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Far Future

Entry updated 11 August 2018. Tagged: Theme.


The dutch sociologist and historian Fred Polak (1907-1985), in De toekomst is verleden tijd ["The Future Is Past Time"] (1955 2vols; trans Elise Boulding as The Image of the Future 1961 2vols; trans cut 1973), identifies two distinct categories of images of the distant future, which he calls the "future of prophecy" and the "future of destiny". Prophets, although they refer to the future, are primarily concerned with the present: they issue warnings about the consequences of present actions and demand that other courses of action be adopted. Their images are images of the historical future which will grow out of human action in the present day (see Near Future). To the second category of images, however, present concerns are usually irrelevant; these are images of the ultimate future, taking the imagination as far as it can reach. Such visions are related to Eschatology and often feature the End of the World; others depict a world where everything has so changed as to have become virtually incomprehensible, or a world which has attained some ultimate Utopian state of perfection.

Scientifically inspired images of the far future could not come into being until the true age of the Earth and therefore the scope of possible change were understood – an understanding first popularized by Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) in Principles of Geology (1830). Even then it was not until the establishment of the theory of Evolution that writers found a conceptual tool which made it possible for them to imagine the kinds of changes which might plausibly take place. W H Hudson's A Crystal Age (1887), which belongs to the utopian school, embraces an evolutionary philosophy of a curiously mystical kind, and such traces of mysticism are retained by very many representations of the far future. Most early images of the far future accepted estimates of the likely age of the Sun based on the tacit, natural but false assumption that its heat was produced by combustion; the far-future Earth is thus represented as a cold, dark and desolate place, ravaged by Entropy, from which life is slowly disappearing. We find such imagery in H G Wells's The Time Machine (1895), George C Wallis's "The Last Days of Earth" (July 1901 The Harmsworth Magazine) and William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland (1908). Hodgson's The Night Land (1912) is bizarre as well as bleak, offering a phantasmagorical vision of a decaying world inherited by frightful Monsters while humanity has retreated behind the defences of a Keep, the Last Redoubt. The optimistic far-future vision which concludes George Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah (1921; revs 1921-1945) is predicated on the assumption that mind can and will cast off the confining shackles of matter. More elaborate but no less striking imagery is featured in the concluding section of Guy Dent's Emperor of the If (1926), in which our insane descendants are no longer human in form or ability but remain all too human in psychological terms. S Fowler Wright's The World Below (incorporating The Amphibians [1924]; 1929) is equally ambitious, and contrives to transcend the images of decay and desolation associated with so many other visions. These works were quickly followed by Olaf Stapledon's monumental attempt to track the entire Evolutionary future of mankind, Last and First Men (1930), partly based on a blueprint provided by J B S Haldane in "The Last Judgment" (in Possible Worlds, coll 1927). Other than millennarian fantasies, which claim that the future of destiny is imminent, very few novels link the two images of the future defined by Polak within a coherent historical narrative; Last and First Men is by far the most outstanding example, although Camille Flammarion's Omega (trans 1894) had earlier brought the two into rather awkward juxtaposition.

The early sf Pulp magazines featured several far-future visions of the end of the world, but had little to compare with the imagery of the UK Scientific Romances, though there were occasional exceptions. Echoing Stapledon's vision if not his scale, Frank Belknap Long produced several "Last Men" short stories showing evolved humans as slaves of once-lesser species; the vivid "Green Glory" (August 1934 Astounding) reflects issues of totalitarian conflict. One notable story that presents the extinction of mankind's remote descendants as one more stage in a continuing process of change is "Seeds of the Dusk" (June 1938 Astounding) by Raymond Z Gallun, in which a much-changed Earth is "invaded" and "conquered" by spores from another world. Gallun's "When Earth is Old" (August 1951 Super Science Stories) has time travellers (see Time Travel) negotiating with sentient plants to assure the rebirth of the species. The quest for some such rebirth is a common motif in far-future stories, and time travellers from the present frequently contrive to turn the evolutionary tide that is sweeping humanity towards extinction, as in such stories as John W Campbell Jr's "Twilight" (November 1934 Astounding) as by Don A Stuart. The idea of reigniting a senescent Sun in order to give Earth and mankind a new lease of life is poignantly deployed in Clark Ashton Smith's "Phoenix" (in Time to Come, anth 1954, ed August Derleth) and extravagantly developed in Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols). Such notions arise from false analogies drawn between the life of an individual and that of a species, alleging that species may "age" and become "senescent". The popularity of such ideas in sf is not surprising, given the influence of similar analogies between individuals and cultures in the work of philosophers of history like Oswald Spengler. Spengler's ideas were a strong influence on James Blish, whose most memorable accounts of the far future are "Watershed" (May 1955 If) and Midsummer Century (April 1972 F&SF; rev 1972). Images of an aged world that has returned to its "second childhood" are sometimes as affectionate as rose-tinted images of human retirement; the classic example is John Crowley's Engine Summer (1979).

