Friday, 31 August 2012

Histories of Futures Past #1

How we think about the future shines a light on how we see our present time. For example, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy paints a far future world filled with 1950s gender values and one of the most common criticisms of Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict and Academy series that I’ve seen is that his far future is a bit too close to our early 21st century home.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. Indeed, as Jenkins, a character in John Scalzi’s excellent Redshirts, says in reference to science fiction television shows and movies:
If a show goes back to a specific time in its actual past, they’ll usually key it to a specific important historical person or event, because they have to give the audience something it knows about history, or else it won’t care. But if the show goes back to the present, then it doesn’t do that. It just shows that time and the characters reacting to it. It’s a dramatic irony thing. (Google Play edition, p.142)
I’ll admit it now, I’ve never much been a fan of time travel stories (outside of Chrono Trigger, which is both a video game and one set on a secondary world, and I’d argue that makes all the difference for me), but Jenkin’s (and Scalzi’s) point is an important one: good writing needs to engage the audience, and one easy way of doing this without having to go into detailed historical exposition is to make use of what the audience already knows, either a historical event seen as important at that time or the audience’s present time itself.

This is why Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home goes back to 1980s Earth and the surviving humans of the Galatica 1980 arrive on Earth in (surprise!) 1980 as well. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III is an exception that proves the rule: our heroes go back to early 17th century Japan from their present in the early 1990s. (A piece of dissonance for me as a child was that one of the characters they meet was named Yoshi, but I blame Super Mario World for that.)

These points are all by way of introduction to the first series here on History, Applied: Histories of Futures Past. In this occasional series, I will look at science fictional stories, novels, authors, series, or themes that I find interesting with a focus on questions that get at these works' historical context, the historiograhical musings of characters (which is more common than you think), and the uses and abuses of history (and public history) found within these stories.

Happy reading!

Histories of Futures Past Series - Table of Contents

Originally posted here.