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List of stories set in a future now past (wikipedia.org)
186 points by benbreen 9 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 140 comments





There's an interesting sub-category here of works where the story's "future" is already behind the author's present - or even the story's present.

Tomorrow Town is one of the first sort; written in 2000, about a 1970s attempt to envision the world of 2000. (The visionaries, of course, get it utterly wrong.) Pattern Recognition counts too; it got labeled post-modern because it was felt like SF futurism but was set in the very recent past. Alternate-history carried through the present doesn't all count, but something like Fallout is very consciously about 'realizing' a 1950s view of the future.

The Gernsbeck Continuum is the best example I know of the second sort: it's the 1980 we imagined in the 1930s, experienced from the viewpoint of the real 1980. If I stretch the boundaries a bit, Time Out of Joint might count too; a 1950s world, 50s futurism included, recreated by a moon-colonizing future society. This has to be a pretty small list, though, and I'd love more examples.


I believe what Fallout did is typically called retro-futurism. The term "post-modern" is already occupied and has a very different meaning.

I don't think Pattern Recognition really counts. Precisely when it was set was mostly irrelevant to the story and the "futurism" of the novel is largely due to the style of writing of William Gibson. It could have been set in the present or near future and nothing would really change.


Fallout, or its predecessor Wasteland, was probably inspired in part by works like Canticle for Liebowitz, which were just normal (dystopian) futurism at the time.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Canticle_for_Leibowitz

I don't know what we do when a subgenre starts out as normal futurism, but hangs on to tropes long enough to age into retro futurism.


A lot of cyberpunk and space opera is like that, I think, particularly in art. Cyberpunk art is still enamored of '80s neon, fashion, the then-looming fear of Japan Inc., etc.

But Fallout is something different, because it embraced '50s retro-futurism from the beginning. (Though it got more obvious in the later games.)


> A lot of cyberpunk and space opera is like that, I think, particularly in art.

This is a really interesting observation, thank you.

If we use Neuromancer a rough start date for cyberpunk, there was nothing 'alternate' about the whole "future of neon and kanji" style. And Snow Crash made an effort to change with the times; the Japanese stylings get justified as a character thing instead of a cultural one and the psychedelic hacking gets replaced with a decent anticipation of Second Life. The Diamond Age sticks with the Japanese emphasis, but brings in China and India as major powers, and updates the sci-fi focus to nanotech.

But somewhere along the line the strength of the aesthetic sort of overwhelms the attempt at futurism. Gibson came back to the near future and present, Stephenson went to the past, present, and then the far future. The last really future-facing cyberpunk novel I can remember reading was Infoquake, and reviewers kept saying that was "practically cyberpunk" or "had elements of cyberpunk".

And then at the other end of things, Altered Carbon has humans as an interstellar species, but still gives us a half-white, half-Japanese protagonist getting pushed around San Francisco by rich people. Shadowrun goes all the way to magic spells and centaurs, but the videogames retain the rainy East Asian atmosphere. And Big Hero 6 proves it's an aesthetic you can export completely; it might be a PG superhero movie, but it's about a half-Japanese kid named Hiro having illegal robot fights in a neon-drenched "San Fransokyo".

I don't know enough to do the whole rundown, but I suspect you're right about space opera too: Star Trek and 2001 start off as a modern/futuristic vision, but endure as this weird near-googie style we recognize as its own entity.

I suppose some aesthetics are way more fun to look at than to actually live in - we keep them around for art's sake long after they fail to take root.


It seems to me that Stephenson just likes East Asia a lot, I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out he lived there. E.g. Cryptonomicon has detailed geography and economics of the region in play, many of the other novels have events set in there―and in the pretty recent “Reamde” he again spends plenty of story time in Xiamen and some in Manila, even though the book is set in the present and there's little cyberpunkish about it.

I'm actually sort of learning from these books about the vibe of the region, some scraps of relevant history, and the area's economic relations with the US. Because otherwise it's mostly fantasy land to me.


I agree that Fallout was retro-futurism; I'd forgotten there was a term for it.

As for Pattern Recognition, the postmodern label isn't mine. It's a massively overloaded term, certainly, and I know some writers cut off the "postmodern novel" era around 1990. But the sort of academics who include Paul Auster and David Eggers wrote about it as a postmodern work in postmodern theory journals. It's definitely not a clean example of "future in the past", since it could easily have been very-near-future - I suppose I mostly included it for the tone of an unanchored present, rather than the actual chronology.


> The Gernsbeck Continuum is the best example I know of the second sort: it's the 1980 we imagined in the 1930s, experienced from the viewpoint of the real 1980.

The Gernsback Continuum is available online:

http://writing2.richmond.edu/jessid/eng216/gernsback.pdf

https://web.archive.org/web/20070217183337/http://www.americ...


