Written by Ada Palmer
One question a science fiction writer faces when world-building a future Earth, alongside questions of future technology and future politics, is the question of future history. What will people in this future call the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? They can’t call them ‘modern’ since the nineteenth century called itself “modern” with its steamships and telegraphs; the eighteenth century called itself “modern” with its spinning jennies and lightning rods; even the Renaissance called itself “modern” with its arquebuses and donkey-powered winches. So, when setting a story in the future, the title “modern” belongs to whenever the story takes place, leaving our age in need of a new name—and what name that future uses for this era can tell you a lot about how it sees itself and its past, and what has happened in between.
Let’s try on a few for size.
How about a 25th century that calls our era the Computer Age? It’s a straightforward option, but using it implies that, in this particular future, the development of computers is considered to be the most important aspect of our age—and if this 25th century believes the Computer Age is over, then we instantly want to know what came after it. What new technology is humanity’s big focus if computers came in and went out, like the Age of Steam?
What if, instead, this era is called the Nationalist Era? That focuses our minds on politics rather than technology, implying that our political and cultural tumults are considered the defining factor of our age and that some huge political change must have brought the Nationalist Era to an end.
What if they call these centuries the Genocidal Age? Or the World War Era? Such names are simultaneously deeply upsetting, predicting that we will be remembered above all for our darkest failures, and strangely hopeful, since they imply futures where humanity has moved beyond such things. Calling it the Early Mormon Era, like the Early Christian Era, makes a whole sequence of historical and cultural changes play out in the reader’s mind with just three words. What if this future that calls our age the Space Age? If the 2400s see themselves as being as far beyond the Space Age as we are beyond Shakespeare, then either humanity has given up on space exploration, and considers it a blip in their past like the 19th century vogue for spiritualism or the 12th century obsession with Aristotle–or it means there’s some new frontier beyond space which makes the Space Age feel as quaint to this future as the Age of Sail does to us. The Screen Age. The Digitization. The Greenhouse Era. The Educational Revolution. The Age of Capital. The Age of Free Capital. The Age of Capital Lockdown. By showing what characteristic looms largest in the future’s memory of now, each name does tons of world-building, or rather world history building, in one short phrase.
Even more can be packed in if you use a historical name which—like Late Antiquity or Early Industrial Revolution—implies that our centuries are mostly important for their relation to some even more important neighboring era. If this is the Prepandemic Age, then 2100+ are going to be very bad centuries; if this is the Late Pandemic Age, they’re going to be great centuries. The Early Unification. The Late National Era. The Late Surface Era. The Interimperium. The Truce. The Early Digital Ages. The Late Digital Ages. Comparative labels with a strong judgment—positive labels, negative labels—can also imply enormous amounts about what comes after the 21st century. Are we the Dark Digital Age? Or the Golden Digital Age? Are we the Dark Interracial Age? The Golden Interracial Age? Entire future histories spin out in the imagination from each one.
Related to the question of naming the past is the question of how a future world divides its past. We divide our history into different sections: ancient, medieval, and modern, with a few more detailed subdivisions: Hellenistic, High Medieval, Renaissance, or Enlightenment. But those subdivisions haven’t been permanent. One of the big revolutions of the Renaissance was that they changed where they drew the dividing lines in History, from the Medieval European subdivision of history into two parts—an early, bad, pre-Christian age and a later, good, Christian age—to a three-part division: the golden age of Antiquity, then the bad Middle Ages or Dark Ages, and then the good modern age, which we now call the Renaissance. So where does the future draw its lines around us? Is the 20th century the first part of an era that extended through the 24th? Or the last stage of an era that began in the 17th? Are we characterized by being part of a continuity with the ages of scientific revolution, exploration, colonialism, and industrialization that came before us? Or are we separated from them by some vital characteristic that even the 25th century sees as a step more modern? And if, for us, the famous dividing dates of historical epochs are the conquests of Alexander the Great, the fall of the Roman Empire, the Norman Conquest, the French Revolution, and the First World War, what are the most famous dates in this future’s understanding of its history?
In my own Terra Ignota novels, I intentionally waited a long time before revealing what the year 2454 calls our century, or where it draws its big historical lines. I waited until the reader had learned a lot about this 25th century: its flying cars and robot helpers, its 150 year life span and chilling censorship, its new borderless nations and old persistent monarchies, its painstakingly slow Martian terraforming project and its painfully familiar tensions over religion, race, and gender, which take new forms but are still the recognizable old problems. It’s a 2454 with many good features and many bad ones, but it isn’t nearly as far beyond the present as we expect of the 25th century, if Star Trek had us exploring the galaxy’s depths by the 23rd. I tried to pack a huge amount of world-building into the two little words I chose. Read Seven Surrenders and let me know if you agree with my choice.
So what does your 25th century call our age of history? And why?
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