Updated: Apr 28
“It’s terribly hard to see, and think clearly, about the long future, when the immediate present seems so violently pressing.”
American science fiction writer Poul Anderson wrote those words in 1957 in a short story set in his near future (1964) and inspired by an episode from ancient Rome. I would add the following to Anderson’s observation: it is even harder to see and think clearly about the past.
I am deeply ashamed that I knew nothing about the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma where an angry white mob killed hundreds of black men and women and destroyed their affluent community. This is despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that I was educated in the same part of the country, the Deep South, where the massacre occurred. I only learned about this dark event in American history as an adult by reading (you guessed it) a sci-fi novel by Matt Ruff titled Lovecraft Country.
I had managed to learn something of another dark historical event, the Allied firebombing of Dresden, Germany in World War II. But I can’t say I really began to understand or feel it viscerally until I read the fictional account of a time traveler sheltering from the firestorm in an abandoned meat packing plant. Billy Pilgrim and the Slaughterhouse Five taught me more about world history than Coach Phillips did in High School. So it goes.
It seems the more we regret events from our history, the less we’re willing to learn from them. But science fiction gives us a way to reexamine and reflect on those distressing events of the past by casting them into shiny new futures. I attempted to do this recently for a flash fiction piece published in scifishorts.co entitled Penny Auction.
The image above portrays an event from the American mid-west sometime around 1936, during the Great Depression. Farmers and ranchers across the country found themselves unable to make their payments on mortgages and loans, so the banks foreclosed on farms and equipment and sold them at public auction to defray some of their losses. Sometimes, the farmer’s neighbors, friends, and families would band together and agree to lowball the bidding to buy the farm back from the bank and then return it to the original owner. The photograph shows one such “penny auction” as they were called. The nooses you see in the barn were placed there as a not-so-subtle reminder to keep the bids as low as possible.
To find out how I recast this Dust Bowl anecdote into a flash sci-fi story set in the future, please join scifishorts.co and read Penny Auction. While you're there, check out some of the other amazing sci-fi stories, each of which can be read in less time than it takes to watch a music video.
Historical sci-fi stories can be structured as time travel stories like Kurt Vonnegut’s brilliant Slaughterhouse Five. But they might also be set on another planet or at a future time where the plot is similar to, or even mirrors, events from our real-life past. Below, I’ve included links to a couple of historical sci-fi stories from two of the most prolific writers of the golden age.
Murray Leinster’s Sidewise in Time — 1934 Astounding Stories
Poul Anderson’s Marius — 1957 Astounding Science Fiction
Sidewise in Time is essentially a time travel story where a band of travelers moves through several periods and experiences events from the past and future.
Marius takes the other approach. It is set in the near future after a nuclear war, and there is no character named Marius in the story. Instead, the plot mirrors the life of a real person from ancient Rome named Gaius Marius, a great military leader who later became a terrible political leader.
With either approach, science fiction can provide excellent opportunities for us to learn from the past by speculating about the future.