Back to the future

22nd January 1999 at 00:00
What did our grandparents - and theirs - think tomorrow would look like? Will today's predictions prove to be any more accurate? As a new millennium dawns, Jo Gardiner takes a retro look forward.

Already 1999 feels more like an ending than a beginning - a waiting-room year before the curtain opens on the big "M", when "The Future" can finally start.

The approach of 2000 is an opportunity to point out to children some of the consequences of our calendar and its encouragement of the arbitrary division of history into decades, centuries and millennia. They can be reminded that the "third millennium" isn't a cosmic event, but rests on a decision to date our Year One from the birth of Jesus Christ. You could even point out that people in Islamic countries are still living in the 15th century.

But it is also worth asking whether people have always been eager to speculate about the shape of things to come, and where our own ideas about the future come from. Ask a class of 10-year-olds to describe or draw "the future". There may be some surprises, but there will be a plethora of familiar images - spaceships, aliens, flying cars, megalithic cities, automated homes, time machines and people in skin-tight silver suits. Some pupils may touch on virtual schools and virtual parents, or the effects of global warming, but how many would imagine a return to a rural society where technologies have collapsed through a lack of natural resources? Our picture of the future is still shaped by images of technological progress from the past, particularly visual images - there is a whole aesthetic conjured up by the word "futuristic", a mechanistic, metallic, angular, relentlessly urban world heavily influenced by cinema. The cities in Metropolis (1926), the more recent Batman films, Blade Runner (1982), and classic American comics all show this influence; it can be seen in the design of the Millennium Dome, which would not have looked out of place in the 1930s or 1950s.

It is unlikely that many people before about 1800 would have pondered much on the lifestyles of their distant descendants. A child at a 16th century Dame School would have no Tudor equivalent of Star Trek, Dr Who or The Jetsons. They would have been more concerned about their immediate future, while their parents tried to interest them in their fate after death - in heaven, hell, or something in between.

Prophets and astrologers, however, have been around since the time of the ancients - the Greeks, Egyptians and Chinese - and people consulted oracles about personal, business or domestic problems, while prophets tended to go for broad-sweep predictions about war, famine, kings, dictators, plagues and other cheering prognostications.

It's possible to argue that the Bible's "Book of Revelations" and other prophetic writings represent the first attempts to imagine the future, but their intention was dogmatic rather than imaginative, so they do not really fall into the category of speculative fiction.

Before the 19th century, few writers of fiction chose to set their work in the future, though the roots of speculative and science fiction can be found in stories of fantastic voyages - to the moon, to heaven or hell, the centre of the earth, unexplored continents, fantasy islands, and also in utopias and dystopias, which are usually found in foreign countries rather than in the future. Examples include Gulliver's Travels (1726), in which Jonathan Swift uses Gulliver's adventures in strange countries to satirise contemporary society.

According to Andy Sawyer, of the Science Fiction Foundation at Liverpool University, the first story in English set in the future is an anonymous pamphlet from 1644, which imagines what life would be like if Charles I returned to London. More than a century later, The Reign of George VI, also anonymous, is a political speculation set in the 20th century, though the author's imagination did not embrace technological change - people still travel by horse and sail in frigates. In 1826, Mary Shelley's The Last Man imagines life in the 21st century, when Britain has become a republic and people travel by balloon.

One of the reasons for this dearth of futurology, says Andy Sawyer, is that for centuries "people tended to imagine that the future would be much like the present - kings and governments changed, but life for the mass of people stayed broadly similar over the generations".

But by 1800, Western writers were running out of unknown bits of world in which to set stories (Australia and New Zealand had been "discovered" by Europeans) and they began to see the potential of the future as a place where imagination could run riot. The industrial revolution also fuelled speculation about further progress and, by the middle of the century, Darwin and others were unravelling the Christian view of creation.

As Andy Sawyer says, most predictive fiction is an extrapolation of trends an author observes in his or her own society. While Dickens was lambasting poverty in contemporary London, writer Ignatious Donelly was imagining the US in 1988, when the rich would control the newly-harnessed electrical forces and use them to oppress the poor. Caesar's Column (1890) also predicts balloon travel and an instant TV news service. In 1895, HG Wells published the first of his science fiction novels, The Time Machine, in which a race of indolent innocents, the Eloi, is exploited by the subterranean Morlocks. But it was with the publication of Wells' novel The War of the Worlds (an apocalyptic story of Martian invasion) two years later that the foundations of 20th century futurology were laid.

As this century has progressed, frightening visions of the future became more common, reflecting the terrible events of the era - wars, fascism, communism, the Holocaust. Setting a novel in the future allowed writers to warn of the consequences of oppression without naming names or regimes, and the horror of totalitarianism has been a constant theme over the century. Orwell's 1984 (1949) is the best-known example, while Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, written in 1932, has an uncanny resonance today as the terrifying potential of genetic engineering begins to sink in. A recent example of this genre is Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985), with its themes of infertility, feminism and Christian fundamentalism.

While these novels are beyond most primary children, the questions they raise are not. Eleven-year-olds will find Fritz Lang's Metropolis fascinating, especially when you remind them it was made when their grandparents were small children and is set in 2026, when they themselves will be in their prime. Lang's oppressive city, the ruling managerial class, the downtrodden underground workers and the tyranny of the clock, are still recognisable themes. Equally, older primary children are quite capable of discussing whether it is OK to clone sheep or people, design their own baby, or produce a race of superchildren free from defects.

Alien contact is another constant theme, and has also reflected changing times. In the 1950s and 1960s, aliens acted out the Cold War, with the extra terrestrials thinly disguised as Russians or American McCarthy-supporting, communist-hating, witch-hunters. More recently, films such as Alien (1979) and John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) (not for young children) show the evil as something inside us, taking us over. A more positive side of the Sixties' speculation is the proliferation of rockets, spaceships, robots and labour-saving devices, all building on real advances, including the Moon landings. But few predicted the potential of computers; most were distracted by robots.

Since the 1970s, environmental angst has dominated futurology: global warming, pollution, overpopulation, diminishing resources, nuclear disaster. Now, even small children express concern about the Earth's future. This is something that marks out the next generation from those of us who were at school in 1960s and 1970s, when the world seemed immortal.

Today, says Andy Sawyer, writers are concentrating on the potential of artificial intelligence and the Internet, and tormenting themselves with the moral ramifications of genetic engineering and eugenics.

The 16th century futurologist Nostradamus said that: "In the year 1999 in the seventh month, a great king of frightfulness will come from the skies..." He guessed July; the total eclipse is due on 11 August - you have been warned!


The Science Fiction Foundation Collection, University of Liverpool, PO Box 123 Liverpool L69 3DA Tel 0151 794 2696 (E-mail Encyclopedia of Science Fiction ed John Clute and Peter Nicholls (St Martin's Press 1995) The Shape of Futures Past by Chris Morgan (Webb amp; Bower 1980)


Ask pupils to:

* design an alternative home for the Millennium Exhibition (not dome-shaped!) * imagine they are time travellers from the past. What would they think of the world now?

* draw aliens. If you get green men, ask them to consider where these images come from, then try again * ask grandparents or other older relatives how life today compares with what they expected when they were children * describe what daily life could be like in 50 or 100 years (homes, schools, food, pollution, transport, families) * work out how old they will be at various dates in the next century * talk about the fears they have for the future

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