I’m reading The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States, by Dr Jeffrey Lewis, which was published in August 2018. As the title suggests, it’s set in the year 2020, and the book is a work of speculative fiction which implies through its paratext and style that it is a factual report. It got me thinking about books with a future setting which is linked to a specific year, and where this year is indicated in the title. Within Victorian novels, it was an accepted convention of genre that dates might appear partially redacted, as 19– or similar: exact dates are not a necessity in fiction. What might authors intend to achieve by giving their fictional future a specific and measureable date? What is the effect of putting this date in the title? What difference is made by the length of time between publication date and the date in the title?
Goodreads has a list of books with years in the titles; many of the books are either nonfiction analyses of a specific historical moment, or works of historical fiction. In these cases, the dates refer to years earlier than the publication date. In some of the titles, a subtitle is included which implies that the year or day in question was a pivotal historical moment. Consider 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, 1492: The Year the World Began, or 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America. Scrolling through the list, the covers form a pattern of digits. But historical texts (non-fictional and fictional) are only a portion of the books represented.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four tops the Goodreads list. A work of literary fiction from 1949, the text isn’t set in the past, but in an imagined future. Similarly, another canonical science-fiction text, Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968 features towards the top of the list, along with sequels whose titles refer to 2010, 2061, and 3001, published in the 1980s and 90s.
Every subsequent novel with a date-title recalls [Nineteen Eighty-Four], the dystopian classic that announced itself as a prophecy in 1948, but now seems an irrefutable analysis of every totalitarian regime of modern times. One of Orwell’s strokes of brilliance was to make the future more dilapidated and impoverished than the present, so it cannot be outdated.John Mullan, “10 of the best: Dates in titles”. The Guardian. 1 June 2012. accessed 24 Nov 2018.
But what of lesser-known novels? The Carbon Diaries 2015 and its sequel The Carbon Diaries 2017 are young adult novels by Saci Lloyd, published in 2009 and 2010 respectively. As the titles suggest, Lloyd takes climate change as a major theme, creating a near-future setting with some dystopian aspects. While The Carbon Diaries 2015 was reasonably successful in the UK, taught in a fair few schools and widely translated, the book’s title might be inherently limiting. The proximity of the 2015 date even at the time of publication lends a sense of urgency to the topic, but less than a decade on, the 2015 and 2017 settings Lloyd describes are less obviously read as possible futures. While the message has not changed, the now-passed dates are a distraction rather than an incentive for immediate response.
One risk with dated future settings is that after the formerly future date arrives, critical dialogue around the text will be reduced to pointing out what aspects of the text matched up with the reality of life in that year, and the text appraised in terms of what it got right. Wikipedia’s “List of stories set in a future now past” includes many comments of this nature. Does the use of future dates reduce these stories to an exercise in prediction, stopping readers from considering their themes, characterisation and argument by instead pointing them towards topics such as the pace of technological and societal change? Perhaps less problematic is the potential for future publicity. Successful texts with future-dated titles might be celebrated and re-examined in their title year, in a way that other texts might be repopularised by an anniversary (such as a centenary of publication).
When Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in the late 1940s, the real year 1984 was a fair way into the future. While John Mullan attributes its continued cultural resonance to Orwell’s “dilapidated and impoverished” future, there are several other reasons that the text has persisted beyond the 1980s. Unlike some other science-fiction texts, the dialogue around Orwell’s novel has been less concerned with the specifics of its imagined future than with the ideas about power, control, society and government it contains. Significantly, early readers would have had lived experience of the Second World War, and while the title looks ahead, the text surely reflects anxieties from the past too. Besides, given the ubiquity of doublespeak and state rewriting of history, and in a text which famously opens with a clock striking thirteen, can we be sure that the setting really is 1984? Furthermore, the extended time between original publication date and the date of the imagined future setting is likely to have various effects. For one, the text will have a longer reception history by the time the title date comes around: Nineteen Eighty-Four was already part of a critical discourse by 1984.
While both Orwell and Lloyd could have produced their visions of the future without giving a specific future year, The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States might not be so easy to detatch from its date. Lewis’ text takes the form of a contemporary government report, in which exact dates and times are important, and while apparent redaction might not be out of place given the subject matter, it would still be unsatisfying for readers. Furthermore, unlike the setting of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is vague enough to be applied to many situations, or The Carbon Diaries, The 2020 Commission Report is concerned only with what it can learn from history and apply to its precise circumstances. Julian Borger describes it as “an attempt to give us hindsight before it’s too late”. Although the text is a work of fiction, there are notes throughout which point to specific historical events or evidence, in order to increase the credibility of the narrative – the proximity of the fiction to the historical fact is an essential part of the writing. Real people are characters: President Trump and Kim Jong Un are central players in the narrative Lewis constructs. Lewis’ book is filled with facts and details right up to events in 2017, only a year before its publication, and has been going “out of date” from the moment it was published. As such, the dated title is not just a paratextual detail of reports, but an incitement to read the book now.
Have you read any books with years in their titles? What’s your take on the writers using future dates? Let me know by leaving a comment!
Notes and links
I’d really recommend checking out John Mullan’s Guardian article (linked in the text) – it’s pretty short but the texts it comments on are really varied.
Wikipedia’s “List of stories set in a future now past” “excludes contemporary or near-future works”, unless they explore a potential future event which is part of cultural discourse. Does this imply that some close futures aren’t necessarily considered real future settings?
What of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the year 1984? This text from marxists.org reflects on reading the book in 1984 (I’ll admit, it’s pretty long, so I’ve not read the whole essay yet). The film version starring John Hurt as Winston Smith was also released in that year.
Links correct as of 24 Nov 2018.