On the Past’s Future

Ever notice how the future never quite ends up how we thought it would? No matter how lofty our predictions, or how optimistic we think, things always fall short and we end up stuck in a boring era totally bereft of jetpacks and flying cars. Not that that stops us from trying to dream up such improbable futures, oh no. Every generation has their fair share of fiction taking wildly different ideas on how the future will turn out with varying degrees of seriousness, and the whole thing fascinates me deeply, often not because of what they get right but what they get wrong.

Any kind of fiction that tries to predict the future is essentially a product of its era. Whatever point it’s trying to make about the future, there will always be an element of the here and now present either thematically or stylistically. Sometimes this can be the entire point, speculative fiction is often used to craft analogies relevant to the world of the reader, so any familiarity is often a bonus. In a lot of cases, however, this can age the work considerably. Go and watch Kubrick’s adaption of 2001: A Space Odyssey (go on, I’ll wait). Notice that despite the tremendous effort taken to make world of the film seem believable, it seems firmly rooted in the style of the late sixties. As someone who lived through the real Space Year 2001 I can confirm styles had changed dramatically after 40 years. I imagine a similar fate will befall many current works after a few years pass too.

Perhaps the most curious area that future predictions often manages to get almost, but not entirely wrong is the way technology works. Often some fiction manages to be entirely prescient in one field when falling drastically flat in others. Take mobile telephony for instance, the idea has been around almost as long as fixed telephone lines, and by the 1960s Star Trek had pretty much predicted the form factor many phones would take thirty years later with their communicator devices. But beyond that, few predicted the rise of smart phones, for instance (even with Tablets being predicted by Kubrick’s 2001 in the late sixties), and some never foresaw how popular they would become. Similarly, it was often predicted that we would have hyper-intelligent near-sentient computer systems yet still be reliant upon magnetic tape storage, the concept of optical or solid state devices never really came up until their invention.

Another area that interests me is how some people assumed world events would pan out. There were literally hundreds of prediction of a third world war arising out of the Cold War which, thankfully, have yet to come about yet the general consensus was that if that didn’t come to pass the Soviet Union would last out the century. My favourite variation on this is Battletech’s timeline, which has the USSR collapsing into a second Russian Civil War in the far off future year of 2014. While accurate predictions of socio-political events is difficult to the point of impossible, it’s often far more interesting to see the what might have beens (which is pretty much where the fascinating genre of alternate history came from). That being said, occasionally the predictions get eerily close to reality, much in the same way as technological ones. The best example I’ve seen of this is H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come which manages to predict the start of the Second World War to within a few months, which struck my modern eyes as very unnerving.

The evolution of society is often a subject overlooked in any kind of prediction, and even those that attempt to be progressive have many elements rooted firmly in their own era. The treatment of women in futuristic fiction is often particularly jarring, presenting worlds with glittering spires and full automated homes, yet women are still told to stay in the kitchen. Star Trek is a brilliant example of the progressive side of this. While the original series was quite forward thinking in showing a large number of women in what was essentially a military-style organisation, the characters, even recurring ones, were often relegated to “damsel in distress” roles in many story lines. Similar versions of this can be found across a large amount fiction relating to minority groups. Apparently few mainstream media types predicted any kind of equality occurring in the future, as odd as that sounds to modern ears.

As I said earlier, often half of the fun of future predictions in fiction is how much they got wrong, but it’s often even more fun when a body of work continues long enough to have to address the “inconsistencies” with their own predictions. This is usually only present in long running serialised works, and how it’s handled can often affect the immersion of the work. A common solution is to retcon the backstory to where it makes sense, however this can often lead to gaping plot holes being exposed. Going back to Star Trek, an incredible amount of the goings on between the series’ original air date in the 1960s and today has had to be re-written to stay current, making for awkward moments when a series set after these retcons references an event from one before that technically couldn’t have happened (Khan, for instance, was meant to be from 1990s Eurasia). Another way is simply to ignore the issue entirely, and simply continue the plot without referencing the more unusual previous elements, which seems to be how some Judge Dredd writers go about things. The last version I’ve seen, which is one that I’m quite taken by, is turning your timeline into an alternate-universe rather than trying to update things. By simply saying your fictional universe diverged from ours at the point it’s written from conveniently removes any need to do the thematic backflips the other two will entail. This is the technique the writers of Battletech seem to favour, as the Soviet Civil war of 2014 mentioned above, along with a whole raft of unusual events since the 1980s still exists in their timeline.

As a species we’re likely to keep trying to imagine what the future will be like as long as we’re convinced there is one, and odds are we will probably always get them almost, but not entirely, completely wrong. But as an exercise of creativity that’s not only totally ok, but brilliantly entertaining and I for one cannot wait until the future arrives so I can see how badly we predicted it in our own times.
Until next time,

–Where’s my damn jetpack?!

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