Clark Ashton Smith set the most lushly exotic of all his series in Zothique, the "last continent" – a bizarre and Decadent world in which Magic flourishes. The stories, all written in the 1930s, were eventually collected in Zothique (coll 1970). Zothique offered Smith more imaginative freedom than his distant-past scenario Hyperborea precisely because it was irredeemably decadent. A similar but less fervent series of fantasies is Jack Vance's The Dying Earth (coll 1950); later sequels include The Eyes of the Overworld (fixup 1966), which contains a stronger strain of picaresque comedy; Vance's setting if not his comedy was a strong and acknowledged influence on Gene Wolfe's already-cited The Book of the New Sun. A Merritt never used the far future as a setting, but his lavish descriptions of exotic landscapes influenced a number of far-future fantasies; Henry Kuttner and C L Moore, who wrote a series of Merritt-influenced novels in the 1940s, offered a Merrittesque far future in Earth's Last Citadel (April-July 1943 Argosy; 1964).

The classic pulp sf story of the far future is Arthur C Clarke's Stapledon-influenced Against the Fall of Night (November 1948 Startling; 1953; rev vt The City and the Stars 1956). Its imagery is stereotyped – a bleak, derelict Earth with Cities whose handsome, incurious inhabitants are parasitic upon their Machines – but its perspectives widen dramatically to take in the whole cosmos, where mankind may yet seek a further and more glorious destiny. This was to become a central myth of sf, and many images of Galactic Empire include nostalgic portraits of stagnant backwater Earth. These are not, of course, images of the future of destiny but rather attempts to perpetuate and magnify the historical image – as is obvious in the many epics which construct galactic history by analogy with Earthly history.

Images of far-future Earth became more varied in the sf of the 1950s; notable examples include a number of highly stylized and semi-allegorical vignettes by Fritz Leiber, including "When the Last Gods Die" (December 1951 F&SF) and "The Big Trek" (October 1957 F&SF), as well as many fine stories by Brian W Aldiss, including the later items in The Canopy of Time (coll 1959; rev vt Galaxies Like Grains of Sand 1960), "Old Hundredth" (November 1960 New Worlds), the stories making up The Long Afternoon of Earth (stories February-December 1961 F&SF; fixup 1962; exp vt Hothouse 1962), "A Kind of Artistry" (October 1962 F&SF) and "The Worm that Flies" (in The Farthest Reaches, anth 1968, ed Joseph Elder). As with all the stories in this category, these tend towards Fantasy, and some controversy was stirred up by a particularly memorable image in The Long Afternoon of Earth, in which gigantic cobwebs stretch between the Earth and the Moon, whose faces are now perpetually turned to one another. Other innovative uses of far-future settings can be seen in Cordwainer Smith's mythically resonant Instrumentality of Mankind sequence, John Brunner's elegiac adventure story The 100th Millennium (1959; rev vt Catch a Falling Star 1968), Samuel R Delany's exotic romance The Jewels of Aptor (1962), Jack Vance's elegant political allegory The Last Castle (April 1966 Galaxy; 1967 chap dos), Michael Moorcock's angst-ridden The Twilight Man (1966; vt The Shores of Death 1970) and Crawford Kilian's exotic romance of maturation Eyas (1982).

Michael Moorcock's fondness for far-future settings encouraged him to break new ground in his Dancers at the End of Time trilogy (1972-1976) and various other works associated with it. In this series, whose tone ranges from extravagant Satire to perverse sentimentality, the ultimate future is inhabited by humans with godlike powers who must perpetually seek diversion from the tedium and Decadence of their limitless existence. Other writers who have made frequent and significant use of far-future imagery in the later twentieth century include Robert Silverberg, in such works as the surreal Son of Man (1971) and "This is the Road" (in No Mind of Man, anth 1973, ed Robert Silverberg), Doris Piserchia, in such works as A Billion Days of Earth (1976) and Earth in Twilight (1981), and Michael G Coney in The Celestial Steam Locomotive (1983), Gods of the Greataway (1984) and other associated works.

Space Opera, on those occasions when the constraints of relativity are observed, can convey its protagonists across significant Time Abysses into remote futures when the cosmos may have significantly changed: Poul Anderson takes his Starship to the end of the universe and beyond in Tau Zero (June-August 1967 Galaxy as "To Outlive Eternity"; exp 1970), and vast time-spans are similarly skipped over in Alastair Reynolds's approach to New Space Opera – in particular his Inhibitors sequence opening with Revelation Space (2000), and the standalone House of Suns (2008). Other authors, like Greg Bear in City at the End of Time (2008) look farther ahead to the End of Time itself (see also Omega Point).

For many years there were no Anthologies dealing specifically with this theme: indeed Harry Harrison's attempt to compile a companion volume to his near-future anthology The Year 2000 (anth 1970), to be entitled «The Year 2,000,000», failed to attract sufficient suitable submissions. Later, however, came such relevant anthologies as Far Futures (anth 1997) edited by Gregory Benford and One Million AD (anth 2006) edited by Gardner Dozois. Many new stories of Jack Vance's Dying Earth (which see) appear in Songs of the Dying Earth (anth 2009) edited by Dozois and George R R Martin. [BS/DRL]

see also: Devolution; Mythology.

further reading

  • Fred Polak. De toekomst is verleden tijd ["The Future Is Past Time"] (Amsterdam, Netherlands: De Haan, 1955) [published in two volumes: hb/]
    • Fred Polak. The Image of the Future (Leydon, Netherlands: A W Sythoff/New York: Oceana Publications, 1961) [nonfiction: published in two volumes: trans by Elise Boulding of the above: hb/]
      • Fred Polak. The Image of the Future (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier, 1973) [nonfiction: cut version of the above trans: hb/]

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