Near-Future Fiction

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 that requires a pretty specific type of setting. This makes it virtually impossible to avoid sketching a world that will not look like reality when it arrives.

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  – paradoxically – of looking like you don’t understand technology or science. ‘What? He doesn’t even have wormholes?’ 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 stands 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 everyday 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?

Cross-posted at chrismcmahons blog.

22 comments

  1. When i do near-future stuff, its usually a slightly different world- either ‘urban fantasy’ (I was writing short stories about a paranormal investigator who was a mage in high school), or a slightly realistic superhero setting, or sudden influx of alien technology a la John Ringo. Some stuff was designed to be proto-cyberpunk (boy were we all WAY off on that one…) and other was just more traditional space opera.

    1. Who was a mage when *I* was in high school… (same time as Jim Butcher)

      And at the time, urban fantasy really wasn’t as much of a genre.

        1. Sure, but i was originally going to pitch it as a TV series, back before Dresden Files came on TV. Now its just another story in my backlog of stories…

  2. I had this problem with something I set in the 22nd century, which isn’t very near future. Everyone has what I called “palms” for voice and video communications. I was careful not to describe them, but, even so, they got dated over the course of writing the book, so I added 3D and some other functions.
    The current WIP is set about 50 years from now. I hope it gets dated, because it’s about industries on orbit and orbital debris remediation. In that one, we are still stuck in LEO and haven’t yet made it back to the moon. But there’s a lot going on in LEO.

    1. Hi, Laura. I hope we manage to get any sort of significant presence in space in 50yrs – even if it’s LEO! I like the idea of looking at cleaning up/ remediation of debris. There is already so much crap circling the Earth already, and we are hardly even up there yet. Makes me think of cool dudes in a clapped out spaceship, cruising for useful junk:)

      The way you mention remediation puts me in mind of contaminated land clean up, which I did for a long time. Did you also work in this area?

      Your idea of ‘palms’ makes me think of the latest Total Recall remake, which had these light-up implants into the skin of the palm. Have you seen it?

      1. Yes, I saw the Total Recall remake (or is that redundant?). Their palms were cooler than mine. I sort of imagine mine as being like a glove on the back of the hand–hence the misnomer. You need the front of your hand for other stuff.

        In my day job I’m a lawyer who works on aerospace issues, mostly dealing with launch and reentry. I have so many clippings from Space News on orbital debris I can’t keep track. There’s a dead satellite up there right now the size of a school bus that I wanted to use as the target piece model, but I have looked everywhere on the web for non-proprietary data as to its composition without luck. From its public risk numbers you can tell it has something on it that would survive reentry. For purposes of credibility, I wanted to know what that was so I could model my target on something real, and I really want a potentially huge splash-down for maximum drama. The one thing I can remember without checking my notes, is that titanium will reach the ground, but I don’t see too much mention of that on satellites, just upper stages of the rocket.

        The technical guys refer to orbital debris mitigation and remediation, which I’m guessing is lingo borrowed from your former line of work. There are rules and practices addressing mitigation, but remediation is a much tougher problem.

        I really enjoy your technical posts, too, btw. I’m the one sitting there with Wayne Lee’s To Rise from Earth, sweat popping out on my forehead, as I try to make sense of orbital mechanics. And, if you like near future SF, the guy over at hobbyspace has a great list of what he calls Solar SciFi. I love it, but, as you note, it’s tricky to write in so many ways.

  3. First, give no numbers. 😉

    I’ve got one where I haven’t specified a date, and have a bunch of tech that’s speculative now. But I don’t give details, they just pop down to the autodiner for a quick casual dinner. When the heroine is injured, the directory steers her to the nearest open pod in an autodoc. She’s got implanted ID, but still attends an ordinary high school–probably the most unrealistic part of the story, but handy for character development and getting the characters together.

    But I do refer to “The Ten Peta, the big computer down at the Federal Center.” So I disobey my own first rule.

    1. Ok, I’ve cracked: what’s a Ten Peta?

      On the dates, I have my own timeline with dates for the different stories in my future history. I do not share those out loud. I do refer to the bicentennial of something, so if a reader really cared he could figure it out, but I don’t make it easy.

      1. On the ten peta, I should have said, how is that giving a number? Is peta a computer term now? If so, you are bold!

      2. Well, a lot of people who are geeks might relate it to the processing power of the computer: Computer power is sometimes presented as the number of Floating Point Operations (calculations) Per Second (FLOPS). A PetaFLOP is one Quadrillion FLOPS. The current recordholder for supercomputers was just announced recently in China, and was tested at 30.65 petaflops.

        By contrast, Deep Blue, the IBM computer which defeated Chessmaster Gary Kasparov in 1996, clocked in at 11.38 GigaFLOPS (Billions of FLOPS).

        1. Oops, another source says Deep Blue ran at 1 TeraFLOP, which sounds more likely, given computer progression.

        2. Dang. Outdated already! Of course I added true self awareness. The Ten Peta is the Bad Guy. But don’t worry. The computers have everything under control.

    2. Yeah, exactly. At least, no numbers related to a real life number. I have a novel where the prologue scene is “In the near future”, then the first chapter starts with “Day One, 18 years later”.

      The books is 7 explicit days, numbered out with each scene’s relationship to each other in time, but it’s all just related to 20-25 years into the near future. Today+20 years, but allowing what is considered “today” to float along with the reader’s timeline.

  4. You said, “…technology has been rediscovered, yet perhaps expressed and developed along slightly different lines…”

    Isn’t that the essence of Steampunk? Consider an alternate time line where Victorians use nuclear fission to generate steam. And airships use steam as a lifting gas… At least that’s what my WIP does.

  5. BTW, my most recent near-future-SF story doesn’t blaze new ground technologically, but it does use an innovative application of mundane technologies that we discussed on this blog last year.

    You can’t predict that someone will replace vacuum tubes with solid-state transistors then integrated circuits, but you can apply stuff everyone understands (e.g. railroads) in unexpected contexts (e.g. asteroids).

    1. Hi, Steve. I liked your idea about the railroads in the asteroid.

      I think innovation/reapplciation of existing technology is really credible thing for near-future fiction. In terms of hooking reader/editor interest guess it comes down to how sexy you can make it:)

      I don’t really know anything about Steampunk, but steam as lifting gas is interesting. I haven’t run into that one before. I guess the challenge is keeping the water vapour, which requires energy. If you can it should work. To look at the lifting power you can work on molecular weights, since these are directly proportional to density for ideal gases. Water has a molecular weight of 18, less than the approximate MW of air, which is around 29 (I think), so in essence the concept is sound. However, this is a lot efficient than Hydrogen gas at a MW of 2, or safer Helium at 4. So basically for the same lifting power you would need to displace 18/2 or nine times the volume. That’s a big airship! Your saving grace is that unlike conventional aircraft, airships actually get more efficient the bigger than are – just hard to handle!

      1. Hey, Steve. Driving home tonight I realised I got that ratio wrong. It should be the ratio of the difference between the weight of air displaced and the weight of the gas that displaces it i.e. (29-18)/(29-2) = 11/27 which is approximately 1/3rd. So the steam based airship would need to be three times bigger, not nine times. Opps:)

      2. Let’s hope the editors at Analog like the ring-rail concept.

        I figure Her Majesty’s Airship Manticore is about the size of the Hindenberg. A nuclear reactor will generate all the steam you could want. Of course, shielding the nuclear core is trouble because you can’t build a lead Zeppelin. I ran the idea past my daughter the nuclear engineer and she rolled her eyes. Yes, it is fiction.

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