By Ryan Fleming
What if France and Russia had invaded the United Kingdom in the late nineteenth century? What if Franklin D. Roosevelt had been unable to implement the New Deal and turn around the Great Depression? What if the United States had adopted increasingly McCarthyite tactics during the Cold War? What if the United Kingdom had a space programme in the early 1980s capable of launching a manned mission to Mars? What if by the dawn of the twenty-first century orbital space stations, moon bases, and expeditions to the outer solar system had been commonplace? What if nuclear war had ruined the biosphere of Earth leading to the development of androids? What if a global population of seven billion by 2010 had led to a resurgence in eugenics? And most importantly: where’s my hoverboard?
All questions that might be asked in a discussion of alternate history, but also all questions that had already been asked and answered by science fiction looking to the future rather than the past. The authors of these works used the broad strokes of how they thought history might turn out to create a future than in some cases managed to accurately predict some trends but, in most cases, shot wide of the mark to how the world of tomorrow would look. The end point of almost all science fiction that tries to predict the future is to get it wrong, but where they got it wrong opens up a lot of potential to look at and use from an alternate history perspective.
Trying to predict the future in fiction was not something that developed only after the Second World War, if anything it has existed as long as speculative fiction has existed. One such example comes from 1894 – The Great War in England in 1897 by William Le Queux. Part of the craze of invasion literature popular in the UK between the 1871 publication of The Battle of Dorking and the actual Great War in 1914, The Great War in England in 1897 is of note for getting the UKs allies and enemies in the forthcoming war the wrong way around. A coalition of France and Russia sneakily invade England, who are finally able to overcome the invaders after the German Empire enters the war on the side of the UK. To someone at the time of publication, a war with the UK and Germany on one side and France and Russia on another must have seemed more plausible than one where the UK was allied with France and Russia. Indeed, just a year after Le Queux had predicted they would be at war, in 1898, France and the UK nearly came to blows over territorial disputes in Africa. Russia, much like France, had been competing with the UK for influence for most of the nineteenth century; in their “Great Game” for political influence in Central Asia. In comparison Germany must have seemed a natural ally of the UK, providing a counterbalance of power on the continent between France and Russia, and with many members of the British Royal family (then still using the name Saxe-Coburg and Gotha) holding titles in Germany as well as Britain and Ireland.
The invasion literature craze might have been what inspired H. G. Wells to write The War of the Worlds, but it would be the political and economic trends of the 1920s and early 1930s that would inspire him to commit to text a complete fictional account of future history in The Shape of Things to Come. Published in 1933 with the world still very much in the grip of the Great Depression, Wells predicted the coming of a new global conflict by 1940 coming after a flashpoint between Germany and Poland; a war that would see vast aerial bombardment of cities by the opposing powers. All sounds very reminiscent of our own history, but even before the beginning of World War II Wells’ predictions had already proven incorrect. He predicted the inability of the governments of the United States and Nazi Germany to adequately deal with the Great Depression, that Poland and Czechoslovakia would hold their own against Germany, that the United Kingdom would remain neutral, France and the Soviet Union would only be involved at the periphery, and that the United States and Japan would fight their own conflict separate from that of Europe. He further predicted the combatants would quickly become bogged down into stalemate as in the Great War, except for at sea where submarines would be used to launch ‘air torpedoes’ capable of causing hitherto unimaginable mass destruction – the latter prediction providing prescient only after the end of World War II. The War would not end, but instead give way to pandemics in the 1950s until the rise of a global dictatorship in the 1970s seeking to build utopia through social mobility of the working classes and the eradication of religion. Much of the latter parts of the book come from Wells’ own views on society, but the first two decades of his predictions from 1933 to the late 1950s offer up great possibility from looking at through the lens of alternate history.
The idea of a forthcoming war, in some ways predicting our own World Wars, were at the forefront of the previous two works. After 1945, the prediction of a Third World War would become a far more common occurrence in works predicting the history of the future. In few instances would it be predicted that the Cold War would continue without going hot until it unexpectedly fizzled out. One author that did predict such a turn of events was James Blish in Cities in Flight. The first volume (chronologically, actually the second volume published) They Shall Have Stars predicted that by 2013 the Cold War would still be ongoing; and going in favour of the Soviet Union. For its 1956 publication, the book is uncompromising in its criticism of McCarthyite hysteria, portrayed as a major aspect of the US in this version of the future, with more and more civil liberties being curtailed until the only difference between the East and West blocs is the direction on the compass. The remaining volumes of Cities in Flight, collected together in 1962, portray a mass exodus of people form earth after the formation of a global Soviet dictatorship using a fictional propulsion device capable of putting whole cities into space. The period between publication and the first chronological part of the novel makes for an intriguing alternate history where the United States fell deeper and deeper into the hysteria propagated by Joe McCarthy that allowed the Soviet Union to have the upper hand two decades after it collapsed in our own history.
