Historicizing the Future

… I must acquiesce, and be content with the Honour and Misfortune, of being the first among Historians (if a mere Publisher of Memoirs may deserve that Name) who leaving the beaten Tracts of writing with Malice or Flattery, the accounts of past Actions and Times, have dar’d to enter by the help of an infallible Guide, into the dark Caverns of Futurity, and discover the Secrets of Ages yet to come.

Samuel Madden,  Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (London: Printed for Messieurs Osborn and Longman, Davis, and Batley …, 1733) vol. 1, 3.

Contemporary historiography has highlighted the role played by a spatial dimension in the birth of a speculative imagination which, in modern-age Europe, exploited fantastic and philosophical motives, and was rich in theological and spiritual interests.1 The Copernican revolution opened up cosmic space as a possible home to other planets and civilisations. From Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moon (1638) to Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World (1657), up to Fontenelle’s Entretiens sur la pluralités des mondes (1686), the seventeenth century reflected on the possibility of extra-terrestrial life and saw the flourishing of interplanetary voyages, explorations of the moon and more remote celestial bodies, close encounters with distant civilizations, including the possibility of being visited by extra-terrestrials beings on Earth (e.g. Charles Sorel’sL’Histoire comique de Francion, 1623, progenitor of the imaginary visits of alien humans in Europe).2

Cultural historians and scholars of speculative fiction usually locate in a late-modern period the appearance of a temporal dimension exploited as a means of dislocation from the writer’s reality, and thus as a source of cognitive estrangement.3 However, while some see in the consequences of the same Copernican revolution the crucial condition thanks to which the imagination first became able to work outside the temporal horizon of Biblical time,4 others place the shift from a spatial-based to a temporal-based speculation as late as the eighteenth century,5 or take the year 1800 as a conventional watershed.6 In his comprehensive anthology of British future fiction, I. F. Clarke identifies a turning point during the nineteenth century, but traces from the seventeenth century onwards the first developments of a temporal imagination, in consequence of which “the geographies of utopian fiction evolved into the historiographies of a new literature.”7

The conceptualization of a future intimately linked to the present and shapeable by human action can in fact be traced back to the emergence of new ideas and sensibilities towards historical time, which matured gradually during the modern age.8 Anglophone and francophone literatures offer extrapolations of near-future scenarios as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century. 

A play such as A Larum for London (published anonymously in 1602) implicitly suggests that a Spanish sack of London might replicate the horrors of 1576 Antwerp,9 John Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis (1667) imagines London reborn after the Great Fire, political prophetism nourishes works such as Aulicus his Dream of the King’s Sudden Comming to London (anonymous, 1644)10 and Jacques Guttin’s Épigone, Histoire du siècle futur (1659). The future is home to a model society towards which the English Parliament is invited to work in A Description of the Famous Kingdome of Macaria (1642) attributed to Samuel Hartlib.11 These narrations offer possible and counter-factual histories used to make a point about the politics of the day, whether through ominous predictions, practical indications, or – in the case of Guttin – as the backdrop to adventurous plots.12 Squibs, satires, or exotic romances, these texts represent a step towards a secularized history13 and conceptualizations of the future that their late-modern and early-contemporary descendants will come to embody, without yet constituting a genre, nor focusing their inventions and extrapolations on those techno-scientific wonders that would only later take centre-stage.14

As Bronisław Baczko has argued,15 the topographical dislocation exploited in early-modern imaginary voyages may serve the purpose of constructing an ideal society untouched by the same historical processes experienced by the reader’s, so that history as known by the writer and the reader constantly informs the invention as a negative presence, by its absence. Utopian societies may consequently be described as a result of different histories, and characterized by alternate calendars and time-computing methods, such as in L’histoire des Sevarambes; peuples qui habitent une partie du troisième continent, communément appelé la Terre australe by Denis Veiras (1677-1679).16 Baczko discusses also what he calls utopia-proposals, such as Étienne-Gabriel Morelly’s Code de la Nature (1755), in which the utopian project may serve the purpose of showing a different yet possible continuation of history, freeing society from its past to offer a new beginning.17

A fantastic voyage: a ship has left the sea below and is sailing among the clouds, in a nocturnal sky. The caption below reads "The ship is caught up into the skies". Illustration from Lucian's wonderland: being a translation of the 'Vera historia' by Lucian, by St J. Basil Wynne Willson; with numerous illustrations by A. Payne Garnett (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1899), p. 47. Copy via InternetArchive.
“The ship is caught up into the skies”. Lucian’s wonderland: being a translation of the ‘Vera historia’ by Lucian, by St J. Basil Wynne Willson; with numerous illustrations by A. Payne Garnett (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1899), p. 47. Copy via InternetArchive. Non known restriction for scholarly use.

A debate on when and where the origin of futuristic fiction should be placed – namely, whether in English or French literary tradition, and in precisely which text – is more useful to contemporary interests competing within the field of study, than to our understanding of complex and multifaceted processes in the history of European culture. It might be more fruitful to consider the various phases as steps in a non-linear cultural process, in which each stage and actor can be historicized. Each work might be read in its particular context as well as – if that is the case – as a contributor to the development of later sensibilities regarding the future, thereby resisting the teleological temptation to judge authors and ideas ex postero, as preparing subsequent stages in a retro-constructed historical evolution of ideas.

Peter Burke has argued that a vast range of early modern cultural and material practices implied visions of a future with significant discontinuity from the present. Examples might be found in the attempts made by seventeenth-century demography to calculate the future size of the population (such as Gregory King in England and Marshal Vauban in France with regard to Canada), in “tactics” in warfare and politics, in facts and figures used by state authorities as the basis for future policies, in astrology and prophecy, in the calculations of profits and risks in commerce, money lending, usury, and the development of insurance. Early modern utopias also postulate the idea of a human reason through which man is able to shape reality and his own future, and “even if they are not explicitly set in the future, utopias both express and encourage a sense of possible alternatives to the present.” 18

With Enlightenment ideas of progress and secularisation of historical time, utopian constructions ceased to be static, to present a-temporal models, to be linked to an historical sphere, and it was during the eighteenth century that the emerging temporalization of history found its literary and programmatic reflection in diachronic utopias.19 Ideas of history as progress fostered new forms and functions of the utopian imagination, intimately connecting it to images of a different society situated in the future.20 Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L’an 2440 (1771) might be considered a landmark in this process.21Not only L’an 2440 is a futuristic fiction in which the reader sees the protagonists travel in time (and not just to a certain future setting without explanatory narrative frames, as in some of its forerunners). It is also one of the first utopias set in a different time – a future 700 years off – but not in a different place – legendary islands or planets, or fantastic lands on Earth.22

Despite important precedents that recent research has been able to bring to light, including seminal eighteenth-century works such as Samuel Madden’s Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (published anonymously in 1733)23 and the anonymous The Reign of George VI. 1900-1925: A Forecast Written in the Year 1763 (1763),24 Mercier’s work still represents a critical point in the history of a temporal imagination. It compelled the authorities of the ancien régime to face up to the subversive potential of such a secularization of utopia, and contributed to the codification of a new genre, thanks to an unprecedented editorial success across Europe. According to Paul Alkon, “thanks in large part to Mercier’s influential best-seller, the tale of the future became an established genre by 1850.”25 Koselleck agrees that “[Mercier’s] influence, extended by translations and imitations leading to the establishment of a new genre, can in no way be underestimated,”26 while Baczko stresses Mercier’s seminal role in the shift from spatial to temporal utopia.27

Other significant futures malleable by human action are to be found in revolutionary plays written (if not always put on stage) in 1789 France. This is the case of Rétif de la Bretonne’s L’an 2000, ou la Régénération (1789), which takes a look at the revolution already ex postero, from a commemoration that takes place in the year 2000, when the stabilization of revolutionary laws and traditions has created a social utopia. Individual rights and interests have finally been bent in favour of the collective good, and there is even room for an enlightened Louis XXIII. Thanks to the extremely long life of two of the characters, the memory of 1789 is still only two generations away in the past. Sylvain Maréchal’s Le jugement dernier des rois, prophétie en un acte, en prose had its stage premiere on October 17th, 1793, the day after Marie Antoniette’s execution. Set in the future, the first act opens with an old man keeping note of the days on a home-made calendar. Banished to a remote island, he is measuring out the duration of his exile, imposed by an unjust tyrant. He is soon liberated by a group of sans-culottes from all over Europe, where the French revolution has been followed by many others. Kings, queens and the Pope will be deported to the very same isle, only to be cast down into the depths of the earth when the local volcano erupts. The old calendar is burnt.28

These scenarios work as propaganda machines and still bear clear signs of utopian constructions, in which a movement towards the future is flattened on the present of the revolution, thus undermining any possible teleology. Nonetheless, they attempt to metabolize the social changes brought about by the revolutionary years through the manipulation of time, including the construction of a point of view from posterity.29

Condorcet’s L’esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (1795) is considered by Baczko the arrival point in the assimilation process between utopia and history as progress.30 Not only L’esquisse locates the perfected society it describes in a future historical time, but it presents its vision as a scientific forecast, based on the observation of the history of human societies in different past and present eras. The past, the present, and the future are connected by a global discourse about the progress of mankind, of which different phases and people are specific instances. The scientific method, allowing prediction on the base of universal and constant laws applied to human faculties,31 provides utopia with a new conceptual foundation. In turn, as Alain Pons argues, the historical unity is guaranteed precisely by the tenth epoch: only utopia allows for a definite interpretation of the precedent steps in terms of a unidirectional, secular progress (e.g. excluding cyclical, regressive, or decadent paths, and religious or theological arguments).32

