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A History of the History of the Future

By TheophileEscargot in Culture
Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 12:00:57 PM EST
Tags: Books (all tags)

Most science fiction deals with the future, but in general history is just a background to events that take place over a few years at most. This article concentrates on those SF writers whose stories take place over centuries or millennia of human history.

Notes: due to extensive footnotes, article is shorter than it appears. An earlier version appeared on Radio Free Tomorrow.

Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar

Science fiction is really about the present, the saying goes. It's often argued that SF consists of either metaphorical or unconscious commentary on the present day. However, that view drives some SF writers to apoplexy. Bruce Sterling for one has objected to it1. SF is often about the present, but at least occasionally it is the result of careful thought about where history is taking us. Although the future is often shaped by ideology or current events, it's no less plausible than most other forms of futurology.

The Steam Age
It was in the nineteenth century that the futures boom began. Most of these futures were either Utopias, such as News from Nowhere or Men Like Gods, or dystopias where the world fell into war, barbarism and ruin. Socialism was the driving force for many of the Utopian futures: Marx's view that the dialectic of history would lead to an anarchist, communist future where the state would wither away inspired many novels. In general, dystopias and warnings came from the opposite side of the spectrum. Novels such as The Battle of Dorking warned of a German invasion of Britain. American dystopians were more worried by the "Yellow Peril" of an Asian invasion. However, in all cases the authors were more concerned with a single aspect of the future, rather than working out a long-term history.

The best-known exceptions are probably by H.G. Wells. In The Shape of Things to Come, Wells set out a future of terrible war, not restricted to front lines, but where even civilians would be attacked by aircraft and the "long range air torpedo." Eventually this would give way first to barbarism, then a socialist utopia and the exploration of the space, in spite of opposition from anti-science reactionaries. A successful film version, Things To Come, created a familiar vision of the future2.

In The Time Machine, Wells and his unnamed Time Traveller took the opposite step of venturing into the far future, leaving national and racial squabbles far behind. In this future, the classes of humanity had evolved in two separate species, the decadent Eloi and the brutal Morlocks. The details are less important than Wells' idea that not just society, but the human race itself would change drastically in the future.

The Rocket Age
It was in 1930 that possibly the greatest future history was begun. Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon began in the present day, devoting a couple of chapters to the next century or so. Very aware of the dangers of prophecy, Stapledon wryly predicted that these would certainly raise a smile, and indeed they are woefully mistaken. Beyond the twenty-first century, things become more interesting. Stapledon predicts that the human race would not just evolve over time, as did Wells, but that the human race would deliberately modify itself. The book follows successive modifications of mankind from the first men to Eighteenth, and last. He depicts the colonization of the solar system, with the human race modified for different environments, and wars between Earth and Mars3.

Little later than Stapledon, across the Atlantic, Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein were creating the first stories in what would prove to be future histories, though at a penny per word they may not have suspected that at the time. Compared to the Victorian Utopias, Asimov and Heinlein's universes seemed bland in the extreme. No responsible magazine editor would have allowed such degeneracy as Free Love or Anarchism into their healthy stories. While the magazine market dominated North American SF, the future had to be socially much the same as Eisenhower's America.

Isaac Asimov did not originally intend his stories to form a consistent scheme: his future history was created towards the end of his career by stitching together various series with books set in the chronological gaps between them. The overall effect is unconvincing, especially since superintelligent robot brains are apparently replaced by sophisticated slide rules. The individual series, however, are marvellous.

The early parts of his history are dominated by nuclear war and overpopulation. In the immediate future, the population of Earth consists of vast hordes living underground in the so-called Caves of Steel. Robots exist, but in spite of their being successfully programmed to be utterly loyal to humanity; fear of them and the competition they represent strictly limits their use on Earth. On the colony worlds robots have a greater impact: on at least one world, the availability of robots of a "cleaner, better breed than we" makes human beings reluctant to interact with other mere humans, preferring to live on luxuriously isolated estates instead.

With another series, Asimov consciously thought about history itself. Taking the view that history was a matter of social pressures, he set the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in space. In the Foundation stories history has become the accurate science of psychohistory, which can be reliably predicted and shaped. The Foundation stories cover the decline and fall of the first Galactic Empire, and the establishing of a second over a period of centuries. Robots and computers are absent however; and the human race remains unchanged, socially or biologically, give or take the odd telepath.

Critic and writer Donald A. Wollheim has argued that by the 1950's, a consensus as to the future of the human race had arisen collectively amongst SF writers as a whole. The phases are easily recognizable.

  1. Exploration of the solar system
  2. Slower than light travel to the stars
  3. Total or limited nuclear war on Earth
  4. Meeting with aliens
  5. Faster than light travel to the stars
  6. Colonization of the galaxy
  7. Galactic Empire established
  8. Galactic Empire falls, period of barbarism
  9. Another Galactic civilization established
This conveniently allowed readers to quickly recognise where they are in a given story. The fall and rise of empires seems to be due to the theories of cycles of history, and reflects the teaching of real history. Many stories were set in the rise of the Second Civilization, since it allowed space travellers to land on planets conveniently occupied by humans, and often colourfully archaic.

The Diode Age
By the 1960's, it was possible for an SF writer to make a living from novels, without them being serialized first. Social changes were occurring in the outside world as well. Heinlein had chafed at the restrictions of the magazine market, though he liked to test the boundaries by having his macho heroes of the future wear make-up and compare shades of nail-varnish. In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, where the moon is a male-dominated former penal colony, he had social structures changing to accommodate the situation, with polygamous "line marriages" replacing monogamy4.

Heinlein's future history was otherwise fairly conventional, with the solar system being colonized, and wars of independence breaking out between the colonies and Earth. Computers are generally subservient to humans, and the human race itself does not change.

Other writers were becoming more radical. In Joe Haldeman's The Forever War at one stage the entire human race is, psychologically programmed to be homosexual, in a somewhat implausible attempt to solve problems of overpopulation. Time-slowed by relativity, the protagonist of the Forever War personally sees the course of history over centuries of warfare with an alien race. Eventually humanity comes to consist of identical, telepathic clones.

The stories of Cordwainer Smith abandon detail in favour of an almost fairy-tale style of narration. His stories depict a fractured human race: including a servant class of animals modified to be humanoid called underpeople, and "hominids", genetically manipulated to survive on alien worlds. Smith deals again with the case of a humanity that is transformed into something impersonal and near-alien by technology and the all-powerful government of the Instrumentality of Mankind. In this case humanity is eventually restored with ancient languages, jobs and lifestyles deliberately resurrected; an event called the Rediscovery of Man. Smith's effervescent writing style is one of the few successful attempts to depict a future so radically different from the present5.

It's interesting to note that by this point the pattern of the late 19th century had reversed itself. Dystopias tended to be written by those on the left; Utopias, or optimistic futures at least, written by those on the right. The general pattern seems to be that the dominant political faction write dystopias to show the terrible consequences of upsetting the status quo, while the political underdogs write idealistic depictions of the glories that will result when they take control6.

The Silicon Age
Science fiction had never coped well with the computer age. While the early electronic computers were revolutionizing physics in the fifties, SF heroes were still deftly working slide rules and feverishly flicking through log tables. When they did deal with computers, eschewing the wild speculation of the pulp era, hard SF writers carefully extrapolated from the real-world trend of computers to get ever bigger and ever smarter. Computers of the future, they revealed, would be vast, city-sized assemblies of vacuum tubes; which would run the economy, predict the future and create scientific breakthroughs. Instead, of course, computers got smaller and apparently dumber; assisting with trivial tasks like book-keeping, typewriting and mail.

By the 1980's, writers recognized that the trend was wrong, and proceeded to extrapolate in the other direction. Their computers got ever smaller, growing more powerful without becoming much more sophisticated. It was now common in SF to be able to plug your brain directly into a computer, sometimes even to download your mind or upload new software into it. The brain was often taken to be literally a computer, and the details of how a physical network of neurons and dendrites is transferred into a computer program were generally glossed over. The so-called "cyberpunk" writers produced another consensus near-future of designer drugs, pollution, moderate overpopulation, and a society jacked in to cyberspace. The future more than a few decades in advance was rarely considered, however; wisely, given the weaknesses of simple extrapolation over a long period.

