They were all defying Aristotle, who wrote, “Nobody can narrate what has not yet happened. If there is narration at all, it will be of past events, the recollection of which is to help the hearers to make better plans for the future.”The first true futurist in Asimov’s sense of the word was Jules Verne. In the 1860s, as railroad trains chugged across the countryside and sailing ships gave way to steam, he imagined vessels traveling under the sea, across the skies, to the center of the earth, and to the moon. We would say he was a man ahead of his time—he had an awareness, a sensibility, suited to a later era. Edgar Allan Poe was ahead of his time. The Victorian mathematician Charles Babbage and his protégé Ada Lovelace, forerunners of modern computing, were ahead of their time. Jules Verne was so far ahead of his time that he could never even find a publisher for his most futuristic book, Paris au XXe siècle, a dystopia featuring gas-powered cars, “boulevards lit as brightly as by the sun,” and machine warfare. The manuscript, handwritten in a yellow notebook, turned up in 1989, when a locksmith cracked open a long-sealed family safe.The next great futurist was Wells himself.We are all futurists now.
H. G. Wells talked about “futurity” at the turn of the century, and then the word futurism was hijacked by a group of Italian artists and protofascists. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published his “Futurist Manifesto” in the winter of 1909 in La Gazzetta dell’Emilia and Le Figaro, declaring himself and his friends to be free at last—free of the past.An immense pride was buoying us up, because we felt ourselves alone at that hour, alone, awake, and on our feet, like proud beacons or forward sentries against an army of hostile stars….“Andiamo,” I said. “Andiamo, amici!”…And like young lions we ran after death, [etc.]The manifesto included eleven numbered items. Number one: “We intend to sing the love of danger…” Number four was about fast cars: “We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath.” The futuristi created just one of the many twentieth-century movements that proudly defined themselves as avant-garde—eyes fixed forward, escaping the past, striding into the future.When Asimov used the word, he meant something more basic: a sense of the future as a notional place, different, and perhaps profoundly different, from what has come before. Through most of history, people could not see the future that way. Religions had no particular thought for the future; they looked toward rebirth, or eternity—a new life after death, an existence outside of time. Then, finally, humanity crossed a threshold of awareness. People began to sense that there was something new under the sun. Asimov explains:Before we can have futurism, we must first recognize the existence of the future in a state that is significantly different from the present and the past. It may seem to us that the potential existence of such a future is self-evident, but that was most definitely not so until comparatively recent times.