Society Marches On

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

This is the social equivalent to Zeerust.

Many works set in the future presume that people in the future will have the same basic social mores and morals as they do in the present, with only a few exceptions to facilitate the plot or create Author Appeal.

This is a natural thing to do—it's a lot easier to observe the society you have than to predict which way it's going to go.

Unfortunately, it's often a wrong assumption.

Even if the technology is predicted perfectly, modern readers may lose Willing Suspension of Disbelief when reading a work written in The Fifties, set in the present day, and assuming the attitudes of the present day will be exactly like those of The Fifties. They may even be severely bothered if a work from The Fifties assumes that attitudes in the far future will be just like those in The Fifties. (Even if the author had no way of knowing about The Beatles, even if it is the far future, it just seems wrong to read that a lover of popular music in the future goes primarily for jazz quartets or big bands, with not an electric guitar or synthesizer to be seen even though the entire house runs on electricity right down to the windows and Muzak.) Sometimes the author will correctly predict some of the effects of a new technology, but completely miss others; many authors correctly foresaw the effect of automobiles on working habits and city design, but not one person foresaw the effect that access to automobiles would have on teen sexual activity.

The most disturbing instances from our future point of view are those that miss more important social changes. To continue the '50s example, there are plenty of examples that failed to expect the civil rights movement. The schools may be futuristic and electronic, but they're still segregated. The other two big changes that older works miss are greater gender equality (even on the space colonies, women Stay in the Kitchen) and the end of the Cold War (still wrangling with the Commies in the 22nd Century).

This effect increases with the distance between when the work is written and the present day. The necessary distance to invoke this decreases as time passes, so far anyhow—technology speeds communication up, and communication speeds change. For instance, if a film has been in production for long enough, it may fall under this trope the day it's released.

This will no doubt apply to modern works set Twenty Minutes Into the Future as well. Unfortunately, we won't know how until the social changes have at least started.

The inverse of this, when the social mores of the present are presumed to apply to the past, is Politically-Correct History.

Related to Values Dissonance, Science Marches On and The Great Politics Mess-Up. Eternal Prohibition and Everybody Smokes are specific cases.

Examples of Society Marches On include:

Comic Books

  • Camelot 3000, written in the 1980s, had a still-segregated South Africa in the eponymous year, far outdoing 2001.
    • It also has Sir Tristan's angsting about being reincarnated as a woman, even though her reborn lover Isolde seems quite content to contemplate a lesbian relationship, and gender-reassignment surgery is bound to be as routine as a tummy-tuck by that era even if she wasn't.
  • The character history for the Post-Crisis Katherine "Kate" Kane, who would become Batwoman, is that of a dedicated student at West Point who was expelled from the academy and forbidden to enter the army because of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. The policy itself, which forbade any confirmed homosexuals from serving in the US Military, was repealed by an act of congress in 2011, barely a year after her origin was given in Detective Comics. The story was completely accurate at the time it was written, and will have leeway for several more years because it is a flashback that occurred several years in the past, but it can no longer be brought forward to the "present" when time "progresses".


  • This video from 1966, which imagines what life would be like in 1999, manages to predict home computers, email, and what is effectively internet shopping, but assumes that the average woman will be paying for goods with her husband's money.


