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Many pieces of science fiction are set in the future. E.g. Back to the Future has a future set in 2015, Bladerunner has one set in 2019, Alien seems to be set around 2087, and so forth.

Q: I am interested in finding the earliest future as used in science fiction.

Explained: Taking the three movies mentioned, Back to the Future would have the earliest future of those three movies.


What qualifies as future?

The year used in the work of science fiction must be in the future relative to the year the work of science fiction was created and published.

The work should explicitly or implicitly make it clear that it is set in the future. One possible way of achieving this is by mentioning a year that is clearly set into the future regarding to the area in time the work has been published, e.g. when Heinlein starts his 1966 published book The Moon is a harsh mistress by mentioning the 13 May 2075 in the very second paragraph.

What does not qualify?

Works such as Wells' War of the Worlds do not count as they are not set in any future but in the contemporary world when the work was created & published.

What is science-fiction?

A work that is tagged as some sort of science-fiction on any reputable site.
Reputable sites would contain the likes of Wikipedia (as long as referenced properly), IMDB, ISFDB, Goodreads, etc.

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    xkcd.com/1491 – ibid Jun 19 '17 at 11:53
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    Wells' The Shape of Things to Come, published in 1933, is an alternative history of the world from 1933 to 2106. So the beginning of the story is set in the future year of 1934 (or better yet, late in 1933) — does that count? – user14111 Jun 19 '17 at 12:08
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    I don't see how this can be answered. Many works start in the present day and go forward from there. This question is not well-formed. – ThePopMachine Jun 19 '17 at 14:44
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    @ThePopMachine it's not perfect and there's always room for improvement. Let me try rephrasing it here and you tell me if that makes it clearer to you: The question is looking for the following things in an answer > 1) It must be a work of science-fiction, 2) it must make notion of a future relative to the date of publishing (be that explicitly mentioning the words this is the future, or be that implicitely such as in Asimov's Foundation books), 3) The best/correct answer is the one citing a work where the future is the furthest back in time - e.g. the current most upvoted question – dot_Sp0T Jun 19 '17 at 14:50
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    Regardless of poster's intentions, such questions are really just discount list/recommendation questions. While they may be good in theory (attracting multiple answers from community, etc), they tend to attract tons of answers that are "I know it's not the earliest one, but here's a work that's sorta relevant". What the author of the question wants the answers to be and what they get is two different things (I wonder how many people read the body of the question before answering). – Gallifreyan Jun 19 '17 at 15:34

11 Answers 11

66

The Partisan Leader: A Tale of the Future by "Edward William Sidney", pseudonym of Nathaniel Beverley Tucker; available at the Internet Archive. Published in 1836, set in 1849. A work of alternate history, it is listed in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database and in Everett F. Bleiler's Science-Fiction: The Early Years. Summary from Wikipedia:

The Partisan Leader; A Tale of The Future is a political novel by the antebellum Virginia author and jurist Nathaniel Beverley Tucker. A two-volume work published in 1836 in New York City and in 1837 in Washington, D.C. under the pen-name “Edward William Sydney,” the novel is set thirteen years into the future, in 1849, and imagines a world where the American states south of Virginia have seceded from the Union. The story traces the formation of a band of Virginia insurgents who seek to free their state from federal control and adjoin it to the independent Southern Confederacy.

Ever since the Southern states actually withdrew from the Union in 1861, the work has been viewed as a window into the development of secessionist thought, and, in some ways, a preview of the American Civil War. In 1861, it was reprinted in New York City with the title A Key to the Disunion Conspiracy. A confederate edition was published in Richmond in 1862.

  • Congratulations. I think this will be the winner, unless someone discovers an identifiable future date in Lucian of Samos' True History. – Mike Scott Jun 19 '17 at 12:47
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    This is a very good find. But I have a sneaking suspicion that an even earlier future date could turn up in some 18th or 17th century story of the Future. – M. A. Golding Jun 19 '17 at 18:12
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    I have reservations about calling this novel "science fiction." Wikipedia brands it as a "Political novel," which seems far more accurate. Although it's been mentioned by others in conjunction with speculative fiction and science fiction, I certainly wouldn't classify it as sci-fi based on the plot and content, and Merriam-Webster wouldn't either. – Isaac Lyman Jun 19 '17 at 23:07
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"Solution Unsatisfactory" by Robert A Heinlein was published in 1941 and set between 1944 and 1951, as the US tries to develop a nuclear weapon to end WWII.