While unfashionable in the 1980's, in the last decade there has been a trend for hard-SF novelists to map out future histories again. This could be due to a publisher's preference for long series' of books over standalone novels. Stephen Baxter, Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds and Ken MacLeod have all produced internally consistent timelines over several books. Greg Egan's stories are more varied, but several of them can be drawn together into a single timeline. Once again there seems to be a rough consensus as to how the future will unfold.

With genetic engineering a possibility, the real world seems to be catching up with Olaf Stapledon's intuition that the human race would modify itself. The new consensus seems to be that the human race will split into various factions, in Cordwainer Smith style. One faction will opt to remain unchanged. Another faction will choose to modify their bodies genetically and surgically, partly for superhuman abilities, partly for greater convenience in space travel, and partly just for fun. Another faction will implant devices into their brains to allow them to communicate directly with the computer network, possibly even to merge into a single "hive mind". It's generally assumed that the modified factions will exist off Earth, either on other worlds or in asteroid or moon habitats; the conservative governments of Earth will not allow such progress to occur.

An interesting development is that the hive minds, long established as sinister and evil in SF, are now often the good guys; more ethical and empathic than the barbaric, backward hordes of Earth. The "Edenist consensus" in Hamilton's books, and the "Conjoiner" faction in Reynold's; are regarded sympathetically. The hive mind is regarded as an extra level of consciousness, which does not prevent human beings from being individuals at the same time. This may be due to the collapse of Communism in the real world: hive minds can now be considered more objectively, rather than as crude political symbols.7.

In general, the future consists first of the new factions coming into existence on Earth, then fleeing persecution there. There will be conflicts between the factions over resources and ideology; the old factions having the advantage of numbers, the new factions having the advantage of their superiority. Eventually the factions will be forced to work together in the face of an external threat, often from aliens. After the victory, traditional humans will continue to exist, but will play a steadily diminishing role in humanity, becoming a kind of Amish curiosity.

That covers the next few centuries. However, Stephen Baxter for one likes to think big. His future histories extend over billions of years, dealing with how the descendants of humanity will cope with the fate of the Universe itself.

Tropes and Theories
There are several theories of history, each of which have affected the shape of Future History. Oswald Spengler's notions of cyclical history, and Arnold Toynbee's "A Study of History" have been influential8.

However, theories of history are often secondary to SF authors. The existing body of SF has a number of recurring tropes: genetic engineering, cybernetic implants, colonization of space, colonial wars; and a more usual way to develop a future history is simply to slot them into a timeline at random, without worrying too much about their plausibility9.

It is not even ultimately certain that real history is a guide to future history. Science Fiction tends to equate spaceships with sea ships, other planets with other countries; but the economics of spaceflight could well be too different for this assumption to be true. It could be that space flight will always be too expensive for interstellar colonization; interstellar communication too slow for sustainable Empires or Federations; interstellar distances too great for wars.

Also, history so far has been the history of humanity. Genetic engineering or technological enhancements might make the human race into a species too different for its progress to be predicted. Vernor Vinge, for instance, has suggested that technological progress will continue to accelerate until we reach a singularity in the relatively near future. We may not even have the capacity to understand what will happen at this point, let alone to predict it10.

In the end, we have to accept that while constructing future histories is a fascinating game, it is highly unlikely to be accurate. The truth will most likely be far stranger than anything we can imagine.

The End.

----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----
As usual, I'm highly indebted to Brian W. Aldiss' astonishing history of SF, Trillion Year Spree. Also helpful was Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century by Edward James.

Due to the length of this story, I've put some content into footnotes.

Footnote 1: Bruce Sterling
Bruce Sterling made the following statement, quoted in this book.

I resent it when my ideas, which I have gone to some pains to develop and explore, are dismissed as unconscious yearnings or a fun-house reflection of the contemporary milieu. My writings about the future are not 'about the future' in a strict sense, but they are about my ideas of the future. They are not allegories.
Bruce Sterling, incidentally and irrelevantly, has been reported to be a K5 reader.

Footnote 2: Things to Come
Alexander Korda's 1936 film "Things to Come" was hugely influential. The look and feel of the future, with its clean white lines and glass skyscrapers, was widely imitated.

It's notable that even this early the precise motivation of the anti-science reactionaries was passionate but rather vague. In dialogue from the film:

Theoptocopulus: "What is this progress? What is the good of all this progress onward and onward? We demand a rest... an end to progress! Make an end to this progress now! Let this be the last day of the scientific age!"
(Quoted from Halliwell's Film Guide).

It has also been thought that science fiction imagery had a significant impact on real architecture. In an essay by William Gibson called The Gernsback Continuum he envisaged things thus:

During the high point of the Downes Age, they put Ming the Merciless in charge of designing California gas stations. Favoring the architecture of his native Mongo, he cruised up and down the coast erecting raygun emplacements in white stucco.

Footnote 3: Olaf Stapledon
In 1937 Stapledon wrote an even larger scale book, Star Maker, covering the evolution and convergence of life throughout the universe, through to a final meeting with the Creator itself. The Eighteenth Men appear briefly, but are almost insignificant.

Another novel, Last Men in London, focuses on part of the story in more detail.

Footnote 4: Stranger in a Strange Land
More adventurous still, though an inferior novel, was Stranger in a Strange Land, about a man raised from infancy by Martians, who returns to Earth to set up a cult involving free love, mysticism and psychic powers. The book marked the beginning of the later phase of Heinleins writing, where he wrote at much greater length, with more preaching and less action. Heinlein claimed that he had to delay publication of this book "until the public mores changed."

Footnote 5: Soldier, Professor, Diplomat, SF writer
Cordwainer Smith's real name was Paul Linebarger. He grew up in China, and wrote SF as a hobby not a profession. His real life career was more interesting: at various times in his life he was an army officer specializing in psychological warfare, rising to the rank of Colonel, a professor of Asiatic Politics, a CIA employee, and an advisor to President Kennedy.

It may be because of these experiences that in spite of their fairy-tale style, his stories are remarkably convincing. More than most other SF writers, he had direct experience of other cultures, and of the workings of high office.

Footnote 6: Dystopias
For instance, consider dystopias such as Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison (filmed as Soylent Green), or Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. There is a clear contrast between these and technological optimism of authors like Robert A. Heinlein and Larry Niven.

Footnote 7: Hive Minds
Hamilton makes the connection explicitly in The Neutronium Alchemist, where anachronistic twentieth century characters persistently refer to the Edenists as Communist.

It should be noted that with these modern hive minds, members are able to act on two levels simultaneously, as individuals and members of the collective. This is in contrast to Haldeman's future humanity, which consisted of a single mind in multiple bodies.

The most widely known hive mind is of course the Star Trek franchise's "Borg". It's notable that as the series' progressed, the nature of the Borg evolved in much the same way as hive minds in written SF. Initially a single mind, for narrative convenience it then turned out that they had a hierarchy of "queens". Later it turned out that the Borg had a degree of individuality, which could be restored, divided into factions, and enjoy vacations in a virtual reality.

Footnote 8: Theories of History
The Great Man theory of history, now rarely taken seriously, has obvious dramatic advantages. A single hero carving out an Empire or imposing peace makes for an entertaining story.

Many figures have discerned repeating patterns in history, as civilizations rise, then fall into barbarism before another civilization is established. This has become a familiar theme, mostly due to its convenience. It allows a Universe of human-populated, yet colourfully barbaric worlds; often running on the feudal system with kings, princesses and warriors. It is also conveniently seeded with spaceships, super-weapons and other advanced artifacts to be rediscovered by the heroes. However, it is not always clear how and why almost all the worlds of the galaxy fall into barbarism simultaneously.

Another, more realistic view of history is that it is shaped by impersonal economic and psychological forces. This view generally leads to actual historical events being re-enacted in the future. The US War of Independence has been frequently replayed, with colony worlds revolting against the government of Earth. Issues of slavery are frequently raised, as robots, androids, clones and genetic hybrids struggle for civil rights.

