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[GUEST POST] Ada Palmer on Middle Future Science Fiction

Ada Palmer is a professor in the history department of the University of Chicago, specializing in Renaissance history and the history of ideas. Her first nonfiction book, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, was published in 2014 by Harvard University Press. She is also a composer of folk and Renaissance-tinged a capella music, most of which she performs with the group Sassafrass. Her personal site is at AdaPalmer.com, and she writes about history for a popular audience at exurbe.com and about SF and fantasy-related matters at Tor.com. Her new novel, Too Like the Lightning, is the first book in the Terra Ignota series.

Middle Future Science Fiction

by Ada Palmer

I think of my Terra Ignota series as “middle future” science fiction, since there isn’t really an established term for the part of the future which is later than near future-past stories that examine the consequences of current global trends-but isn’t as far as grand space-faring empires. A future well past this century, but not yet past this planet, or at least not farther than baby steps to the Moon and Mars.

I see “middle future” as a period that is opening up more now as a space for speculative fiction, for a very specific reason. In golden age and silver age science fiction-the periods that still largely set the tone for the genre-there was no lengthy period between the immediate future and deep space. By the year 2000 we were all supposed to have flying cars, and robot butlers, and asteroid resorts, and the option to live on Mars or Venus. The decades of glittering expos that celebrated the World of Tomorrow, the age that saw the Moon landing come so fast, did not imagine a long stretch of cultural and social change on Earth before Earth became just one of many homes for space-bound humanity. With a future among the stars assumed to be so close, “middle future” fiction, depicting a recognizable humanity still on Earth in five or ten generations, felt unrealistic. Works in this space, like Heinlein’s Door Into Summer, are rare anomalies. Dystopia, invasion and apocalypse were exceptions, great disruptions which might plausibly set humanity off-track, or require slow recovery (as in Vinge’s The Peace War), but readers and creators alike required some sinister interference to throw humanity off the Space Age track that even mainstream fashion and architecture celebrated with such certainty.

Now that we have passed the year 2000 without setting a human foot on Mars, we are starting to recognize that humanity is leaving Earth more slowly than we imagined. We hope and expect that the next decades will see Mars missions, space tourism, more space stations, and progress toward asteroid mining, space elevators, and many other ambitious projects, but these are coming incrementally, not instantly, achievements of a lifetime, not a decade. Many works-from 2312 to The Expanse-are still exploring default expectation that humanity will be far out into the Solar System in a century or two, but it is now becoming easier to imagine that the bulk of human culture will still be on Earth in a hundred years, or two, perhaps even three. This opens up a space for a new kind of imagined future: an Earth several centuries beyond our own yet still contiguous with ours as ours is with past centuries, farther along our current trajectory but without the geographic disjunction of a space-bound exodus, or the cultural disjunction of dystopia or apocalypse. Middle future Earth.

More recently, the popularity of the idea of the Singularity has been another reason speculative fiction rarely works in this middle future period. For those who imagine or believe that humanity is only a few decades from a moment at which self-propelled technology will begin multiplying beyond human control or understanding, the future is cut off by another kind of absolute disjunction, after which humanity will no longer shape its own future. Just like dystopia or apocalypse, the Singularity severs the future from the past and present. It means the end of continuity, a cutoff point after which the currents of cultural and historical change which turned our past into our present will not be what makes our present into our future: instead it will be made by technology as alien as an invasion. While the Singularity is an interesting idea, from a narrative standpoint I think it largely duplicates the future spaces that dystopia and post-apocalypse already offered: futures cut off from our present, instead of flowing from it. We have many ways to talk about the End of History, so many that talking about the Future of History is now the novelty.

In my own Terra Ignota series, I use this middle future setting to explore continuities, especially cultural and political ones, how current nations-Spain, Greece, China-or current cultural forces-democracy, religion, gender-might develop if they have another four centuries to change as much as they have changed since the days of Jefferson and Voltaire. But I hope that the next years will see many other authors set fiction in this new imaginative space, exploring versions of humanity transformed, not only by great discoveries and heroic moments, but by time.

Ada Palmer is a professor in the history department of the University of Chicago, specializing in Renaissance history and the history of ideas. Her first nonfiction book, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, was published in 2014 by Harvard University Press. She is also a composer of folk and Renaissance-tinged a capella music, most of which she performs with the group Sassafrass. Her personal site is at adapalmer.com, and she writes about history for a popular audience at exurbe.com and about SF and fantasy-related matters at Tor.com.


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