Whether it’s ancient text that reveals things yet to come, seers who glimpse brief flashes of the future, or quantum computers running the ultimate predictive models, prophecies are difficult to write properly. There are nearly endless permutations of how prophecies can work and thus how they can go wrong. Let’s take a look at several stories out in the wild and how their prophecies don’t live up to the hype.
Spoiler Notice: The Foundation TV show
1. Foundation TV Show
I haven’t read Asimov’s Foundation series in years, but, fortunately, the TV show was polite enough to come along and refresh my memory. In this big-budget adaptation, we meet Hari Seldon, a man who claims he can predict the future through the special field of “psychohistory.”
Despite the name, psychohistory involves very little of either psychology or history. Instead, it’s math. Piles and piles of math. So much math that you wouldn’t believe it. Using this math, Seldon says he can make macro-scale predictions of the future. Specifically, he claims that the Galactic Empire will collapse in the next 300 years, ushering in a 30,000-year “dark age” during which all technology is lost. You might think he means advanced tech like faster-than-light engines and cloning, but no, he means all technology, down to sundials and water clocks.
But guess what? He can shorten the dark age to just 1,000 years if the Empire gives him the funding to make a special encyclopedia containing a bunch of important knowledge. I bet that sounded like way more of an undertaking when Asimov first wrote it than it does in the post-Wikipedia age.
If Seldon is starting to sound like a fraud, it’s only because he absolutely sounds like a fraud. Not only can he not demonstrate any of his predictions because the soonest one won’t happen for centuries, but no one else can understand the math he’s using. Well, no one except this one lady who Seldon himself brings forward. She has no education or background in mathematics, but Seldon says she’s a genius, so we can absolutely trust her to confirm his predictions, right?
We in the audience know Seldon is supposed to be right, but to anyone else in the story, he’d be completely full of it. It doesn’t help that his explanation for psychohistory is total nonsense. It’s supposed to be similar to predicting the movement of fluids: with the right equations, we can say how the fluid as a whole will act, even if we don’t know what individual molecules are doing. But since this is history, with its endless number of factors and variables, it’s more like predicting how water will flow through the New York City sewer system after seeing a waterfall one time.
Despite how absurd his claims sound, Seldon quickly builds a loyal following. That might make sense if he were recruiting the gullible and vulnerable like a prophetic cult leader, but instead, his new foundation is composed of brilliant scientists and academics. I’m not saying no one in the intelligentsia has ever been scammed, but they’re probably the group of people most likely to require evidence before accepting someone else’s apocalyptic vision of the future.
Instead of a brilliant mathematician, Seldon comes off like a climate denier’s caricature of a scientist: someone who makes impossible-sounding claims based on zero evidence, only to be defended by a credulous group of highly educated sycophants. Meanwhile, his predictions sound like absolute gobbledegook, supported only by the most contrived of authorial fiat.
2. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland
This movie is the gift that keeps on giving, as I’ve featured it at least twice before when discussing poor messaging and muddled atmosphere. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s also a disappointing prophecy!
Early in the film, Alice is brought down to Wonderland* and told she has to slay the Jabberwocky, which is a big ol’ dragon in this version of the story. In the same scene, she’s shown the Oraculum, a scroll that apparently documents every single day in Wonderland, past and present. I’m honestly not sure if it’s magically enchanted to be small enough to carry or if Wonderland just doesn’t have that many days.
Either way, the characters can skip ahead and see that Alice is indeed destined to slay the Jabberwocky. So sayeth the scroll. This immediately rubs me the wrong way, because I hate the idea of Wonderland being bound by a scroll of determinism. Wonderland is chaos incarnate, which isn’t always good for storytelling, but it’s part of the world’s identity. Saying that everything must happen a certain way is too much order for this setting. That could just be my personal tastes, though, as not everyone has the same attachment to Lewis Carroll’s book that I do.
Something that’s not a question of taste: this prophecy is a huge contrivance. The writers have no reason why Alice specifically has to slay the Jabberwocky, not even something as simple as being in the right place at the right time. There are several characters already in the movie who could do the job better, and, in fact, the Vorpal Sword she’s supposed to use does all the work anyway. So it really could be anyone who can hold a sword. Why Alice? Because the scroll said so!
Worse, the Oraculum destroys a lot of tension, because we now know Alice will fight the Jabberwocky. It doesn’t say something bad will happen if she doesn’t; it says she’ll be there to fight, and its predictions are guaranteed to come true. Depending on how you interpret the scene, the Oraculum might even guarantee that Alice will win.