I watched Bladerunner again recently (set Nov, 2019, so technically it doesn’t belong on this list just yet). I’ve seen it dozens of times, but for the first time I was struck by the fact that the flying cars in it are still driven/flown by humans.

Then I couldn’t think of any stories set in the future with self-driving cars, flying or otherwise. It’s sort of ridiculous at this point to have a human pilot in any futuristic form of transportation, isn’t it?

But I guess all those space battles would be pretty boring without humans to run the ships.


The Johnny Cabs in Total Recall spring to mind.

The Will Smith I, Robot had shifting between auto and self driving modes as a plot point too if I remember rightly.

It feels like there are some good stories to tell around them too. I'm personally jealous of the generation of students who will get to wake up with a hangover in a car half way across the country, heading towards somewhere that seemed like a great idea the night before.


That’s right, I had forgotten. Interesting that two PkD-based movies (total recall and minority report pointed out in a sibling comment) have self-driving cars. It’s been too long since I’ve read the stories to remember if that was the case in the books or not.

PKD stories and novels frequently feature autonomous or semi-autonomous machines. Joe Chip, in Ubik, is refused service by his apartment door, and later, an autonomous diner service, because he is broke. Also, Dick would use the early '90s as 'the future' pretty frequently.

It makes sense given that straddling the line between what is real and what is fake is perhaps the most persistent theme in his works, and this persistent chipping away at the agency of humans by robots by bureaucratic enforcement of rules is also all over his works. Of course then with the regular nagging doubt about who are the humans and who are the robots.

I think Minority Report got that self driving cars right. They just don’t look as pretty as I thought they would.

Demolition Man had cars that were primarily self driving too.

I recently rewatched Demolition Man, and it got a surprising amount of things right.

"all those space battles would be pretty boring without humans to run the ships."

I seem to remember that in one of the Culture novels they mention that it's about 10,000 years since anyone had the title "Captain" on one of their ships - and even then it wasn't a serious role.

"I am not an animal brain, I am not even some attempt to produce an AI through software running on a computer. I am a Culture Mind. We are close to gods, and on the far side."

Letting a human command a Culture warship would be like letting a bacteria command the USS Nimitz.


https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Awesome/Excession

During a fight Killing Time destroys two other starships and thinks afterwards "Entire engagement duration: eleven microseconds".

I seem to recall that one of the later novels -- maybe Surface Detail or Hydrogen Sonata -- had an even more lopsided victory by one of the Culture's latest warships over a battle fleet crewed by foolish biologicals who wouldn't let their own AIs operate autonomously.


Wasn't that the "very slightly psychotic" Abominator-class Offensive Unit Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints from Surface Detail?

You're right.

Haloes appeared around each of the missiles, like hundreds upon hundreds of tiny necklaces of beaded light. They flashed all at once and when the haloes disappeared there wasn’t even wreckage left behind. The view pulled back a fraction, the green ship shape seemed to hesitate, frozen, as the haloes surrounding it flicked, settled, flared. She felt a sudden urge to look away, but it was only to the next target, snapped out and then back in to watch another ship freeze in the ship’s targeting headlights; then another then another and another, then two at once; that felt like her brain was having its hemispheres ripped apart.

∼Fucking hell, she heard herself say.

∼You enjoying it? the ship asked. ∼My favourite bit’s coming up in a moment.

∼What do you mean, your favourite bit? she asked it as the next hapless ship appeared, transfixed, in the concentric targeting/ weapon-choice circles.

∼Ha! You didn’t think this is happening in real time, did you? The ship sounded amused.

∼This is a recording? she said – nearly wailed – as the tiny green ship blazed and turned to what looked like minutely shredded, wind-blown grass-dust. Instantly the view flicked back before throwing her down again somewhere else, her view wobbling to focus on another petrified target.

∼Slow-motion replay, the ship told her. ∼Pay attention, Led.

...

He turned to look at her, nodding once. ∼There you go, he said. ∼You’ve just seen one of the most significant military engagements of modern times, doll; lamentably but fascinatingly one-sided though it turned out to be. Strongly suspect they just weren’t giving their ship Minds full tactical authority. Demeisen shook his head, frowned. ∼Amateurs. He shrugged. ∼Oh well. Hopefully not the start of an actual proper all-out war between the Culture and our over-cute tribute civ – perish that thoughtlet – but they did shoot first, and it was with what they assumed would be full lethal force, so I was entirely within my rights to waste the miserable trigger-happy fuckers to a soul, without mercy. He sighed. ∼Though I am obviously anticipating the inevitable board of inquiry and I do slightly worry about being ticked off for being just a tad over-enthusiastic. He sighed again, sounding happier this time. ∼Still. Abominator class; we have a reputation to protect. Fuck me, the others are going to be so jealous!


