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Medieval Futurism

Entry updated 2 October 2015. Tagged: Theme.

Term coined by John Carnell in his introduction to New Writings in SF 12 (anth 1967) to describe a contemporary trend of sf containing "Future technologies, often on other planets, but with heavy overtones of the Middle Ages feudal systems as the governing bodies." (see History in SF) Examples cited by Carnell include L Sprague de Camp's Divide and Rule (April-May 1939 Unknown as "Divide and Rule!"; 1990 chap dos) and Jack Vance's The Dragon Masters (August 1962 Galaxy; 1963 dos) – also Poul Anderson's The High Crusade (July-September 1960 Astounding/Analog; 1960), which like Anne McCaffrey's Restoree (1967) is something of a special case in that a medieval-level society has anachronistically acquired Space Flight from Alien sources. More characteristically of this subgenre, future human civilizations in sf combine selected feudal trappings with their own advanced Technology, as in the swords-and-Spaceships scenarios of A E van Vogt's Empire of the Atom (stories May 1946-December 1947 Astounding; fixup 1957), Charles L Harness's Flight into Yesterday (May 1949 Startling; exp 1953; vt The Paradox Men 1955 dos; rev 1984) and Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965) – the latter two justifying knife- and swordplay by positing Force Fields that block fast projectiles such as bullets. G K Chesterton enjoyed such subversion of extrapolation by nostalgia, and gloried in the restoration of medieval governance to his future London in The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904). The most artful example in sf to date is Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols).

The term comes close to describing the medieval style of governance commonly found in Post-Holocaust and Ruined Earth tales set in a feudal England, from Richard Jefferies's After London: Or, Wild England (1885) on, or in balkanized versions of America, from Jack London's The Scarlet Plague (1915) on. But the feudal circumstances governing this sort of tale are rarely presented as a trapping, or as a chosen culture style, and we do not use the term in these contexts – though the grotesque medievalism characteristic of the governments of triumphant Germany in several Hitler Wins tales could be so described. [DRL]

see also: Fading Suns; Keep; Ruritania; Warhammer 40,000.

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