Another view of history is that tiny events at a critical moment can have an enormous effect. This is generally of use in time-travel books, where factions battle for control of these moments. The notion of history being constantly changed by warring factions is another fairly common one, notably in books by Michael Moorcock.

Whig history is a derisive term used for the depiction of history as a steady progression towards a particular political ideal. This is another popular theme, especially in Utopian SF, where history usually reaches an endless plateau when it reaches the desired socialist or libertarian state. In recent years, Francis Fukuyama's influential essay on The End of History argued that a modern peaceful, liberal democracy is the final and most successful form of state, barring significant changes in technology. While widely reported, this view seems too dull to be popular in SF: great conflicts between warring ideologies are more dramatic.

Another historical view is that political structures are largely determined by technology. For instance, the transition from the feudal system to democracy can be seen to be the result of guns becoming the dominant weapon. Before then, a baron with a small body of trained, armoured men, some cavalry and a castle to retreat to could control a vastly more numerous body of peasantry. As gunpowder made armour, cavalry and castles obsolete, only a government with the mass support could be stable. This theory has led to the depiction of advanced societies returning to the feudal system, as other technologies, such as the shields in the Dune books, make the gun and the peasant-soldier obsolete once more.

Footnote 9: Some Ideas and their Plausibility
Predicting even the general outlines of the future is of course impossible, and all who have tried it have been made to look ridiculous. Even so, let's look at some of the recurring and the more recent ideas, and see how plausible they seem.

Experimental crosses between separate species have already been achieved, for instance between a sheep and a goat. Only ethical and legal issues prevent animal-human hybrids from being created. The creation of a slave race of "underpeople" seems achievable. The question is more whether such creatures would actually be useful, compared to our existing machines. If you want slaves, why not just use human beings?

Genetic engineering of humans seems more likely. While those in favour may be a minority, as the technology becomes easier and cheaper, it seems unlikely that this will remain restricted everywhere and forever.

Cybernetic implants seem likely for some purposes. It's already possible to artificially stimulate nerves; and to receive nerve signals, though they have not been fully decoded. At least one eager volunteer has already chosen to be improved by implants, not just have medical conditions treated. However, while stimulating existing senses seems plausible in the near future, "downloading" and "uploading" memories and personalities is more problematic. The brain is a physical network of neurons and dendrites. It's unclear how this network can be rearranged to "upload" memories, given that the network is unique to each person. A sufficiently close model might be simulated in software, but merging it with other memories may never be possible.

Colonization of the solar system remains a possibility: it is seen as eventually feasible by sensible scientists as well as wild-eyed enthusiasts. It seems unlikely to begin in the next few decades, on grounds of cost alone.

Colonization of the galaxy is far more distant. Causality principles show that faster-than-light travel is unlikely to ever be possible. Colonizing the galaxy with slower-than-light vessels would be enormously expensive, but not impossible. However, the traditional motivations for creating a colony have generally been to extract resources, to relieve population pressures and to set up religiously and politically independent states. The first two are unlikely to be practical given the immense resources needed, and if the asteroids can be mined, the third would seem to be unnecessary.

The splitting of the human race into factions, each rejecting or accepting certain technologies, is plausible to a degree. These factions are usually attributed to distinct cultures rather than the cost of the technology. This seems plausible: neither brain implants nor genetic engineering require large amounts of energy, space or raw materials. While probably expensive at first, it seems unlikely that they will persistently remain too expensive for most of the population. However, scientific developments tend to spread in spite of initial religious or cultural objections. Anaesthetics for women in childbirth, "test tube babies" and even lightning rods were all initially opposed by a minority, but became acceptable later. The principal reason for these factions in fiction would seem to be so that these particular technologies and be debated, and their pros and cons studied; rather than because they are considered inevitable.

Footnote 10: Transcendence and the Singularity
If the human race does not become extinct, it is plausibly predicted that it will eventually become something unrecognizably different from the human race as it exists today. Many future histories end with the human race achieving some kind of transcendence: Arthur C. Clarke has used this idea repeatedly. Such an end also provides a helpful narrative closure to a story about the future of humanity.

Some have predicted that this may be closer than we might think. In some of Vernor Vinge's books, the rapid development of computers and human-computer interaction has humanity achieving a transcendent "singularity" in the near future. Other authors, such as Iain M. Banks, have had this being the ultimate destiny of any intelligent race. The idea that transcendence will happen relatively soon also has the advantage of being an optimistic solution to the Fermi paradox, of why we are apparently alone in the Universe.

Finally, the point of transcendence provides a useful place for the author to terminate his work. Since our current crude human brains cannot comprehend what humanity will be like after such transcendence, it is a convenient place for the author to stop.

A K5 article has already discussed this technological singularity.


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Best future history is by?
o Isaac Asimov 30%
o Stephen Baxter 3%
o Peter F. Hamilton 14%
o Robert A. Heinlein 13%
o Larry Niven 12%
o Cordwainer Smith 9%
o Olaf Stapledon 4%
o H.G. Wells 11%

Votes: 88
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o earlier version
o Radio Free Tomorrow
o 1
o News from Nowhere
o Men Like Gods
o The Battle of Dorking
o The Shape of Things to Come
o Things To Come
o 2
o The Time Machine
o Last and First Men
o 3
o Caves of Steel
o Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
o Foundation
o The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
o 4
o The Forever War
o Cordwainer Smith
o Instrument ality of Mankind
o Rediscover y of Man
o 5
o 6
o 7
o 8
o 9
o singularit y
o 10
o Trillion Year Spree
o Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century
o this book
o a K5 reader
o Back
o Halliwell' s Film Guide
o The Gernsback Continuum
o Back [2]
o Star Maker
o Last Men in London
o Back [3]
o Stranger in a Strange Land
o Back [4]
o Paul Linebarger
o Back [5]
o Make Room! Make Room!
o Soylent Green
o Stand on Zanzibar
o Back [6]
o The Neutronium Alchemist
o Back [7]
o The End of History
o Back [8]
o Back [9]
o technologi cal singularity
o Back [10]
o Also by TheophileEscargot

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A History of the History of the Future | 95 comments (73 topical, 22 editorial, 0 hidden)
Good work.... (5.00 / 1) (#9)
by wiredog on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 08:47:09 AM EST

Some thoughts.

"Things To Come." I've got that on DVD. Eerily prophetic about WW2.

"In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, where the moon is a male-dominated former penal colony
Several of the characters argue that it's female dominated. It could be argued either way. Good book. One of my favorites by him. Also, Starship Troopers. And his juveniles. Have you noticed that his "juveniles" seem to assume more intelligence among early teens than many authors do among adults?

BTW, Jerry Pournelle is reporting that Ginny Heinlein died last Friday.

Frank Herbert wrote about a hive mind. Damn. Can't remember the title. Weird book. "Destination: Void" is his take on artificial interlligence.

An interesting future history writer is H. Beam Piper. He took actual situations and events and translated them into the future, or into alternate histories (Paratime, Lord Kalvan).

What, no mention of Arthur C. Clarke? "The Fountains of Paradise" is a great hard SF novel.

"The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of" argues that SF is the Great American Literary Form, and is aimed at intelligent 12 year olds. Mark Twain wrote a time-travel piece.

Wilford Brimley scares my chickens.
Phil the Canuck

Stuff (4.00 / 1) (#10)
by TheophileEscargot on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 08:55:50 AM EST

Hmmm... by "male-dominated" I meant that most of the population were male. Oh well, unfortunately it's in voting now.

Arthur C. Clarke: maybe I should have included him. "Childhood's End" might have been a good one. Even there though, he seems to have written more individual books than have concentrated on sketching out a particular future history.

I think Frank Herbert used hive minds a couple of times. There was "Hellstrom's Hive", about a human society organized on insect lines, and I think "The Green Brain" had an intelligent insect hive-mind too, if my memory is holding up.
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]

re: Stuff - Hellstrom's Hive (none / 0) (#77)
by Maserati on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 11:38:21 PM EST

HH is one of the most chilling stories I've ever read. The Hive comes off as so wrong and so creepy that I'd stand in line to carry a suitcase nuke into the hive.

