When The Future Has Become the Past

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Back in 1965, I read The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein. The story is about a guy named Dan Davis who invents a robot vacuum cleaner. The setting of the story begins in the year 1970 but the story itself was first published in F&SF in October 1956. So Heinlein was assuming a lot would happen in 14 years. Well, two things. One, household robots would appear in 1970, and cold sleep would be perfected so people could pay to be put into suspended animation. In 1965 when I read the book I thought both of these were still futuristic but hoped a lot would happen in five years. I wanted that future.

Not to spoil the story, but Dan decides to take cold sleep and wakes up in the year 2000 when his patents and investments should have grown into a magnificent pile of wealth. This lets Heinlein extrapolate and speculate even further into the future. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as planned by Dan. In his future, Dan invents Drafting Dan hoping to make another fortune.

What’s funny is I read The Door Into Summer in 1965 when everything in the book was set in the future and I’ve lived long enough so that the book is now set in the past. That’s very science fictionally existential. Essentially Heinlein imagines the Roomba and Autocad back in 1956. And the 1959 Signet book cover artist imagines we’ll be wearing spandex and capes. And even though some people do wear such garb today, it’s not an accurate guess about average Americans in the future. Wouldn’t it have been hilarious if that artist had imagined everyone wearing hoodies, shorts, t-shirts, and flipflops?

I remember back in the 1960s having so much hope for the future. It’s mind-blowing to me that next week I’ll be living in the year 2020.

There’s one thing I’ve learned from experience – the future is everything I never imagined. It’s almost as if I imagine something being possible that the act of thinking it cancels out the possibility.

There is no predicting the future. Science fiction writers never claim to have crystal balls, but sometimes they accidentally get things a tiny bit right. People are always thrilled at that. But imagine if Robert A. Heinlein had written a novel that perfectly captured the Donald Trump years and published it back in 1965. How would readers have reacted? Could they have believed it? Most people would have just brushed it off as crazy science fiction.

RAH-Future-History-chart

However, back in the early 1940s, Heinlein imagined the United States going through what he called the “Crazy Years” and later on experiencing religious fanaticism that leads to a theocracy. Quite often in the 1950s science fiction writers imagined the United States falling apart because of religious revivals convincing people to reject science. Doesn’t produce a tiny bit woo-woo soundtrack in your head?

Science fiction is never right about the future, but sometimes it feels a little eerie. Just enough to hear The Twilight Zone music. In 2019 I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s. Those stories had a lot of hopes and fears about the future, a future that is now my past. That’s very weird. But it’s also strange how often they get just a little bit right. Just enough to put a little zing into the story.

By the way, The Door Into Summer is an entertaining novel I recommend and features a wonderful cat character, Pete, short for Petronius the Arbiter. Heinlein loved cats, so do I. Here’s how he said he got the idea for writing the story:

When we were living in Colorado there was snowfall. Our cat — I'm a cat man — wanted to get out of the house so I opened a door for him but he wouldn't leave. Just kept on crying. He'd seen snow before and I couldn't understand it. I kept opening other doors for him and he still wouldn't leave. Then Ginny said, 'Oh, he's looking for a door into summer.' I threw up my hands, told her not to say another word, and wrote the novel The Door Into Summer in 13 days.

And here is a 1958 ad for the book that is fun to read today when we can look back to when they were looking forward.

Door Into Summer ad page 1

Door Into Summer ad page 2

Yeah, I know it’s bizarre that I’m recommending you read a book set in the past that was supposed to be our future. However, it still features the sturdy standbys of storytelling, love, betrayal, greed, revenge, and of course, a cat.

Merry Christmas — JWH

5 thoughts on “When The Future Has Become the Past”

  1. Coventry. If This Keeps On. Farnhams Freehold. Revolt in 2100. And of course, The Door Into Summer.
    And that’s only Heinlein. Keith Laumer had some fun with it as well.

    I apologize if I seem to be sad and unhappy about this; it’s largely because I cannot fathom that all of the brilliant ideas (and warnings) of really good fictional writing in my youth has been wasted on the generations since then. Not to mention all the history that has been written since as well.

    Apparently there is something about the siren song of an/any /der Leader who promises all that our fellow humans really, really want to happen. And those promises are gilded, ensured, and raring to go just as long as that Leader get’s his way.

    That being said, it’s regardless of the cost, and regardless of all the human history that has gone before us.

    Ignorance is Strength! Go ahead, prove me & Orwell wrong.

  2. I guess the issue with mid-twentieth century sci-fi was the optimism of the time, in terms of the ability we had to find engineering solutions to all kinds of issues. It was a rising curve at the time – we know now, one that soon levelled off when the limits of the technical developments that drove it were reached. The way aircraft were transformed by jet engines is indicative; there was a sharp jump from piston power, creating a sharp up-tick in the curve that was extrapolated to rise vertically in the future. Actually the limits were soon reached. I often think this is what made a magical future seem literally just a few years hence, and certainly by the year 2000 (another magical date, certainly to western culture). My favourite example in sci fi is Kubrick and Clarke’s world of 2001, as seen from the early-mid 1960s; atomic space-ships and sentient mainframe-based AI. Of course none of this came to pass. But we did get Heinlein’s Roombas.

  3. Merry Christmas! I first read DOOR INTO SUMMER around the time you did. Loved it! In the early 1960s, Heinlein was my favorite SF writer. His novels and short stories generated that “Sense of Wonder” that a 12-year-old kid would love. Sure, in a few years I moved on to other SF writers especially Jack Vance who became my all-time favorite SF writer. But I still admire Heinlein’s work and reread those classic works occasionally.

    1. Hey Y’all;
      My thought’s about RAH and his story lines were pointed at the things that we cannot now even begin to understand in the digital age. Heh – as if digits mean anything anymore.

      1950’s writing is ignored at best; nobody wants to read old shite because the new world is all about screen time and the latest leak of the new game or even the new digital version of the Started Warts.

      The large and grunting mechanism of the world’s operating system is still based on either steam-driven or petroleum power so all the so-called digital “world” is just a minor vapor in the world-wide anachronism that we pretend to believe in, aka “world government”.
      One minor f**kup or even worse, the digital dingleberry in Russia and his hypersonic ding-dongs will start the conflagration that all of our last 40 years has meant to prevent.

      And what do we do? We diddle. And we pretend we know what we are doing.

  4. In 1966, I was one of the many to tune into the new sci-fi series Star Trek. What made this series so interesting to me was that it was believable, as it’s creator Gene Roddenberry went to the trouble of detailing a universe in advance of the time period in which the missions were recorded. I remember watching movies like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Forbidden Planet” both captured my imagination and remain in my memory, however it was “2001 a Space Odyssey” that cemented the notion of what near space exploration might really look like.

    4 observations:

    ….As you pointed out earlier science Fiction novels posited a future that turned out to be more fantastical then reality, once we got there

    ….the settings for earlier science fiction stories tended to reflect only an extrapolation of the existing technology rather than any transformative innovations. (think blinking circuit boards)

    ….Earlier Sci-Fi stories, in novels and film portrayed ‘in the day’ human behavioral situations projected into a future setting.

    ….Current stories reflect either a camp sensibility or are dystopian in nature. Almost as if we are losing our optimism for what awaits us. The Star Wars set tends toward an almost comical interpretation of the same old battles just a different time. In other words nothing has changed. Or the darkness that awaits when liberal democracy dies and the future reflects the autocratic and dictatorial times of the past

    All in all sci-fi still serves as a vehicle for our imagination, the good and the bad as well as the mundane

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