That may be 'Look To Winward', where a war retired Mind is having a lot of philosophical conversations with the local human music composer. Actually this Mind is not actually captaining a moving ship, he's retired into nursing a static orbital and its organic living forms :)

Isn't that war retired mind "gray-fucker" or something along those lines, so named for its tendency to us EM to directly watch the thoughts of biological creatures?

You are thinking of the "psychopathically righteous" GCU Grey Area

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GCU_Grey_Area


Many SF novels had self-driving cabs. Don't remember specific names, but I think Heinlein has a few. Strugacky Brothers had bio-mechanical semi-intelligent transportation devices.

I think a lot of people miss something important. Anyone who can imagine an autonomous robot can imagine a self-driving car (or a car driven by a robot). The reason they aren't more prevalent is because people in the past had very different ideas about what is and isn't worth automating. Today, most people think a walking, talking humanoid robot would be a bad idea. They were everywhere in 60s SF.


Stranger in a Strange Land has self-piloting flying cabs.

Not that I'd recommend it as a novel.


Ah, that's probably the one I was thinking off. I second your non-recommendation. After all the hype, it was underwhelming.

I was very frustrated watching the first of the newest Star Trek movies when Checkov runs to grab control of the teleporter to catch the two falling crew members plummeting towards the planet surface: as though in the age when it’s possible to decompose matter and retransmit it to some other location they do not have computers fast enough and accurate enough to calculate a trajectory of objects falling at terminal velocity. Seems exactly like the sort of the thing a computer should handle not a human.

Also this: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=XlXXoq7N4UQ


The straw that breaks our suspension of disbelief is always amusing. :-)

I don't think it's ridiculous. Planes can fly themselves now, but when people are aboard, we still have a person in charge of the plane.

It's partly a cultural thing--we trust people to have a conservative sense of self-preservation and obligation to the "souls aboard" that we know computers lack.

And, we know that despite the computer's superior speed of mathematical computation, it remains a somewhat inflexible "thinker" that only does what it is told to do by a human. We have no way to rigorously account for all possible scenarios the plane might face, the we can rigorously account for the performance of the materials and fuel of the airplane.


Airliners cannot fly themselves, unless you accept a narrow definition of “fly”. Sure, they can fly an approach. Try can’t make a go/no-go decision, accept and follow a take-off clearance, pick a cruising altitude, follow speed restrictions, do a VFR approach, and park themselves.

True for airliners, but I believe we do currently have planes that can fly themselves autonomously from take-off to landing, that we usually call drones.

Most things that people now call drones have pilots on the ground. Fully autonomous drones are very rare.

Minority Report (at least the film) has self-driving cars.

There are exceptions where the superiority of computers is acknowledged but the lack of use is intended, like Dune.

I always got the sense that the reason there aren't computers in Dune was because they can't be coerced in the same way humans could be, and as such would not make an interesting addition to the story he was trying to tell.

Yeah, it's definitely designed to create a specific sort of world. Another example is the shields; they make projectile weapons impractical (and, on Arrakis, annoy the sandworms), so that Frank Herbert can write about hand to hand combat.

That’s another great example of a plot convenience he used. It’s my favorite because it’s the first one I noticed and frowned at during my first go as a pre-teen. In fact, it was one of the things I cited when I complained to my dad about how much I didn’t like something he’d recommended so highly. It wasn’t until I read it again a year or two later and powered through my suspension of disbelief that I realized how much I loved it too.

Whoa, don’t pull back the curtain too much.

But yeah, it’s definitely a plot convenience. In addition to your very good point it was also a way for Herbert to make transportation through space a monopoly. Technology can be stolen but without computers the Spacing Guild pilots were the secret sauce.


At the time people were used to constantly increasing access to energy so in their minds we would have almost infinite energy in the future which would make flying cars feasible. However most people living today in the west have never experienced increasing access to energy so a future with abundant energy seems much further off than it did 50 years ago.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_in_the_United_States#/m...


Well, if you stretch the definition of self-driving cars to include cars driven by robots instead of humans, I think many of Asimov's stories count.

Notably, plenty of novels went on and on about transportation in the future: multiple moving sidewalks at different speeds, and all that jazz. But apparently this gets too drawn out and boring when translated to the screen, so the topic gets less attention in movies.

There are several movies with self driving cars but usually the hero takes over control to get out of a bad situation.

I, Robot has self-driving vehicles, albeit with manual override.

Funny how you can be right about future facts (world population) but wrong about the consequences.

Make Room! Make Room! [1966]

The world is overpopulated at 7 billion people, with 35 million people in New York City alone. The inspiration for the film Soylent Green (1973).

Maybe not surprising, but worth noting anyway just how pessimistic these stories are.


Who knew that food wouldn’t be the thing running out, but our free will and privacy? Facebook is made of peeeople!

Blade Runner has always got the prediction closest, in my opinion. The future is ruled by corporations.


>Who knew that food wouldn’t be the thing running out, but our free will and privacy

Arguably Orwell knew this.


