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Published:June 20th, 2012 12:07 EST

Back To The Future: Viewing the future through literature of our past

By Sean Stubblefield

It`s strange to think the future is now found in the past.

Strange to feel nostalgia for the future, to remember the future.


The fiction of our future is in the fiction of our past.

Classic science fiction authors like Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke pioneered epic visions of the future.

The vision these writers represented were obsessed and enchanted and generally optimistic about the future and its possibilities.

But we no longer envision the future, the way they did... as a grand journey, a grand adventure, a grand destination.

Their vision toward the future was infused with a cultural zeitgeist and zeal.

Or maybe that zeitgeist and zeal infused their vision.

The vision depicted in science fiction literature of the time spilled out into our culture, igniting our collective imagination and fascination about designing the future-- today.

Between the `30s and `60s, space and the future were virtually synonymous-- innately and inevitably interconnected. The future was part of our culture; we were driven by it and into it. At least in America, the future was almost tangible-- it was where we were going. The future was an actual, real place, in our minds... where humanity was meant to go. It was our reason for being; to build and discover the future. And The Future was going to be amazing. Better.

So inspired and enamored was that era, Kennedy urged America to the moon. Not just to beat the Russians, but as a noble gesture of intent for the future of humanity.

Alas, we have clearly abandoned that vision as frivolous, impractical, not cost effective, unprofitable.

Now, we tend to assume the future has already arrived; so we have given up searching and creating and hoping. Not that we have arrived  in the future, but the future has arrived. Consider the distinction.

Sadly, neglectfully, somewhere along the way, somehow... we seem to have lost the plot.

Over the last 20 or so years, science fiction-- once abundantly optimistic about the future-- has been overwhelmed with pessimism. What effect is this attitude in our stories having on our culture?

Are those stories inspiring a negative attitude for the future, or is our negative attitude inspiring those stories? Probably both.

But many among fandom are noticing and criticizing that trend of negativity-- including sci-fi authors, and are encouraging a movement of creating more positive literature. They want to revitalize a sense of awe and wonder, optimism, hope and excitement for the future as a place that glorious dreams are made of.

Two years ago, we got Shine: An Anthology of Near-Future Optimistic Science Fiction, which portrays the possible roads to a better tomorrow. The fundamental premise of Shine is that positive change is far from being a foregone conclusion, and needs to be hard fought, innovative, robust and imaginative.

Currently, science-fiction author Neal Stephenson has begun spearheading a new anthology referred to as Project Hieroglyph (slated for a 2014 publication). This is an extension of a non-profit online journal founded by Stephenson in 2011, in order to encourage science fiction stories that inspire new science and technologies akin to science fiction stories of the prior century. He attempts to rally writers to infuse science fiction with optimism that could inspire a new generation to, as he puts it, "get big stuff done".

If we have no hope for the future, then we are not likely to pursue or strive to create it.

My own speculative fiction is typically optimistic and hopeful regarding the future, although it is rarely set in space.


We drive into the future using only our rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future. --Marshall McLuhan