Future’s Past

by Neville Morley on March 9, 2017

> In the five million years following the Great Nebula Burst, our people were one people. But then came the Zactor Migration, and then the Melosian Shift and a dark period of discontent spread through the land. Fighting among Treeb sects and Largoths. The foolishness! And it was in this time of dissension … *

Almost all science fiction, as J.G. Ballard remarked in the introduction to *Vermilion Sands*, is really about the present day. This is certainly less true today than it was in 1971, but it is still often the case that the relationship between our present and the future world that is depicted – or between the present of the imagined world and that future’s past, when anyone inside the story decides to look back – is oddly straightforward and uninteresting. This is certainly not something that can be said of Ada Palmer’s *Terra Ignota* books.

Why look back to the past when we’re interested in the future, or spend any time considering the less developed form of that future? Sometimes, especially in the case of film franchises desperate to keep an existing audience happy with something that’s new but not too different, it’s just a matter of expanding the known universe by answering some questions that weren’t actually in need of answering – how did humanity come to develop the warp drive and conquer the stars, why did the Rebellion start? – with varying degrees of success. The resultant products offer their consumers the usual fare of time travel stories or historical novels: the thrill of recognising the germ of a familiar artefact or institution, or the ancestor of a familiar character, or other nuggets of intertextuality. In most cases there is little or nothing at stake; we know where things are going, so this is just a matter of filling in the gaps between then and now. [click to continue…]