It is not by chance that Frank and Fritzie Manuel consider L’esquisse, along with Mercier’s L’An 2440, herald of a switch to euchronia.33 As David Williams, along with other commentators, has noted,34 Condorcet’s idea of progress as a civilization process foresaw the development and assimilation of non-European peoples and cultures to European values. It might be argued that new knowledge and reflections on non-European cultures and the efforts towards their comparative systematization in a consistent frame provided, during the eighteenth century, the premises of new geographies of human diversity,35 as well as of their disposition on a scale of historical development.

To summarize, it was during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that the future started to be explored as a dimension of possibilities, and gradually entered the realm of a secular imagination. Expectations and fears on the socio-political scene and in military affairs saw the start of a mapping process involving these new imaginative territories. Ideas of a future shapeable by human actions gradually become part of narrative inventions, during a time in cultural history already described by Reinhart Koselleck as crucial for the conceptualization of time at large. The emergence of the Enlightenment’s ideas of history underwent a new acceleration imposed by the French Revolution in changes related to how the connection between present and future is constructed, and matured into new ideas about a secular and human dimension of the manipulation of the course of history. “The more a particular time is experienced as a new temporality, as modernity, the more that demands made of the future increase.”36

Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction, 2nd ed. (London: Palgrave, 2016); Roberts, “The Copernican Revolution,” in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, ed. Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), 3-12.

For a partial yet extensive bibliography of early extra-terrestrial voyage fictions: Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Voyages to the Moon, 1948 (New York: Macmillan, 1960).

Darko Suvin,  Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), esp. ch. 6, “The Shift to Anticipation: Radical Rhapsody and Romantic Recoil,” 115-144; see also Patrick Parrinder, “Introduction” and “Revisiting Suvin’s Poetics of Science Fiction,” Learning from Other Worlds: Estrangement, Cognition, and the Politics of Science Fiction and Utopia, ed. Parrinder (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 1-18, 36-50. Here I follow Parrinder in making use of the concept of cognitive estrangement as a kind of defamiliarization originating in the narrative dominance of a novum validated by a cognitive logic, adopting Suvin’s category “in its ontological and epistemological aspects … a mode of thinking rather than a body of texts,” 6.

Roberts, “The Copernican Revolution,” 9.

Paul K. Alkon, Origins of Futuristic Fiction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987); Fátima Vieira, “The Concept of Utopia,” in The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, ed. Gregory Claeys (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 3-27.

Suvin, Metamorphoses.

I. F. Clarke, ed., British Future Fiction (2001) (London: Routledge, 2016), 8 vols., qt. vol. 1, ix.

Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe(1979; New York: Columbia University Press, 2004); Koselleck, The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, trans. Todd Samuel Presner et al. (essay collection; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), esp. “The Eighteenth Century as the Beginning of Modernity” (1987), 154-169; see also Zachary Sayre Schiffman, The Birth of the Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).

Patricia A. Cahill argues that The Larum of London “In staging the 1576 sack (rather than siege) of Antwerp by Spanish soldiers, it implicitly warns that history will repeat itself in London;” Cahill, Unto the Breach: Martial Formations, Historical Trauma, and the Early Modern Stage(Oxford University Press, 2009), 166. See also Joseph F. Stephenson, “A Mirror for London: The Geopolitics of A Larum for London at the Globe in 1599,” Parergon 30, no. 1 (2013): 179-120, doi: 10.1353/pgn.2013.0047

10 On Aulicus: I. F. Clarke, “Future-War Fiction,” see 387; Roberts, The History of Science Fiction, 75.

11 Charles Webster, “The Authorship and Significance of Macaria,” Past & Present 56 (August 1972): 34-48. On the possible contributions by others in Hartlib’s cultural circle: Antonella Cagnolati, “L’utopia al potere: Il famoso regno di Macaria,” Annali dell’Università di Ferrara, Sezione III, Filosofia, Discussion Papers, 57 (2000), retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net. For an alternative attribution to Gabriel Plattes: Oana Matei, “Gabriel Plattes, Hartlib Circle and the Interest for Husbandry in the Seventeenth Century England,” Prolegomena 11, no. 2 (2012): 207-224. On Hartlib see also Philip Major, ed., Literatures of Exile in the English Revolution and Its Aftermath, 1640-1690 (London: Ashgate, 2010), especially 27-28.