Read this book. Also read Whipping Star and The Dosadi Experiment; Destination: Void and its sequels are also must-reads.

Frank Herbert just might be taken more seriously as an author if he *hadn't* written Dune. That isn't his best work by a long shot, Hellstrom's Hive, Destination: Void or Dosadi Experiment probably are. All of them are better novels than Dune is in a lot of technical respects, and they're much more cohesive narratives and they're all paced much better than Dune.

I really, really, reall wish he'd written 6 Jorg X McKie books; I'd fucking kill for 6 books with Gowachin in them (same series, different reasons). Honestly, if you're between me and the doorway to a bookstore in an alternate universe, there's gonna be a me-shaped hole in you.


For the wise a hint, for the fool a stick.
[ Parent ]

Virginia Heinlein (none / 0) (#31)
by mjs on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 02:10:08 PM EST

BTW, Jerry Pournelle is reporting that Ginny Heinlein died last Friday.

Crap. Robert Heinlein was (is, actually,) one of my favorite authors and when he died I wrote a short letter of condolences to Ms. Heinlein, care of his publisher. She actually wrote back, a very gracious letter. She must have received thousands of such letters and it blows my mind to think that she (probably) answered them all. They were both from another time, perhaps another civilization. I think the world is a grayer, dingier place with their passing.

[ Parent ]

Virginia Heinlein (none / 0) (#51)
by MalTheElder on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 11:27:51 PM EST

I'm saddened to confirm that Virginia Heinlein died on the morning of January 18, 2003, according to the reports at the Heinlein Society. A virtual wake was held that evening.

Ginny was more than Mrs. Robert Heinlein. She was---among many other things---the model for RAH's strong, independent, red-headed heroines. She also was very much a contributor to his work, including IIRC finalizing 'I Will Fear No Evil' after RAH's stroke.

Though saddened by her loss, I will choose to remember and celebrate all the ways she and RAH influenced my life through their work. Bless them wherever and whenever they may be.


[ Parent ]

The Lensmen (4.00 / 1) (#13)
by porkchop_d_clown on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 09:14:55 AM EST

Excellent article, but you forgot one important future history - E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensmen books.

While the writing isn't quite on the Asimov/Heinlein level, Smith employs a number of ideas that later became common in popular culture as well as science fiction: A benevolent super race aiding humanity from the shadows, the use of eugenics to improve our species (both to create better and more lensmen but, through cross-breeding, the entire species), and the idea that altruism and rationalism are fundamentally opposed philosophies.

"Your article (and I use that term losely) is just a ad-hominem filled rant from a right-wing extremist loony." - Psycho Les

QX (4.00 / 1) (#24)
by TheophileEscargot on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 12:00:56 PM EST

I hadn't really thought of the Lensmen series as a future history before, but it does fit the bill regarding timescale at least.

The thing that makes it less "historical" to me is that it uses the idea of the human race and human history being deliberately steered by the Arisians and the Eddorians. So, it doesn't really make predictions as such such, since events depend on that particular gimmick.
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]

Larry Niven (5.00 / 2) (#14)
by porkchop_d_clown on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 09:21:33 AM EST

I'd like to point out that Niven, at least, deliberately set out to place all his stories in one literary universe, the so-called "Known Space". It wasn't until he realized that he had written himself into a dead end (summarized in a hysterically funny short story called, I think, "Safe at Any Speed") that he created a second, more dystopian, universe where humanity is controlled by a single overarching "State".

"Your article (and I use that term losely) is just a ad-hominem filled rant from a right-wing extremist loony." - Psycho Les

Thanks for sorting that out (none / 0) (#32)
by silsor on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 02:13:22 PM EST

I always wondered when the Pak were going to show up in the Smoke Ring.

✠  Patron saint of unmoderated (none / 0) top-level comments.
[ Parent ]
A serious omission (4.00 / 4) (#22)
by MichaelCrawford on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 10:26:12 AM EST

Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

The talking cow that gives suggestions as to which of his parts you might dine on after he is slaughtered is one of my favorites from any work of fiction.

I told my wife about it and she thought it was really sick.


Live your fucking life. Sue someone on the Internet. Write a fucking music player. Like the great man Michael David Crawford has shown us all: Hard work, a strong will to stalk, and a few fries short of a happy meal goes a long way. -- bride of spidy

Douglas Adams (5.00 / 1) (#43)
by Eater on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 07:23:25 PM EST

From a cultural standpoint, his science fiction works (HGTG) sometimes seem more believable than anything written by Clarke or Asimov.


[ Parent ]
disagree (4.00 / 1) (#54)
by martingale on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 11:46:54 PM EST

While I'm a big fan of Adams' first three books in the "trilogy", I don't think they qualify as a fully worked out future history like the examples T gave. Moreover, HHGTTG suffers from inconsistencies between the media. the books aren't the same as the radio shows, or the films. HHGTTG is just slapstick comedy with an SF theme.

[ Parent ]
Nice article (4.00 / 1) (#26)
by hypno on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 12:10:53 PM EST

Though i was slightly surprised by your omission of Iain Banks' Culture series.

Not set in the future (4.00 / 1) (#27)
by TheophileEscargot on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 12:24:38 PM EST

The Culture are humanoid aliens, and the books are set in the present: they actually turn up on Earth in one story. So, they can't really be considered to be a future history.

Also, as I've mentioned before Banks has said in interviews that he doesn't think humanity is capable of becoming like the Culture.
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]

They turn up on Earth? (none / 0) (#45)
by the on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 08:30:12 PM EST

Which story was that?

The Definite Article
[ Parent ]
The Culture on earth (5.00 / 1) (#48)
by Grimgrin on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 10:11:34 PM EST

In the story "State of the art" A Culture GCU visits earth. The decision is eventually made to leave the earth alone to act as a sort of control specimen for the Cultures social engineering experiments.

In the novel "Use of Weapons" the main charachter makes a reference to the gas chamber and electric chair and the irony of their use in a state that has a law against cruel and unusual punishment. He had been told about execution chairs by a woman who had been a crew member on the GCU that had visited earth.

AFAIK, There are some references to Culture tech in "The Bridge" but they take place in a hallucination/extended dream sequence of the charachters has, and so I wouldn't call it an example of the culture visiting earth as much as an example of Ian Banks putting an easter egg in his books for the people who read his Sci Fi as well.


[ Parent ]

Good review but you left out a lot of stuff. (4.00 / 1) (#28)
by Zara2 on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 12:57:24 PM EST

Great review of histories in Sci-Fi but you really left out a lot of authors who are famous for writing a consistant world history. Additionally the ones that you do mention you don't neccisarrily go too deep into.

Heinlien was very famous for writing the "future history" series of books comprimising the stories of lazerius Long and his family. While "The moon" is one of the books in that you did not include the entire rest of the history that stretches for thousands of years into a utopian society of immortal time travellers.

You only mention Larry Nivens "Known Space" history in your footnotes. It is especially important in this context as it also spans the histories of several other races and owes a lot of its flavor to a previous, almost godlike, race of beings that created fantastic world (see RingWorld.)

I was very suprised to see the omission of the "Childe Cycle" from Gordon R. Dickson. While it is very similiar to other future histories its main component is using that history as an allegory of the personal development of individual men. His dealing of the effects of exceptional individuals on the course of history is nigh inspiring (despite most of the story being a space opera hack.)

Finally, the future history of Phillip K. Dick's Valis series uses the contact of an alien race to highlight the spiritual evolution of man. This in and of itself is very important in a literary sence.

I guess I was looking for something more along the lines of how these future histories are used as a narration device. At the beginning of the article this is apparently what you were doing by showing the Utopian and dystopian authors Socialist and Capitalist political leanings. When you got to the more modern fictions tho it seems like this approach was dropped. Still Voted +1 section for reminding me of all the good stories out there. ;)

Cities in Flight (none / 0) (#29)
by Nyrath on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 01:35:28 PM EST

In an afterword to the hardcover anthology of James Blish's tetralogy CITIES IN FLIGHT, Richard D. Mullen makes an extended comparison between the time line in CIF and the theory expounded in Oswald Spengler's THE DECLINE OF THE WEST.

