Why is SF always set in the future, and not in the past or an alternate present?

Kevin Long
Kevin Long's picture

My buddy MOATMAI gave me a copy of "The Black Cloud" by world-famous astronomer Fred Hoyle, published in 1957. It's a hard-science SF novel about our solar system moving into a nebula, basically. It's set in the then-future year of 1964. I think it was written at least partially in reaction to George Pal's incredibly soft SF movie, "When Worlds Collide," from 1954. This, in turn, was based on a spectacularly soft SF novel by the same name from the late 1930s.

I'm a bit more than halfway through, and thoroughly enjoying the book. I'll probably give it a full review next week. In the meantime, It's a little stiff, as is most mid-century British SF, but I'm really enjoying how it captures the British amazement with/befuddlement about American society. And I like how brisk it is. I think the whole think is probably only 1/3rd the length of the "When Worlds Collide" novel. I also like how the protagonists' initial predictions were so accurate that they're utterly confused when they start to go wrong.

I'd like to see this as a movie.

Which raises an interesting point, and which is why I'm bothering to even mention I'm reading this book to you: Let's say you're doing this as a movie. Would you keep it set in 1964, or would you move it to the present day? Everyone would say "Move it to the present day," but I think that'd be a mistake. I think the low-tech aspect is the charm. These people are fighting this thing with less knowledge than we have, and fewer tools. I think if I were doing it as a movie, I'd do it as a period piece.

"Well that will confuse people, since they know this didn't really happen."

Ah. Yes. I imagine people were really confused by Doctor Manhattan winning the Vietnam war for the US, or Nixon's 4th term. Dumbass.

Likewise, if I were remaking "When Worlds Collide," I'd keep it as a period piece set in the late 1930s. Trying to escape earth when no one's managed to build a working jet airplane engine yet adds considerably to the tension.

This raises another interesting point: My own stories are frequently set in the past (1980s Florida, 1970s Nebraska, an alternate 1960s Florida, etc), and my Redneck Universe is set in a timeline that branched off from ours on January 1st, 2007. My thinking on that is that every future history becomes an alternate history eventually. Trek, for instance, was initially a 'straight future' but it became an alternate timeline when we failed to have WWIII/Eugenics wars in 1996. Lost in Space was set in a future that is now 18 years behind us. Since the fate of all future histories is that they become alternate timelines, I figured I'd just cut to the chase on that, and have it be an alternate timeline from the outset.

Several people have bitched at me about this. In trying to understand why they're upset about it, it becomes clear that they like to pretend the stories *will* happen. Of course a Martian Invasion in 1897 is no less unbelievable than a Martian Invasion in 1997 or 2017, but for some reason a fantastic story set in a past that didn't happen ruins their suspension of disbelief, whereas a fantastic story set in a future that didn't happen yet, and unquestionably won't happen, is perfectly acceptable. Seeing as *NEITHER* is real, I don't see why this should present a problem, but apparently it does.

Curious, don't you think?

Sound off below as to why you think this is.