The best fiction helps submerge the reader into the story. One of the ways science fiction does this is by building the world in which the story takes place. World building is when authors create an imaginary world adhering to a consistent set of "facts" about how that world works.
Read last week's SF Signal at Kirkus on reading short science fiction.
World building is all well and good, but science fiction writers sometimes up the ante by creating not only the world in which the story takes place, but also a complete timeline of events in which one or more stories take place. What they create is an entire "future history" for their stories. World building can submerge you into a story; a future history is a much bigger swimming pool.
Here are a handful of science fiction's most popular future histories, and where to start reading them...
OLAF STAPLEDON'S LAST AND FIRST MEN
The classic novel Last and First Men manages to do what other authors take several novels to achieve: it outlines an entire history of mankind across billions of years. This existence is cyclical, with the rise and fall of 18 human civilizations and species of mankind. Although complete in its vision, it was nevertheless followed by sequels Last Men in London, an examination of the life of one member of mankind's 18th civilization, and Star Maker, which zooms out to outline the history of the entire universe.
ROBERT A. HEINLEIN'S FUTURE HISTORY
Heinlein's Future History involves mankind's technological advancement, social decay, a brief period of space exploration and exploitation, a revolution and a religious dictatorship seizing power. As if that weren't enough story fodder, it's followed by a period of extreme Puritanism, civil liberties being re-established, renewed interest in scientific advancement and the space exploration being resumed—eventually leading to a mature culture of humanity. Much of Heinlein's Future History is encompassed in his short fiction collection The Past Through Tomorrow.
URSULA K. LE GUIN'S HAINISH CYCLE
The premise of Le Guin's multinovel cycle is based on the Hainish people and how they seeded habitable planets with human life. This is a high-level idea that's used to excellent effect to explore anthropological and sociological issues. Le Guin is one of the genre's most talented writers, not only for her beautiful prose, but also for the fascinating examinations of human nature. Notable series highlights are the award-winning books The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.
FRANK HERBERT'S DUNE UNIVERSE
Frank Herbert wrote five sequels to his classic novel Dune, but it wasn't until his notes were discovered after his death that the totality of his vision was realized. Using these notes, Frank's son, Brian, and Kevin J. Anderson extended the Dune universe to include eras only hinted at in the original novel, covering events like the crusade against sentient machines and the formation of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood There is also some welcome focus on the Mentats, humans with superior calculation skills to replace the machines, and the Spacing Guild that uses the valuable spice melange to navigate the spaceways they control.
C.J. CHERRYH'S ALLIANCE-UNION UNIVERSE
Cherryh's future ultimately history shows the development of its major political factions and cultures; namely the Alliance, which includes the peaceful Merchanter cultures that operate space freighters used in trade, and the Union, a much more aggressive entity. Cherry's rich universe is realized through dozens of novels which are further grouped into different eras. A good place to start is her Hugo-winning novel Downbelow Station.
Next week, we'll look at another handful of future histories.
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews.