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A very insightful essay into the role which speculative fiction played in the Victorian era, and how it is still echoed in our fiction today: Future perfect Social progress, high-speed transport and electricity everywhere – how the Victorians invented the future
Here’s an excerpt, but the whole thing is very much worth reading:
It’s easy to pick and choose when reading this sort of future history from the privileged vantage point of now – to celebrate the predictive hits and snigger at the misses (Wells thought air travel would never catch on, for example); but what’s still striking throughout these books is Wells’s insistence that particular technologies (such as the railways) generated particular sorts of society, and that when those technologies were replaced (as railways would be by what he called the ‘motor truck’ and the ‘motor carriage’), society would need replacing also.
It makes sense to read much contemporary futurism in this way too: as a new efflorescence of this Victorian tradition. Until a few years ago, I would have said that this way of using technology to imagine the future was irrecoverably dead, since it depended on our inheritance of a Victorian optimism, expressed as faith in progress and improvement as realisable individual and collective goals. That optimism was still there in the science fiction of Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, but it fizzled out in the 1960s and ’70s. More recently, we’ve been watching the future in the deadly Terminator franchise, rather than in hopeful film such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The coupling of technological progress and social evolution that the Victorians inaugurated and took for granted no longer seemed appealing.
I think this is very much why many people find that Communion of Dreams seems to fit in so well with the style of SF from the 1950s and 60s — in spite of being set in a post-apocalyptic world, there is an … optimism … and a sense of wonder which runs through it (which was very deliberate on my part). As noted in a recent Amazon review*:
James Downey has created a novel that compares favorably with the old masters of science fiction.
Our universe would be a better place were it more like the one he has imagined and written about so eloquently.
Anyway, go read the Aeon essay by (who happens to be a professor at Aberystwyth University in Wales — no, I did not make this up).
*Oh, there’s another new review up I haven’t mentioned.
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