BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXIX: INVENTED FUTURES
From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books I think fantasy (and science fiction and horror and all other) authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for any author, so worth looking for.
I’m not sure what first drew my attention to Prem Poddar and Andrew Wyatt’s 2016 book Invented Futures: Fin de Siècle Fantasies, but as soon as I saw it I knew it was right up my alley. For years—decades, even—I’ve seen bits and pieces of some of these strange science fiction illustrations from around the end of the nineteenth century, but this book is the first place I’ve seen so many of them together, and put into their proper historical context.
The book is divided into ten sections, and I’ll try to find an example image for each:
Cities of the future
From the book: “This multiple-function tower in the shape of a man (a humorous concept for the Chicago World Fair of 1893) contains a prison and a museum, as well as other facilities. Its unusual design would make it even more of an attraction than the Eiffel Tower, suggested the magazine. (Puck magazine, US, 1890.)”
“Humans will live under the sea, and they will need under-water transportation. The most economical method in terms of saving fuel will be a whale-bus service. The whale doesn’t seem too happy at having to carry humans around! (Advertising card, France, c.1900)”
Life in the air
“In the 21st century, firemen will be able to put on wings, so that they won’t have to worry about ladders if the fire breaks out at the top of a high building—they’ll just fly up. So this woman and her baby will be safely brought down to the ground by her flying rescuers. (Advertising card, France, c.1900)”
Men, women, and children
“No need to read textbooks, or for professors to give lectures! Textbooks will be put into a machine that converts information into electrical pulses. The students receive the input via what look like earphones. (Advertising card, France, c.1900)”
The food we’ll eat
“The life of recruits in the airforce will be made much more agreeable thanks to the services of Eulalia and her flying canteen, serving beer and wine to the thirsty aviators. (Postcard, Germany, c.1910)”
Fashion and beauty
“Men’s tailors will have much less to do in the future. Once the customer has been measured by the machine on the right, everything else will be automated, up to the point when the completed suit comes out of the chute on the left. (Advertising card, France, c.1900)”
The new woman
“Women will no longer have to go through the experience of giving birth. They will be able to beat biology by using this coin-operated baby machine, inserting the coin in the right-hand or left-hand slot, depending on whether they want a girl or a boy. (Postcard, Germany, c.1907)”
Sport and leisure
“Fish racing will be a popular underwater sport. It must be quite a challenge for the jockeys to keep themselves from falling off—though the fish have saddles on their backs, a quick flip of their tails and a dive downwards could easily result in the jockeys finding themselves on the sea bed. (Advertising card, France, c.1900)”
Buying and selling
“One day there will even be ads on the Statue of Liberty! It’s interesting to see that the name chosen for the imaginary cigarette brand is Sure Death—the dangers of smoking were recognised even a hundred years ago. (Puck magazine, US, 1885)”
Communication and culture
“The newspaper of the 21st century will be listened to, rather than read. This illustration was drawn long before radio had become a practical reality. Although the artist is imagining what will happen in the future, the actual machine he drew looks very old-fashioned—not much advance on the Edison phonograph of the 1890s! (Advertising card, France, c.1900)”
Apparently, as the world welcomed the year 1900, the imagination turned to the world of the next double zeroes, so a lot of the images here are specifically tagged as glimpses into the year 2000. If you think the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey is “quaint” now that it’s been overtaken by events, you’ll probably have as much fun as I did basking in the pure what-the-F-were-they-thinking nature of these American, British, German, Japanese, and French predictions of en l’an 2000.
But then… are they “predictions”? Many of them seem to be taking a bit of current technology and imagining it engineered to huge scale, with travel being done by various forms of steam locomotion, balloons, ornithopters, early airplanes, and even vacuum tubes that will shoot you at speed over long distances and eject you—dangerously, or so it appears—at your destination. “The new woman” is full of the terror of women taking over traditional male roles, which of course means men will be tragically feminized. And the new medium of advertising is seen as an unstoppable force that will fill every nook and cranny of the future world. William Gibson said, “I treasure archaic science fiction for those very flaws. It makes it charming and deeply strange, and it demonstrates that it is an artifact of the very moment in which it was made, which is really all it can be.” That said, I doubt any of these artists would be at all surprised if they were able to see the real 2000 in which their “inventions” were nowhere to be seen… at least… mostly.
That, in itself, is the most important lesson this book conveys to science fiction authors of en l’an 2021. Predict away… knowing you will be completely wrong about the world of 2121. But as with History of Atlantis, which we looked at a couple weeks ago, Invented Futures screams out to the worldbuilder in all of us. Oh, boy, did I want to start writing stories set in this beautiful, bizarre, amazing year 2000! And you know what? I’m sure I will, and you can too!
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Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.