While Spengler is more or less discredited today, I'm sure that Blish was not the only SF author to used him to provide a skeletal framework for future histories. Mullen digests Spengler's theories into a chart of cultural stages, showing equivalent stages in the cultures of Classical Greece, Arabian, Western, and Blish's CIF.

I do remember encountering Mullen's cultural stages chart in a couple of SF RPG and computer games in the mid 1980's.

Slightly Related (none / 0) (#49)
by Aemeth on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 10:27:07 PM EST

Other James Blish stuff worth reading with regards to the general topic are "A Case of Conscience", where Blish explores a different possible outcome of the cold war (notably written when the McCarthy witchhunts were recent memory), and "The Seedling Stars", which explores the possibilities intrinsic in genetically engineering humans to suit environments that world otherwise inhibit colonisation (also, as far as I can remember, "The Seedling Stars", really a collections of four short stories, was written before DNA had been properly identified by Watson and Crick).

In my opinion James Blish is a sorely under-appreciated author, whose works are generally better written and more visionary than most the more popular authors (who I won't name to avoid starting a religious war), and unfortunately his works are largely lost to newer Sci-Fi readers (and would have been to me apart from happy coincidence). Read him.

...mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.
Bertrand Russell

[ Parent ]
Where's Vernor Vinge on the Poll? (1.00 / 1) (#30)
by dr zeus on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 01:49:57 PM EST

I looked and did not see him. This is surprising considering you mention him in the article. He isn't the most prolific author, but the idea of Singularity stands apart from most other Science Fiction ideas of the future. It moves beyond the Galactic Empire or the Hive Mind into a completely new realm of existence.

I'd have to say that his future is the "best"; it brings a technological viewpoint to the usually unique idea of transcedence.

comment, question (none / 0) (#33)
by bukvich on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 02:14:33 PM EST

Nice article.

> Another historical view is that political
> structures are largely determined by
> technology. For instance, the transition . . .

Do you know of a "Fukiyama-size" treatment of this idea? Would McNeill's "Plagues and Peoples" be an example? I have been meaning to read that.

Guns, Germs, and Steel (3.00 / 1) (#60)
by rusty on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 06:15:08 AM EST

It's not quite the same thesis, but Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel examines human history as the result of local environmental factors leading to various technologies and forms of political organization. He starts one step further back, but "technology leads to political form" is encompassed within his larger argument.

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]
Here's a name to conjure with: (5.00 / 1) (#63)
by medham on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 08:48:38 AM EST


The real 'medham' has userid 6831.
[ Parent ]

Sci-Fi: Trashy romance for geeks (2.45 / 11) (#34)
by electricmonk on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 03:13:18 PM EST

I've read many sci-fi novels in my day, and quite a few of them follow the cited sexually radical tendencies. I don't believe, however, that these outbursts were an expression of rebellion against magazine editors or the predominant culture, or even a means to explore an idea that one has (we'll get to that later). Rather, much of the sex one runs across in sci-fi, which is inevitably of the perverse nature, has to do with the authors or perhaps their target audience being unable to mature beyond adolescence.

I'm sure that geeks of the 50s and 60s, not unlike all of us today, didn't get around much. It certainly seems that way for Heinlein. That The Moon is a Harsh Mistress takes place in a male-dominated (speaking in terms of population) society speaks volumes as a metaphor for the social isolation felt in fields such as Computer Science and Physics. The misogynistic tone he takes (where women are ogled as pieces of meat as they move through hallways) is, then, hardly surprising.

In fact, I'd go as far as to say that the themes went beyond male-dominance and clear into homosexuality and other deviant, related practices that would occur in the male-authored societies that were inevitably devoid of Christianity. Take Larry Niven's Ringworld series, for instance, in which the main character is transported to a future Earth that consists of two immortal factions of humanity - boys and girls. In this, the two factions live in isolation from each other and are at war (I need not point out the misogynistic themes exhibited here). Furthermore, the homosexual practices that the main character encounters can only be describing the gay paedo's paradise, a rather disturbing prospect, especially for parents who unwittingly allow their children to buy this filth in bookstores. Heinlein's exploration of transsexuality, I Will Fear No Evil, hardly needs elaboration.

The prevalent anti-women themes that today's programmers and engineers were raised on now exemplify themselves in the workplace. Why is it that there are so few women in this field today, while it seems to have no shortage of creepy shut-ins and other social malcontents? The root of the problem is that generations of men raised reading this trashy "literature", whose sexuality is inevitably geared toward men, specifically those of the scientific persuasion, have been taught to hate women.

Furthermore, being a literature buff myself (I've read many of the classics and discussed them during my English courses), I can only say that sci-fi is the most lowbrow of anything that I've read, with the exception of romance-novel tripe like Heart's Aflame, Love Only Once, Prisoner of My Desire, The Pursuit, Fires of Winter, Man of My Dreams and Wuthering Heights. Science fiction is not, as some would claim, a liberating format in which one can more freely express ideas without the constraints of reality to hold them back, but, rather, an excuse to churn out some pretty unsubtle writing and themes. It's painfully, eye-poppingly obvious from books such as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress that Heinlien is a utopian, head-in-the-clouds libertarian. No one even needs to read an analysis of the book, his political agenda is staring you right in the face. More traditional fiction authors have gotten along just fine in getting their points across without having to resort to ludicrous, unrealistic devices like space or time travel or things taking place in an imagined "future". People like Aldous Huxley, Charles Dickens, John Irving and William Shakespeare, in fact.

So, as much fun as it is to read a good adventure every once in a while, you must also realize where these people are coming from when they write these things. And for God's sake, keep your kids away from them.

"There are only so many ways one can ask [Jon Katz] what it's like to be buried to the balls in a screaming seven-year-old" - Ian

obvious troll (5.00 / 1) (#35)
by ph0rk on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 03:48:56 PM EST

but I'll bite anyway.

what of C.J.Cherryh, while discussing latter-day scifi? (Faded Sun, Precursor).  or Ursula K. LeGuin (The Left Hand of Darkness).

Neither author fits your "geek romance novel" description, and especially in the case of LeGuin,  quite the opposite.

And as for more recent authors, I would argue that Stephenson, Gibson and Sterlings works are nothing at all like what you have described.

Now, next time you wish to bash an entire genre based solely on your opinions of a handful of authors (and oldschool authors at that), at least pretend to peruse some more recent works first.

Perhaps you really meant to be critical of Heinlein, but that is not what you wrote.

[ f o r k . s c h i z o i d . c o m ]
[ Parent ]

Huh? (4.66 / 3) (#37)
by Stoutlimb on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 04:03:29 PM EST

"Take Larry Niven's Ringworld series, for instance, in which the main character is transported to a future Earth that consists of two immortal factions of humanity - boys and girls."

I'm not sure if you're from an alternate universe and have read another series called Ringworld, or you're mistaken, or you're a troll...

Ringworld had a lot of sex with it, but it was heterosexual, though necessarily between individuals of the same species (rishathra).  Sex outside your species had functions such as birth control, and diplomacy.

At least get your facts straight.

[ Parent ]

A world out of time (4.00 / 1) (#64)
by AndrewH on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 09:17:45 AM EST

Right author; wrong book.
John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr — where are you now that we need you?
[ Parent ]
Actually (4.00 / 1) (#38)
by rayab on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 04:50:29 PM EST

You say
"The misogynistic tone he takes (where women are ogled as pieces of meat as they move through hallways) is, then, hardly surprising."

But I've read the book just a few months a go, and I remember quite clearly that because there were so few women they were treated with respect and given the full choice of their males. Rape was considered one of the things the men would kill the offended by throwing him "outside" where there is no atmosphere.

