Saturday, 26 October 2013

Linear And Non-Linear Future Histories

Copied from Poul Anderson Appreciation:

 Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy begins untold thousands or tens of thousands of years in our future. Several later written volumes recount intervening history. After an incoherent time travel scenario, mostly set in other timelines, there is an interplanetary robotic economy, then two phases of extrasolar colonization followed by the growth of the Trantorian Empire that becomes the Galactic Empire.

The Trilogy opens as the twelve thousand year old Empire begins its terminal decline. Hari Seldon's psychohistorical Plan will reduce the interregnum between the First and Second Empires from a predicted thirty thousand years to a mere thousand. The Trilogy covers only the first four centuries of the interregnum. Two subsequent novels add one more century.

Although the series is set so far in our future, human lifespans have not been extended. (By contrast, after the opening volume of James Blish's Cities In Flight future history, the reader does not notice that centuries are elapsing because the anti-agathics preserve a small number of interstellar travelers until the end of the universe - which, however, is brought unexpectedly close to the present for narrative convenience.) Thus, none of Asimov's characters survives for more than a century.

Despite the absence of continuing characters, the Trilogy remains an entirely linear narrative. The Galactic Encyclopedia Foundation on the planet Terminus becomes a Mayoralty, with Traders and Merchant Princes, successively interacting with:

imperial provinces that become independent kingdoms;
the weakened Empire;
the Mule who upsets Seldon's plan;
the hidden Second Foundation that restores the Plan;
the planetary collective consciousness called Gaia that secretly manipulates the Second Foundation;
the immortal telepathic robot, Daneel Olivaw, who is ultimately behind both Seldon's Plan and Gaia and even indirectly the Mule because the latter turns out to have been a rebel Gaian, not after all an individual mutant.

The subsequent novels diverge from the original Plan first by introducing Gaia and secondly by reintroducing Daneel from the first extrasolar colonization period. Despite this divergence in content, the structure remains chronologically linear with each installment a direct sequel to the preceding one. An indefinite number of otherwise independent stories could have been set, for example, in the Traders period but Asimov did not go down that route. Instead, each new installment had to advance the timeline and progress the Plan, although ultimately Daneel's, not Seldon's.

extremely far fetched;
more about implausible social manipulators than about credible social developments;
differing from the alternative future history model created by Robert Heinlein and followed by Poul Anderson and Larry Niven.

The Heinlein Model:
several successive historical periods with a number of otherwise independent stories set in each period;
transitions between periods explained either by pivotal stories or by background information in later stories.

Heinlein's "If This Goes On -" informs us that the Prophets had seized power and describes their overthrow;
Anderson's "Cold Victory" informs us that the Humanists had seized power and describes their overthrow.

Heinlein devotes several stories to the daily lives of ordinary people on the Moon in the pre-Prophetic period, then two to the changed social conditions in the post-Prophetic period;
to a lesser extent, Anderson shows us daily life on Earth and on a colonized asteroid in the pre-Humanist period.

My point, as ever, is that I prefer Anderson's several future histories to Asimov's single future history! Even Anderson's earliest, Psychotechnic, history proves to be more substantial than expected when reread with sufficient attention.

Friday, 18 October 2013


The same points apply to this post as to the previous one.

The Moon is the only planet visited by any of HG Wells' characters. Some view Mars. Others are attacked by Martians and, later, know that the Martians have also invaded Venus.

ER Burroughs, writing not speculative fiction but "sword and science," gives us the Moon, Mars, Venus, a Martian moon, Jupiter and one extrasolar planet. CS Lewis, replying to Wells, gives us the Moon, Mars and Venus.

Olaf Stapledon, Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson all describe human colonists of Venus. This is a strong conceptual link between these three authors' future histories. In Anderson's second future history, the unpleasant character, Snelund, comes from an inadequately terraformed Venus. The Venerians of Heinlein's Future History also appear in Space Cadet, one of five of his Scribner Juveniles that I think can be described as the author's "Juvenile Future History."

Larry Niven, writing after the Venus probes, describes the exploration but not the colonization of that planet. The Venus that either is or can be made to become habitable remains a part of sf mythology but has ceased to be a setting for hard sf.

However, we think of Earth as our mother and our descendants will probably think likewise of any other planet that they come to inhabit. Thus, one of Anderson's Martian colonists applies the feminine pronoun to his adopted planet, obviously entirely forgetting Mars' original masculine persona.

Mature Civilization

This post was first published on the Poul Anderson Appreciation Blog because it followed from other posts there although it is also of more general science fictional significance. Some blog readers might notice that I am not familiar with more recent sf writers. Comments to that effect are welcomed.

Wells' and Stapledon's future histories culminate in mature civilizations. Heinlein's Future History Time Chart culminates in "...the end of human adolescence, and beginning of first mature culture..." (The Man Who Sold The Moon, London, 1964, p. 7), although I dislike Heinlein's idea of that culture in Time Enough For Love.

Asimov's Second Foundation works towards a Second Empire to be based on mental science, not on physical force, but this Plan is superseded by the telepathic robots and their planetary organism working to make the Galaxy a single collective consciousness.

In Blish's Cities In Flight Tetralogy, history is interrupted by the end of the universe. In Anderson's Psychotechnic History, the Third Dark Ages and the interstellar Empires are followed by a multi-species galactic civilization based on mental science and on individual control of cosmic energy. In Anderson's Technic History, the Terran Empire and the Long Night are followed by the Allied Planets, then by the Commonalty.

Six of these seven future histories express the aspiration towards a saner, better organized society. This aspiration is practicable, not utopian, although we cannot know in advance what such a society will be like. As Arthur C Clarke said, any civilization that has had a high technology for a long time must have solved its problems and resolved its internal conflicts because otherwise it would have destroyed itself long ago.

When there is abundant energy and technology, there will no longer be any need to compete in order to survive, to accumulate wealth, to exercise power or to win prestige although creative competition might continue in other forms.