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History in SF

Entry updated 13 August 2022. Tagged: Theme.

The real history of the world and the many Alternate Histories which might have replaced it are extensively featured in sf stories of Time Travel and Parallel Worlds, but sf writers have also drawn much inspiration from history in designing hypothetical futures. Sometimes, like Charles L Harness in Flight into Yesterday (May 1949 Startling; exp 1953; vt The Paradox Men) and James Blish in Cities in Flight (1950-1962 var mags; omni 1970), they have made use of actual theories – from Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) in the former case, Oswald Spengler in the latter – which have claimed to detect authentic cyclic patterns in history; more commonly, though, they have simply borrowed the past as a convenient template. Thus Miles J Breuer and Jack Williamson replayed the story of the American Revolution as the story of the revolt of the Moon's colony against its Earthly masters in The Birth of a New Republic (Winter 1931 Amazing Stories Quarterly; 1981 chap); Robert A Heinlein later did this more convincingly in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (December 1965-April 1966 If; 1966). Isaac Asimov gave to this process of borrowing a new gloss of sophistication in the first phase of his Foundation series (stories May 1942-January 1950 Astounding; 1951-1953 3vols; as The Foundation Trilogy omni 1963) by inventing his own futuristic science of Psychohistory, by which Edward Gibbon's retrospective analysis of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is transmuted into Hari Seldon's prophetic analysis of the decline and fall of the Galactic Empire. Seldon's Plan, however, can change these deterministic prophecies by social engineering. Interestingly, a later novel by Asimov, The End of Eternity (1955), argues as strongly against social engineering as the Foundation series argued for it.

Toynbee eventually recanted the cyclic theory outlined in A Study of History (1934-1961 12vols), and the earlier quasideterministic theories of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) and Spengler's Decline of the West (1918-1922) never quite attained academic respectability, but the attractions of such theories to sf writers are obvious. Blish's fascination with Spengler became deep, respectful and altogether serious, and A E van Vogt drew inspiration from Spengler in The Voyage of the Space Beagle (stories July 1939-August 1943 Astounding, May 1950 Other Worlds; fixup 1950; vt Mission: Interplanetary 1952). Toynbeean ideas continued to echo various writers' works, including Frederik Pohl's and C M Kornbluth's "Critical Mass" (February 1962 Galaxy), in which they are quoted directly, Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965), which seems to draw on Toynbee's picture of the Janissary-supported Turkish courts of the later Middle Ages, and Larry Niven's A World Out of Time (fixup 1976), which uses the Toynbee-derived notion of "water-monopoly empires" – i.e., empires founded on irrigation control. Philosophers of history who dealt in Near-Future climaxes rather than recurrent cycles – G W F Hegel (1770-1831) and Karl Marx (1818-1883) are the most obvious examples – have naturally been of less interest to sf writers.

The Pulp magazines inherited from the dime novels (see Dime-Novel SF) two striking "mythologized" versions nineteenth century history: the first, of the USA's western expansion, which glorified the "frontier spirit", and the second, of Europe's exploration and colonization of foreign lands. These myths (see also Social Darwinism) were transferred to sf, where they became the animating forces of countless stories about the exploration of the Solar System and the Colonization of Other Worlds. "Out from Rigel" (December 1931 Astounding) by Robert H Wilson, which dramatizes the conflict between two spacemen on the "sandy plain" of a strange planet for the love of a girl back home, may be taken as a characteristic example of the former, while Brigands of the Moon (March-June 1930 Astounding; 1931) by Ray Cummings, with its competition between the imperial powers of Earth and Mars (representatives of the former evidently all-white; those of the latter somewhat – confusingly – less so) to exploit the resources of unexplored worlds, illustrates the latter. The reflection of these mythical versions of recent history has maintained a tenacious hold over the images of the future contained in Genre SF, and has been elaborated in various ways, sometimes painfully naive and sometimes quite extraordinary. (The phenomenon is not, of course, restricted to fiction; the idea of space as a "high frontier" requiring conquest by bold pioneers informs much actual political rhetoric, and may be regarded as NASA's guiding myth.) It is not only US history per se which is reflected in stories of space pioneering; US writers have been perfectly willing to adapt "relevant" bits of more distant history, producing not only a subgenre of Medieval Futurism but such images as those in Poul Anderson's The High Crusade (July-September 1960 Astounding/Analog; 1960), H Beam Piper's Space Viking (1963) and Ben Bova's Privateers (1985). Anderson has been a particularly prolific and artful borrower of entrepreneurial models from the past, taking in explorers, privateers, merchant princes and all manner of military empire-builders.

