Closer Horizons

A few curious folks took 250 science fiction stories across thirteen decades and looked at whether the stories were set <50 , 50 to 500, or >500 years in the future. The long term trend is that fewer stories are set in the more distant future:

(Given the small dataset, I wouldn’t take decade to decade fluctuations seriously.)

Some of this effect is probably our expecting faster rates of change, and so any given amount of strangeness is expected to arrive sooner. But I’d guess most of this effect is that we are just less interested in the distant future.

Early in the industrial revolution people were very aware of there being in a great transition, from farming to industry, and they were curious about where it all might lead. Now that we are well into the industrial era, we have a better sense for what industry is like, and are less concerned about there maybe being a new post-industrial era.

Added 1p: I did a regression of their fraction of >500 year stories vs. time, and the relation is 2% significant for both linear and log versions of the fraction. There is enough data here to see this effect. Also, both the linear and log versions of the <50 year fraction are 5% significant.

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  • Aron

    Partition on 50 and it looks like random noise. This is a case of seeing what you want to see.

    • Aron

      website mangled my comment. Partition on ‘less than 50′ and ‘greater than 50′.

  • Brazzy

    I’d be most interested in the outlier of the popularity of near-future stories in the 1900s – I wouldn’t have been surprised if it were the 1890’s and explained it as date-related apocalyptic stories, but what could have made the near future suddenly so interesting in the 1900s?

    • Konkvistador

      Massive, visible and rapid technological progress?

  • Andy

    They say they sampled different types of media. Given that sci-fi TV and movies are mostly recent, that could create significant bias. I’d really like to see the same chart using some more objective ranking, for example the top 10 selling sci-fi novels of each year.

  • Lord

    Have to wonder if more is set in the past.

  • candy

    I disagree that it shows less interest in the distant future.

    If your timescale for future change is close to that of, say, Kurzweil’s, the world is going to be so different in ~200 years that there is nothing for a storyteller to cling to. If the “Mid future” is a transition away from a human-comprehensible civilization, the far future will be very tough to explain to your audience.

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Singularity speed beliefs about rates of progress at most influenced only the last few decades of science fiction – the trend is over 130 years.

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