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Posts Tagged ‘Oracles’

Prophecies and those who deliver them are a time-honored tradition in mythology, and hence in our modern fantasy genre. From the Oracle at Delphi to Merlyn the Magician to Dream Girl (Legion of Superheroes comic book), characters are shown to predict the future.

Naturally people are tantalized by the possibility of knowing their future. Some hope to spot a red thread and find their future spouse. Some want to know if their car is about to break down or will keep running a little longer. All of us wish that we had some control over what comes next in our lives.

As writers, we can draw on this longing. But when using prophecy (and its near-twin, time travel) there is a key decision to make: is the future Fixed, Flexible, or Fractured?

If the future is Fixed, then it is possible to make predictions with 100% accuracy. In this setting, prophets would enjoy great prestige. People would pay great sums to find out if their merchant ship will reach port with a cargo that makes them rich — or sink, leaving them penniless. On the other hand, unscrupulous individuals and governments would make every effort to control a reliable oracle. In Aditi Khorana’s novel The Library of Fates, a young girl with prophetic powers is enslaved by a cruel despot.

If the future is Flexible, then what is foreseen may or may not come true. No prophet would be able to establish a record as 100% accurate, even with the best intentions. Oracles might be respected, but people would rely as much on other sources of information to make decisions about their lives. For storytellers, this is a great way to create tension. Neither the reader nor the other characters can know if the oracle is correct about what is to come.

In many stories, the future can be Fractured by important decisions. One great example is Bradbury’s famous short story, The Sound of Thunder, where a time-traveling hunter steps on a butterfly and returns to find reality altered. If something so small can change the future, then prophets would have enormous difficulty making accurate predictions. Or, the prophecy they make can be true for a while, but have an “expiration date” when some other event fractures the future again. In such a setting, it would not be likely for oracles to have any respect at all. Foretellings might have greater urgency, however, since they must be acted on quickly before something changes.

What do you think? How do you use prophecies in your storytelling?


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