Thursday, 3 May 2012

Future History Foundations

Every future history series needs a good foundation, opening stories that establish the tone and set the scene for the rest of the series. I consider:

the Campbell future historians - Heinlein, Asimov and Blish (abbreviated as HAB);
Heinlein's main successors as American future historians - Anderson and Niven (AN);
Niven's collaborator, Pournelle (P).

This sequence of science fiction (sf) writings can be remembered by the formula:


A comparable list of British future historians would be Wells, Stapledon, Aldiss and the lesser known RC Churchill: WSAC. There are other future historians but, for me, these are The Ten. However, a British future historian characteristically writes a fictitious historical text book, not a series of stories and novels set in successive periods of a fictitious history.

The first four stories in Heinlein's Future History lay down a solid foundation by presenting the social consequences of successive technological innovations. These four stories are set entirely on Earth. An escape velocity rocket fuel is due to be produced at the end of the fourth story. The first Moon landing occurs off-stage in the fifth story which, again, is set solely on Earth because what it describes is how Harriman, "the man who sold the Moon," wheels and deals to finance space travel. At last, in the sixth story, we see the construction of an orbiting space station that is necessary for regular Earth-Moon travel. From then on, much of the Future History presents people living on the Moon or further away in the Solar System.

Of the authors listed here, only Asimov is disappointing. His Galactic Empire future history, which includes the Foundation series, is preceded by an, in my opinion, logically inconsistent time travel novel that is supposed to set the scene for the Galactic Empire. However, Asimov's collection I, Robot is more akin to Heinlein's opening stories with its presentation of early experimental robots, early interplanetary exploration and early hyper-spatial interstellar travel.

The first volume of Blish's Cities in Flight future history is set entirely in the Solar System but describes the discovery of the antigravity and antiagathics which are the dual bases of the interstellar travel that is the theme of the rest of the series. The opening five stories of Niven's Known Space future history, set in the last quarter of the twentieth century, present the exploration of Mercury, Venus, Mars and Pluto. Then Niven turns his attention to the social consequences of technological advances on Earth. In Pournelle's CoDominium future history, an early period of political upheaval and military conflict lays the basis for the later accounts of imperialism and alien contact co-written by Niven.

The first four stories in Anderson's History of Technic Civilisation precede the introduction of his series characters, van Rijn and Falkayn. These four stories, spanning several centuries and immense volumes of space, are extremely varied in setting and viewpoint. Three are first person narratives but, in two of these, extra depth is added by the fact that the narrator is not the central character. Several background references, for example to the planets Cynthia, Woden and Aeneas, set the scene for later events and major characters in the History. The narrative, starting with the exploration of an outer satellite, moves to extra-solar planets, then returns to an Earth that has become host to alien visitors and students. As in Star Trek, we are given a glimpse of a character's pre-Academy days. Like Star Trek but much better.

Addendum, 4/6/12: While writing the above, I was insufficiently aware of the fact that Campbell edited Anderson's Polesotechnic League series, thus that Anderson was a Campbell future historian as well as a successor of Heinlein.


published Heinlein's Future History Chart;
advised Asimov to derail Seldon's Foundation Plan;
advised Blish that the Okies deserved a series and that their germanium-based interstellar currency would eventually fail;
gave Anderson the ideas of Mirkheim and of the Ythrian "supercharger."

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