- HISTORY IN SF
- The real history of the world and the many alternative histories which might have replaced it (ALTERNATE WORLDS) are extensively featured in sf stories of TIME TRAVEL and PARALLEL WORLDS, but sf writers have also drawn much inspiration from history in designing hypothetical futures. Sometimes, like Charles L. HARNESS in Flight into Yesterday (1949Startling Stories; exp 1953; vt The Paradox Men) and James BLISH in CITIES IN FLIGHT (1950-62 var mags; omni 1970), they have made use of actual theories-from Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) in the former case, Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) in the latter - which have claimed to detectauthentic cyclic patterns in history; more commonly, though, they have simply borrowed the past as a convenient template. Thus Miles J. BREUER and Jack WILLIAMSON replayed the story of the American Revolution as the story of the revolt of the MOON's colony against its Earthly masters in The Birth of a New Republic (1930 AMZ; 1981); Robert A. HEINLEIN later didthis more convincingly in THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS (1966). Isaac ASIMOV gave to this process of borrowing a new gloss of sophistication inthe first phase of his Foundation series (1942-50 ASF; in 3 vols 1951-3; as THE FOUNDATION TRILOGY omni 1963) by inventing his own futuristic science of PSYCHOHISTORY, by which Edward Gibbon's retrospective analysis of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is transmuted into Hari Seldon's prophetic analysis of the decline and fall of the GALACTICEMPIRE. Seldon's Plan, however, can change these deterministic prophecies by social engineering. Interestingly, a later novel by Asimov, The End of Eternity (1955), argues as strongly against social engineering as theFoundation series argued for it.Toynbee eventually recanted the cyclic theory outlined in A Study of History (12 vols 1934-61), and the earlier quasideterministic theories of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) and Spengler's Decline of the West (1918-22) never quite attained academicrespectability, but the attractions of such theories to sf writers are obvious. Blish's fascination with Spengler became deep, respectful and altogether serious, and A.E. VAN VOGT drew inspiration from Spengler in The Voyage of the Space Beagle (fixup 1950). Toynbeean ideas continued toecho various writers' works, including Frederik POHL's and C.M. KORNBLUTH's "Critical Mass" (1961), in which they are quoted directly,Frank HERBERT's DUNE (fixup 1965), which seems to draw on Toynbee's picture of the Janissary-supported Turkish courts of the later Middle Ages, and Larry NIVEN's A World out of Time (1967), which uses theToynbee-derived notion of "water-monopoly empires" - i.e., empires founded on irrigation control. Philosophers of history who dealt in NEAR FUTURE climaxes rather than recurrent cycles - G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) and Karl Marx (1818-1883) are the most obvious examples - have naturally been ofless interest to sf writers.The PULP MAGAZINES inherited from the dime novels (DIME-NOVEL SF) a striking "mythologized" version of the USA's recent past in the Western genre, which glorified the "frontier spirit". This myth (see also SOCIAL DARWINISM) was transferred to sf, where itbecame the animating force of countless stories about the exploration of the Solar System and the COLONIZATION OF OTHER WORLDS. The reflection of this mythical version of US history has maintained a tenacious hold over the images of the future contained in GENRE SF, and has been elaborated in various ways, sometimes painfully naive and sometimes quite extraordinary. (The phenomenon is not, of course, restricted to fiction; the idea ofspace as a "high frontier" requiring conquest by bold pioneers informs much actual political rhetoric, and may be regarded as NASA's guiding myth.) It is not only US history per se which is reflected in stories of space pioneering; US writers have been perfectly willing to adapt "relevant" bits of more distant history, producing such images as those inPoul ANDERSON's The High Crusade (1960), H. Beam PIPER's Space Viking (1963) and Ben BOVA's Privateers (1985). Anderson has been a particularly prolific and artful borrower of entrepreneurial models from the past, taking in explorers, privateers, merchant princes and all manner of military empire-builders.Unlike US genre sf, UK SCIENTIFIC ROMANCE was heavily influenced by more pessimistic metaphysical notions of eternal recurrence. As citizens of an empire in decline rather than descendants of mythical pioneers, UK writers inherited a rather different attitude to the past, reflected in such elegiac and defeatist fantasies of cyclic history as Edward SHANKS's The People of the Ruins (1920), Cicely HAMILTON's Theodore Savage (1922) and John GLOAG's "Pendulum" (c1930) and Tomorrow'sYesterday (1932). J.B. PRIESTLEY's Time plays dealt more delicately and not quite so darkly with similar philosophical ideas. Olaf STAPLEDON adopted a more robust view of future history in his classic LAST AND FIRST MEN (1930), toying with cyclicity but eventually discarding it in favourof a more open-ended philosophy of progress, but even he could not shake off a pessimistic conviction that whatever civilizations rise up must ultimately decline and fall. The pulp-sf writers were sometimes suspicious of the idea of progress, but in general they had much more faith in the notion that contemporary civilization was destined to thrive and expand for some considerable time; such future histories as Laurence MANNING's in The Man who Awoke (1933 Wonder Stories; fixup 1975) and the far moreelaborate patterns drawn in the future-history series of Heinlein and Anderson are conspicuously open-ended. Relatively few pulp visionariesimagined that any significant and irreversible rot was likely to set in before the Galactic Empire had attained a glorious zenith. (GALACTIC EMPIRES for the argument that the open framework supplied by Asimov'sFoundation series proved so comprehensive as to render unnecessary the sort of future history worked out with such pains by Heinlein and in rather less detail by later writers.)In somewhat similar fashion, UK writers of scientific romance have often tended to see the past as something inelastically resistant to change. William GOLDING's inventor in "Envoy Extraordinary" (1956; play version The Brass Butterfly 1958) failsignominiously to interest the Roman Empire in gunpowder, the steam engine and the printing press, just as the scientist in Ronald W. CLARK's Queen Victoria's Bomb (1967) finds that his invention arouses little excitementin Victorian England. (It was, of course, the UK that produced Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979), the historian who wrote the clever satire The Whig Interpretation of History (1931) in an attempt to expose the absurdity of belief in progress, and also the folly of that kind of history written, perhaps unwittingly, to flatter a society's image of itself; many works of sf, even though set in the future, are open to the criticism of "whiggery".) In sharp contrast, the hero of L. Sprague DE CAMP's classic pulp timeslip story LEST DARKNESS FALL (1939 UnknownWorlds; 1941; rev 1949) averts the Dark Ages by means of a series of small and subtle technological fixes, and many genre writers felt it necessary to set up corps of "time police" to protect history from casual spoliation by careless or evil-minded time-travellers. Examples include Anderson's The Guardians of Time (fixup 1960) and The Corridors of Time (1965),Barrington J. BAYLEY's The Fall of Chronopolis (1974) and Diana Wynne JONES's A Tale of Time City (1987); however, Fritz LEIBER's Change War series includes one story, "Try and Change the Past" (1958), whose basic point is the impossibility of changing history at all.It was not until the spectre of the Bomb caught up with US sf writers that tragic images of historical recurrence - like that in Walter M. MILLER's classic A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ (1955-7 FSF; fixup 1960), which portrays a future Dark Agein which learning has once more retreated to the monasteries - began to appear in some quantity. More pessimistic philosophies of history, like the one deployed in Kornbluth's "The Only Thing We Learn" (1949) and the one detected by John F. CARR in the stories he collected for H. Beam PIPER's posthumous Empire (coll 1981), also began to infect genre sf inthis period. More recently, the aftermath of world-scale HOLOCAUST has been much more widely exploited as a setting for historical "replays" in such novels as Paul O. WILLIAMS's Pelbar Cycle, begun with The Breaking of Northwall (1981), and Kim Stanley ROBINSON's THE WILD SHORE (1984).However, the progressive optimism of US sf has generally been maintained, being unrepentantly and exuberantly displayed in such fantasies of history as D.R. BENSEN's ironic And Having Writ . . . (1978) and Poul Anderson's THE BOAT OF A MILLION YEARS (1989). Anderson and other US writers in thesame vein have always taken it for granted that liberal democracy is the evolutionary ideal of all political systems.Although UK sf has absorbed much of the imaginative drive of US sf since the importation of the genre label, its more thoughtful exponents have always maintained a relatively modest and sceptical attitude to the dynamics of history, as displayed in such novels as Brian W. ALDISS's An Age (1967; vt Cryptozoic! US and later UK edns), Andrew STEPHENSON's The Wall of Years (1979) and Ian WATSON'sChekhov's Journey (1983).TS/BS
Science Fiction and Fantasy Encyclopedia. Academic. 2011.