Wednesday, 15 April 2020

The Far Future in science fiction

Here's an unpublished essay on the far future, which was written as a chapter for an academic text on modern SF. The chapter was written at short notice after the original author (identity not known to me) was unable to deliver their contribution.

I was asked to concentrate my discussion on more recent works of SF, with an emphasis on post-2000 material. I was also invited to discuss my own works in this context, which I did. In their comments, the editors asked that I spend less time discussing Gene Wolfe, but I was then told not to rush to make any alteration as the book's production was likely to be delayed. In the end the book was never to appear, so after a few years (especially as no payment or contract ever eventuated) I've deemed it safe to offer this chapter in its submitted form, in the hope that it's of some interest.

If science fiction’s endlessly renewing well of nightmares is the day after tomorrow, then the deep, distant future may be the last refuge of its boldest and brightest dreams. No matter how desperate the stakes, no matter how dark the narrative, the mere existence of something resembling a human viewpoint is itself an act of optimism, however veiled. When all the signs point to calamity, and it becomes impossible to think about the near term in anything but dystopian or post-apocalyptic terms, the far future offers narrative and imaginative freedom – scope for the writer, and at least a glimmer of hope for the reader. For that reason each new generation of science fiction writers has found something of value in the form, without it ever becoming the dominant mode of the genre.

No two readers of SF will agree on what constitutes the near future, so there’s precious little chance of arriving at a common definition of the far end of things. Clearly there is some interposed hinterland of medium-term SF somewhere between the two forms, but where ought the upper threshold be set? A few hundred years seems too soon; a thousand might be nearer the mark. Ideally, perhaps, we expect stories of the far future to be set at least millennia from now, perhaps many tens of millennia, or even millions of years. This suggests to me that one loose definition might be any work of SF set further from the present than the current historical record extends into the past – with some useful leeway, of course. A secondary factor, common to many far future works, is that there is no clear line of continuity between the present and the imagined setting: either there has been too much history to annotate, or there are lacunae in the known record. Often, the exact date of the narrative is purposefully unclear.

Sometimes the dates are explicit, though. The author of this chapter can state with great certainty when he was first exposed to the notion of the far future, and it was through the work of HG Wells. Not the novel of The Time Machine, though, but the George Pal film, with its exuberant depiction of time travel eight hundred thousand years from the present. The opposed cultures of the Eloi and the Morlocks, surrounded by the vast ruins of prior ages, would exert a considerable hold on the author’s imagination. Similarly, Wells’ vision of the future as one of decay, stagnation and cultural loss – a bleak waypoint on the slide into the entropic heat death of the entire universe – would serve as the default template for much of the speculation that followed, from William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland to Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories and the Urth sequence of Gene Wolfe. Even Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars, although ultimately breaking loose of the entropic tramlines, commences in similarly bleak, desolate terms, with its opening conception of Diaspar, last city on Earth, hemmed by a world-englobing desert.

If the far future is a recurring staple of literary SF, it is remarkable how infrequently it is a setting in the visual media. Star Wars may feel estranged from our own era by a vast gulf of time, but we are told explicitly that the action takes place in the past. Star Trek, for all its forays into Earth’s history, rarely had anything to say about events significantly further into the future. Other than the aforementioned Time Machine, filmed twice, and various efforts to translate Frank Herbert’s Dune into visual terms, cinema has not been much interested in distant times. Perhaps the concern is that audiences need a familiar proxy, easier to achieve when the setting is close to the present. Guardians of the Galaxy may look and feel like a golden age space opera, but the action is near the present and the main character is a contemporary human with a handy liking for antiquated pop-rock.

