History and Science Fiction

April 27, 2016 Lisa Garforth No comments exist

Author: Lisa Garforth

One of the aims of the Unsettling Scientific Stories project is to think about how sf creates futures, looking back from the present to see how it has done so in the past. But I’ve been thinking recently about how some writers see sf working the other way around, creating histories by looking back from an imagined future.


Kim Stanley Robinson reflects that sf is really a “historical literature.” It “builds a future history,” projecting a society x years in the future and working out or implying “a history from now up until that point”. For Robinson, one of the few cheerfully self-identified utopian sf novelists currently working, utopias are distinctive insofar as they deliberately construct a fictional history whose outcome has been broadly positive. His own book Pacific Edge is a great example of this kind of fictional work.



For William Gibson, history and sf are “conjoined… sharing the same circulatory system.” Humans are beings are of “extraordinarily short duration” so we need disciplinary structures to help us think about long-term change. Gibson says that both sf and history are “speculative” disciplines. We have to imagine the past and the future from within the partial epistemological limits of the now. With climate change (and environmental time more generally), the human lifespan seems an inadequate frame for thinking about agency, consequence and change.


William Gibson in the wonderful SF section of the Last Bookstore in LA. (photo: Jason Redmond)
William Gibson in the wonderful SF section of the Last Bookstore in LA in 2012 (photo: Jason Redmond)


This is why sf may be as important as history in coming to terms with the Anthropocene. Both offer strategies for exercising the cultural capacity to imagine and narrate and contemplate time across more-than-human scales. Gibson’s recent novel The Peripheral is a good example of how this might work in sf; Dipesh Chakrabarty’s now controversial essay ‘The Climate of History’ elucidates some of these issues for history as an academic discipline.


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