  • Arthur C. Clarke's Space Odyssey was pretty hilarious in this regard; alongside with a Soviet Union well into the 2000's, Apartheid in South Africa continued into the 2030's, when it ended in a revolution that kicked the white ruling class out.
    • Apartheid-related predictions were often a bit off in this way, due mostly to outsiders imagining some sort of centuries-long, deep-seated race war. Whereas it was a recent and quickly dated policy which was mostly prolonged because it somehow wound up as part of Cold War politics. As soon as the policy was put up to vote, everyone rejected it.
  • Minor but interesting aversion in Philip Jose Farmer's Dayworld, in which several male characters have traditionally female names (Dorothy, for instance), some female characters have traditionally male names (e.g., Anthony), and circumcision is next to unknown in the United States.
    • The absence of circumcision could be a straight example, if Farmer failed to anticipate how multiculturalism and rising immigration from Africa and the Middle East would make this practice more of a statement of ethnic identity than ever.
  • Modern readers of Walter Miller's post-apocalyptic classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz may find some of the future church's views to be a bit...antiquated. This is due to the novel being written just a few years previous to Vatican II, and thus including none of its changes.
  • The Robert A. Heinlein novel Podkayne of Mars, set in the distant spacefaring future, features a main character who would like to become the first ever female spaceship captain. The first instance of a woman (Eileen Collins) captaining a spaceship occurred in July 1999.
    • Pretty much all of Heinlein's work is prone to this. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, for instance, despite showcasing many cultural differences in the lunar society (not the least of which is ubiquitous polyamories) portrays gender issues much as a 1950s writer would be expected to think of a post-feminist world: touching women without their permission is a major societal taboo... but it is up to the woman's male friends or relatives to protect her, and women are still generally considered unintelligent (or at least irrational or illogical) and unfit for many positions. The main reason the culture's attitudes towards women have changed at all is that women are a substantial minority on Luna. The rival Earth society, where the sexes are still 50/50 in numbers, shows female nurses giggling at having their rears pinched, rather than filing harassment lawsuits.
    • The Puppet Masters was published in 1951 and set in 2007. Although the heroine is just as tough and capable as the male lead (sometimes more so), the moment gender roles or romantic relationships come up she turns, hilariously, into June Cleaver.
    • Heinlein's short story "All You Zombies" again features a sex-segregated future in which astronauts and space pilots are always male, and the spaceship stewardess/prostitutes in skimpy outfits are all female.
    • Heinlein often averted this trope as well. He frequently cast non-whites and people of mixed-race as protagonists in his works despite writing before the American Civil Rights era. Races were equal in his world, while the sexes tended to be different but enjoyed de facto legal equality. Readers of his era were not used to seeing a mixed-race or non-white protagonist. In his most famous work, Starship Troopers, we also find a sympathetic portrayal of a minor Japanese character called Shujumi, who is praised for his mastery of Judo. World War II had ended only fourteen years prior, and Americans were hardly Japanophiles at the time.
    • Zigzagged in his teen novel Tunnel In The Sky. On the one hand, women make up their own (separate) military units and make up half the survival-course students in the story; on the other, sexual mores are such that a bunch of teenagers, isolated from their parents and all forms of authority, take time to stage their own marriage ceremonies in the middle of a hostile wilderness before daring to fool around. When the protagonist gets home, his parents' attitude is that of people who fully expect him to let them pick his friends for him. Oh, and when his military sister opts to get married, she has to leave the corps.
    • Pretty much all of Heinlein's juveniles, despite being set in some indeterminate future, read like The Fifties with better technology. One obvious example is the main character in Have Space Suit—Will Travel. On the one hand, his life ambition is to become an aerospace engineer. On the other, he's a recent High School graduate who has a summer job as a soda jerk at the local pharmacy.
  • In the Isaac Asimov short story "The Ugly Little Boy," they have a time machine that only works to Neanderthal times, collecting a small child and doing lots of experiments on him. The nurse/mother figure gets quite upset. The lack of any ethics, or any requirement for ethical approval is shocking.
    • The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov both mention corporal punishment to children as a routine occurrence thousands of years in the future. Doesn't seem that likely now.
    • Isaac Asimov's Foundation series has gender roles that are completely identical to the 1950s United States, at least in the early books.
    • A great example: In the short story Feminine Intuition, the designers of a subtly feminine-looking robot believe that everyone will assume it is mentally inferior to other robots. One character explicitly states that if there's anything the average person believes, it's that women are less intelligent than men. Upon saying this, he nervously glances around (Susan Calvin having recently retired). At the end, after Calvin comes back to save the day, the lesson is that men dismiss women's equal (if not superior) intelligence as mere "intuition."
      • And, of course, everyone smokes.
        • Though in the universe of The End of Eternity (published in 1955), we see that the vast majority of the centuries in the future have non-tobacco-smoking cultures, and Twissel complains about how hard it is to find a good cigarette and a place where smoking is allowed.
    • A notable aversion is to be found, however, whenever Asimov describes music, in that he predicted synthesizers and electric instruments in the Foundation and Empire stories at a time when sticking a microphone on an acoustic guitar was still cutting-edge.
