December 8th, 2019


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Life in 2020, as portrayed in science fiction

With a new year coming, it's a good time to think about how the year 2020 looked from the distant vantage point of science fiction from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (I'm therefore not going to mention the 2010 Doctor Who episodes, The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood. Oops, I just did.) So here's a survey of sf stories set next year, published before the year 2000, inclduing books, films and TV series (but not games, sorry). I have listed them in chronological roder - three from 1890-1907, then a big gap until two in the 1960s, three in the 1970s, nine in the 1980s and ten in the 1990s.

The first three books that I found are all reactions to Edward Bellamy’s classic Looking Backward, 1887-2000, in which his protagonist Julian West awakes after sleeping for 113 years to discover that the USA (and Massachusetts in particular) has now become a socialist utopia. If you haven’t read it, it’s an essential text for political science fiction. (It was one of the first books I reviewed on this blog. You can get it here for free, or here for money.) Since it was set in 2000, it’s fairly natural for writers responding to Bellamy to look two decades further ahead for their setting.

The first of these, published in 1890, is Looking Further Backward: Being a Series of Lectures Delivered to the Freshman Class at Shawmut College by Professor Won Lung Li (Successor of Prof Julian West), Mandarin of the Second Rank of the Golden Dragon and Chief of the Historical Sections of the Colleges in the North-Eastern Division of the Chinese Province of North America: Now, for the First Time, Collected, Edited and Condensed, by Arthur Dudley Vinton. The framing narrative is set in 2023, but looks back to the happy times of 2020 three years earlier, when capitalism was restored to the USA by a Chinese invasion, because socialist America was unable to resist. It's online here or you can buy it here.

Three years later, in 1893, Josef Ritter von Neupauer published Österreich im Jahre 2020: Sozialpolitischer Roman [Austria in the year 2020: a social-political novel]. Here Julian West from Looking Backward and a friend from another utopian novel of the time visit a future Austria, which has successfully maintained the Hapsburg monarchy and aristocracy and at the same time adopted most of the socialism of Bellamy’s novel. Austria is part of a European Union (that phrase isn’t quite used) which stretches from the Atlantic to the Urals, but does not include England. Unfortunately the novel has not been translated (might be worth someone’s while - it’s fairly short). It's online here or you can buy it here.

In 1907, the gloriously named Horace Newte published The master beast : being a true account of the ruthless tyranny inflicted on the British people by socialism A. D. 1888-2020, republished in 1919 as The Red Fury: Britain Under Bolshevism. Unlike the other two, Bellamy isn't mentioned explicitly but it's clearly a response all the same. Newte’s hero is dismayed to see socialists come to power in Britain at the start of the twentieth century, followed of course by a successful German invasion. He then sleeps from 1911 to 2020, and awakes to find a morally degenerate country where women behave with dreadful freedom. But England is then invaded again, this time by African and Chinese forces, and he escapes to France. It's online here.

I have not found any examples of stories explicitly set in 2020 from the next half century, including the period generally referred to as the Golden Age, which is a bit surprising. When I did a similar survey for 2015, I found several. Anyway, we now move to the silver screen, though interestingly we stay with communism, to 1962 and one of the greatest Soviet films about space exploration, Planet of Storms (Планета Бурь) in which three intrepid cosmonauts and their robot explore the planet Venus, which is inhabited by prehistoric beasts but whose more humanoid inhabitants elude them. This of course was just after Yuri Gagarin had become the first human in space. A year before Valentina Tereshkova, the cosmonauts have a woman comrade, who is left orbiting the planet while they explore. You can watch the whole thing with English subtitles here:
Roger Corman acquired US rights to the film, and savagely cut it into two more films, dubbing all the Russian actors and adding scenes with Basil Rathbone for the 1965 film Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, which you can watch here, and then adding more footage from another Russian film and new scenes with bikini-clad actors led by Mamie van Doren for the 1968 film, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, which you can watch here. If you really want to.

The first TV science fiction explicitly set in 2020, very much to my surprise, turns out to be Power of the Daleks, Patrick Troughton's debut in the lead role of Doctor Who, in which the Doctor impersonates an official investigating Dalek infiltration of a human base on the planet Vulcan. The year 2020 is not mentioned at all in the story as broadcast (sadly all video footage has been lost, though you can get an animation and a narrated audio), but the trailer, broadcast on 4 November 1966, makes the date absolutely clear.

Next a couple of novels to which I was alerted by the Science Fiction Encyclopedia (which I'll quote from). In Wings of the Morning (1971), by Adrienne Anderson, returning to a theme we have already met in this list, the protagonist "awakens in 2020 to find a transformed world". Exactly how the world has been transformed, I have been unable to discover. If you want to find out and tell me, you can get it here. In Cloning (1972), the author David Shear "complicatedly entwines the presence of androids and cloning in the world of 2020; the protagonist, a molecular biologist who is an unknowing member of a cluster of clones, must cope with profound issues of identity, dramatized through an android campaign for equal rights with humans." You can get it here. Both were published by Robert Hale Ltd in the UK.

