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Lots of science fiction stories today are set in the future. Sometimes they give a specific date, like they'll say "AD 2532". Sometimes it's not spelled out but it's obvious, like I'm not sure if Star Trek ever gave an actual date, but it's obviously supposed to be a few hundred years from now.

What was the first story to do this?

By "the future" I mean the writer's future, not necessarily ours. If you know of a story written in AD 1000 but set in AD 1500, in which the writer talks about amazing future technologies like the printing press, and discovery of a new continent to the west, that's exactly the sort of thing I'm looking for.

I'm sure we could get into quibbles over definitions. I'm looking for "stories", things that could be called "science fiction stories" in some broad sense. I want to rule out statements of future intent, like, "Next year we will attack the Ottoman Empire", or simple predictions of consequences, like, "Ceasar, if you don't reinforce Gaul, within five years the barbarians will invade."

Arguably there could be a fine line between a warning and a story. Like, "If you continue on this course, I see a time, maybe ten or twenty years from now, when the barbarians will invade. Perhaps it will begin with a barbarian horde attacking the outpost at ..." At some point a discussion of what could happen in a hypothetical situation could cross the line into being a story. If you know of borderline examples, feel free to mention them.

I'd also exclude stories that talk about the passage of time without specifying the start and end points in any way. I'm thinking, for example, of Rip van Winkle: A man is put under a spell that makes him sleep for 20 years. But I don't think the story ever says whether it starts in the present and he wakes up 20 years in the future, or he started 20 years ago and wakes up in the present, or if the start and end are both in the past, or, more likely, that it just doesn't matter to the story, because it's not about social or technological change over time but about one person's personal and family life.

Let's also rule out religious prophecies. The accuracy and significance of such prophecies is a fascinating question -- and probably more important than the question I'm asking! -- but that's a totally different subject, and wouldn't be within the scope of this forum anyway.

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Before people start complaining about this being too broad or too opinion based, let me preemptively throw my hat in the ring that this is a Good Question. There will be borderline cases, but I think we can get an answer to the gist of the question. – ThePopMachine Feb 9 at 18:21
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"I tried to think of the most harmless thing. Something I loved from my childhood. Something that could never ever possibly destroy us. Mr. Stay Puft!" – Doug Warren Feb 9 at 18:30
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In other words, stories that are set in the future relative to the writer, written for reasons other than immediate practical implementation or instruction, have a narrative, and include technology not available at the time they were written? – Misha Rosnach Feb 9 at 18:30
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@MishaRosnach Yes, except that I wouldn't include the clause about technology. If, for example, someone wrote a story in 1600 about civilization collapsing in 1700, there might well be no new technology, but it would be a "story set in the future". – Jay Feb 9 at 18:33
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Related: xkcd.com/1491/large – coredump Feb 9 at 20:45
up vote 30 down vote accepted

FuzzyBoots' answer seems like a good one, but it might count as a "religious prophecy"--the description of humanity becoming enfeebled was likely connected to the idea of history going through a cycle of 4 ages known as Yugas during which the human race becomes increasingly weaker and less virtuous. Edit: It also seems January First-of-May's comment on Fuzzyboots' answer is correct, apparently after Kakudmi was transported forward in time with his daughter Revati by a period of 27 full cycles of the 4 yugas, Revati was then married to Balarama, who was a character that was contemporary with the main war story of the Mahabhrata as mentioned at the top of page 122 of this book, so that means that Kakudmi and Revati must have originally come from the distant past.

If you do count it as a religious prophecy, some secular visions of the future can be found in this article:

The first known fictions even vaguely set in future time are Francis Cheynell's six-page political tract Aulicus: His Dream of the King's Second Coming to London (1644) and Jacques Guttin's Epigone, Story of the Future Century (1659). Fully developed fictions set in the future would not appear until well into the 18th century.

And p.9 of the Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, viewable on google books here, gives a slightly earlier candidate:

For example, the anonymous English play A Larum for London (1602) dramatizes the recent Spanish sack of Antwerp in order, explicitly, to present London with a possible future narrative of Spanish invasion. Time itself appears as a character on stage, exhorting the audience to consider how the future might play out and claiming that he "doth wish to see / No heavy or disastrous chaunce befall / The Sonnes of men, if they will warned be." (Anon. 1913:51)

Not sure if this future was actually dramatized or just described by the character of Time, though--the plot description on wikipedia only talks about the play's depiction of the historical invasion of Antwerp, not the future invasion of England. The full play is available online here, though the spelling and the typeface may make it a bit of chore to read.

Incidentally, if you're curious more generally about narratives of the future predating the well-known 19th century authors like Verne and Wells, I recommend the book Origins of Futuristic Fiction by Paul Alkon.

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My first guess is the Mahabharata which was written somewhere around 400 BC and involves the King Kakudmi traveling to meet Brahma and returning 27 chatur-yugas later (One Chatur-Yuga is equivalent to 4,320,000 human years) to find that empires had risen and fallen, including his own, and that the race of Man had become feeble.

The war covered in the saga is considered to have happened around 200-1500 years before the writing of the saga, so we have a clear case of someone writing of future times from when it was composed (not to mention including time travel).

