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Paleofuture. Part 1: Introduction

By Tom Anderson

The Jetsons, from Hanna-Barbera. Set in 2062. Is this what things will look like in 40 years time?

Picture courtesy TV Tropes.

This article is the first of a new, occasional series in which I will be considering the topic known as paleofuture. That is, how past literary attempts to speculate about the future (often a then-future year which we have now reached!) have aged, for good or for ill. Some have considered that the accuracy of such speculation is a measure of worth for the field of science fiction, as though accurate prophecy is its raison d’être. For what it’s worth, I disagree. While an accurate future prediction is certainly impressive and can speak to the ingenuity of the author, an inaccurate one is, if anything, even more fascinating because of what it says about attitudes of the time.


Indeed, pointing out an inaccurate prediction should not be considered a denigration of the author. The most intelligent and well-informed of authors can fail to foresee a factor that will alter future trends. We have all probably heard of the term “Black Swan (Event)” which has become fashionable to throw around – including by those who have little understanding of what it actually means.


The name stems from the fact that in mediaeval Europe, it was an aphorism to say an event was “As impossible as a black swan”, because, as far as the Europeans knew, there was no such thing as a black swan. Then, in the 19th Century, the Swan River in Western Australia was discovered, an area which is, in fact, noted for its black swans. The point is that a bird whose impossibility once formed an aphorism turned out to exist in a part of the world then unexplored by Europeans. A modern analogue might be if a dodo, or a dinosaur, suddenly turned up alive and well on an isolated island. Thus, the black swan forms a symbolic example of the fact that even the best predictions cannot possibly take all factors into account. Something will always remain unknown. Any prediction can be upset by a Black Swan Event.

Simply impossible. It's an Event.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

It is for this reason that, in reality, Sherlock Holmesian deduction can never be absolutely accurate, only a balance of probabilities. Outside of the world of mathematics, in which problems can be human-defined and thus all possible aspects known, deduction can always run afoul of an unforeseen, unknown factor. Science makes use of mathematics, but it does so by applying mathematics not to an imaginary, perfectly-defined, human-created landscape, but to the world in which we live – in all its mess and chaos, wonder, and glory. Indeed, mathematics and science have given us chaos theory and quantum mechanics, further damaging the perfect deterministic idea that the future can ever be predicted with any accuracy. At least, by natural means.


It is therefore highly appropriate, or ironic, that I chose Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951) as the subject of my first proper article in this series, for scientifically predicting the future is itself a core concept of that story. I should be careful to define precisely what I am looking at here; I am only talking about the first book by that title, and not the series and broader setting that it spawned. I am choosing to write this article at this point because I have just read that first book, and can therefore write it without any preconceptions being tainted by later events as Asimov evolved his series.


The chronologically earliest book by publication date, and the first to explore the setting, is naturally the most interesting from a paleofuture perspective. Furthermore, as I mentioned in a previous article on the reading order for the Sharpe novels, I am a strong advocate that all multi-book series should always be read in publication order, because that is the order that the author had in mind from the reader’s perspective as he or she wrote them.

To be read in the correct order.

Picture courtesy Sharpe Wiki.

Perhaps it is worth a brief aside to note just why I have waited until now, at the age of 39, to read this iconic classic of science fiction. I grew up liking the idea of science fiction, and especially the idea of science fiction as conceived in the 1950s and 1960s, the Disney ‘Tomorrowland’ ideal, Tintin’s Destination Moon, the chrome atomic rocketship, the Jetsons. This is an example of what science-fiction writer Douglas Adams later described as “Zeerust” in his book The Meaning of Liff, written with John Lloyd, in which he took the names of real-life place names and gave them new, vaguely etymologically-plausible sounding, neologistic definitions. In the case of Zeerust (actually a town in South Africa), he defined it as: “The particular kind of datedness which afflicts things that were originally designed to look futuristic.”


This is itself an aesthetic subset of paleofuture; when modern designs try to evoke it out of an (ironic!) attempt to appeal to nostalgia, it is sometimes called “retrofuturism”. For a further level of irony, Adams’ own books from the 1970s and 1980s are now old enough that they, in turn, are an example of zeerust in places. But that’s for another article.


So, if I like science fiction from the 1950s and 1960s, why haven’t I read Foundation till now? Well, let me be more precise. I like visual sci-fi from that era, imbued with the optimism of the zeitgeist, the conviction that standards of living will continue to accelerate and technology will solve all our problems, if creating some new ones along the way.


It’s the age of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, of Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek. But on literary terms, I never had much time for the works created during this period. The stereotype I developed as a young reader – and I still think there’s a fair bit of truth in it – was that your average 1950s and 1960s literary sci-fi writer was a horrible, arrogant person who delighted in creating horrific, miserable dystopias and putting their characters through the wringer. Ironically, in the last few decades, I feel this has been more descriptive of some, though not all, fantasy than sci-fi writers.

