Appointment in Tomorrow
As I’ve previously discussed, rule of societies by scientists or technocrats is a common theme in SF. Here I want to explore in detail a particular case study which raises interesting questions about both the nature of scientific rhetoric and the role of science fiction itself in science engagement: “Appointment in Tomorrow”. This short story was written by Fritz Leiber, published by Galaxy science fiction magazine in 1951, and dramatised for radio in the anthology series X-Minus-One by NBC radio in 1956.
Both the original short story and the radio dramatisation (27 minutes, adapted by Ernest Kinoy) are freely available online and I’d recommend listening to the latter . Unfortunately, it’s not really possible to discuss the text without giving away the plot, so SPOILER WARNING for the content below.
"Appointment in Tomorrow" takes place “at the end of the twentieth century”, but in an American society which has somewhat recovered after a nuclear exchange. Nonetheless the scars run deep – as the text describes it: “America, as combat-shocked and crippled as the rest of the bomb-shattered planet.” Importantly, this past conflict has removed traditional power structures, permitting authority over both political and military leaders to be assumed by the Thinkers' Foundation. This organisation operates an impressive, room-sized thinking machine called Maizie, which dictates the actions of government and the military. They also advocate mental discipline techniques - both self-developed and those learnt from “wise little devils” who Thinker rockets have found to be resident on Mars.
Opposing them, a small group of physicists - the rump of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies - has discovered that the Thinkers’ rockets are not going beyond the orbit of Earth, and that Maizie itself is a fraudulent front for the Thinkers’ decisions. Their agitation brings to the fore disagreements amongst the senior Thinkers themselves and their visions for the future.
Despite its brevity, this story explores several themes which still resonate seven decades later:
- The substitution of science for religion
- The susceptibility of weakened democratic institutions to plausible demagogues
- The morality of using exaggerated scientific propaganda in the public interest
- The difficulty of communicating complex science clearly to the public
- Whether science fiction can be used as a driving force for science fact.
The New Authority
The replacement of political and military power structures in “Assignment in Eternity” is also reflected in a defacto replacement of the ultimate authority: divinity. This element of the narrative is made explicit in Leiber’s original text, although it was somewhat downplayed for the radio audience. In the short story, a series of characters, none of them aware of the deception being perpetrated on them, contemplate the giant computer Maizie in the context of their religious and ethical upbringing. Direct comparisons are made between the dictats of the thinking machine and the voice of infallible Papal authority, speaking ex cathedra. One character goes so far as to wonder: “Was this the Second Coming? Mightn't an incarnation be in metal rather than flesh?” Another character ponders the comparison of the Thinkers’ mental science with Eastern mysticism.
Both of these themes find echoes in other mid-twentieth century science fiction. The social and political upheavals of those decades were associated with a decline in traditional authorities and power structures – including those associated with religion. At the same time the development of electronic computing raised the prospect of manufactured brains that could exceed our own, questioning human superiority over their domain. This potent combination led to a number of stories in which either computers themselves, or groups based on the supposedly rational, logical principles on which computers are based, replaced traditional authorities. Examples of computers positioned as deities (either through ignorance or as reflective of their omnipotent authority) can be found in sources as varied as Star Trek (e.g. "The Apple", 1967), Doctor Who (e.g. "The Face of Evil", 1977), E M Forster’s The Machine Stops (an early example from 1909), and the writings of Asimov and Clarke. Sometimes these are presented optimistically – as for example in the case of Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question” (1956). More often the deification of machines is a mistake and is presented as a commentary on humanity’s tendency (en mass) to accept a confident and firm authority.
In “Appointment in Tomorrow” the authority invested in the computer by virtue of its supposed impartiality and logic is subverted. The room-sized “thinking machine” in fact houses Jan Tregarron – one of the senior Thinkers – and Maizie’s infallible dictates are in fact dictated by a fallible human being. The process by which the Thinkers gained such authority is implied rather than described in detail. It is nonetheless clear that convincing but hollow demagoguery played an important part and this story is as much a reflection on the susceptibility of human societies to convincing lies as a critique of those lies. Opperly, a physicist character, explains this to a younger colleague in a tone of weary resignation: “In good times magicians are laughed at. They're a luxury of the spoiled wealthy few. But in bad times people sell their souls for magic cures, and buy perpetual motion machines to power their war rockets.”
Science vs Science Fiction
While the Thinkers’ policies are self-serving and built on deceit, they are not entirely divorced from altruistic goals. There is a clear implication that the Foundation took control at a point when society needed guidance and that the characters genuinely intend - in their different ways - for their actions to have positive results for the culture in which they live.
Key to their self-justification is a critique of the public engagement - or lack thereof - from the physicists and other genuine scientists, as discussed at length by two of the senior Thinkers - idealist Jorj Helmuth and cynic Jan Tregarran:
Helmuth: "Our basic idea was that the time had come to apply science to the life of man on a large scale, to live rationally and realistically. The only things holding the world back from this all-important step were the ignorance, superstition, and inertia of the average man, and the stuffiness and lack of enterprise of the academic scientists—their worship of facts, even when facts were clearly dangerous.”
“It was no time for half measures, for slow and sober plodding. The world was racked by wars and neurosis, in danger of falling into the foulest hands. What was needed was a tremendous and thrilling appeal to the human imagination, an Earth-shaking affirmation of the power of science for good.”
Public engagement in academic science has come on a long way in the last seven decades. The community is now more diverse than the small group of “stuffy” white male physicists described in the story would suggest. First television and more recently the digital and social media revolution have fundamentally changed the way in which science researchers communicate their results, and how they engage members of the public with the complex underlying principles.