Yep he nailed many things so well.

Also the original Rollerball.

same in death race 2000! :)

Try getting a publisher to accept a book about a future world that's somewhat cleaner and more convenient than today. I can't wait for the movie version.

Weeelllll... isn't that what the Culture series by Iain Banks was about - a vision of post-scarcity utopian future?

As for movie version, I'd wager Star Trek, at least up to Discovery, was similarly about a vision of a better society (to the point that, as I discussed with few of my friends and colleagues, for a lot of us it has subconsciously shaped our political thinking: "Is this law / action on the path to Star Trek future, or not":)


The Culture series are mostly about the Culture rubbing up against far less utopian societies, though; a pure story about a utopia would be boring.

It would probably be a long party and psychodrama. Intensely interesting to the participants, but we're not them.

One of the Culture novels do include a lengthy descriptions of a party that had lasted a ridiculously long time. Hydrogen Sonata possibly... There are quite a few descriptions of utopian societies partying in sci fi, but usually as an excuse to make one group or another stand out as gloriously debauched to set up the inevitable downturn when someone crashes the party or some character or other at the party is forced to face real life.

But they can be interesting stories in their own right - just probably not easy to expand to novel length.


"The longest and most destructive party ever held is now into its fourth generation, and still no one shows any signs of leaving. Somebody did once look at his watch, but that was eleven years ago, and there has been no follow-up.

The mess is extraordinary, and has to be seen to be believed, but if you don't have any particular need to believe it, then don't go and look, because you won't enjoy it.

There have recently been some bangs and flashes up in the clouds, and there is one theory that this is a battle being fought between the fleets of several rival carpet-cleaning companies who are hovering over the thing like vultures, but you shouldn't believe anything you hear at parties, and particularly not anything you hear at this one.

One of the problems, and it's one which is obviously going to get worse, is that all the people at the party are either the children or the grandchildren or the great-grandchildren of the people who wouldn't leave in the first place, and because of all the business about selective breeding and regressive genes and so on, it means that all the people now at the party are either absolutely fanatical partygoers, or gibbering idiots, or, more and more frequently, both."


There's something very Douglas Adams about that description. Especially the carpet cleaner battles.

It is Douglas Adams, from Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Sounds like most episodes of Black Mirror. And they certainly offer cleaner and more convenient futures, just the opposite of utopian in concept and in tone.

I haven't kept up with sci fi for a long time so I had to google Culture Series.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Culture_(series)#Books_in_...

Sounds like the utopian culture of the protagonists is surrounded by plenty of non-utopian drama.

Star Trek - a future where I might die because I chose to put on a red shirt in the morning. ;-)


> Sounds like the utopian culture of the protagonists is surrounded by plenty of non-utopian drama.

You're not wrong, but the word 'surrounded' is significant.

Star Trek always felt odd to me because the non-utopian elements felt far too embedded in the utopian stuff. Not just the Maquis, where utopia is breaking down, but the constant presence of menacing rival powers and internal hierarchy. What happens if a captain loses their ship? It can't be trivial or the Romulans wouldn't be a threat. What happens if a private citizen asks the fabricator for a submarine instead of a hot dinner? Material/power/something is clearly bounded. And, yes, redshirts - quite a few people in utopia still get killed because no one knows how to keep them safe.

What I like so much about the Culture stories is that the drama is around their society. They're not just post-money but largely post-scarcity; one character's hobby is terraforming continents into custom residences, and resource limits don't seem to affect anyone much unless they're dealing with the sorts of energy costs associated with major spacetravel. Even when they go to war, it's from a truly foreign viewpoint. One (no-spoilers) conflict sees the Culture evacuate and destroy a space habitat for several billion people because they don't want to yield it to the enemy, and rebuilding it elsewhere is a minor concern.

The other appeal, less obvious from a summary, is seeing what the Culture does worry about. They're not the first post-scarcity civilization, and they're not entirely sure what's happened to the others...


This is why DS9 is my favourite Star Trek. They deal with this to a great extent: Replicators are limited both in scope (there are episodes talking about large industrial replicators), and in frequency of use (they use a lot of energy, and requires maintenance, and Voyager had already established rationing).

Being placed in a total backwater, with the time to get Federation assistance frequently being a plot point, they could play with things like money and wealth feeling strange and foreign to the Federation citizens, but have them but up against it.

DS9 actually tries to address it to an extent. And it also gives the Ferengi a lot more depth and shows that they're not all greed all the time.

But I agree part of the appeal of the Culture is that it was taken to the other extreme of what a truly post-scarcity society might look like.

> and they're not entirely sure what's happened to the others...

... and on this point, they look like luddites. The Culture are those who are left, who have refused to go into virtual environments or sublime, and who limit their lifespans, and mostly retain their normal biological functions. It's fascinating to see a civilization that seems so advanced, and is so in terms of capability, but that in many ways have a lot in common with the Amish in having rejected taking the next steps.