  • Cocoon, a short story by Keith Laumer, has everyone living in virtual reality tanks a couple hundred years in the future. The husband "goes" to a virtual office and does virtual paperwork, while the wife sits at "home", does virtual housework and watches virtual soap operas all day. When the husband comes "home", he complains because the wife hasn't gotten around to punching the selector buttons for the evening nutripaste meal yet.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has several parts where social mores have not dated so well. One example is the alien from Betelgeuse who tries to pretend he's human, and English, by adopting what he thought was a very common name - Ford Prefect. While probably funny back when the first radio serial was released, the fact that he's named after a car that hasn't been around for nearly half a century completely ruins the joke, and to date no adaptation has changed the name to something like "Ford Focus" or "Ford Fiesta". Another possible example is the claim that humans are "ape-descended life forms" that "are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea". This was back when digital watches were fairly new but not totally ubiquitous, but reading it now, can you think of anybody in a developed world that is still that impressed with digital watches?
    • The Quandary Phase of the radio series (based on So Long And Thanks For All The Fish) alters it to "novelty cellphone ringtones ". This sets up a similar alteration later, where Ford hands cellphones with novelty ringtones out to a crowd. In the book, it was Sony Walkmen. And now that is rather dated, because who in this day and age is impressed by a novelty cellphone ringtone?
    • Interestingly, when a comic book adaptation was being written (in the early '90s or so), Adams was approached about changing the line about "digital watches" to "cell phones", and he adamantly refused, insisting that the cartoonist was missing the point. So, what was the point? Well, um... er... ah! Cell phones are actually useful devices due to their mobility, while digital watches have no advantages over regular watches. So, Adams probably considered digital watches a pointless novelty while thinking that cell phones are actually useful. Uh, you know, probably.
    • As shown in the television series, the watches he was talking about used power-consuming LED displays, and so you had to push a button to see the time. The joke is probably that Douglas Adams found those types of watches impractical.
  • H.P. Lovecraft (a teetotaler) wrote one non-supernatural short story about a young man who yields to temptation and goes to a speakeasy, but is saved from the evils of alcohol by a drunkard who won't stand for the youth making his own mistakes. Written during prohibition, it's set in the 1950s ... and booze is still illegal.
    • Depending on where the story is set, that was (and is) still possible. See here for places where Prohibition lasted beyond the 20s.
  • A less vintage example: In one of the Shadowrun short stories from Wolf & Raven, a black baseball player accompanies Wolf to a virtual golf course, and all the white yuppie golfers give him dirty looks because of his skin color. The writer failed to anticipate how Tiger Woods' rise to fame would apply this trope to his story within just a few years.
    • Even sillier when taking into account that in the world of Shadowrun, the Awakening added Metahuman types such as Elves and Orks, who have become the new segregated minorities of the world, making the whole issue of skin color less than completely relevant.
    • Of course, there are undoubtedly a number of golf clubs where Tiger Woods himself would receive a frosty or condescending reception.
    • A fair number of private golf clubs in the United States have either implicit or explicit discriminatory membership policies: they tend to only get found out when a politician or other celebrity is associated with it and the nature of the club's membership becomes public. One of the candidates for chair of the Republican Party in 2008 was forced to resign from his golf club when it was revealed that it had a whites-only membership policy. And it's not just race: the Augusta Club, home of the Masters, doesn't allow women.
  • The 1952 Ray Bradbury short story "The Wilderness" (later incorporated into The Martian Chronicles) revolves around women sitting around being terrified about relocating (in this case, moving to Mars) just to get married (yet speaking as if they have to go), talking about being "old maids" if they don't go, and complaining about how "the men" make all their decisions for 2003.
    • Also from the version of 2003 found in The Martian Chronicles is the story "Way in the Middle of the Air." It focuses on a Southern town's... um, black people (although not in those words) having pooled their resources and bought rockets in secret to escape the racist American south. In describing the region, a (white) character notes that the poll tax is gone and "More and more states passin' anti-lynchin' bills." Once again, this is 2003.
  • In Hamilton's Sargasso Of Space, it is evidently assumed that crewing space ships would be a job primarily reserved for Men, much like sailing was when the story was written.
  • The book Steampunk Prime has a number of late 19th and early 20th century science fiction stories that contain examples of this. "In the Deep of Time" involves a man who is chronically revived in an advanced future... where woman STILL are expected to be subordinated to men.
  • In Piers Anthony's Omnivore, most of the melodrama pivots on Aquilon being torn between her feelings for Cal and Veg, her colleagues on a far-future space mission. It's blatantly obvious that Polyamory would be an acceptable solution for all three of them, yet she's too afraid of looking like a slut to become sexually involved with either man, let alone both. Maybe that's how scifi readers felt about things in 1968, but now it just seems like prudish Wangst.
  • Arguably averted in Atlas Shrugged. While the time frame the book takes place in is deliberately vague (it seems to The Fifties with some sci-fi inventions, like Rearden Metal), the main character is a powerful career woman who courts and has sex out of wedlock with three different men—and holds this up as a sign of her empowerment, rather than something to be stigmatized by. On the flip side, the two housewives of the story have a decidedly anti-Fifties portrayal. Lillian Rearden is portrayed as a nagging parasite who tries (and initially succeeds) to control her husband with sex and is ultimately much worse off for relying on her husband's wealth than if she had forged her own way. Cherryl Taggart is shown to only be a valuable commodity to one of the antagonists when she stays docile and uninformed—her steady gain of savvy shows her become an empowered figure who her husband agonizes over being unable to control any longer. All three are quite the far cry from the docile housewife common in The Fifties fiction.
  • Michael Crichton's 2006 Next relies on potential Loophole Abuse of US law that was plugged September 16, 2011. This legal move may have actually been a result of the book.