At that point, the characters can kick back and wait for the appointed time, since nothing can stop Alice from getting the Vorpal Sword and fighting the Jabberwocky. Even if she just took a super long nap, the universe would arrange things so she was where she needed to be. Sounds weird, but that’s what happens when you introduce deterministic prophecy into a setting.
A final bit of annoyance is how the characters treat the Oraculum as super important, even after they’ve seen what’s in it. At one point, the White Rabbit risks his life to get the Oraculum back from the villain, who also already knows what’s in it. Why? There’s no more information in there for them, and even if there were, it’s questionable how useful such info would be. Can you even influence future events in a world where everything is predetermined on a scroll? I don’t know, and neither does this movie.
3. Too Like the Lightning
Oh hey, another story that I’ve dinged in the past for its questionable messages. What are the odds? If I had the prophetic powers from this story, I could probably tell you! In the far future, genetic engineering and cybernetic technology allow for the creation of set-sets, basically computer-people with the power of Rube Goldberg prediction.
According to the book, they can foresee what effects a given action will have, “sometimes with four or five degrees of rather sketchy separation.” For example, they can predict:
- If you roll a coin in front of a pedestrian, they’ll stop to pick it up.
- The next person back will trip trying to avoid a collision, sending their coffee cup flying into the road.
- The coffee cup will hit a windshield, obscuring the driver’s vision long enough to cause a fender bender.
- While exchanging insurance information, the two drivers hit it off and decide to grab lunch.
So if you want those two drivers to date, all you need to do is roll a coin in front of the right pedestrian. This is a dangerous power to include in your story, as it can be used to predict essentially anything. A lot of plotting depends on basic assumptions like characters not knowing what will happen in the future, so this gets contrived fast.
Indeed, when Eureka the set-set and their family are subjects of a criminal investigation, these powers are nowhere to be seen. Seems like Eureka could just figure out what innocuous action they need to take that gets the future cop to move on, but suddenly that power is nowhere to be seen. I wonder why?
Weirdly, the book does have an answer, but it somehow makes even less sense: Eureka can only use their prediction powers via murder. At least, that’s the only way we ever see them used in the book.
You see, Eureka and their family have a mission to prevent political conflict and instability. They do this by finding someone who might start a riot or agitate for war, then killing that person’s father’s brother’s cousin’s former roommate or some equally distant connection. Usually, Eureka’s murder weapon is the network of self-driving cars they oversee. When someone needs to die, the car they’re in mysteriously crashes. But Eureka and their family also arrange nonautomotive murders, like using bee venom to kill someone who is allergic to bees. It’s not clear if they injected the venom themselves or somehow hijacked an actual bee.
Regardless of the method, these deaths always have the intended effect, even over several degrees of separation. The rioter cancels their plans; the war agitator drops out of politics. No one is ever galvanized to riot even harder or just isn’t that affected by the death of someone they only sorta knew. That’s the power of Rube Goldberg prediction!
If you’re wondering why it works like that, the reason is so the other characters can angst over whether these murders are acceptable for the greater good. There’d be no angst if Eureka was preventing riots and wars by rolling a coin down the sidewalk. Whether this elaborate trolley problem has any meaning will vary by reader, but regardless, the justification for it is incredibly contrived, undercutting its impact.
4. The Dragonet Prophecy
In this middle-grade quintology, our heroes are a group of five dragonets* prophesied to end a brutal war. The prophecy is exactly what you’d expect: lots of flowery language that can be interpreted in several different ways. You can look up the exact wording for yourself, but for our purposes, the most important bit is that it implies whoever is in charge after the war will possess something called “Wings of Fire.” What are Wings of Fire?* No one knows.
For the first four books, our heroes generally believe the prophecy is true, and it’s their responsibility to fulfill it. They have their doubts, though, especially because one of their number is from the wrong draconic kingdom. Sharp-eyed readers will also notice that most of the leader dragons don’t really believe in the prophecy; they only care about it because it’s very popular among the war-weary populace. There’s also evidence that the dragon who created the prophecy is a lying liar-pants with no real magic.
So it’s not the biggest of surprises when, at the end of book four, we find out that the entire prophecy is fake. A secondary villain made it up as part of a ploy to gain power, but that villain is dead now, his plans coming to naught. This leaves our heroes a bit flummoxed. What are they supposed to do now that their main motivation has turned out to be a lie?