Despite all of this excellent work, the fundamental premise of Leiber’s argument remains difficult to refute. Both the climate crisis and the recent Covid epidemic have created situations in which the clear communication of scientific results to the general public have had a crucial impact on society. And, despite the best efforts of skilled scientific communicators, both cases have highlighted short-comings in achieving the necessary understanding.
A key point of miscommunication between those with advanced science training and those without is in the area of evaluating and critiquing uncertainties. The scientific process can be described (only half-accurately) as the process of making a proposal and testing it to the point of destruction. Unlike in pure mathematics, a result can never be proved - it can only be assessed to agree with the data to within an evaluated and stated degree of uncertainty. In many cases, results are not announced until there is only one chance in a million that the result occurred by random chance rather than through the inferred mechanism. But to many people without scientific training, this still appears to fall short of the kind of total certainty they want… particularly if that one-in-a-million possibility leaves room for the individual’s own confirmation biases to favour a different explanation. Seen from the outside, the ongoing process of testing, evaluating and further developing theories can be interpreted as indicating a hidden doubt or caution out of proportion with the true statistical uncertainties.
In Leiber’s story, this difficulty in reconciling the probabilistic and process-oriented thinking of academic research with the desire of the general public for total certainty in a single result is directly invoked as a justification for the Thinkers’ actions:
Helmuth: “But the men who provided that appeal and affirmation couldn't afford to be cautious. They wouldn't check and double check. They couldn't wait for the grudging and jealous approval of the professionals. They had to use stunts, tricks, fakes—anything to get over the big point.“
In the short story, the impact of science fictional thinking is also hinted at:
Helmuth: “They wanted the trips to Mars and into the depths of the human psyche, they wanted the robots and the thinking machines. All they lacked was the nerve to take the first big step—and that was what we supplied.”
Tregarron: “The average man is exactly where he was ten years ago when we took over, except he’s got a new god. More than ever he thinks of Mars as a Hollywood paradise with wise men and yummy princesses."
In the radio dramatisation, the adaptor Ernest Kinoy goes further in an interestingly self-reflective passage interpolated into the same discussion:
Tregarron: “Oh Jorj, you remind me of those men who used to put out those lurid little magazines with Caddy’s grandmother on the cover in outer space, in a stripped down bathing suit… That’s what it is: frustrated little men, playing science god to generations of pimply high school chemistry students and gas station attendants. Conning them into thinking they’re in the know. Sprinkling a few formulas through the garbage and playing atom smasher. And then being very solemn about the role of imagination in science.
"Jorj, the trouble with you is they forgot to take your zap gun and space cadet decoder pen away from you when you turned thirteen!”
I find it fascinating that Kinoy has inserted a passage which could almost be designed as a direct critique of the radio anthology X-Minus-One and its source material in Galaxy magazine, and potentially even of the audience of the radio play. Spoken in a less scornful tone, it could be interpreted as a self-deprecating joke, but the context makes this unlikely. Looked at a different way, the speech could instead be read as a distancing and an assertion of the superiority of thoughtful, self-critical science fiction of this kind from the more sensational pulp magazines. The Tregarron character is not denying the power of science fictional thinking for inspiring innovation - indeed this is the justification for his whole way of life. What he is instead critiquing is the naive expectation that this inspiration can be realised quickly and easily. While Helmuth believes he has designed a nuclear-drive spacecraft by the power of rational thought “except for the technical details”  and wants to see it realised, Tregarron is firm that “Maybe in ten thousand years we'll be ready for the second big step. Maybe. Meanwhile, as should be, the clever will rule the stupid for their own good.”
What we see expressed in this story then is both a recognition of the role of imagination in inspiring innovation and a blunt criticism of those unable or unwilling to distinguish fantasy from reality and accept that not all their speculations can be realised. The harshest criticism in the narrative is reserved not for those taken in by the deception, but for those who know it for what it is and delude themselves over their ability to realise it – notably Helmuth, but also a physicist character, Farquar, who naively believes he can subvert the Thinkers from within.
So is Fritz Leiber’s "Appointment In Tomorrow" one we’re fated to keep? Or, to put it another way, is the story still relevant today?
The prospect of nuclear war is, thankfully, a little more distant than it was in the 1950s (although recent global conflicts have increased such anxieties once again). But in other respects the story has uncomfortable echoes today. The threat of demagoguery without substance has been highlighted by election of right-wing politicians. The rise of the internet has driven not just easier science communication but also the viral spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
The entire ethos of Leiber’s Thinkers Foundation could be expressed in the single modern phrase “Fake it Until You Make It”. The scandal over billion-dollar technology start-up company Theranos, which was completely unable to realise its promises of revolutionary health-care technology, demonstrates the ease with which plausible sounding scientific promises can still tempt supporters – despite warnings from experts familiar with the scientific background. The compelling power of self-belief in inspiring confidence has shown its destructive consequences. The questions of how best to communicate complex scientific ideas with appropriate rigour, but the necessary clarity and engagement, are more urgent than ever.
Perhaps Leiber’s tomorrow will come sooner than we think.
“Appointment in Tomorrow”, Elizabeth Stanway. Cosmic Stories blog, 18th September 2022.
 The radio adaptation is faithful to the original text except in two respects: some bizarrely unnecessary added misogyny which was implicit in the story but is made explicit in the radio play, and some modifications to the key final discussion which we’ll discuss later. [Return to text]
 An all too familiar problem for professional scientists who are frequently asked to “do the math” to support a proposed new theory of everything, and are only too aware that “doing the maths” could occupy years of work and almost certainly invalidate the initial premise… and also that any such results could not be explained to the originator without the latter acquiring many years of mathematical training. [Return to text]