Modern science fiction cinema rarely ventures more than a few decades into the future, and even when it does the setting is purposefully set-dressed so as not to be too estranging. Characters might pilot starships or drive flying cars, but they will also wear jeans and leather jackets and affect a taste for contemporary rock music. Known brand names will proliferate, and reassuring anachronisms abound. The future is really just the present, but with more stuff in it. Attempts to visualise more remote times, such as the far future strands in the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas, adapted from the David Mitchell novel, have not generally been met with unanimous critical or commercial success, although the efforts should be applauded. It would be a brave director, though, who trusted her audience to embrace a story set a million or more years in the future.

The one glorious and continuing exception to this aversion is Doctor Who, which – throughout its history – has been very much at ease with distant times, from the terraformed Pluto of the Sunmakers, to the richly visualised human-robot society of The Robots of Death. Even an adventure with a period setting, like The Talons of Weng-Chiang, may make casual reference to remote future events. This has remained a welcome feature of the revived series: in only the second episode of “New Who” we were taken to a space platform to witness the end of the Earth. Yet there has been a cautious and deliberate shift in the presentation of the future between the two eras of Who. Now the producers seem keen to de-estrange the future, to dress it up in commonplace props and contemporary costumes, as if nervous of upsetting their viewers’ sensibilities. Thousands of years from now business executives still favour suits and ties; soldiers wear berets and camouflage fatigues; tight t-shirts and baggy combat trousers remain in fashion.

No matter how big the budget, then, there are always going to be themes that prose science fiction approaches more commitedly, more challengingly, than the genre’s visual forms. And while written science fiction might depend on the reader’s own mind’s eye to supply the effects treatment – with varying degrees of success - it remains capable of lighting up areas of the brain that other media rarely stimulate. If it were otherwise, writers would surely have abandoned the form by now, knowing that nothing they set down on paper could ever match the visual spectacle of the latest blockbuster.
And yet, they haven’t. Quite the opposite, as we shall see. A slew of exciting new writers have been particularly attracted to the thematic potential of the far future, and the well does not seem likely to run dry any time soon. Their work points to a sustained process of reinvigoration, opening up narrative spaces for the generation of writers yet to emerge, and perhaps beyond.

Before we touch on these newcomers, though, we need to say a word or two about the science fiction writer who did more than any other to shape science fiction’s shared fever dream of the deep future, especially as it stood in the final decades of the twentieth century. That writer, of course, is Gene Wolfe – arguably one of the most significant figures to enter the field in the nineteen seventies. Wolfe had planted a flag in the far future with The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1975), but it was the Urth sequence that truly cemented his reputation, beginning with the Shadow of the Torturer (1980), continuing across the four books of the The Book of the New Sun, and then developed further in other linked series.

Wolfe’s work is interesting in numerous respects, but few texts have achieved such a deeply felt evocation of immense futurity as the The Book of the New Sun. Exactly how far in the future we are is never made entirely clear (in Wolfe things seldom are), but some sense of that span of time is conveyed in the final volume, The Citadel of the Autarch (1983), when the narrator Severian is compelled to make a perilous descent down a great cliff, the revealed strata of which turn out to be the compressed remnants of numerous earlier human cultures, all of which postdate our own. Wolfe’s creation is full of such resonant images, none more beautiful than Urth’s green-faced Moon, blanketed with forests so long ago that no one remembers it otherwise.

It is generally held to be science fiction, but on the surface many of the trappings appear to be those of standard-issue epic fantasy. Almost everything that appears to be fantastical, though, can be rationalised as the product of some forgotten or misunderstood technology. In this sense Wolfe makes literal Arthur C Clarke’s famous dictum that “any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic.” In this case we can make the distinction – most of the time.
Echoes of Wolfe’s work permeate a number of later novels and series with far future settings. One of the first of these was David Zindell’s sublime Neverness (1988), which mapped Wolfe’s careful diction and sepulchral atmosphere onto a rich space operatic canvas, in which pure mathematics is the governing logic of hyperspace navigation. More novels in the same setting followed, and then Zindell shifted into epic fantasy.

