Tuesday, 24 April 2012

American Future Histories

Future Histories

A British future history is a fictitious historical text book. The model, H. G. Wells’ The Shape Of Things To Come, covers a period of future history. Olaf Stapledon’s Last And First Men covers the entire future of mankind. R. C. Churchill’s A Short History Of The Future incorporates futuristic fictions by Bradbury, Orwell, Huxley and others into a single chronology. Brian Aldiss’ collection Galaxies Like Grains Of Sand contains short stories linked by fictitious historical passages with a Stapledonian time scale. Thus, this work is a British synthesis of the British and American future history models.

An American future history is a series of stories and novels set in successive periods of a fictitious time chart. The model is Robert Heinlein’s Future History. John W. Campbell edited Robert Heinlein’s, Isaac Asimov’s and James Blish’s future histories. Heinlein’s direct successors as American future historians are Poul Anderson, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Anderson’s novel Genesis contains chapters with characters and conversations but others with Stapledonian time scales. Thus, this work is an American synthesis of the British and American future history models.

The Composition of American Future Histories

Heinlein’s Future History links an early period of technological progress to a later period of political conflicts. Pournelle’s CoDominium future history links an early period of military conflicts to a later period of alien contact. When Niven set two novels in the “Smoke Ring,” a breathable atmosphere stretching around a planetary orbit, he linked them to three stories, collected as one novel, about time dilation, thus generating a second future history. Thus, each of these future histories is composed of what had potentially been two independent series. Asimov linked his Robots history to his Galactic Empire history (including the Foundation Series), thus generating a longer future history. Anderson linked a series set in a period of capitalist expansion to another set in a period of imperial decline, thus generating a future history about social change. Niven linked a series set in the solar system to another set in the galaxy, thus generating a future history set in an expanding volume of space. Thus, each of these future histories is composed of what had been two independent series.

(Incidentally, of the British future historians:

(Aldiss, following Heinlein, linked his future history to a (more complicated) account of a “generation ship” (multi-generation interstellar spaceship);
Stapledon linked his future history to a future account of past history, then to his cosmic history, thus generating something unique;
R. C. Churchill linked already existing fictions.

(In Churchill’s Short History, oppressive societies described by Bradbury, Vonnegut and Orwell coexist on Earth while Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles occurs on Mars. Then, Bradbury’s nuclear war leads to Huxley’s Ape And Essence and to works by other authors. Apparent inconsistencies are explained humorously so that implausibilities do not really matter.)

Thus, the linking together of otherwise unrelated works is a major feature of future histories. Exceptionally, Blish generated not one future history from two series but three future histories from one nucleus. In Blish’s works:

the science of pantropy adapts human beings to extrasolar planets;
“Okie” flying cities trade between extrasolar colonies;
Dirac transmissions are instantaneous even over interstellar distances.

Thus, Blish could have written a single pantropy-Okies-Dirac future history. Instead, he developed these ideas in different directions. Okies, despite their antiagathic drugs, die in a cosmic collision two millennia hence whereas Adapted Men spread through the galaxy over many millennia.

Although both pantropists and Okies use the ultraphone as a faster than light communicator and Okies additionally use the Dirac transmitter as an instantaneous communicator, a further Dirac application, reception of messages from the future, establishes an intergalactic civilization differing from those of either pantropists or Okies. Foreseeable disasters are prevented whereas pantropists and Okies continue to cope with the unforeseen. Otherwise independent stories are linked when a Dirac message received in one work is transmitted, later, in another.

Frank Herbert generated a future history simply by extending his Dune series beyond the life spans of its original protagonists.

Constructing an American Future History

There are two ways to construct an American future history.

(i) The inclusive criterion: all works by the author are included unless they explicitly contradict each other.
(ii) The exclusive criterion: only those works are included that explicitly refer to each other.