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    I've upvoted this (rather than @user14111's) because of its superior claim to be "science fiction". – KlaymenDK Jun 20 '17 at 14:50
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My first thought was also Nineteen Eighty-Four, but a cursory browse of TV Tropes' I Want My Jetpack article (obligatory warning) led me to the Jules Verne novel Paris in the Twentieth Century, which was set in August 1960. This is the earliest specified "future" I can find.

Fun fact: Paris in the Twentieth Century was written in 1863 but wasn't actually published until 1994, because publishers in the 1860s thought the predictions were too far-fetched. In fact, as noted in the article:

The book's description of the technology of 1960 was in some ways remarkably close to actual 1960s technology.

  • 1
    Now this is a tough nut. As you say it was written in the 1860s but not published until more than a hundred years later :/ – dot_Sp0T Jun 19 '17 at 12:37
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    Ah, I didn't see the "published" qualifier. In any case, some of the later answers seem to have beaten this one. – F1Krazy Jun 19 '17 at 12:40
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    yeah, I've originally added the published qualifier because it's the easiest proof of the work being in state xyz. Later publications could change numbers and dates in the works. But your answer is still neat! :D – dot_Sp0T Jun 19 '17 at 12:42
  • @dot_Sp0T in fact he found the best fit for your question. It is set in the future regarding the creation, and the time between the pubblication and the time in fiction is -100y... This is a real example of "back to the future" – frarugi87 Jun 19 '17 at 14:54
  • Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men was published in 1930 and, although it considers times ranging many millions of years into the future (!), it begins with events in the years immediately after its publication. Offering this as a comment rather than an answer as I don't have time to check if it's earlier than other answers or write a good answer; if anyone wants to write an answer based on this, feel free. – David Conrad Jun 20 '17 at 5:55
18

There's already plenty of good answers, but I'd like to throw in The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers published in 1895. The first of these stories is set in 1920:

The story is set in New York City in the year 1920, 25 years after the story's publication. It is told from the view of Hildred Castaigne, a young man whose personality changes drastically following a head injury sustained by falling from his horse. He is subsequently committed to an asylum for treatment of insanity by Dr. Archer. Due to his accident, Hildred is a prime example of an unreliable narrator.

As related by Hildred, the United States has apparently prospered in the meantime, significantly improving its infrastructure. The rise of a new aristocratic elite in the United States has reduced the influence and immigration of foreigners, and this is particularly evident in the case of Jews. Suicide has been legalized, and has been made generally and readily accessible in the newly established "Government Lethal Chambers" being rapidly rolled out across other towns and cities.

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    This is clearly not the earliest as the top voted answer is far earlier than this. – Edlothiad Jun 19 '17 at 15:09
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    And the predictions made are highly inaccurate: Suicide booths have become popular only around the year 3000, in particular in New New York ... – Hagen von Eitzen Jun 19 '17 at 17:18
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    @HagenvonEitzen in fact, the first episode specifically mentions that "Stop 'n' Drop" has been "America's favorite suicide booth since 2008". – Robert Columbia Jun 21 '17 at 0:35
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    @Edlothiad Well, the claim of being "science-fiction" of the top answer has been challenged, so I'd say that makes this a worthy contender (Hello again, by the way!) – xDaizu Jun 21 '17 at 8:10
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    It seems to have some support for it being a science fiction book. It looks like we have met again, after the controversial claim that Galadriel is evil. – Edlothiad Jun 21 '17 at 8:13
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A number of writers from the 1950s and 1960s expected to have Lunar colonies by 1970. Larry Niven, explicitly gave that date as a "past future" in some of his earlier stories ("Becalmed in Hell", "The Coldest Place", etc.), which were published in the mid-1960s.

Robert A. Heinlein also gave 1970 as a date, if only in his "future history" timeline (as published after 1970 in The Past Through Tomorrow and later versions with different titles). Several of his stories in that setting were written before 1960, when 1970 was a real future.

