Futuristic fiction - when and why?

OK, it was hard to come up with a succinct title.

Last night, I was watching UFO on DVD. For those who don’t know about the show, this was a '60s British TV series set in the future - 1980 to be exact. It’s fun, campy, and nostalgic. I was discussing the show with a friend, and the conversation turned to this topic: When was the first story that was set in the future?
Clearly, there is a great deal of science fiction that was written in the first half of the 20th century that was set in the future, but I don’t know about fiction written earlier than that. For example “The Time Machine” and “Frankenstein” were both set in present-day, right? All the fiction written by Shakespeare and Chaucer was contemporary also, wasn’t it?

So, when was the dawn of fiction set in the future, and why didn’t people write this type of literature 500 years ago?

The first one I’m aware of is Jules Verne’s first book (but unpublished until about ten years ago) set in the 20th century:


He followed it up with other stories set in the (sometimes far) future:


Wells set some of his stories (besides The Time Machine) in the future as well, most notably The Sleeper Wakes

As for why people didn’t do this sort of thing earlier, I suspect a lot of it has to do with the idea of significant progress being made in relatively short times is a recent observation.

Before these “future lit” stories there were stories about sleepers awakening after long periods of time. A female author (whose name escapes me – dammit - she deserves a better fate), a contemporary of Mary Shelley, wrote about a mummy who awakened in the present day. Edgar Allen poe later used the same idea for his short story “Some Words with a Mummy”. And Mark Twain, relatively late in the game (the 1880s) has his backwards time traveller in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”. So the first notions of progress seem to have compared the past witgh the present, and only a long time later tried to compare the present with an extrapolated future.

If myths qualify as fiction, then the end-of-the-world myths must be some of the very first cases.

“Memoirs of the Twentieth Century” is a story written in 1733 which purports to be a series of letters written to said HIgh Treasurer of Britain from ambassadors to various countries in 1997 and 1998.

Here’s the wikpedia link where I found it:

The standard text on the subject is I. F. Clarke’s The Pattern of Expectation: 1644-2001, published in 1979.

Chapter I is “The Discovery of the Future,” in which he presents a number of candidates for first future fiction. As with most things the genre took a while to evolve into a form we would recognize, so you get to pick which book satisfies your criteria.


  1. Aulicus his Dream, of the Kings Sudden Comming to London, by Francis Cheynell.

A six-page tract in the form of a dream, a nightmare vision of King Charles triumphant in London.

  1. Epigone, histoire du siecle futur, by Jacques Guttin.

Set in a future France with a vast kingdom but just as a backdrop to a adventure story.

  1. Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, being Original Letters of State under George the Sixth, by Samuel Madden.

A future in which Britain is powerful and the Catholic countries are not.

  1. The Reign of George VI, 1900-1925, anonymous.

Another English utopia because of enlightened British wisdom.

  1. L’An 2440, by Sebastian Mercier.

The biggie. “The first satisfactory model of the new fiction.” A “detailed utopian account of peaceful nations, constitutional monarchs, universal education, and technological advances.” The book was wildly popular, went into many printings, and was translated in several other languages.

Clarke lists dozens of other books pre-Verne.

A more recent source of early speculative writing is The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, by Jess Nevins, which starts much earlier than Victoria, despite its name. He evidently has done research into scads of forgotten magazines of the late 18th and early 19th century to uncover much that is new to us.

Why didn’t it appear earlier? I think it was because it wasn’t necessary. Writers had been pounding out such yarns for thousands of years; they just set them in the unexplored sections of the world, where any wonders were plausible.

Most say that the founder or at least forerunner of science fiction was the True History by Lucien of Samosata, circa 150 AD.

I love the very free translation of the intro by this author:

It wasn’t until most of the earth had been explored and found to be inhabited by humans much like the travelers that there was a need to find an “other” place in which to set these tales in. The future was a convenient device, because unlike the tales set in China or the Indies, nobody could go there and report back the reality.

Thanks for your detailed response.

Sorry, I was distracted by the aftermath of the Eugenics Wars in the 1990s. At least the tyrannical Khan and his henchmen are nowhere to be seen.

Francis Bacon wrote The New Atlantis in 1626 – ostensibly just a story set in an imaginary country, like More’s Utopia, but really about the potential of science to change the world. Sort of futuristic.

In addition to that , it was also one of the most realistic shows about fighting ET’s, with the exception of that flying sub/fighter.

UFO stills & commentary.

Rudyard Kipling wrote science fiction. One of his SF stories, published in 1905, was “With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 A.D.”.