For decades, most science fiction reference works have credited Robert A. Heinlein with creating the field’s first "future history." In this sense, a future history is a fictional projection devised by an author charting what humanity's future might be like over several centuries or even millennia and against which many of that author’s stories are set. Familiar examples include Asimov's Foundation stories, Dickson's Dorsai series, and Brin's Uplift saga.
Typically scholars have pointed to the March 1941 issue of Astounding, where tomuch fanfare by the awe-struck editor, Heinlein presented his now-famous chart of one possible future course for humankind, indicating broad social trends, key inventions, and just where in the chronology various of his stories fit. Encompassing the colonization of other planets, a fundamentalist dictatorship in the U.S., interplanetary conflict, vastly extended lifespan, and eventual star travel (and pointing toward an increasing maturity in the human race as a whole), it was impressive then, and remains impressive now.
What most SF historians seem to have overlooked is another important sf writer, Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977), whose future history was first drawn up in the late 1920s, at least a decade before Heinlein's, and within which he had already written some two dozen novels and stories before Heinlein made his first appearance in a mag. Oddly, not only was Hamilton's future history created first, but it was published publicly first – a yearearlier than Heinlein's in May 1940 – an event which appears to have gone unnoticed by genre historians. It may be that Heinlein's future history attracted more notice since it had appeared in the most successful and respected of sf magazines, the august Astounding Science Fiction (today renamed Analog Science Fact and Fiction), whereas Hamilton's description of his future history appeared in the less reputable pages of the lurid sf pulp, Thrilling Wonder Stories.
Hamilton called it "my 'History of the Solar System,'" although it followed humankind's destiny much further than that, much further, in fact, than Heinlein's. According to Hamilton, this history was the "most ambitious piece of writing I have ever undertaken is one that will never be published. It Is my 'History of the Solar system,' a nonfiction work to which I have been slowly adding for some time.
"I began it as a simple chronology. It seemed to me that it was hard to write about the future if you did not have a fairly definite idea of your own of what the future was going to be like. A writer, I thought, ought to have some coherent framework on which to hang his tales of future events—then they would be apt to be more logical in each story.
"I set up a simple chronology of the main evens in the Solar System as I foresaw them. Please understand I make no claim to be a prophet. Nobody can really write the history of the future until it happens. But this is my own particular guess as to the way it may happen.
"I've tried to stick to this framework in my stories since then. It covers only the main tides of future history, the greater crises and changes. There is plenty of room In it for an unlimited number of new stories, I believe." Ultimately this future history was to encompass the vast majority of Hamilton’s stories, from the early tales like Crashing Suns, Outside the Universe and Locked Worlds of the mid-to-late 1920s through his later, critically-acclaimed, mature works of the 1960s such as The Star of Life, The Haunted Stars and Star Hammer.
It even encompassed the Captain Future stories, knitting all his work into a disparate whole. Various portions of this future were published in letters-to-the-editor and story-behind-the-story columns, as well as in footnotes to some novels.
Below from the May 1940 Thrilling Wonder Stories “The Story Behind the Story” column is the piece where Hamilton first laid out a major chunk of his chronology and provided a bit of background on how and why he evolved his future history. Preceding it are the original editorial headline and introducing Hamilton’s somewhat informal essay.
“'One of these days we expect to have Edmond Hamilton drop into our office, a voluminous Manuscript entitled "History of the Solar System," written on indestructible parchment, tucked under his arm. Until that time, however, we'll have to be content to let Author Hamilton disburse the doings of the worlds centuries hence in piece-meal form, in his various fictional offerings, and in this department. For Edmond Hamilton, as we have noted on a previous occasion, is the future's Number I historian. He has compiled the geographies, the habitats, the colonization’s, the conquests and the wars of all the nine planets with encyclopedia-like thoroughness. And whenever he wants a plot for a story he merely thumbs through his fifty cubic feet of reference notes, finds a likely subject, and taps out a corking yarn.’
This is Edmond Hamilton’s original 1940 description of his history of tomorrow:
“The most ambitious piece of writing I have ever undertaken is one that will never be published. It Is my "History of the Solar system," a nonfiction work to which I have been slowly adding for some time.
I began it as a simple chronology. It seemed to me that it was hard to write about the future if you did not have a fairly definite idea of your own of what the future was going to be like. A writer, I thought, ought to have some coherent framework on which to hang his tales of future events—then they would be apt to be more logical in each story.
I set up a simple chronology of the main evens in the Solar System as I foresaw them. Please understand I make no claim to be a prophet. Nobody can really write the history of the future until it happens. But this is my own particular guess as to the way it may happen.
I've tried to stick to this framework in my stories since then. It covers only the main tides of future history, the greater crises and changes. There is plenty of room In it for an unlimited number of new stories, I believe. Now and then one of my older stories, written before I started adhering to the History, bobs up in a magazine. But in the main, as readers of THRILLING WONDER STORIES and its companion magazines will recognize, I have adhered to my chronology.
It may be interesting to give an idea of the scheme -of my History, by quoting here the titles of the first few sections of it.
"EXPLORATION AND COLONIZATION, 1971-2011." This deals with the first pioneering flights in space, from that of Johnson to the moon in 1911, up to the successful colonization of Icy Pluto. This was, of course, an era of rapidly expanding Earth Influence.
"THE FRONTIER ERA, 2011-2247" is the section devoted to the wild two hundred years in which the System Government, with headquarters on Earth, struggled to bring the half-explored nine worlds, with their colonists and native planetary peoples, under complete law and order, against the opposition of space-pirates, plotters and scientific criminals who In some cases actually threatened to overthrow the Government itself.
"ERA OF INTERPLANETARY SECESSION, 2247-2621." takes up the fateful four centuries in which the various colonized planets began to drift toward a desire for independence from the System Government. It describes the Martian Rebellion of 2463, the Swampmen Uprising on Venus. and the other bids for independence that the System Government struggled to put down. It ends with the date, August 17, 2621, when President Alderdice of the System government signed the fateful Recognition of Independence which recognized planets as free, self-governing worlds.
“I need not go on with the History here, since the above will give an idea of its scheme. But, whenever I have had a little spare time I have added to this mass of material, sometimes drawing maps of the swamps and lands of Venus, or the mountain ranges of Uranus, sometimes writing a detailed little account of some event that particularly interested me. In fact, though I started the History simply for convenience, I soon found it a fascinating thing to work on."
(Hamilton ended the outline he provided Thrilling Wonder Stories here. But this only encompassed the early years of the settling of the solar system. We will feature an expanded version of this history that Hamilton wrote later, detailing the remaining years of the two thousand centuries his history of the future encompassed in a forthcoming blog.)
The climax of this twenty thousand year history is Hamilton's novel, The Star Kings, available from Futures-Past Editions in Kindle at Amazon for only $3.75.