Murray Leinster wrote a short story titled "Politics" in the 1930s, in which a radar-equipped, (analog) computer-controlled battleship outfights a whole enemy fleet to turn around and win "the War" -- pretty clearly pointing to the Second World War, which could be seen brewing even as early as 1934 by anyone who looked with open eyes. I don't, however, recall whether he gave any actual date(s) in that story; if so, it would have been set in the late 1940s.

In H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, in an early test, the traveler goes forward a single day, starting from the 1880s -- but I don't know that that counts...

  • Kind of interesting, considering superior battleship radar actually did make a rather large difference in one major Pacific naval battle (which was pretty much the end of Japanese naval power and also the last battleship-on-battleship battle in history.) – reirab Jun 20 '17 at 2:54
  • @reirab Not to mention the Ohio class (which included Missouri and North Carolina) had pretty sophisticated analog gunnery computers, good enough to usually get one direct hit from a broadside on the first shot. Heinlein was retired (for health) from the Navy in (IIRC) 1933... – Zeiss Ikon Jun 20 '17 at 11:11
  • @ZeissIkon I'm not aware of any Heinlein story like that, and I'm pretty sure I've read them all. In addition, his first published work was in 1939, making it pretty impossible for him to have published this in the 30s. Could you update your answer to include the title? – Organic Marble Jun 21 '17 at 0:38
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    @OrganicMarble Interesting points. I thought that might make a good basis for a story identification question... then I found that it apparently already has. – reirab Jun 21 '17 at 4:52
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So far the earliest future seems to be in The Partisan Leader: a Tale of the Future By Edward William Sidney. Published in 1836, set in 1847 eleven years later. That is 73 years earlier than the next future date suggested, 1920 in The King in Yellow. That is a great find by User 14111.

I want to add two notes:

  1. Encouragement to seek for even earlier future dates than 1847 in early works of proto science fiction.

  2. Mention of fictional works that have earlier future dates than 1847, but might not count as science fiction. Your mileage may vary, as they say in TV Tropes.

Science fiction set before 1847

The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century by Jane Loudon, was published in 1827, nine years before The Partisan Leader: a Tale of the Future, but does not displace it as the front runner since it is set later, in 2126.

The Last Man by Mary Shelley, was published in 1826, ten years before The Partisan Leader: a Tale of the Future, but does not displace it as the front runner since it is set at the end of the 21st century - the date of 2092 for some events is mentioned in the summary.

The Mummy! is set 300 years in the future, so a science fiction or proto science fiction work publish before 1547 and set 300 years in the future would have an earlier future date than The Partisan Leader: a Tale of the Future.

The Last Man is set 266 years in the future. So a proto science story written before 1581 and set 266 years in the future would have an earlier future than The Partisan Leader: a Tale of the Future.

And if someone in 1650 wrote a futuristic story set 150 years in the future in 1800, that would be an earlier fictional future. If someone in 1692 wrote a story set only 100 years in the future in 1792 that would be an earlier fictional future. And if someone in 1745 or 1790 wrote a story set only 50 years in the future, in 1795 or 1840, that would be an earlier future than The Partisan Leader: a Tale of the Future.

Thus it is possible that someone who researches early works of proto science fiction could find a story set in an earlier fictional future date than 1847.

Other predictive fiction set before 1847

The question "What was the first story to be set in the future?" has some great answers.

January First-of-May says:

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).

So book one was published about 1532, the fourth book was published in 1552. And the fictional dates seem to progress from 1420 to the 20th century (1901-2000). Thus at some point during the first four books there should have be a lot of events happening after 1552 and before 1847.

Thus Gargantua and Pantagruel is a work of fiction that includes fictional events in future periods of the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th etc. centuries. But is it a work of SCIENCE fiction with earlier future dates than 1847, or is it a work of FANTASY fiction or of HUMOROUS fiction with earlier future dates than 1847?

And he mentions an earlier work, the play Medea by Seneca the Younger. Lines 375 to 379 have often been interpreted as predicting the Age of Discovery over 1,400 year later:

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.

Thus January First-of-May may have found 2 future dates earlier than 1847 in his answer to another question.

It depends on how much like science fiction Gargantua and Pantagruel and Seneca's Medea seem to us, and especially to dot_Sp0T.

