200 Years in the Future, 200 Years in the Past


Eleanor Arnason, 4/2/08 • My assumption, thinking about science fiction novels, is that the world is going to be a lot different 200 years in the future. But then I started thinking.

If we went back to 1800, to the early U.S., how hard would it be to understand people and their lives? And if we brought a bright American here from 1800, how hard would it be for him or her to understand us?

There’s a lot more machinery now, but there were steam engines in 1800, and natural philosophers were studying electricity. The programming of textile looms, the first step in the long journey that led to modern computers, was an 18th century invention, if I am remembering correctly. We kept using cards like the cards that programmed Jacquard looms until the 1960s or 70s. When did IBM cards vanish?

People like Ben Franklin would have known about Jacquard looms.

Biotechnology is new, but people in the past knew about animal breeding; and paleontology — which would lead to evolutionary science — was coming into existence. Jefferson asked Lewis and Clark to look for mammoths and mastodons on their western journey.

Worldwide environmental collapse is new, but environmental damage is not. It’s been with humanity as long as we have been fully human. Where are the mammoths and mastodons?

I can imagine Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson being fascinated by our science and technology. Abigail Adams would understand feminism; and moral people were already deeply troubled by slavery, so civil rights might make sense. I’m not sure about gay rights.

As far as multiculturalism goes, I just did some checking. There were 5,300,000 people in the U.S. per the 1800 census, and one million (19%) of them were black. The Native American population of North American had been 8 to 19 million before contact. After contact, disease had brought it down to around a million in 1800. (These are estimates. No one was counting the Indian nations in 1800.) Still, white Americans would have been acutely aware of their non-white neighbors, especially if they lived in the south or traveled west.

California and the Southwest were Spanish; the center of the continent was claimed by France. America had already signed a treaty with a North African nation; and American ships were traveling the world. Moby Dick, set somewhat later, reminds us that not everyone on those American ships was a white American.

The current culture wars remind us that many of the Founding Fathers were Deist; and the New World had been a refuge of religious sects not welcome in Europe, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Catholics in Maryland, all kinds of nonconformists in New England.

The Native Americans and the African slaves had their own religions.

So, the country two hundred years ago was multicultural, with a mixture of opinions about religion. There were people interested in education, science and technology; and there were people who dealt commercially and scientifically with the rest of the world.

There were also self-righteous bigots and people utterly beaten down by poverty and ignorance.

When I write a story set 200 years in the future, how different does that future have to be? And in what ways?

I’m still trying to figure out what would be really new for someone from 1800.

A lot of theory and basic science, especially relativity and quantum mechanics, but also thermodynamics and electric and magnetic field theory. A lot of biology would be new: genetics especially.

Everyday life would be startling, but not impossible to understand: airplanes, the space station, cell phones, the Internet.
SF from the 1950s did not predict cell phones or the Internet or, for that matter, the second wave of feminism or gay liberation.

But if you go back to The Communist Manifesto, you can get a good description of social changes as a result of capitalism, many of which seem to have barely begun when Marx and Engels wrote.

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstacies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.

The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation…

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.

Marx and Engels wrote in England, the most advanced industrialized country then existing. None the less, I am always amazed at how clearly they saw the future of industrial society.

Many of the social changes they describe happened (we usually think) in the 20th century. American conservatives mourn an ideal society that existed in the early 20th century or even the 1950s, when families were intact, people in believed in God and traditional values were respected.

England was ahead of the U.S. But I also think Marx and Engels were able to extrapolate what they saw. They were not the only ones. Many people in England were horrified by the future they saw, when they looked at dark satanic mills.

I guess what I am arguing, when I think about writing stories set in the future, is the world 200 years from now might be hugely different — if we have a nuclear war or total environmental collapse, if aliens come from the stars or an asteroid hits us, or it might be a world combining elements we recognize with elements we didn’t imagine and could not have imagined. Marx and Engels could imagine a world dominated by Free Trade and the cash nexus in 1848. Who could have imagined atomic power in 1848?

What’s interesting is, how much we misimagine the past. We don’t remember how deeply rooted our society is in the science, technology and society of the 19th century, so that perceptive people in the 19th century could imagine many aspects of our world.

We think of the rapidly changing, multicultural, revolutionary society of early 19th century America is a white suburb circa 1955.

We underestimate how much of the present comes from the past and how much of the future will come from the present. This is an American trait, I think — to see history as made of clean breaks, rather than of continuity; or to see history is an arrow, zipping straight from past to future, rather than a wandering, looping, incomplete process.