Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar
Science fiction is really about the present, the saying
It's often argued that SF consists
of either metaphorical or unconscious commentary on
the present day. However, that view drives some SF writers
Bruce Sterling for one has objected to
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
The Steam Age
It was in the nineteenth century that the futures boom
began. Most of these futures were either Utopias,
from Nowhere or
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
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
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,
To Come, created a familiar
vision of the
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
The Rocket Age
It was in 1930 that possibly the greatest
future history was begun.
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
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
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
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
Fall of the Roman Empire in space. In the
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.
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.
- 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
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
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"
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
Forever War at one stage the entire human race is,
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,
The stories of
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,
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
of Mankind. In this case humanity is
eventually restored with ancient
languages, jobs and lifestyles deliberately resurrected;
an event called the
of Man. Smith's
effervescent writing style is one of the few successful
attempts to depict a future so radically different
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
The Silicon Age
Science fiction had never coped well with
the computer age. While the early electronic computers were
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
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,
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
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
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
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
in the relatively near future. We may not even have the capacity
to understand what will happen at this point, let alone to predict
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.
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As usual, I'm highly indebted to Brian W. Aldiss' astonishing
history of SF,
Also helpful was
Fiction in the Twentieth Century by Edward James.
Due to the length of this story, I've put some content into
Footnote 1: Bruce Sterling
Bruce Sterling made the following statement, quoted in
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
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!"
It has also been thought that science fiction imagery had a
significant impact on real architecture. In an essay by
William Gibson called
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,
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.
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
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
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
Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison (filmed as
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
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
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
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
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
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
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