It used to be, science fiction took place in the future and fantasy in the past. But lately, more science fiction takes place in the past. So we can't help wondering whether there'll be more fantasy set in the future.
We're in Ohio for the World Fantasy Convention, so it's a perfect time to wonder about fantasy and whether it'll ever become futuristic.
It's easy to see why science fiction is usually viewed as the literature of the future — a lot of SF is about advanced science or technology, and speculating about what might be. If it's in the future, it could really happen — whereas speculations about the past are automatically counterfactual. (If you believe history, anyway.) Plus we tend to think of magic and myth as relics from an era before we "knew better," thanks to science. So it's easier to buy into a magical quest from an era before physics.
Except, of course, magic and science aren't mutually exclusive. And the more we learn about science, the more we realize we don't really understand how the universe works in some very fundamental ways. As Tower of Power says, "The more you know, the more you know you don't know."
So maybe it's just my perception - but it feels like more science fiction takes place in the past lately. For one thing, a lot of the current vogue for steampunk and alternate history seems to involve the joy of reimagining the past with more weird science, or other surprising elements, in the mix. And even when you get stories set in the future, it's often a reflection of the past, as with Julian Comstock, Liberation and other novels about a future that's a throwback to 150 years ago. And on the movie front, there's a boomlet of stories where an alien or aliens land in Earth's history, like the upcoming Cowboys and Aliens.
And meanwhile, there's been tons of talk about the huge surge in sales of urban fantasy, which is fantasy set in the present. (There are other types of fantasy set in the present besides urban fantasy, of course, including a lot of horror fiction.) With fantasy already conquering the present, what's to stop it moving into the future next?
What would futuristic fantasy be like?
Maybe the magical future is an optimistic future, in which advances in science (or an apocalypse, or some hideous dystopia) have failed to wipe out our capacity for amazement. The miraculous can still appear, and the ancient knowledge can still save us even after we've discovered more about the universe, or even after we've learned some hard lessons.
Or maybe the magical future is a bleak one, in which no matter how we advance, we still can't outrun our ancestral terrors. There are some things science will never explain, some... presences... that can't be reasoned with. Or maybe it's a bit of both.
So after pondering for a bit, it seems like there could be three ways to go with a fantasy story set in the future:
1) A future in which we discover magic, or it somehow becomes real. Magic doesn't exist, until one day it suddenly does. I feel like this is a common theme in several short stories, like N.K. Jemisin's "Non-Zero Probabilities." In the near future (or the far future, possibly), we make contact with something out there in the universe that brings magic into reality. Or magic just suddenly starts working - and people discover they have to be careful what magic words come out of their mouths. Or Orcs and werewolves start wandering into our super-dense-yet-sprawly future cities and wreak havoc with our complicated infrastructure.
2) A future in which magic has been real forever. And maybe someone stumbles across the reality of it, the same as might happen in a fantasy story set in the past or present, or else only a few people know the truth. But it's also easy to imagine a future in which we get better and better at spying on each other, and the omnipresent communication of things like Twitter and Facebook becomes even more all-pervasive, and we expand civilization into more and more remote areas — so that fairies and witches become much, much harder to hide and have to come out into the open for the first time in millennia.
3) A future where magic is needed once again. Maybe magic's always been around, but it fell into disuse because people started relying more on their gadgets and their postmodernism and their fancy city-folk ways. But then one day, it all falls apart. Civilization collapses, or gets a whole lot less civilized. Or science creates problems it can't solve. And people have to reach for magic again - or else, creatures from beyond our mundane world have to step in before the crisis reaches fairyland or the vampire monarchy or whatnot.
Some fantasy already does take place in the future
It's not as if fantasy has never been set in the future before, though. There are plenty of classic works in the genre that are either stated, or hinted, to be set years from now. They include:
- Fantasy set on other planets. For example, Anne McCaffrey's Pern books, which are to all intents and purposes fantasy, take place on another planet which is colonized by people from "Old Earth." Jim Grimsley's Kirin Kirith and The Ordinary both take place in the future on other worlds as well. And then there are Robert Silverberg's Majipoor novels. I think that Krull is stated to take place in our future, although I'm not sure. And I have a feeling there are other "Sword and Planet" type novels that take place in the future but are basically fantasy.
- Fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic world. The uber-classic of this sub-genre, of course, is Jack Vance's Dying Earth series, set in a distant future where the sun is almost exhausted, and a frosty Earth is overrun by magic and magical creatures once again. Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun also borrows a lot from this series. And then there are Diana Paxson's post-apocalyptic Westria novels. And Terry Brooks connected his post-apocalyptic Word and the Void series to his Tolkien-esque Shannara series, by way of the post-apocalyptic magical Genesis of Shannara trilogy, beginning with Armageddon's Children. Not to mention Ken Scholes' Psalms of Isaak series, which includes magic in a distant post-apocalyptic future.
There's also a thriving sub-genre of "vampires in the future" stories, including Priest, Vampire Hunter D and Daybreakers. Not to mention post-apocalyptic "dragons in the future" stories, such as the movie Reign of Fire and the novel Bitterwood by James Maxey.
Sheri Tepper's Plague of Angels also happens in a far-future post-apocalyptic world, where lots of people have left for the stars and those who remain on the shattered Earth and Witch plans to take over the Earth. The animated movie Wizards by Ralph Bakshi also takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. And a lot of people believe Richard K. Morgan's The Steel Remains takes place on a future Earth, after the Moon is destroyed — although I don't think it's ever made explicit.
- Comics' odd genre mash-ups. One of the things I love about mainstream comics is the way they run roughshod over genre distinctions, with the Spectre and Superman rubbing elbows all the time. This extends to comics set in the future - Marvel Comics' 2099 line included a version of Doctor Strange called Strange 2099. And Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland did an underrated series called Camelot 3000, where King Arthur's court is reincarnated a millennium from now.
Other random examples:
The Night Watch by Sean Stewart takes place in the year 2074, when "magic holds as much sway as technology," because magic started creeping back into the world after World War II. Also by Stewart: Galveston, in which magic floods the streets of Galveston in the near future, dividing it between the "real" Galveston, where survivors make do with unreliable technology, and a magical version of Galveston, where it's always Carnival. The story jumps forward twenty years into a slightly farther future.
The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky's movie, has a strong fantasy tinge to it and takes place partly in the distant future.
Heavy Metal, the animated movie anthology tying in with the magazine of the same name, has some segments that are pretty fantasy-ish but take place in the future.
Highlander II: The Quickening, the sequel which all Highlander fans love and revere (just kidding!) takes place in the then-futuristic era of the late 1990s.
Discord's Apple by Carrie Vaughn takes place in a near-future world torn apart by war, where Evie Walker goes home to look after her dying father - and discovers a mysterious storeroom that's a gateway to another realm full of magic.
The Owl Keeper by Christine Brodien-Jones takes place in a future that's oppressed by a Big Brother-style government, which is about to go to war with a long-hidden group of mystical sages.
Lion Boy by Zizou Corder takes place in the near future, in which a boy who can communicate with cats takes refuge aboard a floating Big Top, Thibaudet's Floating Circus.
Avalon: The Return of King Arthur by Steven R. Lawhead is another "King Arthur reborn in a dystopian future" type story, although this time it's a near future where England's monarchy is finally falling apart after the death of King Edward IX.
Tom Deitz's Above The Lower Sky takes place in a near future where New Age values have prevailed and dolphins and killer whales have their own homelands. And then a selkie arrives to warn an American writer in Ireland of trouble, and it transpires that were-orcas are attacking dolphins as a prelude to war against the humans.
So yeah, it turns out that fantasy set in the future isn't quite as rare as we first thought - which doesn't mean we wouldn't like to see more of it.
Top images: Cover art for Dragonquest, Dragonflight and The White Dragon by Anne McCaffrey, art by Michael Whelan.
Additional reporting by Chelsea Lo Pinto.