The Perils of Future Retro-Futures

Grant Watson is a Swancon favourite and invited guest of Swancon Thirty Six | Natcon Fifty. His podcast is Bad Film Diaries and you should listen to it.

I love it when history overtakes science fiction. Earlier this year I re-watched Peter Hyams’ film 2010, which presented us with a strange future in which we not only can travel to Jupiter in a spacecraft, but we also keep dolphins as pets. It’s easy to laugh at what the science fiction writers get wrong – it’s so much more entertaining than trying to keep track of what they get right.

Doctor Who is a favourite. Thanks to Who I know that by now a sister planet to Earth, Mondas, has been and gone. I know we’ve mastered matter transportation, and have a museum of space travel on the moon. Charles became king back in the early 1990s, and you can pay for beer with a five pound coin.

We’re only five years away from 2015, when we can discover how many of the future cultures and technologies of Back to the Future Part II have come true. (Here’s an early hint – not many.)

I suppose the grand-daddy of outdated histories is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, but to be honest I think that one gets a free pass. Given all of the other manipulations of news, information and culture in that film, can we really assume with any certainty that the novel actually is set in 1984? It could be 2439 for all poor Winston knows.

For me the masterpiece of avoiding future retro-futures, which is what I think we shall call this phenomenon, is Max Headroom. First made as a TV movie on the UK’s Channel 4, then as a two season weekly SF drama in the USA, Max Headroom was set 15 minutes into the future. 20 years later, and it’s still 15 minutes into the future. That show’s simply never going to date.