Monday, August 15, 2005

The Hearts of the Incalculable

There are several basic problems with predictions, trend-analysis, alternative scenarios of the future. Predictably, H.G. Wells caught at least one of them almost immediately, when just a few years after he invented the science of studying the future, he repudiated it.

He announced it, fittingly enough, in the book that resulted from his first visit to North America. In an extraordinary reappraisal of his "Discovery of the Future" address, he withdrew his idea that there could be an exact "science" of the future.

"Much may be foretold as certain, much more as possible, but the last decisions and the greatest decisions, lie in the hearts and will of unique incalculable men," Wells wrote in 1908. "With them we have to deal as our ultimate reality in all these matters, and our methods have to be not 'scientific' at all for all the greater issues, the humanly-important issues, but critical, literary, even-if you will---artistic."

But of course! The future depends on human decisions that cannot be calculated, for they come from "the hearts and will of unique incalculable" men and women (and children.)

So how can anyone realistically talk about the future at all? Calculation, and that kind of knowledge---and the kind of story that results from it--- is part of it, but not the whole. The future is found not only with the story of science, but the literary, the artistic.

A truer story of the future would seem to be like a truer story of the past: one that has people in it, that looks at how people react to situations, that includes their passions---their hates and their loves, their fears and empathy, their selfishness and altruism, their weaknesses, and their thoughts about their weaknesses, what they learn or don't learn, and the behaviors that result.

To make a truer story requires more than calculation and applying theories, as powerful as they are. It requires applying fantasy and surmise, and using the inspiration and judgment of intuition and imagination. The best stories, which are often the truest stories on as many levels of life as possible, must have soul.

So how was Wells able to predict so many things about the future, in support of his initial theory that a science of the future was possible?

"Measured against what most scholars and experts were thinking in the early years of the century," Wells expert W. Warren Wagar writes, " Wells' uncannily accurate prophesies are a disturbing reminder to the specialized intelligence of the advantages of amateurism in social analysis. With no training and only random reading, he managed to outguess the professors."

It turns out that, whether he realized it or not, it was because he was a storyteller, a literary artist. His predictions, after all, were either in stories, or followed his most imaginative storytelling phase in the 1890s, during which he wrote nearly all the stories he is remembered for today.

But such stories aren't just a matter of really good characters, realistic and exciting action and good plots. There is a way of thinking and feeling that brings more of life together---all those elements that make up a future. Stories are synthesis, not analysis. Analysis commonly breaks things down into parts, or sees one element in relation to causes and effects. Synthesis combines, creates wholes, out of which meaning emerges. The synthesis of story is complex: it may mix factual reporting, inspired surmise, projections of emotion, and so on, in a synthesis that can be taken as a literal account, as metaphor, character study, as moral lesson or fable, as playful allegory, and so on--often several levels working simultaneously. Story thinking is synthetic thinking---and a great deal of the synthesis is in the mind and heart of each reader, where the reader's experiences and ideas evoked by the story are added to its synthesis.

Wells's markedly synthetic way of thinking," writes critic Roslynn D. Haynes, "imparted to his work an extraordinary unity and a philosophical dimension... ultimately, each entity is seen, at least implicitly, in relation to every other." It is this ability to apply both thoughtful analysis and evaluative intuition, to recognize patterns and recreate some outline of everyday complexity, that produced so many insightful predictions.

"The end of all intelligent analysis," Wells maintained, "is to clear the way for synthesis." One form that synthesis takes is story, combining fact and fantasy, numbers and individual decisions, logic and emotion, history and originality, literal and metaphorical meaning, and more.

It worked for Wells. And some 70 years later, it worked for Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek.

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