Remaking the past (and future)

by John Q on January 11, 2005

Science fiction and speculative fiction have always been as much about the past as about the future. Buck Rogers, reawakening in the 25th century, liberates his oppressed compatriots by refighting World War I, complete with artillery barrages. A step up from this kind of pulp, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series inaugurated the “future history” genre with a replay of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Then there are the innumerable translations of medieval romances, sea stories and Westerns into various mixtures of SF and fantasy.

Although not uniformly dreadful, this kind of thing seems rather pointless. The essence of science fiction is the idea that science and technology matter, that, in a different world, we would live fundamentally different lives and find out new things about ourselves. “Hard” scientific fiction invariable adheres to this premise, though the application is often rather simplistic – adjust technological knob A and produce outcome B. There is still the problem that, since we don’t know the future, we inevitably draw on the past or the present. But writing about the future as a carbon copy of the past doesn’t seem to go far.

For most of the 20th century, through the early days of space exploration and up to the end of the Cold War, commentary on the present dressed up as speculation about the future, as in 1984 and Brave New World, was generally a more promising source than a review of the past. But even if we are not at the end of history, there seems to be little in our present times or the foreseeable future to provide a basis for radical speculation.

The great discovery of recent years, after a period when the whole genre of speculative fiction seemed in danger of exhaustion, has been the fictional potential of the 19th century, the time when modernity, the transformation of life by science and technology, was still new and startling. The dominant approach has been alternate history, including William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy and, in a rather different vein, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

China Mieville takes the whole process a step further, in Iron Council, the recent sequel to his Perdido Street Station. In its literal presentation, this is standard SF with a fully-realised new world, non-human species and biotechnology both marvellous and horrible. But the New Crobuzon in which Mieville set Perdido Street Station is recognisably London of the late 19th century, with its respectable upper and middle class veneer of liberalism, its massive and variegated underworld and the constant foggy miasma overhanging everything.

Although the ambience is that of London, the politics is that of Continental Europe, and particularly Paris, with gendarmes and agents provocateurs, and a ferment of radical and revolutionary organisations, occasionally breaking out into political assassinations or barricades and streetfighting. All of this is even sharper in Iron Council where the central character is that great emblem of the 19 century and the Industrial Revolution, the railway. The Iron Council’s railway is revolutionary in more ways than one – the members of the Council are the workers on a transcontinental railway project who have overthrown their masters and fled into the unexplored wilderness. An immediate association is with Trotsky and his armoured train, dashing from one battlefield to the next.

As the story begins, a revolt has begun in New Crobuzon, precipitated by war and economic crisis and the Council must return to the aid of the revels. The message is brought to the Council by Judah Low, whose early association with the railroad (as an anthropologist/surveyor “gone native”) has given him the art of creating and working with golems. Following years in the radical New Crobuzon underground, he sets out to recall the Iron Council. The story shifts back and forward in time and space, gradually filling in the history of the thirty years or so that have passed since the end of Perdido Street Station.

But how can a story like this end? In the real history of the 20th century, the battle between workers and bosses has fizzled out in a tame draw with the sharp edges smoothed over by economic growth and social democracy. Admittedly the fight isn’t over yet, and the bosses who were retreating for most of the 20th century, regained a lot of ground in its last decades. But at least for those of us who are living through them, battles over the Private Finance Initiative or welfare reform don’t seem to be the kind of thing anyone would want to read about.

On the other hand, the task of writing a plausible alternative history ending in a fully-realised socialist state seems like an impossible one. And the alternative of a glorious defeat seems equally unsatisfactory.

Mieville’s solution is for Judah to create his ultimate golem, a time golem which suspends the Council in an unending moment, an endless reminder to the rulers of New Crobuzon that a better day is coming. This is a familiar mythic device; all over Europe, there are companies of knights sleeping in caves and hollow hills, waiting for the hour of ultimate danger when they will be called to arms for the last time.

