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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 '16 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 '16 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 R Feb 9 '16 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 '16 at 18:33
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    Related: xkcd.com/1491/large – coredump Feb 9 '16 at 20:45
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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.

A bit more on Francis Cheynell's Aulicus in this paper, which says:

Cheynell is the first dreamer in futuristic fiction. He relates how he fell asleep afflicted by thoughts of the Civil War, and in a protracted nightmare he has a fearful vision of King Charles triumphant over Cromwell and the forces of Parliament. That political fantasy had bite in the May of 1644, when it was still thought possible that the king could prove the victor in the Civil War. With that in mind Cheynell did what so many would go on doing long after him. Within the limitations of six pages he told his tale of the disaster-to-come as dramatically as he could, so that readers would have no doubt that the meaning of his message was: ACT NOW BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE.

Page 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 as a dangerous possibility--the plot description on wikipedia only talks about the play's depiction of the historical invasion of Antwerp, not the future invasion of England. Likewise the paper here (available in full on the paywall-bypassing site sci-hub.tw here) says that the play "stages events that had happened twenty-three years previously in Antwerp as a stand-in for what might happen if Spain’s ‘Invisible Armada’ were to succeed in sailing up the Thames to London". 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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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 '16 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 '16 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 '16 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 '16 at 16:07
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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 '16 at 18:52
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    "first known story to be written down", presumably? – Hypnosifl Feb 9 '16 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 '16 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 '16 at 6:24
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    @Jay Grab yourself a tardis and go to Alexandria – Zommuter Feb 10 '16 at 7:59
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I would propose Memoirs of the 20th Century as the earliest future fiction work among modern publications. It is the earliest one listed in Wikipedia for "futures" now past, and also by Randall Munroe (see the XKCD reference by the end of the post).

This 1733 epistolary novel takes the form of a series of diplomatic letters written in 1997 and 1998. The work is a satire perhaps modeled after Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels published seven years before.1 Madden was an Anglican clergyman, and the book is focused on the dangers of Catholicism and Jesuits, depicting a future where they dominate.

The book was published anonymously, and soon after Madden destroyed most copies. It was little read, and thus had little influence on later writings imagining the future.1

In his 1987 work Origins of Futuristic Fiction, Paul Alkon describes the book as the earliest of English literature to feature time travel, but notes that it does not explain how it was performed.

For ancient future works, please notice that both the Epic of Gilgamesh and The Iliad have parts depicting things happening in the future (from the perspective of their authors, and in the form of prophecies). You may consider the former religious or mythological, but the later is surely secular.

This XKCD comic may be useful:

Stories of the Past and Future Source: https://xkcd.com/1491/

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  • If we're looking at "modern publications", is there a reason you would count Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733) as the first rather than the two earlier ones I mentioned in my answer, Aulicus: His Dream of the King's Second Coming to London (1644) and Epigone, Story of the Future Century (1659)? – Hypnosifl Jul 31 at 20:44
  • @Hypnosifl according to your own source, H. Bruce Franklin, the former is a tract, the later an epigone of it. He source goes on to say "Fully developed fictions set in the future would not appear until well into the 18th century." – Marvel Boy Jul 31 at 21:01
  • What do you mean by "an epigone of it"? Are you using a definition of "epigone" that implies something derogatory, less than a "fully developed fiction"? Note that this is a translation of a French title, so we should assume a French definition rather than an English one--I found a discussion here of the difference, it looks like the French meaning isn't meant to be dismissive in the same way as the English meaning. – Hypnosifl Jul 31 at 22:48
  • (cont.) I think the "fully developed fictions" comment in the article probably didn't have anything to do with the fact that it was titled an "epigone", maybe the comment was just getting at the idea (which I'm inferring from Alkon's discussion of it in Origins of Futuristic Fiction) that the future setting didn't have much impact on the story besides allowing the author to include imagined events different from the real world. In any case, the original question just asks for any type of fictional story set in the author's future. – Hypnosifl Jul 31 at 22:49

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