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Days of Future Past: Part 1

Updated: Jan 23, 2019

By Ryan Fleming

Days of Future Past series

With a new year now in full swing what plans, resolutions, or goals are we keeping in 2019?

Perhaps you would like to finally learn how to ride a hoverboard? Or migrate to the Off-World Colonies? Maybe start smaller with a Pan-Am flight to the Moon? Maybe you will still stay earthbound but invest in the new anti-gravity technology coming from the Jupiter research station? On the political front will our seemingly forever war with the Taurans finally end? Will we finally see the world forget the past of the Eugenics Wars and move forward? Perhaps the only thing you want out of 2019 is to cut back a bit on the soylent green?

What’s that? None of these things are possible or even exist?

At some point at least one person thought that all these things might have been possible by the year 2019. As it turned out, they were all wrong – but that does not mean these histories of futures now past should be dismissed. Especially from the interest of alternate history.

All these aspects of 2019 that never came to pass are taken from works of science fiction across film, literature, and television from the twentieth century. It was whilst I was reading a number of classic science fiction novels that the idea of these predictions of the future that never came to pass really took hold.

In some of them there were fantastical elements that would mark them out as ASB (“alien space bat”) alternate history, but in many more there was a glimpse of a future history that did not come about as the author imagined it. From the perspective of alternate history, I was already beginning to construct back stories to the futures presented in the works and wondering how things might have changed off-screen to the events of the novel. Down the synapse this led to thinking about how the processes behind alternate history fiction might be leveraged to create worlds and histories that might have been imagined at any point in the past, but with the benefit of hindsight not available to the authors of many classic science fiction tales.

This was not a wholly original notion, as with most things it had already been done in some form. Warren Ellis had previously touched on the idea when he was inspired by the discovery of a long-forgotten Dan Dare comic from the 1950s he found in his home to write the 2001 comics mini-series Ministry of Space – reasoning that where once Dan Dare constituted a look into the future it now had the look of alternate history. In a different vein, Daniel Wilson examined various technologies prevalent in much of science fiction that never came to widespread use in his 2007 satirical book Where’s My Jetpack: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived. Something of an untapped source for twentieth century technological developments that might have caught on or been developed further than they were in our own timeline. If the nineteenth century can have airships become ubiquitous why can the twentieth not have the flying car become vogue for a time?

This marriage of the ideas behind classic science fiction and the thought processes that go into alternate history can be split into three categories. First, we have the ASB intervention into the past and how the powers of the time react to it. This is already in full swing in alternate history fiction, with several well-known works using the conceit. The ever-popular source of the intervention is from space – whether it be aliens or the impact of an asteroid – but can also extend to the introduction of magic or even a change in the laws of physics. It can be interesting to imagine how the countries of early modern Europe, the great powers of the nineteenth century, the combatants of the world wars, or the opposing sides of the Cold War might react to such a world-shattering change. How geo-politics might shift, how different countries react in very different ways to the same event, and how things change in people’s everyday lives as a result of sudden and dramatic change are all things that should be considered when looking at this sort of a divergence.

The next sort are the works where the broad strokes are taken to arrive at a future (or past) based on some of the trends or schools of thought that were prevalent at the time. There might be some overlap with the various -punk interpretations of an era, but the difference I feel would lie in imagining how the trends of the era might have led to the future had they continued rather than become exaggerated to -punk levels. With the use of broad strokes, the actual divergence and historical detail may likely take a back seat to plot and character development. This was the sort of logic used when imagining how what was then the future would turn out, as seen in many works across all media. This would be the sort of style one might take for a setting evocative of a period in which to set a work; more on the use of alternate history as a setting for genres rather than a genre itself.

The final strand is similar to the use of broad strokes, but with a more equal emphasis on worldbuilding along with plot. It is also one that is open to use by authors who have an axe to grind. For this reason, it is arguable one we see often in the mainstream, normally in the form of tracts in newspapers and online offering an exaggerated estimation of how things will turn out, usually to make a political point. It is perhaps of less use in alternate history than it is in imagining future history but could still be used to imagine a world where, rather than the trends of an era, the hysteria of that era might have turned out if it had proven prophetic.

Over the course of this series of articles I’ll be taking a look at each of these strands for how classic science fiction might be utilised for alternate history, along with several examples both of existing works and some new examples where these strands might be put to use. We might also consider if alternate history is how any work of science fiction imagining the future will end up.


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