Unlike US genre sf, UK Scientific Romance was heavily influenced by more pessimistic metaphysical notions of eternal recurrence. As citizens of an empire in decline rather than descendants of mythical pioneers, UK writers inherited a rather different attitude to the past, reflected in such elegiac and defeatist fantasies of cyclic history as Edward Shanks's The People of the Ruins (1920), Cicely Hamilton's Theodore Savage (1922) and John Gloag's "Pendulum" (circa 1930) and Tomorrow's Yesterday (1932). J B Priestley's Time plays dealt more delicately and not quite so darkly with similar philosophical ideas. Olaf Stapledon adopted a more robust view of future history in his classic Last and First Men (1930), toying with cyclicity but eventually discarding it in favour of a more open-ended philosophy of progress, but even he could not shake off a pessimistic conviction that whatever civilizations rise up must ultimately decline and fall. The pulp-sf writers were sometimes suspicious of the idea of progress, but in general they had much more faith in the notion that contemporary civilization was destined to thrive and expand for some considerable time; such future histories as Laurence Manning's in The Man Who Awoke (stories March-August 1933 Wonder Stories; fixup 1975) and the far more elaborate patterns drawn in the future-history series of Heinlein and Anderson are conspicuously open-ended. Relatively few pulp visionaries imagined that any significant and irreversible rot was likely to set in before the Galactic Empire had attained a glorious zenith. (see Galactic Empires for the argument that the open framework supplied by Asimov's Foundation series proved so comprehensive as to render unnecessary the sort of future history worked out with such pains by Heinlein and in rather less detail by later writers.)

In somewhat similar fashion, UK writers of scientific romance have often tended to see the past as something inelastically resistant to change. William Golding's inventor in "Envoy Extraordinary" (in Sometime, Never, anth 1956, ed anon; play version The Brass Butterfly 1958) fails ignominiously to interest the Roman Empire in gunpowder, the steam engine and the printing press, just as the Scientist in Ronald W Clark's Queen Victoria's Bomb (1967) finds that his Invention of a nuclear Weapon arouses little excitement in Victorian England. (It was, of course, the UK that produced Herbert Butterfield [1900-1979], the historian who wrote the clever satire The Whig Interpretation of History [1931] in an attempt to expose the absurdity of belief in progress, and also the folly of that kind of history written, perhaps unwittingly, to flatter a society's image of itself; many works of sf, even though set in the future, are open to the criticism of "whiggery".) In sharp contrast, the hero of L Sprague de Camp's classic pulp Timeslip story Lest Darkness Fall (December 1939 Unknown Worlds; 1941; rev 1949) averts the Dark Ages by means of a series of small and subtle Technological fixes, and many genre writers felt it necessary to set up corps of Time Police to protect history from casual spoliation by careless or evil-minded time-travellers. Examples include Anderson's The Guardians of Time (coll of linked stories 1960) and The Corridors of Time (1965), Barrington J Bayley's The Fall of Chronopolis (1974) and Diana Wynne Jones's A Tale of Time City (1987); however, Fritz Leiber's Change War series includes one story, "Try and Change the Past" (March 1958 Astounding), whose basic point is the impossibility of changing history at all.