The clear answer is to try and achieve peace anyway. They’re uniquely positioned to do this, since even though the prophecy is fake, a lot of dragons believe it’s true. To the book’s credit, our heroes do get there… eventually. You see, most of book five is spent following one of the characters as she reconnects with her family. Once that’s done, there’s no time left for the characters to credibly end the war.
Ending the war would require some serious political capital, which the five dragonets aren’t remotely close to possessing. Even if we’d spent the last book entirely devoted to forging a peace, it might not have been enough. This is a big war, and the story as a whole has been somewhat lackadaisical about addressing it. But we don’t even have that much.
Instead, our heroes gather all the warring leaders together and just hope things work themselves out. I’m not kidding. They have no plan at all, nor is it clear what they expect to happen. Instead, the day is saved when some minor NPCs just happen to know the location of a secret MacGuffin that solves the problem. Great job!
As a weird twist, the MacGuffin just happens to have two dragon wings carved on it, wings that look to be made of fire in the right light. So the Wings of Fire part of the prophecy was true after all? Or maybe not? The characters eventually shrug and decide it doesn’t matter, but it kinda does. The truth or falsehood of the prophecy has been a big deal for most of the series, so it’s an odd thread to leave unresolved. It feels like the author really wanted the heroes to solve their problems without prophetic guidance, but couldn’t quite bring herself to fully commit.
5. The High King
After four entries from relatively modern works, it’s time to go old school. How old, exactly? 1968, that’s how old. You may remember how the Prydain books feature Hen Wen the white pig, but she’s no ordinary pig, oh no. She’s an oracular pig, i.e., she has the gift of prophecy. At least, theoretically. She doesn’t give any prophecies for the first four books, despite the characters constantly talking about her gift.
But now it’s the final book in the series, and the big bad has stolen Dyrnwyn, Team Good’s magical sword. That’s serious business, so it’s finally time to consult Hen Wen for a prophecy, and she gives one! Behold:
Ask, sooner, mute stone to speak and voiceless rock to speak.
Quenched will be Dyrnwyn’s flame;
Vanished, its power.
Night turn to noon
And rivers burn with frozen fire
Ere Dyrnwyn be regained.
First, a round of applause for Hen Wen’s skill with verse. This pig clearly has a bright future at poetry slams. Unfortunately, the prophecy itself is a bit of a disappointment, because it doesn’t change anything. Are these things that the characters have to do or simply things that will happen before they get the sword back? Even if we could figure that out, the individual lines could be interpreted in any number of ways.
To the characters’ credit, they realize this. Team Good’s leader even acknowledges that nothing about their plans has changed; they’ll proceed with fighting the bad guy as if they never heard the prophecy. This is better than if our heroes made a huge deal over meaningless predictions, but it’s still a disappointment. We’ve been waiting the whole series for Hen Wen to give a prophecy, and when we finally get one, it doesn’t matter?
As the story progresses, the various lines in the prophecy do come true, which you might expect would change things. The characters set fires on a frozen river to melt the ice and flood out an enemy camp, which could count as “frozen fire.” A little later, one character warns of an ambush by making her magic gem glow really brightly, which might qualify as turning night into noon. The list goes on.
Unfortunately, these are all things the heroes would have done anyway: knowing the prophecy still doesn’t change any of their thoughts or actions. They only figure out the prophetic connection after the fact. Even at the climax of the story, where destroying the big bad drains away all of Dyrnwyn’s power, the heroes don’t realize the “quenched” connection until later.
The problem is that Hen Wen has given what I call a foreshadowing prophecy. These aren’t actually for the characters but for the reader. We get some added mystical novelty, plus a little preview of what’s going to come, but it doesn’t affect the story. The characters aren’t supposed to seriously consider the prophecy’s meaning or use it to form their plans.
Foreshadowing prophecies can work fine if they’re presented as a bit of extra flavor, but Hen Wen’s prediction is billed as a major plot point instead. It wouldn’t have been an issue if the characters had heard the prophecy while taking a shortcut through a haunted cave, since there’d be no expectation that they’d get any use out of it. But such an alternative wouldn’t have paid off the promise of Hen Wen being an oracular pig.
It’s like I always say: don’t give pigs the power of prophecy if you aren’t prepared to follow through on it. Okay, I’ve never said that before in my life, but it’s still true!
Prophecies can have a number of problems. Most notably, it’s very difficult to balance them, and they tend to slide into being either completely useless or super overpowered. More fundamentally, most stories depend on the audience not knowing what’s going to happen, and prophecies mess with that critical requirement. It’s still possible to make prophecies work, but it requires careful planning. Otherwise, you’ll have nothing but a big disappointment.
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