>Star Trek always felt odd to me because the non-utopian elements felt far too embedded in the utopian stuff.

That's because utopias are boring. Gene Roddenberry's vision if actually followed through with would have made for dismal television, so the writers had to back away from it now and then.

To me the flawed utopias are more interesting and even more inspiring. I can relate to people having to struggle to uphold their morals in a violent and uncertain universe, but not so much to people who are already perfect.

>And, yes, redshirts - quite a few people in utopia still get killed because no one knows how to keep them safe.

Despite it being canon that transporter buffers can be used to store a backup of a person's entire pattern and make copies of them. I can understand the redshirts thing in TOS when that bit of technobabble hadn't been worked out, but by TNG it should have been standard operating procedure to spin up new ones when the old ones got vaporized by the monster of the week.


I can understand the redshirts thing in TOS when that bit of technobabble hadn't been worked out, but by TNG it should have been standard operating procedure to spin up new ones when the old ones got vaporized by the monster of the week.

In the Culture, they actually do that. Few people are in danger of unexpected death in the first place, but you can be restored from a pattern backup if you do suffer an unexpected death. It's extraordinarily rare for a citizen of the Culture to suffer involuntary permanent death.

I personally think of the Culture as "Star Trek done right." They have the same basic toolkit of fictional technologies: strong AI, FTL communications and travel, replicators, abundant energy, artificial gravity, force fields, and teleportation. But instead of being stodgily conservative like the Federation they're making full use of the possibilities offered by these technologies.


Is it possible for utopias to be both boring to talk about and incredibly exciting for the people who live in them (as they probably should be, given they're utopias)?

Probably. But the problem is they have to be exciting for the reader or viewer.

Star Trek's utopia is supposed to be one where humans have evolved beyond petty desires and base instincts. There's no violence, no greed or vice, no intolerance, no scarcity or inequality. People choose to work out of intellectual or creative desire, or simply to better their community, or choose not to work, because everyone already has access to infinite free energy, matter replication and holodecks that can create any fully immersive scenario imaginable.

It would be a wonderful place to live, but less wonderful to read about or watch, at least not without an external force disturbing its placidity (or getting on a starship and taking the plot somewhere more... lively.) YMMV, of course.


But that's my point, and to lay it all out more clearly — I just think writers are being incredibly lazy when it comes to thinking about utopias.

The very concept of a utopia conveys the idea of a world, or a trajectory of constantly increasing excitement and betterment. The idea that a utopia would be boring because "everything is already as good as it can get" betrays a fundamental misunderstanding: if people born in a "utopia" consider it normal and boring, it's probably not a utopia.


If you like the culture novels you should check out the polity series by Neal Asher.

There is a fair amount of overlap (mostly benevolent AIs) but he world builds better than anyone I’ve read almost anywhere and particularly in sci-fi, Spatterjay is brilliantly realised.



Aye that's the one.

Thanks very much! I've heard the name mentioned positively before, but never really kept track of him. That's definitely grounds for me to check it out.


Yep - "don't know what happened" was a bit overstated, I just wanted to put it simply. "Don't know quite what happens when you Sublime" would be more accurate. I think it might be Excession or even Phlebas that first brings up the idea that the Culture is unusual for reaching such a high level of development without subliming?

Yes - one of the later novels does mention that other advanced societies do regard the Culture as being a bit immature in their insistence that they won't sublime.

Incidentally, Subliming reminds me a bit of the transition from the Beyond to the Transcend in Vinge's Zones of Thought stories.


Read Iain M. Banks. It might be the best SF I've ever read. And I read a lot of SF.

I agree, but the downside is that you'll be spoilt for most of the rest of the genre, because little else measures up. Perhaps read everything else first.

Amazon Prime currently has an adaptation of Consider Phlebas in the pipeline, something I have very mixed feelings about.


Not sure why they went for that one, really; even as a novel it's kind of messy and confusing, and I struggle to imagine how an adaptation will work. Player of Games would have been a much more obvious choice.

I'm torn; it's my least favourite of Culture novels, and I almost consider it an early trial, very different in spirit and nature than the rest; but I can see how it'd be an obvious choice for a movie/series: it has the most action/adventure feel and a simple linear storyline (even if you account for the "twist" of who the good guys / bad guys are). There's a single protagonist, we focus largely on him, and he goes out and has adventures in space.

Whereas something like Excession - that can never ever be a movie, really...:-/


I'd love to see someone try Excession, just to see what happened.

I started the culture series with the first book that you mentioned but thought it wasn't that great. I hear the others with more of The Culture are much better. I could see how it could be a decent movie though, lots of action.

> Sounds like the utopian culture of the protagonists is surrounded by plenty of non-utopian drama.

