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Future history

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A future history is a fictional history of the future used by authors of science fiction and other speculative fiction to construct a common background for stories. Sometimes the author publishes a timeline of events in the history, while other times the reader can reconstruct the order of the stories from information provided. The term can also be used to describe the subgenre of science fiction that uses this framework.[1]

A set of stories which share a backdrop but are not really concerned with the sequence of history in their universe are rarely considered future histories. For example, Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga is not generally considered a future history. Standalone stories which trace an arc of history are rarely considered future histories.[citation needed]

Future histories differ from alternate history, in which different outcomes are ascribed to past events, because they consist of imagined events in the writer's future.


The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls The Ruins; Or, a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires, by Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney (published in 1791) probably the first recognizable future history.[2] In it, the narrator is transported into space and sees the Earth as a whole while its history unfolds, which Volney uses to present his political and theological ideas.[3] It lists similar examples from the 19th and 20th centuries by William Delisle Hay, Alfred Döblin (Berge Meere und Giganten), André Maurois, and Olaf Stapledon (Last and First Men and Star Maker). Some of these purported to be excerpts of a history book from the future, having no personal protagonists but rather describing the development of nations and societies over decades and centuries. Such works include:

  • Jack London's The Unparalleled Invasion (1914) describing a devastating war between an alliance of Western nations and China in 1975, ending with a complete genocide of the Chinese people. It is described in a short footnote as "Excerpt from Walt Mervin's 'Certain Essays in History'".
  • André Maurois's The War against the Moon (1928), where a band of well-meaning conspirators intend to avert a devastating world war by uniting humanity in hatred of a fictitious Lunar enemy, only to find that the moon is truly inhabited and that they had unwittingly set off the first interplanetary war. This, too, is explicitly described as an excerpt from a future history book.
  • H. G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come (1933) contains numerous footnotes and references to the works of (mostly fictitious) prominent historians of the 20th and 21st centuries.

In science fiction[edit]

The first science fiction writer to create a future history may have been Neil R. Jones in his stories of the 1930s.[4][5] The term appears to have been coined by John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, in the February 1941 issue of the magazine, to describe Robert A. Heinlein's Future History; the issue included a timeline of the stories.[2] However, a fan had used the term, with "history" in quotation marks, in a letter to the pulp Thrilling Wonder Stories the previous year.[1]

Other future histories[edit]

Future becoming past[edit]

The future projected in a "future history" can often turn out to be wildly inaccurate.

For example, in 1933 H. G. Wells postulated in The Shape of Things to Come a Second World War in which Nazi Germany and Poland are evenly matched militarily, fighting an indecisive war over ten years; and Poul Anderson's early 1950s Psychotechnic League depicted a world undergoing a devastating nuclear war in 1958, yet by the early 21st century managing not only to rebuild the ruins on Earth but also engage in extensive space colonization of the Moon and several planets. A writer possessing knowledge of the actual swift collapse of Poland in World War II and the enormous actual costs of far less ambitious space programs in a far less devastated world would have been unlikely to postulate such outcomes.[6] 2001: A Space Odyssey was set in the future and featured developments in space travel and habitation which have not occurred on the timescale postulated.

A problem with future history science fiction is that it will date and be overtaken by real historical events, for instance H. Beam Piper's future history, which included a nuclear war in 1973, and much of the future history of Star Trek. Jerry Pournelle's "CoDominium" future history assumed that the Cold War would end with the United States and Soviet Union establishing a co-rule of the world, the CoDominium of the title, which would last into the 22nd Century—rather than the Soviet Union collapsing in 1991.

There are several ways this is dealt with. One solution to the problem is when some authors set their stories in an indefinite future, often in a society where the current calendar has been disrupted due to a societal collapse or undergone some form of distortion due to the impact of technology. Related to the first, some stories are set in the very remote future and only deal with the author's contemporary history in a sketchy fashion, if at all (e.g. the original Foundation Trilogy by Asimov). Another related case is where stories are set in the near future, but with an explicitly allohistorical past, as in Ken MacLeod's Engines of Light series.

In other cases, the merging of the fictional history and the known history is done through extensive use of retroactive continuity. In yet other cases, such as the Doctor Who television series and the fiction based on it, much use is made of secret history, in which the events that take place are largely secret and not known to the general public.

As with Heinlein, some authors simply write a detailed future history and accept the fact that events will overtake it, making the sequence into a de facto alternate history.

Lastly, some writers formally transform their future histories into alternate history, once they had been overtaken by events. For example, Poul Anderson started The Psychotechnic League history in the early 1950s, assuming a nuclear war in 1958—then a future date. When it was republished in the 1980s, a new foreword was added explaining how that history's timeline diverged from ours and led to war.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Future History". Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction. Retrieved 11 January 2024.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Langford, David (2021). "Future Histories". In Clute, John; Langford, David (eds.). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Fourth ed.). London and Reading: SFE Ltd/Ansible Editions. Retrieved 11 January 2021.
  3. ^ Clute, John (2021). "M Volney". In Clute, John; Langford, David (eds.). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Fourth ed.). London and Reading: SFE Ltd/Ansible Editions. Retrieved 11 January 2021.
  4. ^ Ashley, M. (April, 1989). The Immortal Professor, Astro Adventures No.7, p.6.
  5. ^ Clute, John (2021). "Jones, Neil R". In Clute, John; Langford, David (eds.). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Fourth ed.). London and Reading: SFE Ltd/Ansible Editions. Retrieved 11 January 2021.
  6. ^ Robert F. Vernon, "Reasoned and unreasoned speculations about what will be and what might have been" in Marcia Gracie (ed.) "Trends in Speculative Fiction", New York, 1998