A fictional timeline of the future

By Robert Hickson 28/11/2012

In an earlier post I noted how optimistic some early 19th Century visions of the future were. I wondered then whether we are getting more pessimistic. Now there is some real data to play with. Brain Pickings has published an infographic from Giorgia Lupi called A visual timeline of the future based on famous fiction.


The figure characterises stories as having an overall positive, negative or neutral perspective about the time in which they are set, and tags the stories theme as being primarily about the environment, science, technology, society, travel/adventure or politics. I don’t know what criteria they used to decide what was positive or negative, but I’ll take that as face value. Sixty two stories (novels, short stories, and comics) are covered, so it isn’t a comprehensive review. Some of the most prolific authors (such as Issac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein) only have a couple of stories in the graphic, and some well know authors are absent (George Orwell, Ursula Le Guin).  The analysis is also skewed to having a relatively large proportion of the stories being published in the last two decades.


Stories by decade

But what the hell, you can still extract superficial impressions. (And apologies for he graphs being on the small size, there is no goldilocks zone for image size in Word Press).

There are three times more “negative” (29) views of the future than “positive” (10), with the neutral stories (23) sitting in between them. The 2000’s seem a pretty glum time to be writing about the future based on this sample, while the 1950’s produced a cheerier ouevre. But overall, you can’t claim that science fiction has taken a more, or less, positive trajectory over the past 60 years.



Positivity and negativity over the decades


Stories focused on the environment and society in the future tend to be more negative, while ones about travel to other planets have a more even handed perspective. The degree of social dystopia isn’t surprising, but if you just watch sci fi movies you may be surprised at the number of less negative stories about the future environment (and science & technology).

Stories by tone and theme


As a posting by David Levine noted a couple of years ago, science fiction tends to mirror recent social issues, and they are mostly hopeless at predicting what will happen.