Yup. In fact, the Culture is in a way just scene setting; the protagonists in most of the novels either aren't Culture, or are very weird Culture people. The only possible exception would be Excession, where the characters are mostly Culture AIs.


Love utopian stories. But I think they’re much more difficult to write since they’re fewer, or something.

Modern sci-fi is downright jaded. They don’t bother to introduce technology half the time. It’s jusr taken as a given that the guns shoot colored fireballs or death rays. All transportation just floats around, etc. and people mostly scrap by on whatever they can find and die often.


I think of it as "cargo cult sci-fi"--adopting the trappings of spaceships and ray guns without understanding or caring about the science.

But you're wrong to say that it's a modern issue. That kind of sci-fi has been around since the 1920s at least, pretty much since the moment sci-fi got popular. The facade of grim cynicism may be newer, but it dates to the '80s at least.


> I think of it as "cargo cult sci-fi"--adopting the trappings of spaceships and ray guns without understanding or caring about the science.

Except for the diamond+ hard subgenre, Sci-Fi isn't really about the science anyway. The science serves as a mechanism for introducing premises that allow us to explore aspects of the human condition.


Sure, but there's a difference between medium-soft sci-fi and space fantasy. Star Trek is deeply unrealistic, but it at least attempts to, as you say, use its gadgets to explore interesting premises. Star Wars is fantasy with ray guns.

Star Trek are basically Greek-style morality plays. They could as well be e.g. Aesop-style fables in most instances. And they adopt traditions of Greek theatre of clearly signposting the characters through appearance without worrying the least bit about hitting the viewer over the head with it.

Less so in the newer series, but TOS, TNG, Voyager and DS9 very much follows a structure of setting a scene, introducing a conflict that at it's core is usually based around a simple dilemma of morality or ethics, and having a part of the resolution be a dialogue that explicitly addresses the dilemma.


A lot of Star Trek comes really close to being "fantasy with ray guns" too, let's be honest.

I mean, which is really sillier, subspace or hyperspace?


The difference comes in what they do with it. In Star Wars they "just" pursue the interests of the characters, and the focus is on the excitement, while in most of Star Trek the resolution of conflict is about solving some moral dilemma.

They're very similar in that the tech is mostly veneer, but they're very dissimilar in why the details of the tech doesn't matter.


It's often exactly that, for sure. But sometimes it tries for something more.

I wish it were more often used to flesh out how things could work differently. Like an introduction to ideas outside the mainstream.

I think they're more difficult to write because they're more difficult to imagine, plausibly.

I can imagine a future with energy weapons and flying cars, but one in which corporations and governments don't leverage technology to oppress and enslave the masses, where the rich don't get richer and the poor don't die like dogs, just seems like propaganda.


Star Trek serialized it (seemingly) easily enough. They essentially got a new universe of problems to explore every episode with the context of the Federations technology and administration.

Star Trek's society never made much _sense_, though. If you exclude all the utopian speeches given by Picard, and just look at the interaction of the Federation and Starfleet, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a military dictatorship.

(Pet theory; the Federation is a Soviet-ish military command economy. The episodes we see are in-universe propaganda produced by the state. That's why everyone is so heroic, and why all of the rival civilisations are mostly one-dimensional stereotypes.)

I think Banks' Culture is a better example of a utopia played straight, but most of the action in those novels takes place largely outside the Culture.


>That's why everyone is so heroic, and why all of the rival civilisations are mostly one-dimensional stereotypes.

That is literally what they are, they're intended to act as mirrors to various aspects of humanity, or embody singular aspects of the plot of the week.


Shaka, when the walls fell.

Don't get me started on Darmok. I don't understand why that episode is so praised, it makes no sense.

How... HOW do you have a technological, much less warp capable, civilization if you only speak in metaphor and allegory?

How do engineers get anything done? Do they write white papers in metaphors? Do the captains of their ships issue orders in metaphors?

Languages don't work like that. They literally can't work like that.

It literally makes me... mildly annoyed.


The media, when Kanye tweeted.

It’s also not like we’re told the federation has had complete access to everything about the society. There could be more traditional stories shared with their children as a basis for the language, but unshared with the federation.

All language lives within a culture, and words only convey meaning through a mutually shared understanding. They’ve made allegories first class parts of language, the equivalent to our individual words. Similars happened in programming in so called third/fourth generation languages.


The thing is that you can have that without making it such an active point. One of the things I really like about Snow Crash is that while overall it's an anarcho-capitalistic dystopia where criminal organizations are incorporated, no one's actively wingeing about it, its just a setting to the main plot.

Mass media SF has always been like that though, look at Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, etc.

If anything, I'd have said the opposite. There's a fair bit of hard-ish, no-ftl (and often even no near-light), no magic scifi around right now.

Yeah - but now write a movie about a future that's more or less the same except stuff is slightly better and my phone has a nicer camera.

