Near-Future Fiction

by Chris McMahon

Writing near-future SF or Fantasy can be a nerve-wracking experience. How do you portray your world in such a way that it seems futuristic and unique, but without falling into the bear trap of predicting the wrong trends?

In some senses, it’s impossible to avoid. Particularly if the story itself is driven by a unique SF idea. This makes it virtually impossible to avoid sketching a world that will not look like reality when it arrives. For a start, if you are too true to real-world predictions, the setting will look boring. The pace of technological advancement rarely matches the rate at which a writer’s imagination can move (you only have to look at any Golden Age SF story to realise we should all be using rocket-packs and flying cars to get to work by now. OK, communication technology was the exception.). If you try to be too realistic, you are also in danger of looking like you don’t understand technology or science. The readers in the  ‘mid level’ of science education – the ones who pick up their science through fiction – will be the strongest critics. I find this a tricky balance. The Engineer and Futurist in me wants to sketch something that I believe is realistic in time-frame, but I am forced to go beyond this or risk my SF ‘credibility’ in the eyes of editors and readers.

The best way to future-proof the fiction is to ensure that the story will still stand on its merits without the SF&F elements. The best SF stories of the Golden Age were driven as much by a true rendering of human emotions and drives as they were by their futuristic SF predictions. The key dilemma may have arisen due to technology (e.g. robots Vs humans), but the motivations of the characters and the situations they found themselves in still had a strong echo in the human condition and the every day experience of being human.

In my SF story The Buggy Plague, which was set on Mars, I thought I was out there talking about computer drives with terabytes of data storage. That was a little more than a decade ago and we are already there and beyond. Yet hopefully the core story – where an archaeologist tries to stay alive on a planet where man’s own technology has taken on a sentience and will of its own (and avoid a murderer) – still stands up.

Of course it’s far easier to set the story way, way into the future. That way you can be extreme in the technological changes without ever getting caught out (mind you if you are still being read in 2758 I’d take that as a win anyway). Compare that to writing a few decades into the future. Sketching out something like David Brin’s Earth, set fifty years in the future, would involve far more detailed research into trends in technology, energy use etc.

Another way to escape the problem is to make the timeline obscure. You can portray familiar technological elements, with some new twists, yet never spell out the actual date. Just include enough familiar setting elements to bridge to the present.

The story can be set on another planet similar to Earth, where there is the implication is that the technology has been rediscovered, yet perhaps expressed and developed along slightly different lines. This allows the familiar to be placed alongside the new without direct comparison by the scrutinising reader.

The approach that probably trumps them all is to make it clear at the outset that we are dealing with an alternate timeline. One off-hand comment about the Chinese colonies in the New World in the fifteenth century places the story firmly in the nether-zone. From there you can put together just about any sort of technological mix without going off the rails. This also allows you to explicitly give the dates. You can present the world as a direct analogue to current society, without having to worry about getting the technological development wrong. I would have to say I don’t like using this. I tend to be a purist in this way – I like to try and predict our future. But that’s a tough game to play.

So how do you future-proof your fiction? Or do you just follow the story where it leads?

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16 responses to “Near-Future Fiction

  1. Pingback: Orwell: a quarter of a century late » http://infosecblog.antonaylward.com - System Integrity: Without Integrity you don’t have Security

  2. For “near future” stuff I either stick in a century wide gap, so my dates don’t get over run while I’m still around to be embarrassed by them, or I fail to specify a date.

    It’s interesting to think about what might, or might not change, to trip me up. For instance, I’ve got a YA novel percolating. All the weird stuff I put in, that the story problems revolve around, probably fall into the rocket pack and atomic spaceship category–they may never happen. It’s the stuff in the background that may really date the story fast.

    My protagonists are 14 and 16, and attend “high school.” Is this a safe assumption, though? I stuck them in school pretty much without thinking, but then decided that that was a good way to make a connection with the readers. For all I know (and it isn’t unexpected) hs will be replaced by either trade school or early college attendance within a decade. I continued and intensified the “anti-child” movement. But can this really last another generation? And then there’s the FBI. Will they still exist as a separate entity, or will they all be DHS? Department of Homeland Security still sounds like a fictional, made up term to me, but it hasn’t gone away yet.

    • Hi, Pam. Like said, this stuff is nerve-wracking. I find the near future scenarios enticing, because it adds an extra bit of excitement that this might happen soon – but its risky. I set my novella Eyes of Erebus in 2017. At the time (2005), that seemed a long way off. Now I’m pretty sure we won’t have Nuclear Thermal Rockets operating in space by then. I’m starting to think the century gap you are talking about is the only sensible precaution.

      I’d like to think that institutional schools will remain into the future. Technology certainly could remove the centralisation, but they perform a useful socialisation function as well (and needed child-minding!). My punt is some form of them continuing as a separate physical institution ad infinitum. DHS is a funny one isn’t it? Feels like something you got out of the cereal box – ‘This badge proclaims me a member of the Justic Department of Homeland Security’. I suppose it’s not that surprising. Ronald Reagan did give as the Star Wars program:)

  3. Forty-three years since the first Moon landing. I always push the space stuff out further than I’d think is reasonable. And I’ll bet if I looked at the dates on my early stuff, I’d feel the need to add at least another fifty to them.