Beck to television, and if you were watching Hanna Barbera cartoons in late 1972, you might have heard this announcement:
This is the year 2020. The place is the Challenger Sea Mount – the top of an underwater mountain, a complex beneath the sea. Two hundred and fifty men, women and children live here, each of them a scientist pioneer. For this is our last frontier – a hostile environment which may hold the key to tomorrow. Each day, these oceanauts meet new challenges as they build their city beneath the sea ... This is Sealab 2020.
Sealab 2020 was not a successand was cancelled after 13 of the planned 16 episodes had been shown. But you can find all of them on Youtube. Several of the episodes were later redubbed for the Adult Swim show Sealab 2021.

According to experts on the series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), the fifth and final film in the original sequence, is set in 2020. However this seems to be extrapolation from other information, not explicitly stated in the film, so I am not sure if it counts.

There is no doubt about the setting of the stories in the 1974 anthology 2020 Vision, edited by Jerry Pournelle. One of them, "A Thing of Beauty" by Norman Spinrad, got a Nebula nomination. The other authors represented were Ben Bova, Larry Niven, Harlan Ellison, Poul Anderson, Dian Girard, David McDaniel and A. E. van Vogt. There's a Reddit thread about it. Bova, Niven and Spinrad are still with us. I've actually ordered this and will report back. You can get it here.

The great Frederik Pohl's less well-known 1981 novel The Cool War has a mild-mannered clergyman recruited to comic secret service skulduggery between the USA and Europe in a resource-poor future (the Middle EAst's oil fields have been destroyed by war). A Goodreads reviewer comments, "Computers are rare and a library search engine is treated as a new technological marvel. Everyone still uses typewriters and tapes. The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia still exist. No one has cell phones." You can get it here.

The Italian-American 1982 film 2020 Texas Gladiators looks like a pretty awful rip-off of the Mad Max subgenre. Only the first part of the film is actually set in 2020 (most of it is five years later). If you can bear it, here's a trailer. (The full movie can be easily found online.)

We are on much firmer ground with Gerry Anderson's 1983-1986 series Terrahawks, in which his latest puppeteering techniques were brought to bear on the problem of saving Easrth from the andraids of the planet Guk, invading via Mars in the year 2020. Again, you can get all the episodes on Youtube. Big Finish have recently revived it as an audio series.

We haven't had any comics yet, but in 1984, the complex Marvel narrative of Iron Man took a trip to the year 2020, in the story Machine Man which also introduced the alternate-history version of the hero, Iron Man 2020, who has returned a couple of times since. You can get it here.

Two more gloomy futures via the Science Fiction Encyclopedia: the Trauma 2020 trilogy (1984-5) by Peter Beere, which "has some efficient moments at the depiction of urban dystopia" (you can get the first volume here, the second volume here and the third volume here). And Goodman 2020 (1986), by Fred Pfeil, set in "the dystopian corporate USA of 2020 CE, where all power has fallen into the hands of priest-like businessmen... The politics of the book may seem naive, but the execution is compelling." You can get it here.

Now, something which I am really sorry to have missed when it was first broadcast: Knights of God (1987), a British kids sf series which ran for 13 episodes, where Britain in 2020 has been taken over by a theocratic militia and our young resistance hero is aided by his father, played by Gareth "Blake" Thomas, and the mysterious Arthur, played by Patrick "Second Doctor" Troughton (yes, him again). It was filmed in 1985, but by the time it was shown two years later both Troughton and Nigel Stock (who plays one of the baddies) had died. It sounds fantastic. Written by Richard Cooper, who also wrote the 1981 series Codename Icarus which I remember with chills down my spine. All of the episodes are on Youtube; I might watch it when I finish my current Blake's 7 run. Here's the first one.

I am less sorry to have missed the 1987 porn film Cabaret Sin, loosely based on Blade Runner. I won't provide a link but it is easy to find the whole thing online if you want. Also, and I am not making this up, all of the sexy bits were removed from the 85-minute to make a 1988 63-minute release called Droid. Both are set in a dystopian 2020 where sex has become illegal (and yet somehow still happens).

I know DIC Entertainment mainly for Inspector Gadget, The Real Ghostbusters and Sailor Moon. I had forgotten, if I ever knew, that they had a future crime-fighting cartoon series called COPS (which stands for Central Organization of Police Specialists), set in "Empire City" in 2020, which ran to 65 episodes between 1988 and 1989. Here's the opening sequence.

