Lesson 10: The Shape of Things to Come

Lesson 10: The Shape of Things to Come

Created by James Gunn and Thomas Seay

This course is available for online enrollment as ENGL 506 through the Continuing Education department of the University of Kansas. To take this course for academic credit, click here.

Lesson Objectives

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Discuss the paths that the science fiction genre might take in years to come; and
  • Explain the consensus "cosmogony" that has arisen over the last century of science-fiction writing.


Six or more stories of your choice from the current volume of The Year's Best Science Fiction.



Although science-fiction writers may toy with time, putter about in the past, or transport themselves to alternate worlds, their real home is the future. Other arenas are pleasant resorts or creative playgrounds, but the missionary aspect of the science fiction writer, as contrasted with his artistic aims, his practical needs, or his sportive moments, demands an opportunity to urge salvation, a change in ethics or morals or religions, a new way of thinking or a new way of life itself. Science fiction writers, as a group, have an ineradicable need to urge or to warn, and only the future can be changed.

In their concern about the future, science-fiction writers have developed a consensus scenario. With remarkable agreement, particularly in the early years of Gernsback and then Campbell, science-fiction writers evolved what Donald Wollheim calls "the full cosmogony of science-fiction future history." Story by story, thorough acceptance and further development by other writers (and their reverse—rejection and disuse), through accretion that future history was written.

Wollheim dates the "cosmogony" from the publication of Asimov's Foundation trilogy in the early forties:

First we have the initial voyages to the moon and to the planets of our Solar System. In this sequence we also include stories of the contact of man with intelligent species elsewhere in this system—Martians, Jovians, Venusians, if any. Stories of the first efforts to set up terrestrial bases on such planets. Stories of the first colonies of such worlds, their problems internal and external, their conflicts with the parent world, their breakaway or interplanetary commerce, spaceship trade lanes, space pirates, asteroid mining, the weird wonders of the Outer Planets, and so forth.

Second, the first flights to the stars. The problem of whether science can ever exceed the speed of light—a very important one where the problem of colonization is concerned. Starships, ships that must travel centuries and contain generations, descended from the original crews. Other planets of other stars. Intelligences on such planets and our problems with them or against them. Human colonies on other starry systems. Contact with Mother Earth, independence or dependence. Commerce—exploitation or otherwise.

Third, the Rise of the Galactic Empire. The rise of contact and commerce between many human-colonized worlds or many worlds of alien intelligences that have come to trust and do business with one another. The problem of mutual relations and the solution, usually in the form of treaties or defensive alliances. Implacable aliens in the cosmos who must be fought. The need for defense. The rise of industrial or financial or political powers, the eventual triumph of one and the establishment of a federation, a union, an alliance, or an autocratic empire of worlds, dominated usually from Old Earth.

Fourth, the Galactic Empire in full bloom, regardless of what form it takes. Commerce between worlds as established fact, and adventures while dealing with worlds in and out of the Empire. The farthest planets, those of the Galactic Rim, considered as mavericks. The problems of aliens again outside the Empire, and outside our own galaxy. Politics within the government setup, intrigues, and dynasties, robotic mentalities versus human mentalities. "Terra-forming" worlds for colonization. The exploration of the rest of the galaxy by official exploration ships, or adventurers, or commercial pioneers.

Fifth, the Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire. Intrigue and palace revolt. Breakaway planets. The alliance of worlds strained beyond its limits by rebellion, alien wars, corruption, scientific inability to keep up with internal or external problems. The rise of restless subject worlds. Decline, then loss of contact with farthest worlds, crumbling of commerce, failure of space lanes, distrust, finally worlds withdrawing into themselves as the empire/alliance/federation/union becomes an empty shell or is destroyed at its heart.

Sixth, the Interregnum. Worlds reverting to prespace-flight conditions, savagery, barbarism, primitive forms of life, superstition. Worlds taking to barbarian raids on defenseless isolated planets, hastening the downfall of knowledge. Fragments of space flight, fragments of empire, some starships, some efforts to revive. Thousands of years of loss of contact. Humanity in this period becomes indigenous to most of the habitable planets of the galaxy, forgetting origins. Evolutionary changes may take place. Alterations of form to fit differing world conditions—giant men, tiny men, water-dwelling men, flying men, mutations.

Seventh, the Rise of a Permanent Galactic Civilization. The restoration of commerce between worlds. The reexploration of lost and uncontacted worlds and the bringing them back to high-technology, democratic levels. The efforts to establish trade between human worlds that no longer seem kin. Beating down new efforts to form empires, efforts which sometimes succeed and revert to approximations of the previous period, with similar results. The exploration of other galaxies and the entire universe.

Eighth, the Challenge to God. Galactic harmony and an undreamed-of high level of knowledge leads to experiments in creation, to harmony between galactic clusters, and possible explorations of the other dimensions of existence. The effort to match Creation and to solve the last secrets of the universe. Sometimes seeking out and confronting the Creative Force or Being or God itself, sometimes merging with that Creative First Premise. The end of the universe, the end of time, the beginning of a new universe or a new time-space continuum. (Wollheim. The Universe Makers. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.)

Wollheim's "cosmogony" begins with humankind's conquest of space, perhaps because a consensus future history of humans on Earth is not nearly as easy. Once into space, humans will be increasingly difficult to wipe out, and among the countless stars everything that can happen will happen, but colonization of his solar system, much less the stars, is uncertain: before humans can conquer space they must conquer war and avoid other man-made and natural catastrophes.

Science fiction has evolved more than other genres—the western, the mystery, the gothic—perhaps because it is based on change ushering humans into an uncertain future rather than on traditional elements. The development of a consensus future history was the natural outcome of the science-fiction process. Yet some brilliant writer may come along tomorrow and point out, beyond argument, a fallacy in the consensus future history and, on the spot, the history will be rewritten. As Wollheim has pointed out, "science fiction builds upon science fiction."(Wollheim. The Universe Makers). Concepts grow out of other concepts; they expand them, extend them, or contradict them. Future histories use devices and techniques pioneered by other authors, fans grow into new writers, authors stand on each other's shoulders.

In recent years, through the New Wave and cyberpunk and humanism and the multitude of other reactions to and against Wollheim's consensus "cosmogony," science-fiction writers have continued to experiment, to use unfamiliar techniques and unusual subject matter—in other words, to liberate still further what they consider the freest medium for fiction. The final shape of science fiction is unclear, but we may anticipate a greater concern for language, character, and subjective reality on the part of many traditional science-fiction writers who find their work downgraded for lack of concern for writing skill; we may also find a greater emphasis on content and objective reality in speculative fiction, though some authors will continue to push on with wilder journeys into the outer reaches of experiment. Already such trends are apparent. Greater variety will be tolerated, even encouraged, in subject, approach, and style; more writers may be difficult or impossible to categorize. The goal will be the ideal of the mainstream: each writer with his individual vision, his individual voice.

Writing Assignment

Based on all that you have read in this course, describe what you consider to be the likely future path of the science-fiction genre. Consider the following questions: What topics will be explored? What styles will be used? What philosophical viewpoints will be taken? How will future science affect the development of science fiction? Explore how the stories you read from The Year's Best Science Fiction illustrate these trends.