Circa 1900 (?) a young artist discovers that his uncle has a time machine, and naturally decides to try it out (I believe uncle is deceased and the artist is his heir). He travels to the future — which I think is the 1920's — but unfortunately the machine is destroyed on his return.

Trying to think of a way to monetize his knowledge, he quickly realizes he has no scientific competence, but decides he should be able to write wonderful stories for one of the pulp magazines.

To his astonishment, his first story is turned down, and he demands an interview with the editor; to his further astonishment, the editor tells him that the story wasn't bad, but that "the psychological element was all wrong".

Confused, he asks for an explanation, and the editor says, "You describe a world with flying machines and radios and cars. The story would have been good, if it had been set hundreds of years from now, but you've set it only twenty years in the future. People alive today would be seeing all these marvels — isn't it obvious that they would all be walking around, stunned with amazement?"

I did not find the writing extraordinary, but I thought the punch line was very clever. I imagine this was from the 50's, but I'm only guessing. Any ideas for author or title?

1 Answer 1


"The Shape of Things That Came", a short story by Richard Deming, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1951, available at the Internet Archive. You may have read it in one of these compilations.

George travels 50 years ahead, from 1900 to 1950, in his Uncle Zeke's "time-nightshirt":

Had George Blade been a scientist like his Uncle Zeke, who invented the time-nightshirt, instead of merely a writer, he would have submitted to the College of Physicists an impersonal report on his trip fifty years into the future. And though in the year 1900 he was but twenty-three and possessed none of the literary fame he was destined to acquire, he probably would have been believed. Not because he was a writer, of course, but because he was the nephew of the late Dr. Ezekiel Herkheimer, the mere mention of whose name was enough to obtain audience with any scientist in the world.

But since he was a professional writer, strange experiences to George were material for fictional stories. It never even occurred to him he should report his trip as fact. He made it a love story about a man from 1900 and a girl from 1950.

[. . . .]

The editor smiled indulgently. "Perhaps life will be as you describe it in one million A.D. But no reader would accept such tremendous scientific advance in a mere fifty years. What you seem to have overlooked, Mr. Blade, is that the children of today will be the leaders of your fantastic future world. You yourself may quite likely still be alive. The whole world has fresh in its mind Andree's balloon attempt, yet you expect your readers to believe such enormous air progress as you describe will take place during their own lifetimes! And your war weapons! Warfare has advanced tremendously in the past few decades — the revolver, the automatic rifle, the ironclad warship — but a Napoleonic marshal could almost instantly master these modern developments. Are we to expect that in fifty years war should take on a shape that Napoleon himself could not comprehend?"

Mr. Grayson's smile became more gentle. "But your worst error in plausibility is related to the first I mentioned. Your leaders of 1950 are living now. Yet in your story they are adjusted to their incredibly mechanized life as though it had always existed. They are not even surprised at civilization's progress. It simply isn't plausible that people would take such a life for granted."

  • Just reading this excerpt, the punch line sent a chill down my body. Thank you @Barnaby and @user14111!
    – Spike0xff
    Commented May 7 at 1:43
  • Thanks! It was interesting to reread it: I still thought the punchline was great, and the writing was a but better than I remembered. I suppose he chose a fifty year jump to fit with the publishing date of his story — astonishing to think that twenty years would have been enough to justify almost the same level of bewilderment.
    – Barnaby
    Commented May 8 at 0:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.