Lesson 1: Visions of Humanity’s Far Future

Lesson Objectives
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Discuss varying science fictional views of the role of evolution in shaping humanity’s far future.
  • Describe how science fiction can use a detached viewpoint to comment on human society and culture.

The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke

Throughout most of humankind's history, people have looked back toward a happier time, toward Paradise, toward a "golden age." Ahead lay only a hope of laying aside sufficient food to provide for a family until the next crop matured. The major changes in life were personal and natural: birth, marriage, death. From outside came war, disease, drought, flood, violence, theft, murder, execution. Almost no one could read; books, for most of this history, were non-existent; science was a mental exercise; and technology was a toy.

In times like those, only visionaries dream of a better way; they wrote the utopias. Then, slowly, the Industrial Revolution brought change; the great wheel of invention began to accelerate. Technology shortened the distances between places; steam made people independent of wind and animal; weapons changed warfare from a costly sport to a grim business for citizens; books, periodicals, and literacy spread rapidly.

The world was ready for science fiction, and when the world is ready someone always steps forward to provide or invent whatever the times require. A later prophet, whose work was closely related to science fiction and whose ideas suggested a significant number of stories, put the concept of ripeness into more memorable words. Charles Fort said,

"If human thought is a growth, like all other growths, its logic is without foundation of its own, and is only the adjusting constructiveness of all other growing things. A tree cannot find out, as it were, how to blossom, until comes blossom-time. A social growth cannot find out the use of steam engines, until comes steam-engine time." (Locus Online)

By the late nineteenth century, “steam-engine time” had finally arrived for science fiction. After centuries of proto-science fiction stories and novels, by authors as diverse as Plato and Johannes Kepler and Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mary Shelley, the genre was at least ready to emerge as a distinct form, separate from utopias or fantasies or, indeed, anything else that had come before.

One of the earliest writers whose work clearly falls into the modern definition of science fiction was H.G. Wells. His stories illustrate characteristics that would influence SF for generations to come: the option of an uninvolved narrator, often with the story told after the fact; stories based in science or natural history that reveal a scientific education and a mind alert for curiosa; and a philosophy suggesting a belief that man's dominion over the earth may be an illusion, that there are perplexing mysteries today and many more to come, that there are dangers we do not suspect, and that our pursuit of knowledge and invention follows a perilous path.

In his novel The Time Machine, Wells made the concept of traveling through time by machine credible by a description of the machine, a demonstration of a model, and the Time Traveller's impressions of the process. The Traveller describes time as another dimension: "There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it," and follows with several pages of examples and implications.

The author and critic Jack Williamson believes that Wells expressed in The Time Machine his belief that progress has two cosmic limits: first, by eliminating challenges, progress itself results in degeneration; and second, Earth must finally be destroyed by natural forces (and, by extension, if man should escape Earth, the universe will meet its ultimate heat death, entropy).

In observing these fundamental limits of progress, Wells’ protagonist views the far future as the ultimate outsider: not a product of its society nor even a descendant of it, but a stranger catapulted into a very strange land. Through the mechanism of time travel, the perspective of Wells’ observer is entirely detached from the culture he observes.

Another detached viewpoint of science fiction is that of the alien—sometimes the alien to our society such as the visitor from the future, or the visitor from a distant planet, or the alien conquerors of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

Clarke’s work followed Wells’ by 55 years, and instead of jolting his characters into the future in an instant, Clarke traced their long evolution from human into the bizarrely posthuman, while Wells showed the class system devolving into the Morlocks and the Eloi. Despite these differences, both works exploit essentially the same technique: the use of an alien viewpoint to comment on contemporary humankind.

From an alien viewpoint we can see clearly the relativity of our most cherished beliefs; the ridiculousness of our traditions, our mores, and our concerns; and the temporality of our societies. We can learn to share the broader vision that encompasses all living creatures, all thinking beings—which by extension renders trivial the minor differences between races or individuals.
Writing Assignment
Consider some or all of the following questions and submit a brief (approximately 500-word-long) writing assignment. Your assignment need not be formal, but it should demonstrate comprehension of the required readings and a well-developed understanding of how this lesson's material relates to the development of the science fiction genre.

  • What strategies does Wells employ to make his time machine and its passage through time credible to the reader?
  • How is Wells’ education as a student of Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog,” reflected in The Time Machine?
  • With which of the two races of humanity, the Eloi and the Morlocks, does Wells sympathize? Why? How does this conflict with the theme of the novel and Wells’ own political beliefs?
  • What is the ultimate end of evolution and humanity, and how do the final scenes illustrate it?
  • Some of the same questions can be raised about Childhood’s End. For example, how does Clarke make the transformation of humanity’s children credible to the reader?
  • Other questions emerge, such as the meaning of the statement on the copyright page of the novel: “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.” To what opinions does this statement apply (note that scholars disagree)?
  • On the first paperback edition of the novel, the cover art resembles that of a later film: what is it? What does this say about science fiction film?
  • The novel originated as the novelette “Guardian Angel” published in a minor SF magazine. This story is represented in the first part of the novel. How does the rest of the novel develop from the image of the satanic figure who emerges from the spaceship surrounded by human children? What are the influences of and images from Milton’s Paradise Lost?
  • How does the novel ask the reader to respond to the revelation that humanity is one of the elect able to merge with the Overmind (and what does it mean that Clarke calls it the “Overmind” and not the “Oversoul”)? How are the children depicted? What do they do to fuel their transformation? Whom does Clarke identify with?

Submit this assignment to your instructor as an attachment, following the email instructions.