The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
THE PRESENT IS BIG WITH THE FUTURE
In 1780, Benjamin Franklin, minister plenipotentiary to the Court of Versailles, dwelled in Passy, a picturesque and very high-end suburb then lying between the still tiny City of Paris and Versailles itself. From his rooms in the Hotel de Valentinois on the fabulous estate of M. Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont, Franklin lived the privileged life of a celebrity genius sought after in person or by post by the whole of Europe. On February 8, 1780, he responded to a letter from Joseph Priestly, not merely the world-famous discoverer of oxygen but also the author of The History and Present State of Electricity, who told him "I have confirmed, explained and extended my former observations on the purification of the atmosphere by means of vegetation..."
Franklin, too beset by the endless minutiae of diplomatic life to experiment himself, replied in philosophical reveries.
I always rejoice to hear of your being still employ'd in experimental Researches into Nature, and of the Success you meet with. The rapid Progress true Science now makes, occasions my regretting sometimes that I was born too soon. It is impossible to imagine the Height to which may be carried, in a thousand years, the Power of Man over Matter. We may perhaps learn to deprive large Masses of their Gravity, and give them absolute Levity, for the sake of easy Transport. Agriculture may diminish its Labour and double its Produce; all Diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured, not even excepting that of Old Age, and our Lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian Standard. O that moral Science were in as fair a way of Improvement, that Men would cease to be Wolves to one another, and that human Beings would at length learn what they now improperly call Humanity! [italics in original]
Though this sounds suspiciously like one of those phony anachronistic quotes that befoul the Internet, the authenticity of this letter is unquestionable unless you posit a conspiracy to place it into 19th century editions of Franklin's Collected Works. The Enlightenment, a collective noun applied to a hodgepodge of beliefs across countries and centuries, had two breaks with previous thought at its core: self-reliance and optimism. Peter Gay captures the new thought succinctly in The Enlightenment: An Interpretation - Volume 2: The Science of Freedom:
The philosophy of the Enlightenment insisted on man's essential autonomy: man is responsible to himself, to his own rational interests, to his self-development, and, by an inescapable extension, to the welfare of his fellow man. For the philosophes, man was not a sinner, at least not by nature; human nature - and this argument was subversive, in fact revolutionary, in their day - is by origin good, or at least neutral. Despite the undeniable power of man's antisocial passions, therefore, the individual may hope for improvement through his own efforts - through education, participation in politics, activity in behalf of reform, but not through prayer.
Enlightenment thought peaks near the end of the 18th century in two key documents written within a year of one another: Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit by the Marquis de Condorcet and William Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Modern Morals and Manners. Both were utopian, valued small-d democratic (and small-r republican) thought, and exalted progress, especially the progress already shown by the natural sciences, that would, as Franklin indicated, pull up humanity's moral temperament as a consequence. The present, as Leibniz beautifully phrased it in his Monadology, is big with the future.
Despite the disillusionment following from the failure of the French Revolution and the reactionary response that limited the spread of democracy, works equating progress and the future appeared in thick profusion.
So many had found so much to say on progress and the future that there had to be a book about the new literature. As early as 1822 a new term, la littérature futuriste, had come into circulation, coined by Félix Bodin, historian and parliamentary deputy. "Like everyone else," he wrote, "I have got the craze for making new worlds." Twelve years later, he surveyed all the writing about the future in his Le Roman de l'avenir, the first book ever written about futuristic fiction. According to I. F. Clarke in The Pattern of Expectation: 1644-2001, every pages shows that he "expected his readers to be thoroughly familiar with the style and the matter of furtuistic fiction." The source of the new littérature mélioriste was the idea of progress. Bodin wrote,
[T]he future appears to the imagination in a blaze of light. Progress, understood as a law of human existence, became in turn a clear demonstration and then a sacred manifestation of Providence. It was impossible that such a noble, such a great idea - distilled through the spirit of the age for half a century and illuminating it these last few years, when it had been proclaimed as a dogmatic certainty and with poetic enthusiasm - it was impossible that it could fail to flower in religions and utopias. There has been no lack of these in future days. However, I do not think anyone has so far tried to say anything about the future save by way of utopian theories and apocalypses.
In her introduction to a translation of Emile Souvestre's The World as It Shall Be, Margaret Clarke (I. F.'s wife and sometimes collaborator) followed this with a critical blast at Bodin. "By limiting his survey to works of major works of future fiction, it seems that Bodin could not see how the idea of progress had become an Open Sesame, a deposit of faith in the future, from which all could borrow according to their interests."
Julius von Voss, in his introduction to Ini. Ein Roman aus dem ein und zwanzigsten Jahrhundert (A Novel of the 21st Century) (1810) has already made this explicit:
As assuredly as the present is an improvement on the past ... so with equal certainty a better future is coming; and we may at last be confident that we can expect our ever-developing civilization will be the salvation of all mortal creatures. What we cannot yet see, we dream of. [English language quotes by Margaret Clarke]
What we cannot yet see, we dream of. The motto of all science fiction.