higher.”
The foretellings we do see in fantasy seem to be guaranteed by some trans-human source: paranormal, supernatural, even divine. This is why they can generally be relied upon to come true. But what of science fiction, which tends to invoke science rather than the supernatural?
What often takes the place of prophecy in SF is a vast, far-reaching plan of some sort, whose fulfillment is guaranteed not by the supernatural but on some scientific basis. This is, in effect, the science-fictional version of prophecy or fate. Such plans typically are made by human beings (or similar creatures). They are reducible to human intent—and conditioned by human fallibility.
The classic case is Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy. Hari Seldon, inventor of a new science of “psychohistory” that statistically predicts the aggregate actions of human masses (as distinct from the acts of individual persons), realizes that the millennia-spanning Galactic Empire is headed for an inevitable collapse. To cut short the subsequent thirty thousand years of chaos and barbarism, Seldon launches a plan to establish two “Foundations” from which civilization may be restored more quickly—in a mere thousand years. Seldon’s mathematics allows him to arrange things in such a way that the Seldon Plan will inevitably prevail—at least to a very high order of probability (given that we’re dealing with statistical conclusions here, rather than superhuman insights).
The stories Asimov tells about the early years of the Foundation thus carry an atmosphere that’s similar in some ways to that of a prophecy in fantasy. The leaders and people of the Foundation on the planet Terminus have confidence that they will prevail; but they are not privy to the details of the Plan and have no idea how that will occur—just as the Witch-King did not anticipate he would be slain by a woman, or the Pevensie children know just how they can succeed to the king-and-queenship of Narnia.
On the other hand, Seldon’s Plan is not quite as infallible as the typical prophecy. This becomes evident when an individual known as the Mule upsets the psychohistorical scheme by changing its underlying assumptions about human behavior: the Mule has mutant mental powers that could not have been predicted by Seldon.
Galactic Networks and Race Minds
Joan Vinge’s 1980 novel The Snow Queen (very loosely based on the plot of Andersen’s fairy tale) also involves a Plan, though the characters are not aware of this initially. They come to realize that the “sibyl network,” a vast interstellar information system run by technology beyond their understanding, has its own purposes and is seeking (like Seldon) to shape events to promote reconstruction after a collapse of civilization. But they’re not fully aware of what the sibyl network is trying to do, and they don’t know whether its Plan will be successful.
Unlike the Plan that underlies the Foundation stories, Vinge’s Plan is not made by human agents—though the computer “mind” behind it is a human product. But like the Seldon Plan, this long-range plan is not guaranteed to succeed. The sibyl network is not as infallible as the mysterious sources behind the standard fantasy prophecy.
The long-term plan, or purpose, may also belong to a race or species consciousness—a mind (of sorts) that arises from humanity as a whole. The “terrible purpose” that Paul Atreides struggles with in Dune is that of a subliminal racial consciousness that is driving relentlessly toward an interstellar jihad as a way of mixing up the gene pool to refresh the species. This quasi-mind does not seem to have a specific plan in mind, but the overall drive, like the statistically-based Seldon Plan, is irresistible.
Something similar seems to be at work in A.E. van Vogt’s mutation-after-humanity novel Slan (1940). In this future setting, the human species is mutating not at random, but in such a way as to consistently produce a “higher” type of being—smarter, stronger, kinder, with telepathic powers. One character remarks: “We have always assumed far too readily that no cohesion exists between individuals, that the race of men is not a unit with an immensely tenuous equivalent of a blood-and-nerve stream flowing from man to man” (ch. 18). Apparently there is some vague but irresistible analogue of systematic purpose at work in humanity as a whole. (Greg Bear’s 1999 novel Darwin’s Radio, by contrast, suggests a distributed genetic mechanism for such a wave of mutation, without requiring a single overall mind to account for it.)
A master Plan that spans generations may be designed to operate without intervening human guidance. This is true of certain lost world-ship stories, in which the loss of knowledge on a generation ship is deliberately arranged in advance. In Clifford Simak’s Target Generation (1953), for instance, a book of instructions has been secretly passed down from generation to generation, to be opened only when the starship finally reaches its destination.
Of course, the transmission of such a plan won’t be reliable if it’s subject to human error or accident. I’ve often felt that the long-dead planners who relied on a secret book in Target Generation ought to have been thrown out on their ears, when the flight was being arranged, for resting the survival of an entire shipload of people on such a fragile and undependable strategy—like the wacky souls behind the Rube Goldberg setup in City of Ember, entertaining as both those stories are.
Seldon’s Plan at first appears to function in this pilotless way. But it turns out there is a hidden agency responsible for monitoring the Plan and correcting any deviations: the Second Foundation, as skilled in psychohistory as the original Foundation is in technology. The canny Seldon built in a safety net to take care of just such a random variable as the Mule—because a human-based plan lacks the mysterious paranormal guarantee of a prophecy.
Sitting squarely between the F&SF camps in this respect is Star Wars, the exception that proves the rule. Lucas’s brain child is sometimes referred to as “science fantasy” rather than science fiction, not just because it does not delve into scientific plausibility, but because it simultaneously mobilizes both fantasy and science-fiction tropes; that’s part of the reason the movies are so widely accessible and successful. The prophecy that Anakin Skywalker will “bring balance to the Force” (whatever exactly that means) is cited throughout the series. But there’s no real explanation in the movies, at least, as to how this prophecy works or what makes it reliable information. It’s a fantasy trope, not a science fiction motif.
There is, however, a genuine SF exception of sorts: time travel stories, when they rely on knowledge gained from being in the future. For example, in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (1968), time-traveling dragonrider Lessa assures her compatriots in the past that they will accompany her back to her own time in their future, because that explains their mysterious disappearance, which Lessa already knows about as part of her own history. Here the source of future knowledge is neither human nor superhuman, but sheer facticity—or, from the standpoint of the characters, experience. They tell about future events that they’ve already seen happening.
For the Reader
Both types of projections into the future, prophecies and plans, set up a certain kind of tension in a story. There’s a sort of security—we know how things will turn out, at least in a general way. (Or if the outcome is tragic, as with Oedipus, the effect may be dread rather than security.) At the same time, there’s a tension in that we don’t know how the story will arrive at that end. The power of this combination is proved by the long tradition of such stories throughout human civilization.
The long-term plan or prediction evokes awe at the deeps of time—how something said long ago may still have effects today. And it generates a certain wonder at the way in which things surprisingly work out. In either form, they’re a useful part of a storyteller’s arsenal of effects.