If you want a prediction for this afternoon, check out your daily horoscope.
But if you need a forecast for thousands of years from now, you have no
place to turn except  science fiction.
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy
and Frank Herbert’s Dune take us more than 20,000 years into the future.
H.G. Wells advances 800,000 years ahead for
The Time Machine. And
Olaf Stapledon, the king of future-tripping, will peer ahead a sweet five
trillion years, and give you a first-hand account of the death of our sun.

But what if you need a mid-range forecast? Let’s
say you want to look just seven years into the future,
who you gonna call? Michel Houellebecq, winner
of the Prix Goncourt, comes to your rescue. In his
Submission, published in 2015 amidst
controversy and bloodshed—the book came out
the day of the
Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, and
Houellebecq was featured on its cover—he
anticipates the cultural landscape in France and
its neighbors in the year 2022.

You’re disappointed, I know. Not much can change
in seven years, huh? Even fashions don’t change
so fast, let alone institutions and social mores.
Guess again!  See all those women in Paris with their facial features
hidden from view? Have you noticed those miniskirts on the Champs-
Élysées? Or, rather, have you noticed out the complete disappearance of
miniskirts. Welcome to the new France, which is very different from the old

Has a Taliban-like dictatorship taken over France? No, not at all. In
Houellebecq’s novel, a democratically-elected government has embraced
Islamic principles, and is now seeking to bring them to Europe at large.
That may seem a stretch, but in the world of
Submission, a whole host of
new countries are likely to enter the European Union—Turkey, Algeria,
Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, and perhaps even Egypt. Under the
leadership of its new president, the genial and inspiring Muhammed Ben
Abbes, France aims to take the lead in creating a unified Europe with a
scope even the Roman emperors never envisioned.

This turn-of-events could hardly have happened without a political
splintering resulting in a run-off French presidential election between the
far-right National Front and the theocratic Muslim Brotherhood. The two
parties that have long dominated French political life, with the center-right
and socialists trading off control of the government, now face
marginalization, and their supporters up for grabs. Ben Abbes, in a brilliant
display of political maneuvering, convinces many of them that his
leadership is less dangerous than handing the reins of power to the
National Front.

Could this really happen in 2022? Don’t place any wagers on it, despite
Houellebecq’s vividly-imagined prognostications. He is a satirist, not a
futurist. He willingly embraces the paradoxical and the absurd, and
sacrifices plausibility if it allows him to highlight some garish or grotesque
clash of values.

But he is a first-rate satirist. Houellebecq capture just the right tone as he
describes the reactions of career academics to the in-the-streets
deconstruction, unlike any they’ve read about in Derrida, when thugs of
different political persuasions engage in hand-to-hand combat. “I love
France,” declares one in a near panic, “I love…I don’t know…I love the
cheese.” When someone gives a book about converting to Islam to our
narrator François, a literary scholar specializing in the work of Joris-Karl
Huysmans—a writer who made a similar shift from bohemianism to
religious devoted at the end of the nineteenth century—our protagonist
skips over the chapters on moral teachings, and immediately checks out
the section on polygamy.

François has noticed that some of his elite male colleagues, new
adherents to the ascendant creed, have been rewarded with multiple
spouses—a nubile lass to adorn the bedchamber, a culinary expert to take
charge of the kitchen, perhaps a third to handle the other responsibilities
of household management.  The person who is recruiting  François to join
the faculty of the newly-purified Sorbonne explains: “There is nothing
unnatural about classifying academics among the dominant males….In
your case, I think you could have three wives without much trouble—not
that anyone would force you to, of course.” Courtship is simplified under
the new regime: matchmakers are available to “conduct a sort of
evaluation, and correlate the girls’ physical appearance with the social
status of their future husbands.”

As even this short summary indicates, Houellebecq deliberately seeks to
provoke and outrage. Even the most ordinary circumstances are
described in flamboyant terms. Women see conversations between men,
in his words, as an “oddity, not quite buggery, or duel, but something in-
between.” The academic study of literature, he explains, “a rather farcical
system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more
than 95 percent of the time.” Our author finds many targets for his satire,
and spares none of them.

Go ahead and be shocked; maybe even denounce the author. This is
precisely the effect Houellebecq seeks, and which turned his novel into a
runaway bestseller. A more measured response might be to evaluate the
likelihood of the circumstances outlined in this firebrand of a book. Will his
predictions come true in 2022…or even in 2032 or 2052? Will immigrants
actually transform France or—just possibly—will France transform its

No, I don’t look to Houellebecq for intimations of the future. On the other
hand, much of what he satirizes is all too plausible. In fact, much of it is
familiar to us already, and not just in France. We already see widespread
complacency, especially among the ‘intellectual class’ to institutionalized
violations of civil liberties and human rights on the grandest scale, even in
the most advanced Western democracies. We already see journalists and
news organizations determining what gets ‘covered’ in the press on the
basis of ideology, scurrying to bury stories that don’t jive with their pre-
defined biases. We find bizarre discrepancies in the manipulated public
reaction to events—a Kafkaesque situation in which a dentist shooting a
lion on a hunting expedition is a lightning rod for over-the-top outrage,
while CIA torture, mass surveillance and drone executions of innocent
people are accepted as daily events.  We see how patriarchy and
repression on the largest scale are tolerated when practiced by entire
nations and cultures, but denounced if they appear in a novel written
centuries ago. As the saying goes, you can’t make this stuff up—and,
indeed, you don’t need to. Just read a daily summary of the news.

Houellebecq is empowered by the bêtise of his contemporaries. Their folly
is his path to fame. In that way, he isn’t much different than the political
players in his novel, who are able to secure a dominant position because
everyone else is so confused and paralyzed. Or, on many of the pages of
Submission, they are so focused on the subtleties of the palette, savoring
the food and wine offerings of French civilization—now supplemented by a
growing number of North African and Middle Eastern options—that they
forget the other planks that support a society over the long haul. You can’t
build democracy on good cheese and fine wine. And in a conflict between
cultural values, the most complacent side gives way, no matter how rich its
historic legacy.

This should be the real takeaway of Submission. When a book spurs
hatred or violence or widens the divide between cultures, count me out.
But if a novel highlights the blind spots that incite this violence, and
reminds us of the ways prudent people bridge the gap dividing ideologies
without sacrificing the core values of their own, it can have a positive
impact. Perhaps Submission will prove to be a book of this second type,
reducing the polarization of our current sociopolitical environment through
the time-honored ways of pluralism and tolerance that thriving nations
(France not the least of them) have exemplified. If that happens, it may find
its success as novel comes at the price of its failure as a prognostication.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His
latest book,
Love Songs: The Hidden History, is published by Oxford
University Press.

by Michel Houellebecq

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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