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As much as I like this answer, the situation with King Kakudmi is not what the OP is asking about - Kakudmi started his travel in the distant past, and returned slighly before the war in question (i.e. still well before the writing date of the story). He took his daughter with him to ask which husband would be suitable for her, but got a bit distracted on the way (as mentioned above), was told that all the candidated have long since died, and the daughter ultimately married Balarama, Krishna's slightly older brother. – January First-of-May Feb 9 at 22:37
    
@JanuaryFirst-of-May: Huh. I'll admit that I got more than a tad confused trying to follow all of it, but it seemed to me like the direction he went involved the far future. Eh, I figure I'll let the votes decide. – FuzzyBoots Feb 10 at 4:20
    
The story of Kakudmi is not described in the Mahabharata. It is described in another Hindu scripture called the Bhagavata Purana though; see verses 29-36 here: vedabase.com/en/sb/9/3 In any case, the time in the future that Kakudmi traveled to was the same as the time that the Mahabharata takes place in, so that's probably the reason for the confusion. – Keshav Srinivasan May 5 at 21:49

I like Hypnosifi's answer, but there's a tiny little funny situation that technically counts even if it probably wasn't intended by the OP.

The classic book series Gargantua and Pantagruel, written in the 16th century (first book c. 1532, last book c. 1564), occasionally gives mention of how much time had passed. There is about one specific date in the entire story - an early event is said to have happened in 1420.
As it happens, the author did not seem to take much care of the dates, and when one adds it all up, by the time we get to book four the story is taking place in the early 20th century.
To be fair, I would not have mentioned it at all if the entire thing did not look quite science-fiction-y already (especially in the last two books).

As an aside, there is a 7th century Mayan inscription - part of the West Panel in the Temple of Inscriptions at the tomb of Pakal the Great, in Palenque - that describes the celebration of an anniversary of Pakal's ascension to the throne. Said celebration is supposed to occur in what is the year 4772 by our calendar. The inscription, however, is quite short, and probably not much of a "story" (and, depending on the interpretation, it might also fall under "religious prophecy").


But the above might all be irrelevant, as there is a pretty clear (and rather famous) non-religious science-fictiony passage dating from the 1st century AD:

There will come an age in the far-off years
when Ocean shall unloose the bonds of things,
when the whole broad earth shall be revealed,
when Tethys shall disclose new worlds
and Thule not be the limit of the lands.

In case you didn't recognize it (or did but have no idea of the origin, or perhaps only saw it in a different translation), this is from the poem Medea by the Roman author Seneca the Younger (specifically, lines 375-379).
This passage (in the original Latin, at least) was famously quoted as prophetic (i.e. referring to the discovery of America) by European explorers ever since Columbus, and comes up in pretty much every book about the Age of Discovery.

And this might well be the oldest science fiction set in the future. As far as I know, anyway. (Though, again, it's quite short for a story.)

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For those of us without the benefit of a classical education, would you like to give the source for your 1st century passage? (And maybe for the 7th century Mayan inscription too.) – Nate Eldredge Feb 9 at 23:14
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@NateEldredge I do not have much of a classical education either :-) The 1st century passage is quoted in Wikipedia (the article for Thule) as "Seneca: Medea, v. 379" (it's actually lines 375-379); it comes up every so often in discussions of the Age of Discovery. I wasn't able to find a decent source for the Mayan inscription, or I probably would have linked it (most of the discussions i did find had to do with the 2012 thing, which this inscription is said to disprove); but geographically, it's in the West Panel of the Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque (aka the tomb of Pakal the Great). – January First-of-May Feb 9 at 23:35
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@JanuaryFirst-of-May Could you please edit that information into your answer, since comments may be transient? – Thunderforge Feb 10 at 4:44
    
The passage by Seneca seems like more a prediction that new lands would be discovered, as an aside in a non-futuristic poem--a footnote here interprets it as an expression of "the belief — based on the doctrine of the earth's roundness, albeit with all the inconsistencies in measuring the diameter — that there existed inhabited lands, still unreached and unknown." This book notes Aristotle similarly postulated an unknown continent on the other side of Earth. – Hypnosifl Feb 11 at 16:07

We simply have no idea.

Often described as "the hardest problem in science", no one has yet proven when language first developed. There are estimates from millions of years ago to 100,000 years. Likely, shortly after language became common, the first stories were told; But all we can say for certain is that many of our earliest documented stories come from ancient Egypt 4000-2000 BCE. Additionally, while cave art exists all around the globe, many instances dating back 40,000 years, ancient Australian Aboriginal art is considered unique in the story centric nature of many of its drawings; and their mythos contains many "end times" prophecies and stories.

So while it has likely been going on for at least the better part of 100,000 years, the first recorded instances are either religious stories/myths dating sometime around five thousand years ago in Egypt or 20-40 thousand year old Australian cave drawings depicting the apocalypse.

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Okay, I should have said "first known story". – Jay Feb 9 at 18:52
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"first known story to be written down", presumably? – Hypnosifl Feb 9 at 19:00
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+1, for the Australian art, but I don't think anyone seriously proposes that language first developed millions of years ago. The alarm calls of vervet monkeys, for example, are not classed as language. – ab2 Feb 10 at 0:09
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I am looking for a list of all books which have been written but which are now completely lost and of which there is no surviving record. :-) – Jay Feb 10 at 6:24
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@Jay Grab yourself a tardis and go to Alexandria – Zommuter Feb 10 at 7:59

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