This is, it seems to me, the right metaphor for our times. Despite the disappointingly prosaic reality of postwar social democracy, and the dispiriting defensive struggle of the past twenty-five years, the memory of the workers movement that emerged in the 19th century is still both powerful and potentially liberating. The way in which that memory can be revived and put to use remains unclear. Perhaps the emerging community of the Internet can be rescued from the dotcom hucksters who turned it, for much of its early life, into a gigantic Ponzi scheme. Perhaps Europe will finally live up to the dreams of Orwell and others for a socialist United States. Whatever happens, the struggles of the past will be with us.

As Mieville concludes,

We come back again, again, again.

Years might pass and we will tell the story of the Iron Council and how it was made, how it made itself and went, and how it came back, and is coming, is still coming. Women and men cut a line across the dirtland and dragged history out and back across the world. They are still with shouts setting their mouths and we usher them in. They are coming out of the trenches of rock toward the brick shadows. They are always coming.



Walt Pohl 01.11.05 at 8:39 pm

I wonder if the turn towards the nineteenth century is a tacit admission of defeat on the part of imaginative literature. In the early twentieth century, it was easy to imagine a future different from the present; now it seems virtually impossible. The only serious competing visions to a future that’s just like the present but with more stuff are either played-out, like ecological disaster, or essentially unimaginable, like Vinge’s singularity.

While a future-as-present isn’t that terrible, it certainly isn’t very inspiring either. The nineteenth century was when humanity could first imagine that the future, here on earth, could be different from the present. Imaginatively retreating to that era is like reminiscing about when you were young and full of promise.

I don’t intend this as a criticism: I love several books that fall into this genre. But it is a curious development.


Tom T. 01.12.05 at 1:38 am

The essence of science fiction is the idea that science and technology matter, that, in a different world, we would live fundamentally different lives and find out new things about ourselves.

This formulation is awfully limiting. The whole point of the Foundation series, after all, is that human nature is constant (and statistically predictable) regardless of the state of technology or any other social factor. Why is this not a valid theme? Outside the genre of sci-fi, it’s hardly unheard-of for a literary work to depict characters uprooted into new social situations and either prevailing or falling to ruin because they are tied to previously-established patterns of behavior.

In essence, aren’t you arguing that good sci-fi literature must argue for the perfectibility of humankind? (I.e., human nature must be shown to be mutable, and thus perfectible). How is that materially different from arguing that good literature must follow some other specific political or moral model, like glorifying God, or depicting the advancement of the state, etc.? Surely art should not be bounded in such a way?


John Quiggin 01.12.05 at 11:53 am

Mutability doesn’t imply perfectability.

And the formulation I’ve offered for hard SF obviously allows for the kind of contrarian story that introduces a technical change with the expectation that it will change things radically, but then has it defeated by immutable ‘human nature’.


Jeff R. 01.12.05 at 4:40 pm

Actually, I think that the turn to the past is from the exact opposite problem: it is not, currently, possible to imagine a future identical to the present.

From the birth of SF to the forties, it was extremely plausible (although wrong) to extrapolate the future as an endless continuation of the great powers system, with occasional wars punctuating shifts in the balance between them.

After WWII, it was equally plausible (and, of course, equally wrong) to extrapolate the future as an endless continuation of competition between the US and Soviet bloc with a continuous threat of annihilation but only small proxy conflicts.

And after the fall of communism, it was just as plausible (and, need I add…) to extrapolate the future as endless domination by capitalism, either in the form of the US or of a more hungry, ascendent nation, usually Japan.

But now, after 9/11 and the wars that have followed, there isn’t any particularly clear trajectory to assume that the future is on; no plausible extrapolation that a writer can be reasonably sure won’t be rendered obsolete by events taking place as the book goes to market. So, understandably, comes the turn to the considerably more predictable past.


P.M.Lawrence 01.17.05 at 11:20 am

Just to let you know, the “Future History” idea is usually traced to Heinlein. Heinlein used it to bring in ideas of history not repeating but rhyming, and so providing a crib sheet for him to hang his own disguised ideas on. Asimov, though, mostly used it as a literary technique, but he didn’t just rework Gibbon; he hangs Jewish ideas of Messianic thought in there, as well as ideas of Maccabees versus Syria (in some of the earlier books in the history, not the parts analogous to Rome so much).

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