"Dear Mr. Levine: Twenty years ago, you predicted the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, or nearly so."
That's the opening of an e-mail I recently received from a woman in Tennessee who had just read the e-book edition of Night Vision, my 20-year-old legal thriller. The book is about a serial killer, preying on women in an early Internet chat room, and I had no recollection of writing about an oil spill.
Then I looked at the pages she pointed out. The protagonist, Jake Lassiter, goes fishing in the Florida Everglades. In the spirit of Travis McGee, the conversation turns to destruction of the environment. Mercury is killing Florida panthers. Toxic fertilizers are poisoning vegetables, and cattle are stuffed with artificial hormones. Against that backdrop, Lassiter wonders about all those tankers in the Gulf of Mexico:
"The oil companies' computer models tell them how many tankers will cruise the Gulf before one strikes a reef. They know just how much oil will ooze into the precious estuaries. Mathematically, they can figure when the waters of the Everglades will become as deadly as a toxic dump, when the song of a million birds will be stilled. No problem. The boys in insurance gotcha covered."
When I wrote those words in 1989, exploratory oil drilling was permitted in parts of the Glades. As Lassiter drove along a levee, he heard underground explosions from the drill sites, prompting his interior monologue, which contained a dire prediction:
"Exploratory only, the company says, for it has no drilling permit. Just wait. After lobbyists pay their nighttime visits, the drilling will start, and some dark, lonely night, through human error or computer breakdown or metal fatigue, the black gunk will belch into the marshy hammocks and over the sawgrass and through the canals. The crude will pour into the aquifer that supplies our fresh water. A bad enough spill and Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami will go bone dry. The roaches will inherit the concrete shells of forsaken condos, which in the end, might be what was intended all along."
Night Vision is fiction. But like most novels, the story lives in a certain time and definite place. The Florida peninsula was then, and is now, a fragile slice of earth and water. Lassiter's point is that we best treat it kindly, lest there be nothing left but dust.
Many novelists can lay claim to foreseeing bits and pieces of the future. In John D. MacDonald's Condominium, (1977), a hurricane destroys shoddy buildings that were constructed thanks to bribes and political corruption. Enter Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and the homes and condos of South Florida that virtually exploded, while neighboring, well-built buildings escaped unscathed.
Then there is the science fiction of H.G.Wells. More than 100 years ago, Wells portrayed lasers in War of the Worlds, genetic engineering in The Island of Doctor Moreau, and atomic bombs and submarine launched ballistic missiles in other books.
Even before Wells, there was Jules Verne. In From the Earth to the Moon, he wrote of three astronauts being launched from Florida on their way to a lunar landing. That's right, the Apollo program, predicted in a novel in 1865.
Compared to the stunning perspicuity of Verne and Wells, the rest of us are just daydreamers.