Live-Action TV

  • Star Trek: The Original Series tried to avert this. On one hand, they had minorities and women in Starfleet, which was progressive for the '60s, and no one smoking. But the women were still wearing miniskirts as military uniforms and, although never explicitly told to Stay in the Kitchen, they were often portrayed as Distressed Damsels. In short they did their best to avert the trope but couldn't due to Executive Meddling, especially in the pilot (see below).
    • In the episode "The Enemy Within", evil!Kirk tries to rape Yeoman Rand. She later recounts the incident for good!Kirk, Spock and McCoy, displaying a very '60s attitude about it ("I don't want to get you into trouble. I wouldn't even have mentioned it.") while being in tears. And this is while she is unaware that there are two Kirks running around!
    • Probably the worst example was in "Turnabout Intruder", the last episode of the original series, which reveals that women aren't allowed to be captains in Starfleet, in the 23rd century. A female character who tries to get around this rule by using alien technology to switch bodies with Kirk is portrayed as being a horribly misguided fanatic.
      • The franchise, naturally, retconned this in Star Trek: Enterprise, introducing Erika Hernandez, a no-nonsense woman who had previously served with Archer, as the captain of the second Warp 5 starship (Columbia NX-02). Of course, in the 2000s, people were ready for that sort of thing.
    • Notably, the original 1965 Pilot of the series included a female first officer (who even wore pants in lieu of a miniskirt). She capably commanded the Enterprise for most of the episode while the (male) captain was held captive by aliens. In fact, she was the one who dispassionately decided that letting the aliens breed humans for slavery would be unacceptable, when Captain Pike seemed willing to let it happen as part of a bargain to save the Enterprise. Number One coldly threatened to blow everyone up—including herself—instead, and this was what finally convinced the aliens to abandon their plot and let everyone go. If only they let Roddenberry keep that character in the show, it would have been an amazing aversion of this trope... but the network decided this unprecedented instance of gender equality would not go over well with the audience!
      • To be fair, they were right about that. Female test audiences of the time disliked the character, describing her as "pushy". And even then, they had Captain Pike make a (rather sexist) comment about how weird it was having a woman on the bridge. And there was some irritation among the executive meddlers that the role went to an unknown actress named Majel Barrett, for no other reason than that she was the Dungeonmaster's Girlfriend.
      • Note that at the time, miniskirts were often regarded as a mark of female empowerment, as it flaunted a woman's right to dress sexy if she felt like it.
        • Also, the miniskirts weren't executive meddling; Roddenberry had uniforms for the crewwomen made with pants, but the actresses complained so much, he dropped the idea. They wanted the miniskirts.
    • At least some of this was due to Executive Meddling. One episode showed each commanding officer being taken out of commission, and command passing briefly to the next highest ranking officer before he, too, was picked off. At one point in the script, command passed to Lt. Uhura, the receptionist communications officer. The network vetoed the idea, claiming that audiences would never believe a woman could command a starship, however temporarily. This put the scriptwriters in a bind, since she is Lieutenant Uhura and realistically wouldn't be passed over in favor of a (male) ensign. Their solution was to send her away from the bridge before the crisis struck.
      • Note that Uhura is also, of course, black, which one must suspect also played a role in this.
      • Uhura did actually get to command the ship in an episode of the animated series, and even gets a badass Big Damn Heroes scene. Yeah, it was only because of a male-targeted hypnosis that rendered all the men useless, but it had to be pretty cool for Nichelle Nichols.
    • Somewhat averted as well: TOS is credited as having the very first (obvious, anyway) interracial kiss on US television. According to some accounts, it very, very nearly fell prey to those meddlesome executives, and was finally only allowed through when it was demonstrated that neither party involved really wanted to do it, but were being forced by alien mind control. The studio was horribly afraid they were going to be inundated with hate mail, that the entire country would be in an uproar over such an act and simply couldn't accept it; they got a ton of letters alright, with a distinct majority praising the scene. Nichelle Nichols even recounts reading a letter from a Southern man, who was "against the mixing of the races. However, any time a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a beautiful dame in his arms that looks like Uhura, he ain't gonna fight it." Now THAT'S progress.
      • Plus, Shatner and Nichols were adamant about keeping the kiss (which if you've read either of their autobiographies seems to be the only thing they've ever agreed on), and deliberately screwed up every take of Kirk and Uhura not kissing, so the editors were forced to use a shot where they did.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation started out with some extremely forward-thinking social changes, from a free-love philosophy even within Star Fleet all the way down to little subtle touches like nobody getting headaches any more. (When questioned why they hadn't cured baldness in the 24th century, Roddenberry famously answered that being bald was no longer a stigma.) However, after Roddenberry left the helm, the franchise slowly backslid to the point where, in Star Trek: Voyager, Captain Janeway forbade fraternization among her crew members.
  • There was a Twilight Zone episode about a two soldiers, one male and one female, from opposite sides being the last survivors of their war. The female soldier's combat uniform included a pleated skirt.
    • And her only line is the Russian for "Pretty", referring to a dress in a store window.