Slow, gradual improvement isn't as exciting as disaster and apocalypse.


There's another view which is that the Culture Minds keep humans around as pets. For those who hold that view, the Culture is actually a dystopia.

Several books and quite a few short stories by Arthur C Clarke are more or less optimistic about the future - definitely not utopian, but better than today.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacific Edge (the last in his Orange County trilogy) springs to mind.

Imperial Earth by Arthur C. Clarke takes place in a generally better future where the solar system has been colonized. I found it incredibly boring, which is maybe your point.

Also, Men Like Gods by H.G. Wells is about an essentially perfect utopia.


Another example would be Alastair Reynolds' Poseidon's Children series; unlike the rest of his novels, which are generally extremely grim, it takes place in a sort of flawed utopia. A lot of people dislike it for this reason.

Optimism may be passe in TV and film right now, but there's plenty of those in written sci-fi. Off the top of my head, I recently read John Scalzi's Interdependency series (the two books of it that are out, anyway).

Those are about the collapse of civilisation, and it's a pretty nasty civilisation; I'm not sure how optimistic they are.

Sure, but I’ve still seen enough dystopian films/shows. Bird box and skyline are basically the same film, at the start/premise. Don’t look or you’ll die.

Makes one wonder how Global Warming will be looked at 50 years from now when they look back at us.

> Funny how you can be right about future facts (world population) but wrong about the consequences.

Like a future with interplanetary colonies and sentient robots but no personal computers and definitely no internet.

Or an internet, but it's virtual reality, and human consciousness is stored on data tapes.


As a boy I read Asimov's "I, Robot" books, and I remember even back then I thought it strange that the robot's programming was stored on paper tape..

If you think through, analog books are like paper tape. It is possible that future robots will be able to browse analog books and "program" themselves

Like Johnny 5's "input" in Short Circuit 2 ;)

I think most of them later had positronic brains, especially in the short stories and Foundation saga.

As I recall they all had positronic brains from the beginning, but the factory that created them used programming on paper tape to feed into whatever created the brain pattern. I vaguely remember a plot that was about some school class visiting the factory and a boy managing to fiddle with the paper tape and change the programming.

This is where the reader’s imagination can fill in the gaps.

Paper will survive magnetic fields , heat, and rapid changes in temperature that traditional storage won’t. It’s also cheap and disposable. Maybe one or more of these is an issue when trying to cost-effectively get the initial programming into these things. We conveniently don’t really know how they work.


1966 pre-dates the full and equal legalisation of contraception in the US: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eisenstadt_v._Baird ; even now reproductive choice is still somewhat in jeopardy and requires constant activism.

Tokyo's current population is 37.5 million and the global population is above 7 billion, but the problems are so far not manifesting that badly in the West.


> Maybe not surprising, but worth noting anyway just how pessimistic these stories are.

That remains to be seen I'm afraid, the long-term carrying capacity of the planet is unknown. The green revolution has allowed us to feed 7 billion+ people but is powered by fossil fuels. The costs are accelerated climate change, soil degradation and aquifer depletion. Feeding the current population for a few decades is one thing, doing so for centuries or millennia quite another.


Escape from New York is a fun example. At the time the film was made (1981), the idea of New York turning into a lawless prison island by 1997 seemed almost vaguely possible, considering the out-of-control crime rates of the 70s and 80s and the derelict nature of many buildings in the city.

Today in 2019, the idea of turning Manhattan into a walled-off prison seems absurd, mostly because the buildings in the city are now worth millions (inflation-adjusted) more than they were in the 80s.


I'm always struck by the giant CRTs in futuristic 80's movies. Blade runner is one example where there are scenes with CRT screens that even look very blurry/dated compared to the screen I'm watching on.

Also, this is a recent one, but in Star Wars rogue one, I felt it was odd how they had what looked like an IT nightmare. Seriously, they had to physically fly to the base and deal with a robotic arm connecting hard drives (was it tape drives?). Sure they have humanoid robots that are way beyond any tech today, but their cloud storage was basically current and even old school tech. Why don't they have some tiny crystal that stores unlimited data or DNA storage in a small cylinder or something that you would expect in the future? To be fair it is a "long time ago in a galaxy far away" but still, are we technologically ahead of those death star builders in some way?


In Star Wars very few people know how to read, let alone read and write code.

This is a consequence of a world where technology advances faster than people are able to understand it, and abstractions build on top of abstractions to the point where everything just seems like magic and nobody needs to concern themselves with how things actually work.

In fact, pretty much nobody writes code except droids. The droids are instructed on what to write by a programmer, who is usually some old gray wizard in a hooded robe that speaks about what needs to be created and how it should be done at a very high level, then the droids get to work. Nobody actually understands the code the droids produce, and trying to is mostly a waste of time since you can just tell a droid to rewrite it anyway. As a result, most UI is also built by droids. That's why it's more likely to resemble something like ncurses or maybe vim with a powerline plugin, rather than MacOS or Windows.