The weirdest thing on this list is Pamela West's 1990 novel, 20/20 Vision, according to the Science Fiction Encyclopedia: "an intricate time-travel tale in which a murder in 1995 is brooded over by a detective in 2020 and solved through the agency of time-travelling archivists from 2040, who send the detective back – via a form of computer-enhanced virtual reality – to explore the causes of the crime". What the SFE doesn't say is that the crime in the novel is based on a real-life murder in a university library in 1969; and bizarrely, the local district attorney disappeared in 2005 in circumstances similar to those portrayed in the book, published fifteen years earlier. You can get it here.

Also starting in 1990, but running until 1992, was the TV series Super Force, about an astronaut turned cop in the future city of Metroplex (Wikipedia). Stars Ken Olandt and Patrick Macnee. Guest stars included G. Gordon Liddy of Watergate fame. (That makes three crime-in-2020 shows/novels in a row.) Here's the opening titles.

The War in 2020 (1991) is by Ralph Peters, who went on to become an analyst on Fox News. Rather weirdly for a book published in 1991, the Soviet Union still exists in 2020 until a Japanese-backed Islamic army invades central Asia, requiring manly pushback by the heroic and enlightened US armed forces. You can get it here if you really want to.

The Ghanaian writer [B.] Kojo Laing is the only African voice on this list. His Major Gentl and the Achimoto Wars is described thus by Mark Bould: "Set in 2020, it tells of the war between Major Gentl and the mercenary Torro the Terrible, with the fate of Achimoto City and perhaps all Africa hanging in the balance. It is dense, fantastical, poetic". Brenda Cooper however says that Laing "succumbed to the pleasures of the linguistic devices and philosophical riddles and paradoxes to the extent of creating a fiction that is almost unreadable". Sounds fascinating, actually. You can get it here.

A writer I hadn't expected to see on this list is Ken Kesey, best known for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. According to the publisher's blurb, his 1992 novel Sailor Song is "set in the near future in the fishing village of Kuinak, Alaska, a remnant outpost of the American frontier not yet completely overcome by environmental havoc and mad-dog development, Sailor Song is a wild, rollicking novel, a dark and cosmic romp. The town and its denizens - colorful refugees from the Lower Forty-Eight and Descendants of Early Aboriginal People- are seduced and besieged by a Hollywood crew, come to film the classic children's book The Sea Lion. The ensuing turf war escalates into a struggle for the soul of the town as the novel spins and swirls toward a harrowing climax." You can get it here.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy is mainly set in the decades and centuries starting in 2026, but the anchor point of the narrative is that John Boone, one of the protagonists, is the first man to walk on Mars in 2020.

Nigel Watts, whose book about writing novels seems to have done better than any of the novels he actually wrote, published Twenty Twenty in 1995. The blurb says: "The year is 2020, and an ageing writer infected with a deadly virus has retreated from the human race to a derelict factory. In the Californian desert, an English woman and an American systems pilot are working on a Virtual Reality programme. Then a connection between the two scenarios emerges." You can get it here.

The Quint Dalrymple novels by Paul Johnston are set in the 2020s, in an Edinburgh which has become an independent city-state ruled by dubiously enlightened intellectuals. This does sound like an interesting concept, I have to admit. The first of the series, Body Politic (1997) is explicitly set in 2020. You can get it here.

Tracy Hickman, best known as collaborator with Margaret Weis on TSR's Dragonlance series, published his first solo book The Immortals also in 1997. The blurb says: "The United States in the year 2010 is a country ravaged by V-CIDS, a deadly mutation of the AIDS virus. With proportions reaching epidemic stages, the government has set up isolated intern camps--with shocking intentions!" Kirkus was not impressed, but you can get it here.

Back to comics again with 2020 Visions (the third time we've had that title or something like it), a twelve-episode comic by Jamie Delano with art by Warren Pleece, Steve Pugh, Frank Quitely and James Romberger. According to the blurb, it "follows the lives of a disjointed family, struggling to survive in the morally and socially decadent United States of 2020. From symbiotic venereal diseases to exclusive human breeding facilities, the future never looked so bleak, or so hopeful." You can get the collection here. I've ordered this one as well, and will report back.

Finally, the best known book of the lot, Toward the End of Time, by John Updike, published in 1999. It is the only book on this list that I have actually read, and I didn't like it: "A depressing, miserable piece of whining. Author who hasn't done much sf writes a post-apocalypse novel where the decline of society mirrors the narrator's the decline into old age, and thinks it's something special. Avoid." If you want to ignore my advice, you can get it here.

My arbitary cutoff publication date of 2000 means I've missed a lot of potentially interesting work - some of which is on this list of SF set in 2020 by Sajal Ghimire. But I think that as 2020 comes closer to the present day, we're looking less at futurology and more at current affairs (though of course a lot of the novels mentioned above basically are current affairs commentary). Any views on any of these?