Y popa bila sobaka on yeyo lyubil, ona syela kusok myasa on yeyo ubil, v zemlyu zakopal, i na mogile napisal...
[ Parent ]
Rape And Scifi (none / 0) (#81)
by Kintanon on Wed Jan 22, 2003 at 04:45:17 PM EST

You'll notice that in most Sci-Fi rape is considered the worst possible crime. The penalty is almost always death. So even if there are a lot of freaky sexual goings on the ultimate power to say no still resides with the female.


[ Parent ]

Same post on Slashdot (4.00 / 1) (#39)
by Luddite on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 04:57:17 PM EST

This guy posted the same thing on slashdot. Obvious Troll.

[ Parent ]
Pardon me (3.00 / 2) (#40)
by electricmonk on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 06:25:21 PM EST

I was unaware that it was a grevious offense here to post one's opinion to more than one site on the Internet. Obviously, I have not been informed that I signed over my copyright to kuro5hin.org in the process of posting a message. For this, I apologize.

Also, your scathing argument and conclusion that I am indeed a troll is humbling. I thank you for having put me in my place.

"There are only so many ways one can ask [Jon Katz] what it's like to be buried to the balls in a screaming seven-year-old" - Ian
[ Parent ]

No, the grievous offense (none / 0) (#74)
by fractal on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 07:01:46 PM EST

is your ill-informed, condescending-jerk style of writing. You're not one of those "good first impression" guys, huh? That's cool. But at least back it up with facts, instead of half-baked crap generalizations such as all science fiction is on a par with romance novels.


[ Parent ]

the lesson of this post (5.00 / 1) (#47)
by adequate nathan on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 09:34:03 PM EST

Don't attempt to troll while suffering from stupidity.

"For me -- ugghhh, arrgghh."
-Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, in Frank magazine, Jan. 20th 2003

Join the petition: Rusty! Make dumped stories & discussion public!
[ Parent ]

Oh come on, he makes a very valid point. (none / 0) (#62)
by tkatchev on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 08:08:41 AM EST

I've yet to see a sci-fi book that isn't heavily mired in some sort of sexual perversity.

   -- Signed, Lev Andropoff, cosmonaut.
[ Parent ]

Maybe you should try looking inside a SF book. (none / 0) (#73)
by fractal on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 06:55:42 PM EST

You've "yet to see a sci-fi book that isn't heavily mired in... sexual perversity"? What, are you looking at the wrong rack when you go to the adult book store?

Why am I even responding to this idiotic post?


[ Parent ]

Unlike you, kind Sir, (none / 0) (#82)
by tkatchev on Thu Jan 23, 2003 at 09:28:15 AM EST

I actually read massive amounts of both "sci-fi" and books for normal people, so I can compare.

Trust me, I know what I am talking about.

(I could, of course, start quating examples; but you don't really deserve such effort.)

   -- Signed, Lev Andropoff, cosmonaut.
[ Parent ]

there are feminist sci fi writers as well (4.00 / 1) (#55)
by zzzeek on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 12:15:23 AM EST

the most prominent (and most radically feminist) being Ursula LeGuin.  I agree that Heinlein is a right wing loony that had no business instructing young boys in anything.  Prior to the 70s, sci fi was a largely unnoticed lowbrow subculture that was ignored by the bigger literary community, and was completely male dominated.  But the genre has expanded quite a bit in the 70s and is not limited to any one political view these days.  

[ Parent ]
I wouldn't say that (none / 0) (#83)
by epepke on Thu Jan 23, 2003 at 09:54:54 PM EST

Ursula K. LeGuin isn't the most radically feminism SF writer. Both Joanna Russ and Margaret Atwood were more radically feminist than she. Furthermore, based on a Bill Moyers interview, I get the impression that LeGuin specifically avoided making Lathe of Heaven into a feminist morality tale.

She is possibly the most prominent, but mainly because of her editing of that anthology, the name of which escapes me now.

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett

[ Parent ]
the norton anthology (none / 0) (#90)
by zzzeek on Tue Jan 28, 2003 at 11:51:26 AM EST

which I vaguely understand only included american sci fi authors and failed to mention such names as Bradbury, Heinlein, etc., and I also read an opinion that stated she picked the very best of the female writers and the very worst of the male writers to include.

[ Parent ]
nice troll loser (4.50 / 2) (#56)
by Baldwin atomic on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 12:23:03 AM EST

But I have to say that I would consider Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" as Sci-Fi, yet you specifically mention him as an author that doesn't have to resort to high-tech devices or lots of sex.

You have obviously not read Brave New World, as high-tech (by the standards of his time, of course) abounds, and sex is viewed by society as just something to do, anyone who feels love (or any other emotion for that matter) is treated for their 'illness'

Opinions not necessarily those of the author.
[ Parent ]
When was the last time you read Shakespeare? (4.00 / 2) (#65)
by dirtmerchant on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 09:57:31 AM EST

I'm guessing in was in "Banal WASPs 101".
More traditional fiction authors have gotten along just fine in getting their points across without having to resort to ludicrous, unrealistic devices like space or time travel or things taking place in an imagined "future".
Go see a production of Midsummer Nights Dream sometime and make that same statement. (Trollbaiting disclaimer: Heinlein and Shakespeare are equally brilliant. Niven's a hack, but if he feels like writing NAMBLA handbooks more power to him.)
-- "The universe not only may be queerer than we think, but queerer than we can think" - JBS Haldane
[ Parent ]
indeed (none / 0) (#70)
by ph0rk on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 03:08:52 PM EST

Never mind old will's strong sex content.

[ f o r k . s c h i z o i d . c o m ]
[ Parent ]

Heinlein is a dumbass. (1.00 / 1) (#71)
by tkatchev on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 05:55:34 PM EST

Just like any other writer of "sci-fi".

I refuse to take seriously anybody who willingly lets himself be relegated to an intellectual ghetto.

   -- Signed, Lev Andropoff, cosmonaut.
[ Parent ]

you obviously missed a lot (none / 0) (#75)
by Alt SysRq B on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 09:27:38 PM EST

It's interesting how all your attempts to read SciFi lead you to get these indeed trashy romance books. SciFi is a lot more than that, take A.C. Clarke as an example.
I have a feeling that you actually got what you looked for :-) so then don't criticise.

[ Parent ]
Give the guy some sympathy (none / 0) (#86)
by knobmaker on Sat Jan 25, 2003 at 10:48:38 PM EST

Clearly the poster suffers from such a rigid personality that he cannot suspend either belief or judgement.  Such folk are more to be pitied than scorned.

Furthermore, he's had some "English courses."  Evidently he was instructed by teachers who also suffer from this unhappy condition, and in the case of English teachers, the sad situation is usually compounded by professional jealousy.

It's hard to find an English instructor who doesn't harbor the secret belief that he or she is just waiting for the moment when the Great American Novel will come welling forth from the depths of said English instructor's beautiful soul.  As you might expect, such folk are deeply galled by the knowledge that sf writers still have a few breathing short fiction markets that actually pay in something other than contributors copies.  Most English teachers must fight to be published in literary magazines with circulations in the hundreds.  Life is so unfair.

Finally, we should feel sorry for this person because of his obvious sexual hangups.  It can't be good to be such a devoted prude.

[ Parent ]

Bad poll (1.00 / 1) (#36)
by BOredAtWork on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 03:51:20 PM EST

How can you leave off Orson Scott Card, and more importantly, George Orwell?

Or... (none / 0) (#42)
by Eater on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 07:15:59 PM EST

Arthur C. Clarke?


[ Parent ]
Quite Easily (none / 0) (#50)
by Aemeth on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 10:32:33 PM EST

I should imagine that, considering the plethora of Sci-Fi authors, the poll can only ever be based on the article's author's experience and opinion. If everyone's pick of a great Sci-Fi author were to be included in the poll, it would generally be simpler to use Amazon's Sci-Fi catalogue as the poll.

If you don't like the options, don't vote, this isn't an election, it's an opinion poll.

Better still, write your own article on the comparable merits of your favorite Sci-Fi authors.

...mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.
Bertrand Russell

[ Parent ]
Polls only allow 8 options max... (none / 0) (#58)
by TheophileEscargot on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 03:58:46 AM EST

...so unfortunately I had to discard quite a few authors.
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]
Card? (none / 0) (#85)
by epepke on Fri Jan 24, 2003 at 01:41:07 AM EST

I like Card quite a lot, but I don't think he ever did anything approaching a future history. The Earth books seem the closest, but they're more sort of theological than historical. The Ender books don't focus on a future history per se; while there are historical events, many aspects that would be explored in a future history (such as the structure of the hegemony) are left nebulous. Alvin Maker is a fantasy past.

The truth may be out there, but lies are inside your head.--Terry Pratchett

[ Parent ]
Nice article (4.00 / 2) (#41)
by gdanjo on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 07:14:14 PM EST

I was especially intrigued by the following:

"In recent years, Francis Fukuyama's influential essay on The End of History argued that a modern peaceful, liberal democracy is the final and most successful form of state, barring significant changes in technology. While widely reported, this view seems too dull to be popular in SF: great conflicts between warring ideologies are more dramatic."

I beleive it's also too dull for history. The micro-forces that make us look at our different-cultured neighbour with a suspicious eye are the same that make one country declare another evil - they're just played out at different power levels.

And for that reason I beleive the forces involved to make one write an exciting yarn are the one and the same influencing powerfull figures to perform actions to cement their place in history. These "great conflicts" are also the actions that a populace will encourage a leader to perform - after all, those kind of heroics are sung in folk songs, revered on the idiot box, and worshiped in people who pretend to perform such heroics as the greatest humans of all (actors).

Dan ...
"Death - oh! fair and `guiling copesmate Death!
Be not a malais'd beggar; claim this bloody jester!"

War and Peace (5.00 / 1) (#46)
by johnny on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 09:13:50 PM EST

Well, Tolstoy's War and Peace isn't SF, but I just wanted to point out how cool it is in that book when the Author stops the action every once and a while to in present a theory of history that can explain why millions of men had formed armies, left their families, and marched hundreds of miles to kill each other. Each theory is presented, and then discarded. If I remember, the Author eventually concludes that there is no possible explanation for the events he describes. It's brilliant.

On hive minds, I think that John F.X. Sundman's work Acts of the Apostles deserves mention as a recent and particularly compelling investigation of this theme.

yr frn,
Get your free download of prizewinning novels Acts of the Apostles and Cheap Complex Devices.

Some Remarks (none / 0) (#52)
by HidingMyName on Mon Jan 20, 2003 at 11:38:02 PM EST

I'm sorry for the late post, I thought I had submitted these this morning.`
  • I was surprised that Jules Verne was not mentioned.
  • You might be interested in the SF Timeline.
I thought the idea of the article was interesting, and had it not been accepted, I would have recommended converting it into a series of shorter articles.

Very Good Article -- Related Subjects (4.50 / 2) (#59)
by jck2000 on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 04:53:33 AM EST

I really enjoyed the article. Two areas touched on in the article that may be of further interest are:

1. Science Fiction Firsts. There was a very long thread on some sf newsgroup regarding science fiction "firsts" -- the first use of concepts like hive mind, transporters, alien contact, etc. (Unfortunately, I can't seem to google it up right now. Any clues?) I seem to recall the thread had some interesting early citations, as well as speculations on the technological and societal backdrops of some of the ideas.

2. Pre-20th century literary and scientific, economic, philosophical, etc. visions of the future. When did people first start trying to make concrete predictions of a future qualitatively different that the past? This has got to go back to at least the Enlightenment. Again, the thread mentioned above had some non-sf references and I believe there have been a number of scholarly works on "the discovery of the future".

Kim Stanley Robinson? (4.66 / 3) (#61)
by phuzz on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 06:39:45 AM EST

Sorry to add another one to the load of 'but you missed...' posts but when I read the title of the article I thought it was a pretty safe bet you'd be including KSR.
If you havn't heard of him you need to look up the trilogy, Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars.  The three books span roughly 200 years and the colonization and terraforming of Mars.  They are hard science fiction, ie, no FTL, no psycics, no time travel etc.  In fact, they are so accurate (if thats the right word for something that hasn't happened yet) that apparently  they are quite popular at NASA.
They contain a great deal of scientific postulatiing on ways of terraforming Mars, possible life extension treatments (which allow the same characters to appear in all three books) and even more political theorising about a future Martian government.  
As future history goes it should really rank as one of the most well thought out and, well, plausable.  In fact my copy has a quote calling it  "The ultimate in future history", but it's from the Daily Mail so I'll gloss over that one.

On a related note, where you say "It could be that space flight will always be too expensive for interstellar colonization", I wondered if you've read the more recent Peter F Hamilton book Fallen Dragon, which has exactally the same premise and goes on to explore a range of topics from the eventual fate of the capitalist system (buying shares in a company = promotion), the economics of colony worlds (they cost a lot to set up and don't send anything back you couldn't make cheaper here) and eventually touches on the whole Galactic Empire thing, but I don't want to give away any spoilers.

To change the subject again has anyone else noticed the tendency of authors to become more cynical as the get older?  Compare the Arthur C. Clarke books, Fountains of Paridise and a more recent work, The Light of Other Days, or indeed, just go from Rendezvous with Rama to Rama II.

[RGB] Mars (none / 0) (#67)
by RiotNrrd on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 01:37:06 PM EST

I was surprised to miss these too, for exactly the same reasons: hard science, well-thought out extrapolations from current levels of technological process, and political issues treated seriously with in-depth expositions of a multitude of positions.

I would definitely recommend these books, both for their intrinsic quality and for the future-history aspects. They can also serve as a path to wide-eyed space-fandom... Caveat emptor!

-- There is a rational explanation for everything. Unfortunately there is also an irrational one.
[ Parent ]

Rama II (4.00 / 1) (#76)
by Alt SysRq B on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 09:30:22 PM EST

The latter Rama books (not the first one) were written in collaboration with that other guy, can't remember his name, and are of an obviously lower quality. I believe ACC actually wrote very little of all that stuff.

[ Parent ]
excellent (5.00 / 1) (#66)
by Phantros on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 10:06:19 AM EST

Excellent article. You covered it all.

Incidentally, I just got through posting a timeline for the entire Robot-Empire-Foundation series by Asimov. For those that have read part of it, feel free to leave a comment. ;)

4Literature - 2,000 books online and Scoop to discuss them with

Heinlein and Hemingway? (none / 0) (#68)
by Pop Top on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 01:37:29 PM EST

Here is how I link them together:

I once sat in on a "feminist" lit criticism seminar. One of the participants expressed how grateful she was for a forum where she could say:

"Hemingway wrote with his dick"

and not get graded down by some aged white Euro male professor for her opinion.

Sitting there I was struck with the urge to send this woman a copy of Glory Road or Farnham's Freehold two books where men were men, women were duly subservient and "gub-mint" was a million miles away.

Heinlein is best read with a side of teen-age wannabe testosterone, IMHO.

Pop Top and poor reading comprehension (none / 0) (#84)
by porp on Fri Jan 24, 2003 at 12:38:07 AM EST

Subservient, eh? You might have missed that part in Glory Road where the female protagonist is the total and complete ruler of all worlds based on her tremendous intellect, and where the male protagonist ends up being a useless trophy husband that's bored out of his skull.

So how was she duly subservient again?

[ Parent ]

You missed one... (none / 0) (#69)
by cvou on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 02:30:27 PM EST

Benny Russel

All things considered, his vision of the future was remarkably.. er, accurate.. :)

Articles like this... (5.00 / 2) (#72)
by fractal on Tue Jan 21, 2003 at 06:47:13 PM EST

are the reason I read kuro5in. Good stuff. As for far-future stories, A.A. Attanasio set The Last Legends of Earth a billion years after humanity is extinct, only to be recreated to act as bait in a cosmic trap.