Heinlein’s Future History was constructed inclusively. Notionally, all Heinlein stories were in the History although it has since become only a small part of his complete works. Incompatible stories were published under pen names. Thus, his first short story, about an inventor in 1955, introduces the period of technological progress whereas his first novel, about the Second American Revolution in 2070, introduces the period of political conflicts, although there is no direct connection between these works.

The second novel, a direct sequel to the first, makes connections. Its hero, Lazarus Long, a member of an oppressed group, turns out to have lived for a very long time and to have consulted Pinero, the hero of the first short story. When Lazarus wants to persuade his fellow exiles to return to Earth, he plays the music from the title song of “The Green Hills Of Earth,” set in 2005.

The stories generate a sense of real history by providing background material for works set later in the time chart. Later stories refer back to the Antipodes rocket, Harriman (title character of “The Man Who Sold The Moon”), Luna City, Martians and Venerians. Encountering extrasolar aliens, Lazarus remembers human-Venerian interactions. Earlier stories support their successors as a pyramid’s base supports its apex.

Heinlein’s ideas could not be confined to a single timeline. Future History references and even entire species recur in otherwise incompatible works. There is a later, entirely inadequate, attempt to present these divergent timelines as coexisting in a single multiverse. However, of the authors mentioned here, the master of alternative and multiversal histories is not Heinlein but his successor, Anderson.

Blish also used earlier written stories to provide background material for later works. In one such sequence:

Adolph Haertel meets a Martian dune-cat (Welcome To Mars);
the dune-cats’ Mars is colonized (“No Jokes On Mars”);
Garrard test flies Haertel’s interstellar drive (“Common Time”);
Garrard’s successors experience telepathy (“Nor Iron Bars”);
their successors encounter a telepathic empire (“This Earth Of Hours”).

“How Beautiful With Banners” was to have referred to dune-cats although the reference did not survive into the published text.1 However, the story, thematically linked to “Common Time,” could occur between Martian colonization and interstellar exploration.2 Spatially, it comes between Mars and Proxima Centauri because it is set on Titan.

The very young Marine Private Oberholzer who asks a stupid question in “And Some Were Savages” cannot be the same person as the Marine Sergeant Oberholzer who is contemptuous of a stupid question immediately before encountering the telepathic empire because their backgrounds are incompatible.3,4 The younger Oberholzer, written later, is merely an auctorial joke at a character’s expense. On the other hand, the Private could be a remote ancestor of the Sergeant… However, what matters is that these stories are individually worth reading. Interconnections, if any, are secondary. Each of the Oberholzer stories describes a different, and interesting, human-alien interaction. “And Some Were Savages” adds the fascinating detail that the Sun seen from far away belongs to a constellation called the Parrot.

Moving forward not from Haertel to the (telepathic) Central Empire but from Haertel to Thor Wald, inventor of the Dirac transmitter, takes us into a divergent timeline and an alternative future history. Other Haertel timelines take us to energy beings and sinless aliens. Again, Blish developed ideas in different directions. Blish scholars have devised complicated diagrams depicting divergent timelines but this can detract from the appreciation of individual works.

In my opinion, the major American future historians after Heinlein are:

Blish, for his divergent future histories;
Anderson, for his eight future histories;
Niven, mainly for the Ringworld Tetralogy that concludes his Known Space future history.

The concluding novels of Pournelle’s future history are co-written by Niven. Asimov is, I argue here, neither as ingenious nor as imaginative as Blish, Anderson or Niven.

  1. David Ketterer, Imprisoned In A Tesseract: the life and work of James Blish (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1987), pp. 146-147.
  2. James Blish, “How Beautiful With Banners” in Blish, Anywhen (New York: Doubleday & Co, Inc, 1970), p. 155.
  3. James Blish, “And Some Were Savages” in Anywhen, pp. 75-103.
  4. James Blish, “This Earth Of Hours” in Blish, The Best Of James Blish (New York: Ballantine Books, 1979), pp. 257-280.

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