Sunday, 9 June 2013

Seeker of Tomorrow by Eric Frank Russell and Leslie J Johnson

First published in Astounding Stories, July 1937.

For all the talk of the bold steps the science fiction was taking in the 30s and 40s, this story feels very old fashioned even in comparison to the previous volume. Not only is it very heavily influenced by Wells’ The Time Machine (that’s being kind) which was 40 years old by the time this came out, but it has a nested narrative of the ‘traveller’s tale’ sort that was the a huge feature of fantastic fiction from the17th century on.

Like The Time Machine, this story is a vehicle to provide us with snapshots of the future of humanity. It gives us a look at five periods of the future, although some are glimpsed only briefly. The protagonist – Glyn Weston – comes from the year 1998. He spends a short time in 2007 – just long enough to conclude that his device works – and then travels forward to 2486 where he spends a bit more time, and then 34,656 where spends several days. He ends up 75,000 or so years in the future, from where he tells his story to the remains of humanity who have abandoned the barren Earth in favour of Venus.

It’s a combo of speculation of observing trends and considering where they might lead and Swiftian satire. As such, it inevitably tells us more about the times it was written than the future.

Weston is a scientist given access to a cache of documents relating to the research of a now deceased researcher whose ideas were discredited and who subsequently died (or vanished – this becomes important later on, although I missed the significance of it on my first read). It’s an example someone picking up the lost technology that we’ve seen in some of the earlier stories, but the technology remains lost in this one, too.

Perhaps that’s because Weston’s invention is less of a time machine and more of a time warp machine – it only allows travel in one direction, forward, and so there’s no way to go back and tell anyone it works. Even so, though, no one he visits seems that interested in building their own model. The men of 34,656 (sorry, it’s all men in this story, another feature of its era, perhaps) dismiss the idea as little more than a trifle, maybe because of its unidirectionality.

We don’t learn much about 1998 and because Weston is off on his travels before we get a good look around. We learn a little more about 2007, where the inhabitants are celebrating a new speed record for travel between the UK and New Zealand of 18 hours (I’m always excited to see New Zealand get a name check!). There’s some speculation about whether a rocket-powered trip to the Moon could be successful. It’s a refreshing contrast, I suppose, contrast to all the stories that see us all commuting between the planets as a matter of course, but it’s still surprising that anyone with knowledge of the state of flight and rocketry could be so pessimistic.

Anyway, having confirmed his machine works, Weston zaps forward to 2486, where he finds the world at war, split into three factions – the White World, the Yellow World and the Brown World. The English – the story seems to all happen in the UK – are part of the White World, of course, who are locked in mortal combat with the yellows ‘to assert their right to breed regardless of the room available.’ So, it’s a race war with crude Darwinian motives where the Brown World – the most insignificant of the factions – is neutral.

It’s a pretty startling scenario by our contemporary standards and hard to imagine a story that expounded this premise being published today. Even so these divisions don’t lie far beneath the surface of the modern world, even if we want to congratulate ourselves on our liberality. The rhetoric of the trade war, for example, sees the developed world competes with the Bric nations – Brazil, Russia, India and China – and Africa is largely a charity sink. The story doesn’t really take a moral or jingoist stance, although the fact that Weston lands in the White World clearly influences what we hear about the situation. By contrast, the fashion in contemporary SF of the ‘gap year SF’ variety is definitely to take the side of the emerging nations against the evils of the developed world.

Weston leaves this world precipitously, fleeing a bomb attack in the time machine and ends up in a utopian post-capitalist world. There’s some notes of exotica – weird and humiliating outfits, a fad for hairlessness – but it seems like a kind of 1930s paradise of the sort being imagined by the various political thinkers of the era. If we see the race war as a perception of the upcoming global conflagration, then this is the resulting utopia that the ideological factions saw as the inevitable result.

Because the necessities of life are free, creativity is valued higher than anything else. The world is similar to the type of world Cory Doctorow wrote about 70 years later in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, where barter, reputation and lotteries take the place of currency.

Weston seems happy enough here, but hears word of another time traveller who came before him thousands of years in the past. He learns that the man whose research he’s following isn’t dead after all but if also travelling into the future. So, he heads off again, landing in the even more distant future where the Earth has become uninhabitable thanks to the Velikovsky-like intervention of a rogue planet making its way through the solar system. This brings us to the stories present, where he tells his tale to the Venusian humans.

It’s an amusing enough tale, but the futures it imagines are rather prosaic. The race war angle will be particularly alarming to contemporary readers, although the similarity to Orwell’s Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania demonstrates that there was seemingly something in the air at that time that saw the world falling into three broad factions. 

These days we expect even our near-future scenarios to paint picture of unrecognisable exoticism, but which is really the more realistic approach, I wonder? Would a traveller from the palaeolithic find us and our world entirely incomprehensible? I suspect the human mind is more plastic and the future more prosaic than the singularitarians would have us believe and the worlds and attitudes that Weston encounters are probably closer to what we’ll see than the uploaded minds and artificial intelligences so popular today.

Er, race wars notwithstanding of course.

Themes: vastness (gulfs of time), race war, apocalypse from space, traveller’s tale, post-capitalism, colonialism, lost technology.

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