In recent weeks, I find myself thinking more about how historians of the future will view our tumultuous era of history. Perhaps such thoughts are putting the cart before the horse—what I can do now to understand the present might be a better question. Nonetheless, daydreaming about the future is a nearly life-long tradition for me, which would explain my continuing fandom for Star Trek and its various spinoffs. I’ve used my space here at S-USIH on several occasions to think about speculative fiction and history, along with my colleagues. The intersection of history and speculative fiction is incredibly important to think about. Historians themselves, in fact, occupy a particularly important space in thinking about the future—especially through fiction.
A recent interview with science fiction writer Ada Palmer was only the latest piece of reading that pushed me to think about this topic deeper. Palmer earned a PhD in history at Harvard University, specializing in Renaissance history. She mentioned in the interview with Locus magazine that history provides an excellent background for writing science fiction:
“Being a historian is excellent for science fiction, because we have to think about how societies change over long periods of time, and how technologies change society. When I sit down to build a future history, I’m using past history, and as a historian I’m used to thinking about questions such as, ‘What is the origin of the currency that the civilization uses? Where did it come from? Has it changed value over time? If so, how and why? What is the staple crop the civilization farms? How does that affect the density of the dwellings of the rural population? How does that affect how quickly news can spread in a political or military situation?’ Which are not questions that most people are necessarily trained to ask, whether in a science fiction or fantasy world.”
When one thinks about scholars within the humanities, too, it is easy to find people who understood the intersection of speculative fiction and history. W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, wrote numerous speculative fiction stories—most of which he never published. Yet, as this post at Black Perspectives makes clear, Du Bois’ writings in the genre of speculative fiction allowed him the opportunity to think about the intractable problem of racism from different angles. Adopting different personas, both within his stories and with different pen names, allowed him to transcend “the veil” and look at society from different points of view. His short story “The Comet,” published in Darkwater in 1920, was his most forceful public use of the genre of speculative fiction to think out loud about the self-inflicted poison of racism in modern life.
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series—the grandfather of so many essential concepts of the “space opera” concept best seen in Star Wars—builds off the idea of scholars being able to use their fields of study to influence the future for the better. The principal character of the trilogy, Hari Sheldon, uses mathematics to try to save humanity from the potential of a galactic Dark Age. But one of the central lessons of Asimov’s trilogy is that history is inherently unpredictable, as Seldon’s compatriots discover the hard way. Manu Saadia’s Trekonomics further gets into the ways Asimov’s Foundation series, along with other science fiction works, offer a place to think about the future from a historical and, indeed humanities-based, point of view.
Modern efforts, such as the critically important #WakandaSyllabus, also show how scholars understand the utility of speculative fiction to think about the past, present, and future. In fact, the celebration of Afrofuturism surrounding Black Panther was part of a longer tradition of African Americans using speculative fiction to think about new worlds that have transcended racism and other forms of discrimination. Living in an era that seems more unpredictable by the day, thinking about the ways in which speculative fiction can get us to think about the world through fresh lenses is incredibly important.