    • Sad but true. I guess there is always the possibility of the unexpected breakthrough – or that aliens turn up with antigravity to sell in exhange for cooking recipes.

      • I’m hoping for some sort of breakthrough tech of that nature, but the timing is completely unpredictable. Right now we’re just getting better at the old brute force methods, which is nice . . . but still expensive.

  4. TXRed

    I took the coward’s way out and set a huge part of the story arc in a different part of the galaxy, several thousand years in the future, in a culture that kept mechanical technology (FTL travel, energy weapons, FTL communications) but shuns biotech on the homeworld, to the point that the only genetic manipulation permitted anymore is cross breeding. Robotics exist but are used only in heavy industry. The colonies are somewhat different in permitting limited work with GMOs and medical diagnostics, but only have defensive biotech. One of the on-going questions in the story series is: can you limit technology by fiat or can you only selectively restrict technologies?

    The other part of the arc is set on Earth in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and part of the Main Character’s job involves sorting out what alien technologies humans can take advantage of and what needs to be discarded or eliminated before it warps Earth’s timestream too much. I pushed the use of holograms and simulators, and communications technology, but am leaving the energy weapons and shields out. Space travel, for the humans, is still at the rocket stage, with some visits to asteroids (no International Space Station because the Powers That Be decided it would attract unwanted attention) along with a rapidly developing satellite network. A moon base is “currently” under discussion but at the moment the military is discouraging it until some form of longer-distance observation system is set up and coordinated with the near-space killer satellites. I think I’ve struck a workable balance between the rocket packs and the overly realistic.

    • Sounds like an exciting universe to play with. You mentioned late 20th to 21st century – is this an alternate timeline?

      The other setting gives you great scope. I can see the Big Yellow Writing scrolling through space: In a Galaxy so FAR FAR Away and beyond the exiting Time Period that my predictions are safe. . . I like it.

      • TXRed

        The timeline is somewhat alternate, with most of the changes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to keep central Europe’s social strata a bit more intact. For example, the Austrians win the battle of Sadowa/ Königgratz in 1866; after WWI, the Hapsburg Empire is not destroyed but continues on until the mid 1930s as the Hapsburg Confederation; and a series of alien incursions in the 1970s leads to the creation of a body to share information among the various national militaries. In that situation I imagine that “world-shrinking” tech develops more quickly, while space travel develops at the same pace but “sideways” so to speak. After all, if you just discovered that there’s a lot more life out there, and not all of it is friendly, why go looking for trouble before you have a way to protect your home?

  5. One of my favorite tricks is to set the story on a planet (usually a frontier planet) where the technology is not generally available or available only in limited quantities. This can be easily explained in a variety of ways, the planet is to poor to attract much interstellar trade, an interstellar war is going on or was going on and so depleted the number of ships visiting the planet, the planet was settled for religous reasons (or other reasons) and rejected either technology or contact with the rest of humanity. Or my personal favorite, that I am currently attempting a novel in is a place much like Australia, a planet where the colonists were all prisoners dumped there and left. Of course these stories oftentimes tend to read more like westerns on another planet than ‘real’ SF.
    On the other hand just letting the story lead and not worrying about inconcistencies in dates seems to work well for some authors. I haven’t heard many complaints, and by the sales numbers I don’t think that it has affected John Ringo’s Legend of Aldenata series. Even though the first several books happened a few years ago now.

    • Hi, bearcat. That’s a nice approach – setting the story on the fringes of the civilisation. it always allows a layering of tech as they use the more rustic old clunker computers and old-fashioned pulse lasers their grandaddy used to use. The choke on availability due to scare resources or conflict is also a great one.

      I guess at the end of the day a story will function on multiple levels and if the storyline and characterisation stand up then 99.9% of readers will go along for the ride and not really worry too much about the finer points of the dates or technology development. Of course the other 0.1% tend to be vocal.

  6. I future-proof by setting it 35,000 years from now. And by not really caring about realism. Yeah, hard SF it isn’t 🙂

    • Ah. So your title is something along the lines of 40,000AD!!!!!

      In that timescale you could really do anything – including elements of technology regression and evolutionary shifts as well as some truly startling changes.

      Sometimes I wonder if the most surprising thing of all will be how similiar things are even that far forward. The whole planet seems to be on a course of cultural convergence at the moment. Wow. What an awesome timeframe. That far back the neanderthals were still chasing bison and wondering who the puny newcomers were!

      • Exactly – we’ve come a long way since early homo sapiens, but we still seem to require certain basic societal structures which haven’t changed in a thousand years. Family, community, division of labour by specialization, along with shelter, warmth, food etc. Is it unrealistic to think those things might never change?

        It’s great for the SF writer, as you say – you can go far enough in the future to realistically incorporate some significant evolutionary changes, but within societies that are familiar to/resonate with the reader.

        Thanks!