As science fiction found its way into film and television in the latter half of the twentieth century, so too would many contradictory predictions for the future in these mediums. On several long-running television programmes wholly incompatible presentations of what the future held in store would be presented over their run. “Space Seed”, from Star Trek in 1967 predicted that in the 1990s a new global conflict would have arisen called the Eugenics Wars. A later two-part episode of the spin-off Star Trek: Voyager, “Future’s End”, would see its characters travel back in time to the year contemporary with its broadcast – 1996. No mention of any global conflict is ever made, but it is confirmed to have still happened in others. Various authors have attempted to explain the incongruity between the history presented in the franchise and our own, including the whole conflict being a conspiracy not uncovered until decades later. Using alternate history to explain it would seem to present an obvious answer but not one seized upon by the creators of the franchise.
It seems to be the trend that whenever space travel is portrayed in a work of future-set science fiction it will almost always be behind what will eventually occur in our own history. Perhaps none is quite as infamous for getting humanities progress into space wrong as 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. The American film director and the British author predicted that the early twenty-fist century would see Pan Am operating routine spaceplane flights from the Earth to an international rotating wheel space station where one could check into the Hilton hotel, make a video call using a Bell Telephone booth, and have a quick chat with some colleagues from the Soviet Union before taking a Pan Am lunar lander to a permanent US base under the lunar surface. In the 2001 we know, no human had set foot on the moon for nearly three decades, and many of the technologies featured were still in their theoretical stages or not in common use. Many of the brands featured in the film had also vanished by the time 2001 had finally come around. The achievements in human spaceflight presented in the film and novel between the Earth and the Moon were not outside scientific understanding by the actual year 2001, all that was missing was a need and a willingness to build them.
With the Cold War an everyday reality for people from the late 1940s through to the very early 1990s, it’s not surprising that the prospect of a nuclear war between the superpowers looms large in much science fiction from the same era. One such work that predicted an apocalyptic war between the Soviet Union and the United States was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. From 1968, the year it was published, it established that by the year 1992 the biosphere would have crashed following ‘World War Terminus’ and that this would have further resulted in mass emigration to off-world colonies where android servants an added incentive. The details of the war are left vague, instead the focus is on a group of these androids making their way to earth where they are banned but opens up plenty of questions as to the development of technology and geopolitics in an almost post-apocalyptic world. Interestingly, the sequel to the novels 1982 film adaptation (Blade Runner, set in 2019), Blade Runner 2049 (2017) would seemingly embrace its predecessor’s status as alternate history in an oblique way. Many of the now anachronistic background details of 2019 Los Angeles from Blade Runner were retained for the sequel, with several long-defunct companies (including Atari and Pan Am) and even countries (the Soviet Union) by the time of release being part of the mise-en-scène of the film.
As far as predictions of the future go in science fiction, perhaps no other book has quite as many hits and misses as John Brunner’s 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar. Brunner correctly predicted that by 2010 the world would have a population approaching seven billion; he incorrectly predicted that as a result of this single-occupancy housing would be banned, and population control through eugenics would make a comeback. He correctly predicted that the US city of Detroit would see major hardship following changes in the automobile industry; but incorrectly predicted this would be due to an almost ubiquitous adoption of electric cars. It was correctly predicted that tobacco use would go into decline in the four decades between publication and setting; but incorrectly predicted that it would be replaced with decriminalised cannabis use. He predicted the rise of reality television and social media; but incorrectly predicted they would be one and the same. Perhaps most amusingly, the name of the President of the United States in Brunner’s 2010? Obomi. The prediction of the future presented in the novel gives great potential from an alternate history perspective for seemingly getting as many things right as it does wrong; and the grungy 2010 imagined by Brunner is perhaps one just a few doors down from our own.
The idea of a work of fiction having predicted the future incorrectly gained a brief prominence on social media in the year 2015, when the future predicted in Back to the Future Part II did not turn out exactly as portrayed in the film. The 1989 film by Robert Zemeckis predicted a lot for the year Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) would travel to in the future, a lot of it tongue-in-cheek. Videotelephony is in widespread use alongside faxes in the film, the 2015 we knew saw the former still not being wholly prevalent and the latter being long rendered obsolete. Biometrics are commonly used in financial transactions and Queen Diana is making a visit to the United States in the film; again, showing a technology that exists but is not in widespread use, this time alongside something entirely anachronistic to our own history where Elizabeth II is still Queen and Diana, former Princess of Wales, died in 1997. Perhaps the most accurate prediction of the film was that the mid-2010s would see a huge boon in nostalgia for the 1980s; exemplified in the film by Marty’s visit to the ‘Café 80s’ where he is greeted by holographic waiters in the likeness of Ronald Reagan and Ruhollah Khomeini. Unfortunately, ubiquitous flying cars, hoverboards, and self-lacing trainers remain the stuff of dreams even by 2019.
Part of the problem with trying to predict the future in fiction is that while there might be an infinite number of possible futures there is only one history. This is not a problem when trying to form an alternate history, and in many cases the futures predicted by authors in years gone past can now be viewed through the lens of alternate history and are just as interesting a possible history as they were as a possible future. We do not currently know a world government, space travel as part of everyday life, or robots in use across all walks of life; but some day we still might, and in another timeline perhaps they already know these things and many, many others. The fun comes in speculating how we might have arrived at a different today from a change yesterday, and that is what the fun of alternate history is all about. Fun speculation that lends itself very well to the writing of alternate history fiction. Where as authors in the past had speculated as to what the future might hold, futures we now know did not come to pass, working our way backwards we can carve out an alternate history to arrive at the same conclusion today as was imagined however many years previously.