A full blown oracle can be quite a challenge in fiction. Historical oracles are usually vague enough that people misunderstand what they are trying to say or (like Casandra) they are ignored or have some other flaw. If, however, we have a true oracle i.e. one who really does know the future (including possible branches) we can have some trickiness. If there is no possibility of the oracle being wrong or being defeated (if the oracle is evil), then there can’t really be any tension in the plot. I thought it might be fun to look at a few ways in which modern works make use of an oracular character and what methods are used to create tension. There are some spoilers ahead for Watchmen, Bitter Seeds, The Wise Man’s Fear and Singularity Sky/Iron Sunrise. Each of these works has an oracular entity and each deals with those entities in interesting ways. If you want to remain completely unsullied on these works then it is best not to proceed. If you don’t mind being sullied a bit, then proceed after the cut:
In Watchmen, Alan Moore has the character of Dr. Manhattan. Dr. M has been rendered into what is essentially an oracle by an experiment that has caused him to experience all of time as a single continuity. We find during the story that Dr. M’s view of the future has been blocked and we are led to believe that this could be the result of a full blown nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union.
We later find out that the character Ozymandias has used a tachyon flow to block Dr. M’s experience of the future past a certain point in order to further his own plan. So, this is one way to deal with an oracle–find a vulnerability that limits the oracle’s powers so that they are not a complete oracle.
In Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, Charles Stross posits a post singularity entity called the Eschaton. Within the scope of its own relative past, the Eschaton prohibits the use of time travel (causality violating events) in order to prevent its own being “edited out.” The Eschaton employs messages from its future self to representatives in the past to enforce its proscription. In Singularity Sky, we see how representatives of the Eschaton act on its behalf and the plot proceeds nicely as the Eschaton itself is at a distant resolve and so we aren’t aware of it for the most part. In Iron Sunrise, Stross introduces a possible foe, and that particular novel works but Stross has said that the complications of having two such oracular entities at odds has caused him to abandon that particular universe for future stories. As such, this is an example of both dealing with an oracular being from a resolve but then having the problems of introducing that entity coming home to roost.
In Bitter Seeds, Ian Tregillis introduces the character of Gretel. Gretel has been engineered by a Nazi scientist to have what seem to be fully precognitive abilities while an electrode in her brain is on. The Nazi scientist believes this makes their cause unbeatable, but we see that Gretel has her own ideas. She is (for one thing) a sociopath and doesn’t care about the scientist or Nazi desires. We see her steering a number of events into the future she finds most favorable. We don’t get a direct point of view from Gretel, so we don’t really know what her desires are. This gives a nice tension to the plot as we can not be certain just what outcome Gretel may desire. The sequel to Bitter Seeds comes out in print later this year and the audible book comes out on January 17. I’m quite looking forward to this and it will be very interesting how this oracle continues to unfold.
In The Wise Man’s Fear Patrick Rothfuss tells of a malign entity called the Cthaeh. This creature is somehow confined within a tree, but can influence anyone who speaks to it as it has perfect knowledge of all possible futures. Thus, it knows the full effects of anything it tells someone and can tell them the exact choice of words that will result in that person’s most doing what the Chtaeh wants them to do. Thus, people who visit the Chtaeh become arrows for it to shoot into future events. The main character of the story, Kvothe, pays a visit to the Chtaeh and at this point we suspect his future actions are suspect. We don’t know yet what Kvothe does in the third book of the trilogy or even if the characterization of the Chtaeh is wholly accurate. We don’t know which path Rothfuss will choose for his oracle but it seems likely that it will be an interesting one that could lead to either catastrophe or eucatastrophe.