When our futures become the past, what will they prove to have been like?
As mind-bending as this question is, it lies at the heart of every successful science fiction story. Good writers in this underappreciated genre can be so forward-thinking that instead of asking, “What will the future be like?” they are already devising an answer to, “How will the future become the past?”
It’s with this understanding of the malleability of time that good science fiction (which I have trouble feeling isn’t the only relevant kind of writing) also manages to deftly place its reader in a chronological context. It is immediately obvious that the reality of a sci-fi narrative takes place in the future of the reader’s reality — and, intrinsically, that the reader exists in the novel’s past. Once you get absorbed in a story about the future, you become a character in its past, understanding how time can change states.
Definitely, it’s a tricky way to write, and much of its power depends on how easily its readers can imagine that their present day could unfold into the brighter, more efficient, more futuristic, future that they are being presented.
The most common trope of science fiction, one that makes this imagination easier, is a depiction of the ‘first generation’ of Earthmen and women who move out to the stars. In Ray Bradbury’s seminal science-fiction novel The Martian Chronicles (a novel I read in one breathless sitting in my basement when I was 12 years old), the first expeditions of Earthmen to venture to Mars are portrayed as brave, solitary colonists who quickly fall to the superior intellect of old Martian civilizations. Later generations of explorers refer to them as “the Lonely Ones,” with the same respect and tenderness that we, culturally, reserve for our nation’s “Founding Fathers.”
This first generation, so common in the fictional history of future civilizations, creates a kind of time-bridge between the reader’s reality and that of the novel. They are closer, chronologically, to us and our present-day — that is to say, the Future’s Past. The brave men and women who first colonize the barren planets make sense to us, because we have forefathers as well. Further, their first foray out into the stars allows us to understand how the present can bring a future worthy of dreaming about; hence they serve as an elegant gateway to the suspension of our disbelief.
Certainly, we all have varying conceptions of what the future will be like. Will it be rounded and comfortable, like movies from the 1960s? Will it be the same as the present day, only dirtier and more populated? Or will it be an angular dystopia mobbed with glitching androids and space warlords? Mark Von Schlegell, science-fiction novelist and critical theorist, once wrote to me that the undefined future might be “conical, both angular and circular.” Still, does anyone doubt that the future will take place elsewhere in the cosmos?
I have begun to realize with great sadness that my generation will not be the first generation of the science-fiction stories I grew up on. The future, as far as I see it, is just out of our grasp. Recently, for example, astronomers have been using the Hubble Space Telescope to locate extra-solar planets at such a rapid rate that it seems straight out of a sci-fi novel. Apparently, over 6-billion Jupiter-sized planets exist in our galaxy alone, and it is becoming increasingly obvious that planets are as abundant elsewhere in the galaxy as they are in our Solar System. Alan P. Boss, a theorist at the Carnegie Institute of Washington, noted in a recent New York Times piece that, “we’ve learned now that planets are everywhere [and] we’re beginning to be able to calculate how many Earths there are, how many planets are habitable, if not inhabited.”
In the grand scheme of collective time, human exploration of the cosmos is very primitive. Sure, we’ve sent looking-glasses and little robots into space and managed to find planets by measuring the effect they have on the ether around them. Yet discoveries such as this one, that the number of extra-solar planets is probably infinite, are staggeringly humbling. They remind us that the future as we have always imagined it really will take place on an astral stage, but that we are still very deep in the past of the science-fiction story that will inevitably become our reality.