Published on the cusp of the century was Paul J McAuley’s Confluence trilogy (1997-1999), set millions of years from now – a human expedition to and from the Andromeda galaxy is one of the incidental plot points – and located on the titular structure, a giant artificial platform shaped like a ruler and populated by colourful human and posthuman cultures, and in which motifs from the past and future jostle and clash in jangling, scintillating disharmony. As with Wolfe, McAuley’s language is dense, allusive and elusive, placing a large burden of attention upon the reader, but with significant rewards for those prepared to invest the effort. It paints a future saturated in the traditions of the past, as in this passage from Shrine of Stars (1999):

“Pandaras thought sleepily of the armoury where he had once worked for one of his uncles, of the cauldrons where metals were smelted. One of his tasks had been to skim dross from the surface of the molten metal using a long-handled wooden paddle. The paddle had been carved from a single piece of teak and was badly charred; you had to dip it in a wooden pail of water before each sweep, or else it would catch fire. It seemed to him now that this work had been the reverse of what happened in the world, where the good refined themselves out of existence, leaving only the dross behind.”

The Confluence novels were subjected to a degree of revision before being republished as a single volume in 2015.

A Wolfean tone – or at the very least a Vancean one, that primary inspiration to Wolfe himself – haunts some of the work of the extremely versatile Liz Williams, most notably in Winterstrike (2008), which splits its action between a matriarchal society on a post-terraforming Mars and a vividly realised drowned Earth, some unguessable span of time from now. Winterstrike is itself a distant sequel to the far future Banner of Souls (2004). Williams’ imagination conjures a ghost-operated technology dancing just on the edge of magic, but rendered with total conviction.

Less obviously indebted to Wolfe is Robert Reed, one of the great under-appreciated writers of the last couple of decades. Reed has struck an astonishing well of inspiration in the thematic possibilities of the remote future. Central to his output is a continuing sequence of stories set in and around the “Great Ship”, an enormous – no, really enormous – cosmic vessel, circuiting its way around the Galaxy at slower-than-light-speeds and populated by a vast cargo of different species, only a few of which have obvious ties to humanity. The Great Ship stories are too numerous to mention, but an excellent starting point might be the novella Marrow, later expanded into a novel. Reed’s stories may feature strange aliens and weirdly embodied posthumans, but he is careful to give them recognisable – even endearing - foibles, meaning that we quickly relate to them as characters, no matter how many limbs or sensory organs they have. Tonally similar, although unrelated, is the far future of the novel Sister Alice, in which advanced posthumans grapple with engineering projects on a daunting galactic scale. As with the Great Ship sequence, one of Reed’s signature motifs is to deploy immensities of time and space in an entirely offhand manner, as if it were perfectly unremarkable to skip across aeons or megaparsecs – as indeed it would be, from the viewpoint of these lofty, almost godlike protagonists. In “The Sarcophagus”, a recent and characteristic short story, a single “event” – the inevitable collision between a marooned, drifting space explorer and the unstoppable Great Ship – plays out across centuries, even though it will only ever be a tiny footnote in the Great Ship’s history.

The far future has always been of particular fascination to me, and I have returned to it time and again in my own fiction. The blame, as with so much else, can be set squarely at the doors of Clarke and Asimov: the former for The City and the Stars, and the latter for The End of Eternity, with its conceptualisation as time as a kind of plunging municipal elevator shaft, with each door leading into a different era. Clarke’s opening evocation of Diaspar sent a powerful shiver through this adolescent reader, conveying a visceral sense of deep futurity, of millions of years passing like lazy afternoons.

I toyed with the far future in the latter sections of my sixth novel, Pushing Ice, but it was only with House of Suns, my eighth, that I really embraced the setting. It was my attempt to emulate the cosmic vistas of Stapledon, Clarke and Wolfe, but with a nod to the modern, post-cyberpunk sensibilities of Greg Egan, Linda Nagata, Robert Reed and others. My novel dealt with the starfaring clones of a single human woman, tasked with exploring the galaxy in great slower-than-light circuits, before reconvening for a bachanalian sharing of memories. Although countless galactic empires had risen and fallen since the first circuit, the protagonists remained psychologically bound to a much earlier era, and were as much goggle-eyed tourists as I hoped the reader would be.