It was not until the spectre of the Bomb caught up with US sf writers that tragic images of historical recurrence – like that in Walter M Miller Jr's classic A Canticle for Leibowitz (April 1955-February 1957 F&SF; fixup dated 1960 but 1959), which portrays a future Dark Age in which learning has once more retreated to the monasteries – began to appear in some quantity. More pessimistic philosophies of history, like the one deployed in Kornbluth's "The Only Thing We Learn" (July 1949 Startling) and the one detected by John F Carr in the stories he collected for H Beam Piper's posthumous Empire (coll 1981), also began to infect genre sf in this period. More recently, the aftermath of world-scale Holocaust has been much more widely exploited as a setting for historical "replays" in such Post-Holocaust novels as Paul O Williams's Pelbar Cycle, begun with The Breaking of Northwall (1981), and Kim Stanley Robinson's The Wild Shore (1984). However, the progressive optimism of US sf has generally been maintained, being unrepentantly and exuberantly displayed in such fantasies of history as D R Bensen's ironic And Having Writ ... (1978) and Poul Anderson's The Boat of a Million Years (1989). Anderson and other US writers in the same vein have always taken it for granted that liberal democracy is the evolutionary ideal of all political systems.

Although UK sf has absorbed much of the imaginative drive of US sf since the importation of the genre label, its more thoughtful exponents have always maintained a relatively modest and sceptical attitude to the dynamics of history, as displayed in such novels as Brian W Aldiss's An Age (1967; vt Cryptozoic! US and later UK editions), Andrew M Stephenson's The Wall of Years (1979) and Ian Watson's Chekhov's Journey (1983).

The enormous increase in sequels and series since the mid-1970s – a large majority of the novels to win the Nebula or Hugo since then either are or have generated sequels – means that many recent sf works, whether or not they constitute actual Future Histories, offer at least an implicit portrayal of how history might unfold in a future or parallel era. It is striking how few rely on popular theories of history, although some, such as Iain M Banks's Culture sequence and the untitled series by Greg Egan that includes Incandescence (2008), portray a post-scarcity world in which governments and social hierarchies have faded away and humans enjoy unlimited freedom to pursue their personal interests, recall the vision of achieved communism of Karl Marx (1818-1883).

A somewhat divergent subtheme is the falsification or distortion of history. Perhaps the most famous example of censoring the past – inspired by the old USSR's practice of rewriting its history and even removing supposed betrayers of the communist ideal from photographs – is the systematic falsification of the past by the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Similarly, a global Chinese hegemony seeks to erase all records of Western culture in the Chung Kuo sequence by David Wingrove, beginning (in its first iteration) with The Middle Kingdom (1989): this resonates with the old Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang's burning of many books in 213 BCE to prevent comparison of his reign with the past (his ghost appears, still shunned and execrated by fellow-Emperors, in one of the stories in Ernest Bramah's The Wallet of Kai Lung [coll 1900]). A prophetic aside in Arthur C Clarke's The Ghost from the Grand Banks (1990) predicts that images of cigarettes and smoking will be excised wholesale from remastered Hollywood films. Secret Masters almost inevitably tend to maintain and defend a pseudohistory which omits their own interference with the world.

Creative rather than destructive revisions of history are occasionally encountered. An early example appears in the Glubbdubdrib episode of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735), in which Gulliver learns from summoned ghosts that while ancient poets and heroes were indeed noble, more recent history has been slanted by the chroniclers to show rogues and villains in a better light:

For having strictly examined all the persons of greatest name in the courts of princes, for a hundred years past, I found how the world had been misled by prostitute writers, to ascribe the greatest exploits in war, to cowards; the wisest counsel, to fools; sincerity, to flatterers; Roman virtue, to betrayers of their country; piety, to atheists; chastity, to sodomites; truth, to informers ...

In Philip K Dick's "If There Were No Benny Cemoli" (December 1963 Galaxy), former politicians have constructed an elaborate false version of the recent past, intended to save them from reprisals by the new rulers. A different kind of falsity underlies Jack Vance's "Men of the Ten Books" (March 1951 Startling), in which a bad encyclopedia's gushing superlatives about Earth's glorious past are taken as gospel; some other misunderstandings of antiquity are discussed in the entry Ruins and Futurity. [TS/BS/GF/DRL]

see also: Decadence; Politics; Sociology.

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