I can't say enough about Attanasio. His books are truly mind bending, and he is one of the most original SF authors I have ever read. The man has vision.


a history of the history of the past (4.00 / 4) (#78)
by turmeric on Wed Jan 22, 2003 at 02:27:53 AM EST

Exploration of the solar system
Slower than light travel to the stars
Total or limited nuclear war on Earth
Meeting with aliens
Faster than light travel to the stars
Colonization of the galaxy
Galactic Empire established
Galactic Empire falls, period of barbarism
Another Galactic civilization established

Congratulations, you have just reproduced the white european colonialism/imperialism virtually word-for-word, idea-for-idea, and called it
'revolutionary'. Sorry, there is nothing revolutionary about it in any way.
i would be very interested to know more specifics about these authors ideas of exactly what 'colonialism' means... does it mean half the population of the US gets thrown into starvation and then shipped to a foreign planet to kill natives in the name of profit?  
i only remember bradburys story about martians and how humans colonizing it was killing the natives. there was a movie of this w david carradine iirc.

have you ever read Asimov, or Blish? (none / 0) (#79)
by porkchop_d_clown on Wed Jan 22, 2003 at 08:50:24 AM EST

Asimov, Blish and others often simply stated that Earth was the only planet on which multi-cellular life developed.

Other authors, like Smith, explored the idea of being part of a community of truly different aliens.

Younger authors, like Brin, have actively explored the idea of a universe full of older, more mature species and what it means to be the new kid on the block trying (sometimes desperately) to maintain independence when the galactic "superpowers" have either no interest in us or an active interest in seeing us fail.

See "Spinneret" by Timothy Zahn, and the whole "Earthrise" series by David Brin for an exploration of these ideas. Earthrise, in particular, looks at the politics of being a "3rd world species".

"Your article (and I use that term losely) is just a ad-hominem filled rant from a right-wing extremist loony." - Psycho Les

[ Parent ]
Oh, give it a rest (5.00 / 3) (#80)
by TheophileEscargot on Wed Jan 22, 2003 at 12:12:06 PM EST

You're already using that Scoop bug to keep another variant on this in the queue... you don't need to spread out into my story as well.

Also you could at least have the courtesy to read my article. I never described Wollheim's consensus as "revolutionary".

Wells was using the aliens=colonizers analogy well over a century before you. For instance, in "the War of the Worlds" he explicitly compared the Martian invasion to that of the indigenous Tasmanians etc. The full spectrum of political opinion, including Socialism has been expressed in SF.

Finally, if you read my Political Backgrounds in SF and Fantasy article, you'll see I've dealt with the politics of SF in great detail already. Unlike you, I can post articles that aren't endless regurgitations of the same topic...
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]

Great Article (none / 0) (#87)
by holycola on Sun Jan 26, 2003 at 11:48:31 AM EST

Well-written, concise and interesting. Good work.

This is not a sig.
Where Is the New Wave or the 90s Solipsism? (none / 0) (#88)
by meehawl on Mon Jan 27, 2003 at 07:06:10 PM EST

I am wary of any pretender to a comprehensive account of Science Fiction that omits the Psychological New Wave, especially writers such as Brian Aldiss, Sam Delany, and Stanislaw Lem, and the 90s exploration of solpisism and techno-anarcho-syndicalism (most popular in the UK and Australiasia). This all reads like a white geek US-centric imperialist-friendly history to me, with a dash of "foreign" writers thrown in for spice (with their most "vanila" output selected for concordance). Choosing mostly the tropes popularized mainly by the early US pulp market seems very impoverishing.

Mike Rogers www.meehawl.com
Er... (none / 0) (#89)
by TheophileEscargot on Tue Jan 28, 2003 at 04:22:20 AM EST

...this is an account of the Future History sub-genre only.
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]
Future Nonhistory? (none / 0) (#91)
by meehawl on Tue Jan 28, 2003 at 04:22:54 PM EST

this is an account of the Future History sub-genre only.

So Brian Aldiss's Galaxies Like Grains of Sand is not "future history"?

And Sam Delany's Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia is not "future history"?

And Greg Egan's Permutation City is not "future history"?

And Ken McLeod's The Cassini Division is not "future history"?

Interesting... but incorrect. Let's not kid ourselves, SF is not really about embarassing ourselves by trying to predict the future (that's why we have futurists), but instead it's about holding up a metaphorical mirror to contemporary social trends. By choosing to ignore or elide around enormous swathes of left-of-centre polemic and fiction, the US-centric, Gersback/Heinlein influenced "scientification" constructs an ideological homogenization filter that seeks to whitewash the genre while directing social trends concordantly.

In this SF is distinct from many other genres, which seek to influence (whether consciously or unconsciously) current social trends by reflecting on an idealized metaphor of the past, whether recent or distant. SF just flips this mirror around.

Mike Rogers www.meehawl.com
[ Parent ]
Read the article, dude (none / 0) (#92)
by TheophileEscargot on Tue Jan 28, 2003 at 04:38:23 PM EST

You said:
SF is not really about embarassing ourselves by trying to predict the future (that's why we have futurists), but instead it's about holding up a metaphorical mirror to contemporary social trends
I already addressed that point in the second paragraph
Science fiction is really about the present, the saying goes. It's often argued that SF consists of either metaphorical or unconscious commentary on the present day. However, that view drives some SF writers to apoplexy. Bruce Sterling for one has objected to it. SF is often about the present, but at least occasionally it is the result of careful thought about where history is taking us. Although the future is often shaped by ideology or current events, it's no less plausible than most other forms of futurology.
I also backed that up a specific quote in footnote 1.

Regarding the omission of your pet favourites, given that you couldn't be bothered to read even the first two paragraphs, there's clearly not enough room to extend the article to even more authors...
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]

Sins of Omission (none / 0) (#93)
by meehawl on Tue Jan 28, 2003 at 06:45:13 PM EST

there's clearly not enough room to extend the article to even more authors...

I agree with your metaphorical posit and you diss me? I note that Bruce, easily one of the most polemical and ideological SF writers, objects to the idea that his writing could be constrained within a specific discursive formation. Well, fish swim in water but do you really think they notice it?

That's why I included Delany's Triton in the list. We live in a heterotopia but because most of us identify as straight we never really notice it -- it's an invisible part of our environment. So too do many SF writers lay claim to unbridled objectivity and natural fundamentals.

My point is not that any history will ignore "pet favourites", but that when "histories" of science fiction are written they tend to ignore entire swathes of authors based on their various ideological commitments. This is not unusual... in fact this is what history is about: rewriting the present. Remember Orwell's circular logic about the reinforcing and reproducing mechanisms of ideology:

Those who control the past, control the future; Those who control the future, control the present; Those who control the present, control the past.

Mike Rogers www.meehawl.com
[ Parent ]
As I already said... (none / 0) (#94)
by TheophileEscargot on Wed Jan 29, 2003 at 04:40:43 AM EST

...this is not a history of Science Fiction, this is a history of the "Future History" sub-genre. There's very little overlap with the "New Wave" sub-genre which furnishes your examples: predicting the future wasn't something they were very interested in.

Regarding my "ideological commitments", my tendency to "ignore or elide around enormous swathes of left-of-centre polemic and fiction" and my "white geek US-centric imperialist-friendly history" well... hands up, you got me. I'm just an imperialist propagandist, hence my flooding K5 with articles on such right-wing US-centric SF writers as Iain M. Banks, Norman Spinrad and Greg Egan and Stephen Baxter...
Support the nascent Mad Open Science movement... when we talk about "hundreds of eyeballs," we really mean it. Lagged2Death
[ Parent ]

Whose Future? (none / 0) (#95)
by meehawl on Wed Jan 29, 2003 at 06:55:03 PM EST

"New Wave" sub-genre which furnishes your examples: predicting the future wasn't something they were very interested in.

That depends on your perspective. The New Wave was a conscious effort to expand the gamut of "prediction" from writing about machines+people to writing about how varied and new psychological states and interpersonal relationships that were being transformed, or at least appeared to be being transformed. Machines and technology -- often in the shape of new pharmaceutical products and social technologies -- were used to provide logical reasons for these transformations. If you stick just to the machines part of Future History then you are stuck with Gernsback scientification, which brings us nheatly back to the start of our discussion.

Mike Rogers www.meehawl.com
[ Parent ]
A History of the History of the Future | 95 comments (73 topical, 22 editorial, 0 hidden)
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