He Who Controls The Past

Attempting to predict what may happen in the future, as humanity makes its first steps into space, must be based on an understanding of what has happened in the past.  There is no point in thinking that human beings are likely to behave any differently than they have previously, and the same motivations, aspirations – and failings – will apply then as they have before.  A study of history enables us to understand why things are as they are today, and gives indicators of what is to come.

The historian and poet Robert Conquest, best known for historical works on Soviet communism, was a Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society, having originally been recruited by Arthur C Clarke.  His interest in science fiction was evident from his editing, alongside the novelist Kingsley Amis, of the influential Spectrum anthologies in the early 1960s, and he wrote one science fiction novel, A World of Difference, first published in 1955, which demonstrates how a historical perspective can provide a basis for speculating about the future in the near term.  And indeed a character referred to as “the legendary ‘Sir Arthur’” makes brief appearances in the context of “the Interplanetary Society”.

As might well have been hoped at the time of writing, space travel in the inner Solar System in the early twenty-first century is portrayed as a fairly luxurious affair, with spacecraft driven by fields which convert matter into energy and provide “more power than the clumsy atomic drives of the seventies and eighties.”  And an experimental photon drive could even enable interstellar flight.

But the author’s projection of future society is particularly significant.  Following a nuclear war, which was a distinct possibility from the perspective of the early 1950s, mankind (or at least the part of it that remains) lives under a world government.  There are strong concerns, though, over how the authorities psychologically manipulate society; the “development of psycho-techniques capable of altering whole personalities had naturally led to the great debate on what freedom meant.”

We get the feeling that the intentions of the powers-that-be are generally benevolent in the context of a positive approach to developing humanity’s destiny, despite the many setbacks and disasters that have occurred.  The first Mars trip in 1976, interstellar travel by 2008 – it all sounds good.

With hindsight, one can see how the experience of the times during the Second World War, and of the totalitarian dictatorships that were then prevalent, could suggest such an outcome.  A science fiction writer may be expected to put the most positive gloss on this in light of anticipated advances in technology.  Previously, HG Wells had famously provided such fictional assessments of what might happen in the near future in stories such as The World Set Free from 1914 and, perhaps most important in this context, his 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, though his visions may not always be entirely attractive to modern eyes.  But that’s how history can advise us on the future.

In Past, Present and Future (History Today, May 2018), historians Daniel Tilles and John Richardson, writing in the context of remembering the Nazi Holocaust, describe how commemorations of historical events are part of “a dynamic process wherein people, events and stories of the past are recalled, retold and recontextualised in the present in service of future goals.”  There can be little doubt that this can apply in our understanding of both the good and the bad of what has occurred.

And taken to something of an extreme, the ability to establish what happened in the past can actually dictate how things are likely to go.  It appears ominously in the Party slogan used in George Orwell’s novel 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”  We should not get too relaxed about our assessment of the past always staying the same.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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