Because nobody actually understands technology, they tend to develop crude mental models about how things work, and you end up with people doing things the hard way just because they don't know there is any other way to do it. In fact, Star Wars probably wouldn't have even happened if the Empire had better IT security.

It's also likely that people in Star Wars don't understand the concept of one technology being more "advanced" than the other, as they have no skills to evaluate that. So you sometimes see better technology in older times and worse tech in newer times.

When you look at Star Wars this way, the world actually seems very futuristic, because it is the end result of thousands of generations of people who have come to accept technology as a magical black box where you simply give inputs and get outputs. We can even begin to see this effect in our own world today.


I think your first paragraph is an apt description of our world, starting from the early 20th century and onwards.

Especially the 21st century and onwards.

I'm not only talking about technology, but also critical infrastructure and transportation, both of which had breakthroughs in the 20th century with the development of cars and planes, as well as the development of AC transmission and the electric grid.

Far more people are writing code now than ever, though.

To be fair, Rogue One is a direct prequel to A New Hope, which was filmed in the 70s, so it has to maintain that aesthetic and has to contain the same anachronisms like "data tapes."

All of the Star Wars prequels (and the Star Trek series set before TOS) have the same problem, in that they have to present a "futuristic" universe that's acceptably so to modern audiences, yet maintain a sense of visual continuity as antecedents to shows or movies whose look was set in stone decades ago.

Also, you have to consider that Rogue One is an action movie, it's grand, swashbuckling Buck Rogers style space opera. You can't start with a thrilling orbital dogfight, then have close quarters urban combat, then... sitting at a terminal making database queries or something. It might be more realistic but it would also ruin the tone and pacing of the film.


Star Wars is a mess for the past has tech more advanced than the future. Blade Runner is still watchable though and never laughable because it seemingly has been placed in an intentional anachronistic SciFi setting: the 1940's hairstyle and dress Rachel wears, a 1950's "Raymond Chandler" slice of life story, a computer that is more "steampunk" than plausible. The films "Brazil", Marie Antoinette", "Titus", Jesus Christ Superstar, adopt that anachronistic style as well.

Star Wars: A long time ago in a galaxy far away. Why would you assume their tech progress is the same as ours?

Indeed, computers in that universe seem to be both extremely mature and immature. Mature enough for sentient, highly specialized (and general) AI surpassing human ability. But so immature that the "targeting computer" for a state-of-the-art fighter is a crappy norton bombsight-esque augmented reality screen. Advanced enough to store/sort/route navigational data for any 2 points in the galaxy. But so underdeveloped that architectural blueprints are best stored and moved around on physical media. Advanced enough to automate intergalactic cargo/freight/etc. But so underdeveloped that humans need to operate WW2-style plexigalss ball turrets in order to target/shoot down TIE fighters.

It's what happens when you lock retro-futurism into the franchise's canon.


It's quite the potboiler, and the underlying disaster mechanism lacks credibility, but I am still fascinated by Charles Pellegrino's novel Dust from 1998, which certainly qualifies for this list, although no exact year is given for the events taking place - but things are understood to be happening in a then near future. I guessed 2005 when I first read it in '99.

People carry multi-function pocket computers around, referred to as pads. A massive die-off of insects spells global disaster.

At the end, as breathtakingly wrong scenario, but who could have known: Manhattan more or less razed to the ground by a series of nuclear air-bursts, with the WTC Twin Towers nearly the only structures still standing.


I read Fahrenheit 451 in high school and then watched the movie. For a junior in high school thinking my whole life was ahead of me, thinking of a future like the one described in the book was kind of unsettling.

The fact the book got so many things right in 1953 is pretty eye opening:

Predicted regular use of earbud headphones,[2] interactive television, video wall screens, robotic bank tellers,[36] the demise of newspapers and the prevalent use of factoids.[37] Also had the Mechanical Hound[38] and technology for complete blood transfusions.


Soon Bladerunner will be one of those movies. I rewatched it yesterday and was astonished to see that it plays in "November, 2019".

It was quite fun watching the Back To The Future series with my kids, in the same year as the 'Future' of the second film.

Where's my hoverboard??

and one-size-really-does-fit-all clothes

A friend of mine has been re-reading SF books from his collection once we reach the year in which the book is set. This only works if a specific year is called out, of course. And I'm not sure what he does when a book takes place over a long stretch of time. But it seems like a clever way to revisit older SF novels.

> Back to the Future Part II - Film - 1989 - Year set 2015

> Blade Runner - Film - 1982 - Year set 2019

We are living in the future that seemed to be so far away when I was a teenager ...


My favorite HN posts are these types of wikipedia articles

Obligatory xkcd https://xkcd.com/1491/



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