I Do Not Want to Predict the Future. I Want to Prevent It

Frank Herbert? Ray Bradbury? Theodore Sturgeon? Fred Pohl?

Dear Quote Investigator: I once read an interview with a science fiction writer in which he was asked about predicting the future. The interviewer was disappointed that some of the technological developments heralded in science fiction never seemed to actually happen. The response from the author was unexpected and haunting:

I don’t try to predict the future. I try to prevent it.

I think this answer confused the interviewer, but I understood it. The dystopian stories like Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Sheep Look Up, and The Machine Stops are not attempting to predict the future. They are trying to prevent the futures that they describe. The identity of the interviewee is fuzzy in my mind and so is the exact wording. Could you look into this quote?

Quote Investigator: The earliest expression found by QI appears in 1977 from the typewriter of the SF great Theodore Sturgeon who credits the remark to another SF luminary Ray Bradbury, the author of Fahrenheit 451 and the Martian Chronicles. In 1978 the idea is attributed to another famed SF writer, Frank Herbert, the author of Dune.

These initial citations indicate that the original statement occurred still earlier and QI is unable to determine if Bradbury or Herbert first voiced the motto. The statement has several variations. Sometimes the goal of preventing the future is considered to be the task of science fiction as a genre, and sometimes the goal is the task of an individual author.

Here are selected citations in chronological order. In 1978 an important cautionary Russian science fiction novel was published in translation with the English title “World Soul”. Commentary on the novel was obtained from the major SF figure Theodore Sturgeon who ended his introduction with these words [TSF]:

In the last paragraph of the book you will find these words “People should know more than what was or will be. People must know that which must never be.”

This is reminiscent of a recent remark of Ray Bradbury’s. In a discussion of 1984, Bradbury pointed out that the world George Orwell described has little likelihood of coming about—largely because Orwell described it. “The function of science fiction is not only to predict the future,” Bradbury said, “but to prevent it.” Consider thoughtfully this Soviet version of that very thought.

San Diego, 1977

The final sign-off label indicates that Sturgeon’s words were written in 1977 while he resided in San Diego, California, and thus Bradbury’s remarks occurred sometime earlier.

In 1978 a book of SF criticism edited by Dick Riley was published under the title “Critical Encounters: Writers and Themes in Science Fiction”. The third chapter, penned by Timothy O’Reilly, discusses the influential SF novel Dune by well-known author and journalist Frank Herbert. O’Reilly credits Herbert with the expressing the target quotation or something very similar but he does not provide any specific details of time or place [CEF]:

The end result of all this art is a novel packed with ideas that cannot easily be shaken from the mind. This is more than good entertainment. Herbert has said that the function of science fiction is not always to predict the future but sometimes to prevent it. Many of the features of the superhero mystique that he unveils in Dune haunt our own culture.

In 1981 Timothy O’Reilly moved beyond writing a chapter and instead wrote a volume dedicated to the works of Frank Herbert. He again credited Herbert with expressing the basic saying under investigation [FHF]:

Herbert’s study in the Dune trilogy of the superhero mystique is a good example of this journalistic technique. He has said that the function of science fiction is not always to predict the future but sometimes to prevent it. His comment on the work of Huxley and Orwell can equally well be applied to his own: “Neither Brave New World nor 1984 will prevent our becoming a planet under Big Brother’s thumb, but they make it a bit less likely. We’ve been sensitized to the possibility.”

In 1982 shortly before the SF benchmark year of 1984 Ray Bradbury composed an essay that discussed the best way to design cities to accent attractiveness and livability. The essay was titled “Beyond 1984: The People Machines” and it was eventually published in the 1991 collection “Yestermorrow: Obvious Answers to Impossible Futures”. Here is the beginning [YMF]:

People ask me to predict the Future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it. Predicting the future is much too easy, anyway. You look at the people around you, the street you stand on, the visible air you breathe, and predict more of the same. To hell with more. I want better.

Writing in Technology Review in 1994 another great SF author, Frederick Pohl, presented an overview of his preferred genre in “Science Fiction: Stepchild of Science”. He attributed the motto about the future to Ray Bradbury [FPF]:

When Ray Bradbury was asked whether he expected the future to be like the nasty one he described in Fahrenheit 451, he answered, “I don’t try to predict the future. All I want to do is prevent it.”

In 1996 Ray Bradbury granted an interview to Playboy magazine. He restated his desire to prevent the future with books such as Fahrenheit 451 [PMF]:

Playboy: It’s hard to imagine that the man who wrote Fahrenheit 451 was not trying to predict the future.

Bradbury: It’s “prevent the future,” that’s the way I put it. Not predict it, prevent it. And with anger and attacking, yes. You have the fun of attacking the thing you think is stupid. But your motives are hidden from you at the time. It’s like, “I’ll be damned. I didn’t know I was doing that.”

In conclusion, Ray Bradbury is the name primarily linked to this saying, and evidence indicates that he started to use it by 1977 or earlier though the precise phrasing varies. There is also some evidence that another prominent SF figure, Frank Herbert used a variant of the expression in the same time-frame. QI thanks you for your question and hopes you have a magnificent and unpredictable future.

[WSF] 1978, World Soul by Mikhail Emtsev and Eremei Parnov, [Introduction by Theodore Sturgeon, Page viii],  [Translated from Russian by Antonina W. Bouis], Macmillan Publishing Co., New York. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper) link

[CEF] 1978, “Critical Encounters: Writers and Themes in Science Fiction” edited by Dick Riley, [Chapter 3: From Concept to Fable: The Evolution of Frank Herbert’s Dune by Timothy O’Reilly, Page 55], Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper) link

[FHF] 1981, Frank Herbert by Timothy O’Reilly, Page 14, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper) link

[YMF] 1991, “Yestermorrow: Obvious Answers to Impossible Futures” by Ray Bradbury, [“Beyond 1984: The People Machines” by Ray Bradbury, dated 1982, Page 155], Joshua Odell Editions: Capra Press, Santa Barbara, California. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper) link

[FPF] 1994 October, Technology Review, “Science Fiction: Stepchild of Science” by Frederick Pohl, Page 61, Volume 97, Number 4, Technology Review, Inc.

[PMF] 1996 May, Playboy magazine, Ray Bradbury interviewed by Ken Kelley. (Online raybradbury.com website; Accessed October 19, 2010) link