“In the Year Ten Thousand,” William Harben, 1892 – An old man of over 600 years tries to explain the strange ideas and workings of the past to a young boy as they wander through a museum, looking at portraits. In the past, humans used pigments rather than light to create their art. Human physiognomies have changed since the time of these paintings, the man explains; humans long ago looked much more like animals. They also communicated differently, using first spoken words and then books, having no telepathy. During this time, humans were divided by language and nation and warred constantly. The old man explains that a man named Christ tried to preach love, but he was killed by those too “barbarous to understand him,” though “he words were remembered.” The boy asks if those who killed him thought of him as a man like themselves, as the boy has difficulty understanding the ease with which those of the past committed murder. This leads to a discussion of past conceptions of “God,” and the need of historical peoples to believe in a “creator” that resembled humanity. The creator’s “personality and laws…caused more bloodshed” and people were even “burned alive because they would not believe certain creeds.”
The old man shows him a portrait of Queen Victoria, and the boy shudders to find the women of the past as coarse and brutal-looking as the men. The old man explains that the people living during this queen’s reign “had the most degrading habit that ever blackened the history of mandkind”: eating the flesh of animals. The boy is horrified; he can’t believe he’s “descended from such people.” The old man explains that they knew no better; he then explains the evolution of the vegetarian movement and thought telegraphy, the latter being something that slowly “killed evil.” Humans could not keep an evil thought without it being “read,” and eventually they came to love “purity” and were joined by a common “language” in “brotherly love.” Certain philosophers in Germany discovered that they could sense thought impressions from other worlds and that “interplanetary intercourse was a future possibility.” Inventions to use the earth’s heat as an energy source; to navigate the earth in a day; to defy gravity and watch from the sky as the earth rotate in space.
They pause near a device which plucks sound from light and the old man notes that he hears the “tones of bleeding sunset,” and they listen for an hour. He explains that “light is the voice of immortality,” which prompts the boy to ask for its definition. The old man kisses the boy’s face. “[I]mmortality must be love immortal.”
Comments: Online text at RevolutionSF. Read H. Bruce Franklin’s commentary in Future Perfect: American Science Fiction of the Nineteenth Century, in which he compares the story’s optimistic view of the future to the more dystopian-minded sf that would follow.
Author: ISFDB entry