Trafalgar Square, London. A suggestion for the fourth plinth.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Harlon Ellison is probably the exemplar here. Undoubtedly a brilliant mind, the one behind arguably  the best episode of Star Trek TOS, The City on the Edge of Forever, which was suitably adjusted and improved by others to turn his mean-spiritedness into a genuine heart-breaking choice for Captain Kirk. But left to his own devices, someone who gives the distinct impression they should be put on a government register and someone should check their basement. For context, I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream was published the same year as City.

Harlan Ellison, in 1986. A brilliant mind who created horrific, miserable dystopias.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In some ways, I feel it’s a bit like the whole stereotype of how, in the 2000s and 2010s, HBO and similar producers rebelled against the saccharine lowest common denominator editorial content of the mainstream US TV networks to conversely cram sex and violence into absolutely everything. In the same way, I feel as though the sci-fi writers of the 1950s and 1960s were obsessed with validation and escaping the association of their genre with pulp adventure (Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, Flash Gordon, etc) and interpreted this as thinking that happy endings were for kids and darkness was “adult” – which, ironically, is itself a very immature and adolescent attitude.


It’s not as if writing about such things is inherently a bad thing: I am not a horror fan but I have great respect for how Stephen King can write about horrifying things whilst still keeping a distinct set of morality and heroism in his books. One understands that he cares about his characters, and suffers when they suffer. It’s the smug arrogance, the playing-god authorial attitude, the glorying in the suffering of others that I object to.


When I was at secondary school, one of my many, many English teachers (there was a year when the school was running through a lot of temporary ones) knew I was into science fiction and was determined to get me to read Ray Bradbury. Bradbury has some interesting ideas, but fundamentally he also falls into the category of an inherent mean-spiritedness that clouds his work. My favourite example of this is his short story Doodad. Doodad is mostly a fun exploration of language, with the idea of the classic “magical shop that wasn’t there yesterday” appearing in a rather grim world. Our protagonist discovers that the shop’s proprietor sells doodads, gadgets, doohingeys, thingummies and the like; the idea is that any time anyone in the world has called something a “doodad”, no matter what it was, the purpose of that machine is transferred to the “doodad” that the shopkeeper sells. So, a doodad bought from this shop can do thousands of things, but it takes time to figure it out. The protagonist is on the run from the Mafia, and is able to use some of the devices to escape the hitmen. Happy, he plots his long-term escape... and the story ends with him accidentally committing suicide with one of the gadgets. Because happy endings are for kids, and even a relatively upbeat and quirky story MUST have a sad ending. Meh. Not interested, I’m afraid.


Besides this stereotype of them being miserable men writing miserable books, there’s a couple of other reasons why I never really read the 1950s and 1960s sci-fi literary authors until now. Firstly, I was trying to develop my own sci-fi setting, The Surly Bonds of Earth, and I was wary about being accidentally derivative of others’ work, which is always perilous for an author. Secondly, the other (related) stereotype abut 1950s and 1960s literary sci-fi is that it carries with it a mid-century ‘intellectual’ attitude of contempt for, and misunderstanding of, religious faith. This even poisons something as optimistic as Star Trek, albeit fortunately it was always toned down from the original intent of borderline bigotry.


To some extent one needs to make allowance for the attitudes of the day. I have multiple editions of The Times Atlas of World History (an excellent book in any edition). One of the later ones has an updated foreword where the editor notes that the biggest change in how the book has been presented is that the earlier 1970s versions failed to see the return of faith as a major factor in how world history unfolds. In reality, of course, it never went away, but events at the end of that decade – the Iranian Revolution, the growth of politicised evangelical Christianity in the United States, and so on – forced those who previously had clung to a vision of an increasingly irreligious world to admit they had been fooling themselves.


I am conscious of the fact that people from ethnic minority groups (for example) are frequently dismissed with: “It was made a long time ago” when objecting to racist language in past works of fiction. Therefore, in order to avoid hypocrisy, we have to make a similar attitude of clenched-teeth allowance when it comes to past attitudes towards religion in mid-century works of science fiction.


Of course, I am generalising here from a stereotype (even if it is one that has been reinforced by a lot of evidence!), and it is not really fair for me to judge works by men such as Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clarke purely based on either that stereotype, a broad reputation, or the odd isolated note that circulates through popculture. If I was to judge other works based on rumour alone, after all, I might believe all those negative reviews of The Lord of the Rings made by critics whom (as Tolkien noted) had clearly only read the first chapter. Now I can bring a more open mind, these sci-fi classics deserve my attention.


Tune in next time when I take a look at the first in this series, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation – only the first book, that is.



Discuss this article Here.



Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

The Look to the West series

among others.




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