For my most recent book, Revenger, I pushed even further into the future for a narrative set about ten million years after the dismantling of the solar system into a cloud of artificial micro-worlds. My fragile human society, though, clinging to existence amid the haunted, dangerous relics from prior eras, was purposefully modelled on a familiar period from our own past: the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the literary models were Moby Dick and Treasure Island.
I am clearly not the only writer fixated by the far future as a potent setting.

Significantly, perhaps, three of the most noteworthy debut novels of the last half decade all had far future settings. Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (2011) introduced a remote human colony dominated by a technology based on genetic manipulation of insects. It was the first of a “bugpunk” trilogy featuring the tough, war-weary protagonist Nyx, a mercenary caught in the squalid machinations of planetary power-politics, and told with staggering assurance. Although some of the novel’s events seem difficult to rationalise as anything but the intrusion of fantasy into a science fictional setting (even allowing for Clarke’s dictum), it remains a powerful and lacerating read. Hurley’s next series was a fantasy trilogy, but a return to space operatic science fiction is promised.

Few writers have made as much of a splash with their debut novel as Ann Leckie did with Ancillary Justice (2013), a book which went on to be nominated for – and to win – many of the top awards in the field. From the outset, Ancillary Justice (the first of a trilogy) pitched the reader into a sweepingly realised far future of a settled galaxy under rigid military rule. The humanoid protagonist is the one surviving sentient component of a military starship, the Justice of Toren, and the plot delves back a thousand years into the prior actions of the vessel. No detectable trace remains of our own era, and social and political mores have undergone considerable evolution. Indeed, one of the significant features of the novel – and one that drew much commentary at the time of publication – was the almost total obliteration of overt gender signifiers from this future, with female pronouns being applied nearly universally to all characters, regardless of biology.

Most recently, Yoon Ha Lee’s striking debut novel Ninefox Gambit (2016) takes place in a galaxy under the subjugation of an empire built around strict adherence to “calendrical” rules, a system of thought so pervasive that any deviation from it is viewed as an attack on the fabric of reality itself – which indeed it may be.

The novel takes in an interstellar war fought using extremely disturbing forms of future weaponry, with little or no explanation as to how these devices operate. As with the Hurley, some of these imaginative flourishes seem difficult to rationalise under any system of physics, but one of the strengths of the book is its abject refusal to explain or justify. Like Leckie’s debut before it, Ninefox Gambit places a commendable burden on the reader to accept and assimilate the terms of a highly unfamiliar setting, with little in the way of explanation or backstory to link our present to the imagined future. This is science fiction without the explanatory voiceover, science fiction without the opening scroll – and it’s all the more effective for it, even if you must press on through the first couple of chapters with a giddy confidence that things will begin to make a kind of sense. Fortunately they do. Kameron Hurley,Yoon Ha Lee and Ann Leckie look set to be significant voices in the decade to come, and we await their next moves with interest.

The alert reader will have noted that all three of these novels concern themselves with planetary or interstellar war of some species. This is not to their detriment – each is fresh and distinct from the others, each has important points to make – but it would be a shame if war were the only fit topic for the future, no matter how intelligently handled. Perhaps we can take some encouragement from the ever fecund imagination of Greg Egan, who – in novels like Diaspora (1997), Schild’s Ladder (2001) and Incandescence (2008) has shown that a starfaring human civilisation will have more than enough to worry about in the future besides internecine warfare. In Schild’s Ladder, for instance, the central crisis is a runaway physics event, a bubble of altered spacetime rupturing into the universe. The details of the interstellar society confronted by this emergency are carefully thought-through, with Egan having little truck with the outmoded furniture of classical space opera or hard SF. In fact his novels stumble into the far future almost accidentally, by virtue of their staunch refusal to admit of any mode of travel faster than the speed of light, and only then under strictures of punishing plausibility. At times he reads as if he his the only writer thinking really, really seriously about the future.

