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Future Histories

Entry updated 18 September 2023. Tagged: Theme.

The grouping of generally independent-seeming sf stories into an overarching "History of the Future" is a device most famously used by Robert A Heinlein, who caught the imagination of 1940s Fandom with a timeline featuring colourful labels like "The Crazy Years" – summarized by a sequence of mildly bizarre "1969" newspaper headlines in Methuselah's Children (July-September 1941 Astounding; rev 1958) – and projected titles intended to bridge gaps in the sequence, like the never written «The Stone Pillow». John W Campbell Jr published an early version of Heinlein's chart in Astounding (February 1941) and seems to have coined the term "future history" in the same issue.

Heinlein was preceded by other authors, the first recognizable future history probably being Les Ruines, ou méditation sur les révolutions des empires (1791; trans anon as The Ruins; Or, a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires 1792) by M Volney (see Ruins and Futurity), with some scattered further examples, like William Delisle Hay's Three Hundred Years Hence (1881), or Elliott E Mills's The Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1905 chap), a textbook supposedly issued in 2005, or Alfred Döblin's Mountains Oceans Giants (1924), or various examples by André Maurois.. But his most famous immediate predecessor is of course Olaf Stapledon, whose Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937) outline an increasingly dizzying sweep of futurity through a variety of future-historical episodes. Although E E "Doc" Smith's Lensman series was grandiosely surtitled The History of Civilization for one boxed edition, it is not a future-history mosaic in either the Stapledon or the Heinlein sense, telling as it does a single story of galactic conflict whose sole sidebar narrative – The Vortex Blaster (stories July 1941-October 1942 var mags; fixup 1960; vt Masters of the Vortex 1968) – is essentially detachable. Isaac Asimov established his own future history with several novels, such as Pebble in the Sky (1950), set in earlier periods of the Galactic Empire whose decline opens the Foundation sequence; Asimov's late decision to merge this timeline with that of his independent Robot stories led to complex implausibilities and inconsistencies which many found embarrassing.

Further future histories of interest include: Brian W Aldiss's whimsical stitching of unrelated stories into a history culminating with the end of our universe in Galaxies like Grains of Sand (coll of linked stories 1960); Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind timeline – again containing tantalizing gaps – as charted by John J Pierce and appearing in several collections including the Pierce-edited The Best of Cordwainer Smith (coll 1975; vt The Rediscovery of Man 1988); and Jack Vance's Gaean Reach, incorporating several subseries, extending over thousands of years, and linked by such distinctive organizations as the deviously motivated Historical Institute and the IPCC interstellar police agency.

More recently, sprawling galactic backgrounds like that of Iain Banks's Culture can imply a vast sweep of historical development without always spelling out the details. Stephen Baxter's Xeelee sequence offers a particularly ambitious timeline extending over more than twenty billion years, dominated by a War beginning in the era when Earth life first emerged, and concluding with the effective extinction of baryonic (normal-matter) life some ten million years hence – see for example Ring (1994). Alastair Reynolds's Inhibitors series has a similarly vast scope, with immense time-lags imposed by the author's adherence to the speed limits and Time Distortion imposed by Relativity. Satisfyingly complex future-history sequences which avoid the above examples' dizzying Time Abysses include John Barnes's The Century Next Door, C J Cherryh's very extensive and various Alliance-Union, Frederik Pohl's Gateway and Bruce Sterling's Shaper/Mechanist stories. [DRL]

see also: Future War; History in SF; Near Future; Prediction; Starforce: Alpha Centauri.

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