Like many, I am obsessed with both science fiction and history books. Obviously, history shows us what has already occurred, and science fiction’s promise is to show us futures that might be.
And sometimes those two trajectories, the past and the future, cross, and even run parallel.
During my research for my new novel, Software by the Kilo, I found yet again that the environment and surroundings of the past often parallel those in some projected futures.
Though the “genre police” have created sub-genres under sub-genres for the purposes of slotting books, one simple and straightforward method of classifying science fiction is by the amount of new technology knowledge and usage available in future world lines; a lot more, about the same, or less than we have today:
- Space Opera/Singularity (Technology Advances, lots of rapid tech development)
- Mundane (Technology Stagnates, slow progress or reversal, status quo)
- Aw Crap (Technology Reversal; see: The Thinking Man’s Guide to the End of the World for the wide variety of ways authors have imagined)
My novel has as part of its setting the Italy and North Africa of World War II, following both Italian and American soldiers on opposite and similar sides of the battle. The other setting is modern, following the descendants of these warriors, some of whom are now Italian drug smugglers, seeking to launder their money by investing in a hi-tech startup.
World War II was not that long ago (Pearl Harbor was 68 years ago, D-Day 65) but from a technological standpoint (and culture influenced by that technology) the contrasts are radical, radical in ways that are reflected in some forward looking science fiction. Simple elements that modern society takes for granted like communications and health/hygiene show large differences in everyday life, proving that history is always fertile ground for science fiction ideas.
Communications is the most obvious of these changes. You readers who are my age (and you know who you are) remember when a non-cell phone culture made us plan more; no more going out the door, phone people up on your mobile (or texting whilst driving!) changing plans on the fly. The “always on, always broadcasting”
Translate this backwards into World War II; not only could battle changes / troop movements not be coordinated, but civilians received no real time communication as to what was going on, and often did not know that war was upon them until retreating troops came knocking on the door for food and shelter. The resistance movement and guerrillas used young girls as couriers for planning – not quite as fast or accurate as modern day cells. An example can be seen in this passage from the history book Italy’s Sorrow: A Year of War 1944-1945 by James Holland, depicting the last year of WWII in Italy:
“…the locals had devised a number of signals to help the partisans. “One of the most important signals was to hang white sheets out of the windows,” says Iader. “Even if it was raining! When we saw white sheets, we knew German and Fascist troops were on the move.” Another code was the word ‘la Volpe’ – the fox – which was passed from house to house and then by messenger girls, or staffette as they were know. “It was”, adds Iader, “the mobile phone of the time.”
In a scene from Software by the Kilo, Marco, an AWOL Italian soldier turned drug smuggler in World War II, waits for a delivery of illicit cargo from Tunisia…and waits…and waits; no way to communicate, no instant change of plan notification was possible. As our ability to instantly connect affects our daily routine today, so did the lack of it then arrange theirs differently.
Translate this forwards, down either the mundane path (where technology might slowly creep backwards, due to stagnation from several sources) or the collapse trail (picture an EMP wiping out electrical and electronic systems) and the parallels with our own history, and possibilities of it repeating itself, become visible. Many post-apocalyptic novels, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, depict this subtly (in his world, you can’t phone ahead for shelter or use the Internet to find where the “good people” are). In Dusk Before the Dawn (my first novel, reviewed at SF Signal) the resumption of the Internet was of high priority after the collapse of most civilization.
Health and hygiene are another area of change with far reaching affects in the recent past, that can and are reflected in certain sci-fi. In the time of World War I and World War II, it was common to live in the same set of uniforms/clothes until you could scavenge something better (or supplies finally arrived); then the offending used ones were burned or buried. History book descriptions of this could easily be describing post-apocalyptic fiction scenarios (such as, again, The Road).
Hand in hand with hygiene is longevity, and longer years combined with closer communications provides, among other uses of air time, warnings from Government/Big Brother/The Vast Machine on how to better take care of ourselves. But when years were shorter, different perspectives and priorities abounded, as in the following passage from Toward the Flame: A Memoir of World War I by Hervy Allen:
While our men were waiting, I got permission from the colonel for them to smoke. It was really touching to see how hungry they were for tobacco. I never realized how much it could mean. I lit a cigarette myself, and remember it was more like eating something than smoking…After a few puffs one felt the cold and damp less. Tobacco in times of great fatigue, annoyance and nervous stress brings a slightly sleepy feeling of contentment and does not seem to lower the faculties much. It enables on to endure more.
Put that one right after the myriad of today’s stop smoking commercials! But looking forward, in a world-line where technology declines or reverses, would we resume practices that we now thought dangerous or unhealthy, either due to lack of communications or lack of concern due to shorter lifespan?
Recent history provides excellent environmental fodder such as this for non-space opera science fiction. I for one would like to see more novels where the future is more like our past that it is to that of space travel, to see how the worlds collide.