Time-Based Tropes


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.


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This rad article reminded me about another rad article in the current issue of Harper's on a proposal for the first manned expedition to Mars...

I think our generation could see some awesome explorations happening- but probably not from NASA.

A lot of people think that we are now in a very advance state concerning space travel and exploration.
Even I recently became fully aware that the Earth's space related technology is extremely primitive and not very efficient.

Maybe in a century from now, or two.

aaah Claire, I suspect we might be standing on the same latitude eating the same type of vitamins and minerals that are sending corresponding messages to the moon. I just read Childhood's End man PLEASE read it, it's so earth-shatteringly good and touches on a few of these themes in a novel and awesome way. PEACE!


After reading lots of science fiction though, I've come to think about stories that take place in the future as... well I mean I guess it's obviously just a projection. But, and perhaps this is a new dimension to my famous model of history (do you still have the timeline), every "past" has its own future (pocketwatch and buggy times corresponds to moonman times, malcolm x glasses times corresponds to flying car and video watch phone times, etc). And it is practically the definition that these different types of future say more about the current era than the actual future.

My big problem with science fiction these days is that people seem almost bored with the immediate, imaginable future. Most science fiction novels seem to be these epic things that take place millions of years in the future where computers are like gelatinous tree-people and everyone has giant brains swollen with psychic ability. This is cool because it is actually returning the "future genre" of science fiction to its real roots--the imaginary world as exaggerated metaphor for current society (see: Wizard of Oz, old school "Fantasy" novels, etc) and ridding of the somewhat irritating "WORLD OF TOMORROW" aspect that infected (sorry) sci fi in the 50s but also basically gave birth to it.

But this has also helped me come to terms with the fact that the future as I know it (based on reading) is not the actual future, no more likely than the odds of someone getting swept away in a hurricane to a world full of munchkins, or discover an underground world populated by bowling gnomes or something. The absurd timelines in a lot of scifi today (IN ONE MILLION YEARS ALL HUMANS WILL LIVE ON A SENTIENT SPACE SHIP CARRYING THEM TO ANOTHER UNIVERSE) makes it easier to except that sci fi isn't necessarily a prediction of any thing that would actually ever happen. But those kinds of stories generally attempt to speak more to the "human condition" than provide commentary on the state of things as they are today (and I know this statement is probably pretty easy to prove wrong.)

There's the William Gibson stuff that kind of attempts to make a future based on the current present, (getting good mileage about the magic of the internet and the scary power of corporations) but even that seems kind of quaint and outdated at this point.

I still think the movie Minority Report, even though it kind of sucks, is actually a pretty good version of what this era's imaginary future could be like, but as there's not much depth to that it's sort of hard to hang any kind of convincing argument off of it.

My tinfoil hat reasoning for this absence of good future writing is that the problem is we are actually living in the future right now, so it is impossible to write about it. But I imagine the 50's and 60's probably felt the same way (i.e. the world is insane), and that is what inspired so much immediately accessible future-based science fiction. So someone just needs to step up to the plate, and try to figure out how to create an exaggerated version of this world. It seems impossible considering how absurd things are these days, but that should make it all the better...