  • Since I Met You by DC Talk contains the line "My 200 friends couldn't fill the void in my soul". Listening to this in the 90s, this seemed like a ludicrously huge number; but since the advent of Facebook, "200 friends" is, if anything, lower than average.
    • Though considering the large number was probably meant to reference the obvious impossibility of being close to that many people, perhaps it's a rather good (if unknowing) reference to the empty vanity of adding people merely to increase the number appearing on your profile. But in that case 200 friends still seems a bit low.
  • New Math by Tom Lehrer is an amusing song from the 1960s illustrating the strange new methods used in mathematics. Lehrer takes the audience through how subtraction is done using New Math, satirising how anti-intuitive it appears... except "new" math is now commonplace to a large portion of society, to the extent that Lehrer, snarks aside, seems to be illustrating the normal way of doing subtraction.
    • In base 8.
      • The problem with the New Math was that it focused more on teaching children abstractions and using alternate base tables, than practical experience in solving 'normal' math equations (as Lehrer put it, "know what you are doing, rather than to get the right answer"). The system was eventually abandoned after it was shown that teaching abstractions to children seldom worked well: To quote maths professor George F. Simmons, it produced children who knew commutative law, but not the basic multiplication tables. Lehrer's song still ends up as an example, as New Math and its teaching methods were discarded shortly afterwards and has been out of the grade school curriculum for 40 years.
  • Though still catchy enough that it's seldom noticed, Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" becomes this trope if you listen to the lyrics: nowadays, the accused in a paternity suit is more likely to whine about DNA test results than about how much the baby's photo resembles him.

Western Animation

  • Of course, The Jetsons, where Jane was a typical 1950s housewife who didn't even know how to drive.. but they had flying cars!
    • There was one episode George spent complaining about women drivers, with an unflatteringly-portrayed female bus driver getting Played for Laughs.
    • On the other hand, lots of jokes based on George complaining about his "button finger" (with the implication that what we are lazy about will just get more crazy in a world where you just push buttons all day) are more of a Funny Aneurysm due to increasing awareness of Repetitive Strain Injury.
      • Not to mention several jokes about the standard work week being 9 hours, based on the popular conception of the time that technology would allow people to work far less. Not only has the exact opposite happened for many people but cell phones and email has allowed bosses to contact employees 24/7 meaning that the separation between work and leisure has become blurred.
        • Technology has made productivity (at least in fields that use it extensively) skyrocket. What most futurists didn't predict is that we wouldn't work fewer hours, we'd work the same hours and just get 5 times as much done.
          • Most people rarely sees free time as leisure time, but rather time to use to get more work in for more money. Their parents and grandparents worked the same hours, but earned far less.
  • Many future-themed classic cartoons, from Looney Tunes to MGM, fit this trope. In many instances, they even assume the dress styles of the era in which they were made will still be relevant in the future.

Tropes and Hollywood History