Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The failure of the oracles

with 5 comments

Samuel R. Delany

There’s a scene in Samuel R. Delany’s convoluted but extraordinary novel Nova, which is set in the year 3172, in which a character performs a reading with tarot cards. In the interstellar civilization in which the story takes place, the tarot is taken for granted as a source of useful information, and when a supporting player named Mouse expresses his skepticism, he’s told that he sounds “like somebody living a thousand years ago.” As the tarot reader explains:

Mouse, the cards don’t actually predict anything. They simply propagate an educated commentary on present situations...The seventy-eight cards of the Tarot present symbols and mythological images that have recurred and reverberated through forty-five centuries of human history. Someone who understands these symbols can construct a dialogue about a given situation. There’s nothing superstitious about it. The Book of Changes, even Chaldean Astrology only become superstitious when they are abused, employed to direct rather than to guide and suggest.

The italics are mine. After Mouse objects that “cards aren’t educated,” someone else replies: “You’ve got some odd ideas, Mouse—admittedly, they’re fascinating. If somebody had told me I’d be working in the same crew, today in the thirty-first century, with somebody who could honestly be skeptical about the Tarot, I don’t think I would have believed it.”

What I like about Delany’s treatment of the subject is that it suggests that an entire culture can pass from superstition through skepticism to something more advanced on the other side. (As the character quoted above continues: “As soon as you have people from the times of the great stellar migrations, you’re dealing with cultures sophisticated enough to comprehend things like the Tarot.”) A blind faith in the tarot as a means of predicting the future, like any form of divination, is characteristic of childhood, and most of us mature to the point where we no longer take it seriously. For artists like Delany, however, there’s another stage beyond this, in which we realize that structured repositories of arbitrary symbols—often preserved in the cultural memory as oracles—can be a tool for thinking through questions that are resistant to more rational analysis. Writing about the tarot a few years ago, I called it “a portable machine for generating patterns,” and I noted that it results in a temporary structure, spread out across the table, that feels like an externalization of the problem in your head. You can examine it, scrutinize it from different angles, or even walk away from it. I suspect that it’s the spatial aspect of the tarot that makes it a valuable source of connections between ideas, even more than the symbols on the cards themselves. It won’t tell you the future, but by forcing you to map or analogize your current situation onto a matrix of charged symbols, it can provide surprising insights into the present.

The Tarot of Marseilles

And here’s the really interesting part: you can make the same argument for science fiction. The genre has always made a big deal of its predictive side, but like the oracular powers of tarot cards or the I Ching, it’s best to regard this as a kind of bait designed to reel in susceptible minds. It’s a mislead, but a necessary one, if you want these art forms to survive. By promising everyone the ability to tell the future, you trick a select few into thinking seriously about the real purpose of the craft, which is to figure out where we are now. For most readers, it’s easier and safer to sell science fiction as a vision of the future than as a commentary on themselves. For instance, my battered paperback copy of Podkayne of Mars calls it “a remarkable picture of the customs and characters of the coming Age of Space,” which I don’t think even Heinlein would say he was writing. The blurb for an old edition of The Currents of Space says much the same thing: “In this novel, Dr. Asimov’s probing imagination has created a fascinating tale set in the not-too-distant future—an adventure that could change from fiction to fact any day now.” You could excuse this as a marketing strategy to promote this kind of fiction to a wider audience, but more insidiously, it encourages readers to focus on accidental, totally irrelevant acts of prediction while ignoring deeper insights of real value. Heinlein’s article on Wikipedia notes that he anticipated the waterbed, but not that he foresaw the Cold War. And I know which of the two I find more impressive.

This is all pretty harmless, but it becomes more worrisome when it influences how we define the practice of science fiction from the inside. As I see it, we’re faced with a stark pair of options. We can approach it like a phony psychic who makes a lot of wild predictions, hopes that her hits are remembered and her misses are forgotten, and leverages one lucky guess into an entire career, like Jeane Dixon allegedly predicting the Kennedy assassination. The net amount of information gained in the process, needless to say, is zero. Or we can think of ourselves as educated commentators on the present, which seems like the more valuable goal. If science fiction often seems stuck in a state of arrested development in the eyes of the overall culture, it’s largely due to the fact that critics see a preoccupation with prediction as a sign of immaturity. And maybe they’re right. If nothing else, it’s a form of superstition, or an inability to distinguish between the genre’s surface pleasures and its actual value. Science fiction has always whispered to certain readers, once they were lured inside: “You thought we were talking about the future, but we were really talking about you.” Like the tarot, it employs symbols that have recurred and reverberated throughout history and uses them to construct a dialogue, or an analogy. Responding instinctively to the symbols and missing the underlying pattern is a common, if understandable, mistake—these symbols wouldn’t work in the first place if they weren’t powerful enough to be subject to that kind of misinterpretation. But it’s only when we remember the real point of the exercise that science fiction, like the tarot in Nova, becomes something that no educated person can afford to dismiss.

Written by nevalalee

October 19, 2016 at 9:32 am

5 Responses

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  1. The Physicist Niels Bohr said, somewhat tongue in cheek, that “it is exceedingly difficult to make predictions, particularly about the future”. He was talking about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle at the time.

    Great post.


    October 20, 2016 at 1:39 am

  2. @Martin: Thanks!


    October 23, 2016 at 9:44 pm

  3. Interesting… very interesting … I see things you cannot. Have a look at my Blog… see what you think


    December 23, 2016 at 4:21 am

  4. This is a pretty cool idea. But I disagree with your view of prediction. Neither psychics nor science fiction authors are guessing randomly at the future, because there is no such thing as guessing randomly; peoples’ “random” guesses are always formed by their state of belief. You might ask questions in your head, and then flip a coin for the answers: even then, the questions were very specific ones, formed by your view of the world’s structure.

    Science fiction views of the future consist of not only nonrandom guesses, but fitting those guesses together into something like a coherent world. I suppose they’re not divination, but, they aren’t going to be independent of reality.

    I say “the questions were very specific ones”… the alternative is to use questions from an outside source, questions which do not change when the world changes. If neither the questions nor the answers depend on the predictor or the world they’re predicting, then there’s truly no chance of insight. Which begins to sound a lot more like the Tarot. (Assuming we use a traditional spread, so that the questions are all predetermined. Even then, the reader is determining what situations the questions are talking about, so there is some chance for their beliefs to enter the reading.) But then the advantages you talk about begin to come into play; the Tarot is not giving strict, deterministic answers, instead leaving it up to the reader to match the symbols and meanings with the available reality.

    So, I would say science fiction has both advantages: it’s better than Tarot or psychics at actually predicting the future, and it invites symbolic interpretation for things closer to the present.

    Daniel Demski

    February 1, 2017 at 10:58 am

  5. @Daniel Demski: Science fiction writers aren’t guessing randomly, but they aren’t always trying to be accurate, either. As Jack Williamson pointed out, in one of my favorite writing quotes: “The average author is more stage magician, a creator of convincing illusions, than scientist or serious prophet. In practice, once you’re into the process of actually writing a work of fiction, the story itself gets to be more important than futurology. You become more involved in following the fictional logic you’ve invented for your characters, the atmosphere, the rush of action; meanwhile, developing real possibilities recedes. You may find yourself even opting for the least probable event rather than the most probable, simply because you want the unexpected.”


    February 8, 2017 at 8:50 pm

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