Clearly there is no risk of writers abandoning the far future as a mode, especially given the enthusiasm with which it has been adopted by some of the newest entrants into the field. For these voices, the far future is the optimum setting to explore significant questions about identity, human nature and destiny, without being quagmired by the need to explicate how we get from here and there. Equally, they may be in it for the fun as well. The far future is still the mode of SF least embarrassed by the field’s pulp background. One of the strengths of the form, in fact, is that it permits a joyous celebration of exactly this gaudy, lurid heritage, while in no way being hamstrung by it. While his Kefahuchi Tract novels are set a little too close to the present to fit comfortably within the remit of this essay – the space operatic sections are a mere four hundred years down the line - few writers have made better use of the modern SF writer’s star-spangled paintbox than M John Harrison, his trashy, battered, neon-lit vistas reminding us – as in this excerpt from Nova Swing (2006) - that the far future is as much about texture and feel than strict adherence to calendars:

“Most of the quarantine ships were huge; pocked and used-looking; alive with the dim crawling lights of old beacons and particle dogs. Typically you found old pipeliners that had worked the Carling line, obsolete Alcubiere warps the size of planetesimals even with their relativity drivers torn off; anything with a thick strong hull, especially if it was easy to reinforce further. Other things they had in common: they were mined, with high-yield, top-shelf assets from the EMC catalogue; and their hatches were welded tight. No one was sure what kind of atmosphere they now contained, if any. Inside, whatever their age or origin or state of outer preservation, they had only two qualities: pitch dark or light too bright to bear. Hundreds of them, as far as you could see, rolling around forever in gluey braided orbits, drifting together and then apart. Once in six months, complex resonance effects put them on collision courses. Alarms went off. An engine fired for a millisecond or two in the dark.”

No one sees things quite like Harrison.

The truth is, though, that many fiction readers do not in general wish to consider stories set in anything but the present or the historically familiar past. Science fiction only exists because there is a narrow subset of that audience willing to engage in narratives set beyond the present day. But even then, there is an understandable desire that the future not be too unfamiliar or lacking in relatable details.

Because it purposefully eschews the familiarity of near and medium term settings, the far future story will never be more than a minor theme within the larger genre – an acquired taste within an acquired taste. Nonetheless the far future will remain a potent setting for science fiction for as long as the form exists – into, we hope, the far future itself.


  1. I'd love to pick your brain at length about specific far-future novels and topics, some of which you have likely heard of if not read. For example, Niven's 'World out of Time', the second half of which is set on an Earth that has been gravitically towed to orbit Saturn, as the Sun had began to enter it's red giant stage.

    Of course there's all the silliness of the Warhammer: 40000 setting ("In the grim darkness of the 41st millennium, there is Only War"), and in a similar vein, the shared "Bolo" universe by the late Keith Laumer which, depending on the given short story, is set centuries to millennia in the future after a cataclysmic war has left humanity scattered and technologically regressed on hundreds of worlds; in the stories these people either discover or otherwise encounter the mighty "Bolo" intelligent super-tanks...

    Oh, and of course who can forget Jack Vance's sumptuous "Dying Earth" series...

    At any rate, it was a good article to read, thank you.

    1. I'd have likely mentioned a World Out of Time if the brief hadn't been to steer away from pre-2000 works where possible. I don't know how I'd feel about revisiting it but it certainly left a mark on me when I read it around 1983. My second novel (of the two I wrote in my teens) was heavily influenced by the future-Earth settings of that book.

