Forward and back, back and forward…

Richard Harland has been a spec fic author for 13 years, ever since he overcame the previous 25 years of writer’s block. At the moment, he’s totally into steampunk. Could it be because he got his big breakthrough success with the steampunk fantasy, Worldshaker? Or because the sequel, Liberator, comes out internationally round Swancon time? No, no, a thousand times no! He just loves steampunk anyway.

The thing about the future is you can never really know where it’s going until it’s been and gone. Science fiction kicked off in the 19th century when the world appeared to progressing on a steady upward slope. Its not so easy to think that way now. Technology is the one strand of the story that mostly advances along a clear line; but what people do with technology, that’s another tale entirely.

I can go back thirty years (it’s true, I’m older than I look!) to a time when there were two competing ideologies of progress: capitalism and socialism. No one would have expected the socialist way of thinking to drop so suddenly out of the picture. But what’s been more amazing has been the rise of fundamentalist Islam as the opponent of capitalism. Not an ideology of progess at all, but an ideology of fixed eternal religious verities. Of course, there were conflicts in the Middle East thirty years ago, but nobody, absolutely nobody ever imagined the revival of Islam as an alternative system of belief, a whole way of thinking. Believe me, it wasn’t even on the map!

Who knows what retro-futures might turn out to be real futures? When Frank Herbert wrote the original Dune, he wasn’t trying to predict the future; on the contrary, he drew his ideas from the past. The rise of the Fremen is the explosive arrival of Islam in the 7th century; the intrigue-riddled Empire is Byzantium. Check it out: it matches in every respect except the drugs! Nowadays … I swear, if you want to understand the mentality of jihad, you can’t do better than read Dune.

Change always happens, but I don’t believe it happens along a smooth line. It jumps about all over the place with some truly perverse twists and turns. Let me go on with my Islamic example. I’m sure the fundamentalist backlash has happened because modern digital technology brought modern Western attitudes (re gender roles, family roles, sex, etc.) right into the homes of traditional Muslim families. And how do the fundamentalists organise their violent opposition? By websites, by mobile phones, through the media. Forward and back, back and forward …

As for cultural styles, the one sure thing I reckon I can predict is that the styles of the future will keep going back to the past for inspiration. The Renaissance harked back to the Greeks and Romans; the Romantics harked back to the medieval period; our contemporary clothes fashions hark back to the age of flares or the age of flapper beads or the age of bodices (take your pick—I don’t claim to be up with the latest). Styles and fashions don’t progress, they just jump!

In science fiction, imagined retro-futures are most often explained as coming out of a cataclysmic war. But real history gives us an example of regression without cataclysmic war—the fall of the Roman Empire. Rome sank gradually away as a result of countless local developments … so gradually that people still thought of themselves as citizens of the Empire a century after the real structure had ceased to exist.

I like the steampunk possibilities of imagined retro-futures, where technology has advanced in some ways beyond the real past, but not in the way we know at present. My Ferren books were retro-futures, set a thousand years in the future, at a point where society has regressed drastically. When I think of those books now, I see the technology of the Humen as an early outbreak of my repressed instinct for steampunk! (Repressed only because no Australian publisher would touch the stuff at that time.) The best example would be Phillip Reeve’s Mortal Engines and its sequels—full-on steampunk and a retro-future setting.