10 May 2020

Approaching Pavonis Mons by balloon: “The Far Future in science fiction”

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.

Alastair Reynolds

Interesting essay by one of my favorite science-fiction authors, Alastair Reynolds. The observation quoted above is one of the reasons I’m skeptical that the upcoming adaptation of Dune will achieve box office success. It feels almost a paradox: if the complex story of Dune is adapted faithfully, it will probably be too arcane for viewers and it won’t be a movie hit; but if it’s distilled enough to be popular, it will lose its essence and originality.

The essay is also full of great recommendations for science fiction novels set in the far future, imagining worlds vastly different from our mundane society. I was glad to see many of my favorites getting mentioned, from Schild’s Ladder to Ninefox Gambit, including one of Alastair Reynolds’ best works so far, House of Suns.

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