  2. Far future is my favourite form of SF

  3. When I review short fiction, I divide the timeline for non-apocalyptic stories as follows:

    1) Near-Future. Set on or near Earth with no space travel much better than what NASA is likely to have in the next couple of decades. Usually has a specific date prior to 2100. These account for just under half of all short science fiction published in the top ten magazines.

    2) Solar-System. Humanity occupies the solar system and travel between planets for work is something a young person could hope to do. Generally 100 to 500 years from now, although frequently not with a specific date. This and the next two are about 15% each.

    3) Interstellar. 500+ years from now. Often set on a colony world that's still in touch with Earth. Doesn't usually come with a concrete date. "Semiosis" is a good recent example at novel length, but there are lots of them.

    4) Post-Earth. Interstellar setting and Earth is either entirely forgotten or irrelevant. Date for this is unguessable, but thousands to a million years is plausible. Asimov's Foundation series is an obvious example, but there are plenty of others. I'd probably put Revenger in here, even though it's set in the solar system.

    5) Transhuman. People in the story aren't entirely human anymore (like in Robert Reed's stories) but they are descended from humans. Again, dates are unguessable, but say a million years or more. These are just a few percent, but they're common enough, and some are outstanding.

    6) Post human. Humanity is extinct but aliens are influence by things humans have left behind. These are maybe 1%, and they're probably a hard sell, but the ones that do get published seem to be very strong. "Not Quite Taterona Kempi," by Ryan W. Norris (Analog; May 2016) is an outstanding example, set tens of millions of years from now.

    I only think of something as far-future if it's category 4, 5, or 6.

  4. Splendid! Thank you for the bevy of new (to me) authors and novels, Mr. Reynolds!

    While the Revelation Space series might be your most well-regarded and read books, I am quite partial to House of Suns, which you've summarized so succinctly. I've got a special place in my heart for Terminal World as well, with its wild journeys through constrained technologies and its blistering ending revelations.

    My dad got me reading Vance at a young age, so I'd read the Dying Earth books before I left for college. I read Hodgson's The Night Lands sometime in my college years, and it made a mark. Maybe ten years ago or so I stumbled on Gene Wolfe and absolutely fell in love. Only a year or two later, one of the great authors of roleplaying game books in the US, Monte Cook, launched his far-future RPG, Numenera, inspired greatly by Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, Clarke's City and the Stars, etc. I commend its setting (and system) to anyone who wants to have a go at the far future with a bunch of friends, perhaps online in these days of pandemic.

    Last, I'd like to give a shout out to another author who has deftly dallied in the deep future: Mr. Greg Bear. His The Way series gives far future, a truly alien foe, and post-humanism interesting treatments, but more relevant to this discussion is his novel City at the End of Time (2008) which is part homage to Hodgson's The Night Lands and partly its own weird, wild thing. It's more flawed that Eon/Eternity, but the imagination it was written with, and the imagery it inspired, made it stick with me much like House of Suns and Terminal World.

  5. Excellent article! I thought I'd read all of Niven, but I'll have to dig out "World out of Time" (if I did read it, I must have forgotten it - not likely). I haven't read Robert Reed, but he's on my list now!
    As for visual media, a minor example: the Season 4 finale of Babylon 5 did go far into the future, when our sun dies out.

  6. What a lovely essay. I read your discussion of some of my all-time favorites with great joy, and your overview of works I have not yet read, but now plan to, with great excitement.

    Thank you for sharing this with us.

  7. Thank you! I had never been able to describe why I found House of Suns so appealing but this essay put the whole thing into perspective for me.

  8. Wonderful essay. House of Suns remains my favorite novel of yours, in part, because of how nonchalantly you handle the immense timescales involved. I felt a similar sense of age and scale during the closing sequences of Bone Silence as the mysterious vessel is explored. The same goes for your Merlin stories (of which I'd love to see a novel and/or a dedicated collection of short stories - I imagine many others would agree).

    In any case, I've read very few of the books you reference in this essay, so I've got my sci-fi reading cut out for me.