12 Lise Leibacher-Ouvrard, “ÉpigoneHistoire du siècle futur (1659): première uchronie et politique-fiction nostalgique,” French Forum 25, no. 1 (January 2000): 23-41.

13 By no means should the secularization process make us forget the critical role played by different uses of the future in the Christian imagination, between apocalypses and parusia. See for example Koselleck, Future Pasts, 11-17. In a recent book, Kristina Bross discusses examples such as Thomas Gage’s A Brief Description of the Future History (1648) and Henry Jessey’s Of the Conversion of Five Thousand and Nine Hundred East Indians (1650). Kristina Bross, Future History: Global Fantasies in Seventeenth-Century American and British Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

14 On science and technology in earlier utopias: Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979), 175, see also 371 on Sevarambia; 8, 14 on the role of new science in seventeenth-century utopian thought; 19, 205 and ff. on the concept of pansophia.

15 Bronisław Baczko, L’utopia. Immaginazione sociale e rappresentazioni utopiche nell’età dell’Illuminismo, trans. Margherita Botto and Dario Gibelli (1978; Turin: Einaudi, 1979), 157-251.

16 On Veiras’s work see Baczko, L’utopia, especially 159-163; for a comprehensive bibliography of editions, translations, and criticism see Denis Veiras, L’histoire des sevarambes, édition critique par Aubrey Rosenberg (Paris: Champion, 2001).

17 On Morelly and eighteenth-century utopias as criticism to and projection into history see also: Frédérick Lemarchand, “L’idéologie moderniste et l’utopie,” Écologie & politique 3, no. 37 (2008), 23-31, esp. 26-28.

18 Burke, “Foreword,” qt. xiv.

19 Nicole Pohl, “Utopianism after More: The Renaissance and Enlightenment,” in The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, ed. Gregory Claeys (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 51-78, see 74.

20 Baczko, L’utopia, especially 157.

21 Fátima Vieira, “The Concept of Utopia,” in The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, ed. Gregory Claeys (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 3-27, esp. 4-9; Robert Darnton, Libri proibiti. Pornografia, satira e utopia all’origine della rivoluzione francese,trans. Vittorio Beonio Brocchieri (1995; Milan: Mondadori, 1997), 120-140, esp. 124.

22 Alkon, Origins of Futuristic Fiction, 4, 19, 23.

23 Paul Alkon, “Samuel Madden’s ‘Memoirs of the Twentieth Century,’” Science Fiction Studies 12, no. 2 (1985): 184-201.

24 Clarke, British Future Fiction, I, 2; Roberts, The History of Science Fiction, 112.

25 Paul Alkon, Science Fiction before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology (New York-London, Routledge, 2002), 21, 60-61. See also Darnton, Libri proibiti, 120.

26 Reinhart Koselleck, “The Temporalization of Utopia,” in The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts, trans. Todd Samuel Presner et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 84-99, qt. 85.

27 Baczko, L’utopia, 42, 170-172.

28 On calendar reformation in revolutionary France see Baczko, L’utopia, 223-251; Matthew Shaw, Time and the French Revolution: The Republican Calendar, 1789-Year XIV (Woodbridge: Royal Historical Society-The Boydell Press, 2011).

29 Susan McCready, “Performing Time in the Revolutionary Theater,” Dalhousie French Studies 55 (Summer 2001): 26-30. See also I. F. Clarke, “Before and after,’’’ 34.

30 Baczko, L’utopia, 202.

31 David Williams, Condorcet and Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 96 and ff.

32 Alain Pons, “Sur la Dixième époque: Utopie et histoire chez Condorcet,” Mélanges de l’Ecole française de Rome. Italie et Méditerranée 108, no. 2 (1996): 601-608, doi: https://doi.org/10.3406/mefr.1996.4457.

33 Frank and Fritzie Manuel, Utopian Thought, 20, 415, 492 and ff.

34 Williams, Condorcet and Modernity, 157-158.

35 Rolando Minuti, Una geografia politica della diversità. Studi su Montesquieu (Naples: Liguori, 2015).

36 Koselleck, Futures Past, see pp. 4, 3. On the time dimension in utopias set in the future see also Patrick Parrinder, Utopian Literature and Science: From the Scientific Revolution to Brave New World and Beyond (London: Palgrave, 2015), p. 4.


This post is adapted from Iannuzzi, G. (2019). “The Illustrator and the Global Wars to Come: Albert Robida, La guerre infernale, and the Long History of Imagined Warfare”, Cromohs – Cyber Review of Modern Historiography22, 95-136; , par. “Historicizing the Future“, pp. 97-103. Full text available in open access: https://oajournals.fupress.net/index.php/cromohs/article/view/11706

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Giulia Iannuzzi (2020, August 18). Historicizing the Future. Geographies of Time. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pryc

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