  • This is a great amount of effort and certainly valued. Thank you for taking the time to write this up! As for your last paragraph, I consider anything science-fiction that is tagged as science-fiction on any reputable site/archive - as I mention in the question already. – dot_Sp0T Jun 19 '17 at 23:02
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    A lot of this is pointless waffle which doesn't answer the question. I suggest you remove everything above The question "What was the first story to be set in the future?" as it doesn't provide anything to the question. – Edlothiad Jun 20 '17 at 1:26
4

Of the top of my head Nineteen Eighty-Four stands out as having a specific date and being in the future relative to publishing.

There are undoubtedly other examples of futures written before 1948 (when Orwell wrote 1984) then but I can't see one that is specific to an earlier date. Looking at the chart ibid posted seems to bear this out.

This was however written long after the golden age so I would be surprised if nobody can find an earlier example.

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    Sweet catch! It even seems to be considered science-fiction :D – dot_Sp0T Jun 19 '17 at 11:58
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    Memoirs of the Twentieth Century was written earlier, 1733, but was set in 1997. – FuzzyBoots Jun 19 '17 at 12:06
1

How about:

Book of Revelation - John of Patmos, around 90 AD, a foretelling of the fall of the Roman Empire, a bit like Asimov did with Foundation

Urashima Tarō - Japanese legend dating from around the eighth century AD where the protagonist fisherman is transported 300 years into the future - at what point do stories of "divine intervention" not count as sci-fi?

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    just look at the last paragraph of the question. Fulfill that requirement and it's fine. – dot_Sp0T Jun 20 '17 at 21:21
  • If you look carefully at Urashima Taro, it seems like the 300 years later time is the time the story was written, not the start of the story. See the scroll mentioned here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urashima_Tar%C5%8D#Commemoration I think this is because the story is presented as (possibly) true. – isaacg Jun 22 '17 at 7:56
0

Return to the Cave of Time: Published 1985, set 5 minutes into the future

Since you allow works involving time travel, then I think you would be hard pressed to find an "earlier future" than Edward Packard's Return to the Cave of Time, the 50th book in the Choose Your Own Adventure series. The book was published in 1985 and initially takes place in about that time period. One of the story lines involves the protagonist travelling about five minutes into the future. This sequence results in a number of thought-provoking paradoxes.

I think it's safe to classify the book as science fiction. It's tagged as such on Goodreads, and while it's not (yet) listed on the ISFDB, the previous instalment, The Cave of Time, is, and was reviewed in Science Fiction Review and Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact.

  • "I think you would be hard pressed to find an "earlier future"" - obvious counter-example: Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1948. – Chronocidal Aug 22 at 12:55
  • @Chronocidal: In what universe is 36 years in the future "earlier" than five minutes in the future? – Psychonaut Aug 22 at 14:41
  • You appear to have misread the question: 1984 is earlier than 1985. The question wanted that earliest date that was the future when the work was published - not the shortest timespan between publishing and when the fictional future is. This then discounts any novels published after 1985, as the earliest "future date" they can contain is already after 1984 – Chronocidal Aug 22 at 20:11
  • The question as originally phrased is ambiguous, so I think my interpretation is valid. However, on reading the comments I see that the OP later clarified their question ("The best/correct answer is the one citing a work where the future is the furthest back in time") such that your interpretation is the correct one. – Psychonaut Aug 23 at 6:29
0

I have found another example, which is newer but more definitely science fiction than the accepted answer. The Next Generation by John Francis Maguire was published in 1871 and set in 1891. It projects many technological (e.g. steam-powered balloons) and social (e.g. votes for women) changes during that twenty-year interval.

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Star Wars? "A long time ago..." Sure seems like a Science Fiction series, although IMDB has it listed as Fantasy, Action, Adventure, and Wiki has it as an Epic Space Opera.

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    Star Wars never looks into the future? – Edlothiad Jun 19 '17 at 17:24
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    The question asks about something set in the future relative to the publication date. While there are some premonitions of the future relative to the setting in Star Wars, these are all in the past relative to the publication date. – reirab Jun 20 '17 at 2:59
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    Even if it were set in the future, which it isn't, it is another world entirely. – Neil Jun 20 '17 at 14:06

protected by Rand al'Thor Jun 20 '17 at 10:28

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