The Frozen Past and Malleable Future

The Frozen Past and Malleable Future
Pam Uphoff

If this “Real World” is all a Virtual Reality game, it is missing one major feature.

The reset button.

Really, think about what life would be like if you could “Oops!” and back up 24 hours and do it over.

Unfortunately, unless every one but you is a NPC—Non Player Character, for the non-gamers—it would be chaos. You’re trying to reset your nasty rude comeback that caused your boyfriend to dump you, while some one else is resetting to avoid a speeding ticket and someone else is “fixing” their child’s broken wrist, traffic accidents, heart attacks . . .

And if there was a big reset? Whoo! Would I ever cruise through University if I knew then what I know now. Just start the scenario over, knowing what I know, understanding things and people. Having developed a serious work ethic. Except . . . would I ever meet my husband? Have the identical kids? Nope. When I hit that reset, that future, or rather, more recent past, ceased to exist.
Yeah, so forget the reset button.

The best you can do is apologize, take a drivers ed class for ticket dismissal, get your kid a cool cast, and . . . deal with real life now and work for the future.

If we dare not change the past, what can we do about the future?

And that’s where fiction comes in.

And yes, message fiction. In your world building you consciously or subconsciously put in your hopes or your fears. And usually both. But you need to do it right. This all basic stuff that we should all know, but I’ll beat on this poor deceased equine a bit more.

I think (hope!) we are seeing the last gasp of the communism/socialism/one world government pushers. Mind you, as a writer of science fiction, I find the concept of a single planetary government amazingly useful. I have enough trouble with multi-planet Empires at war or threatening to go to war. If I had to deal with three hundred nations on every planet, I’d spend so much time trying to organize the universe that I’d never write. In fact, that could explain my lack of published hard SF.

But if I wanted a single government on Earth, my background for stories might have the benevolent government of the world. Or the violent chaos of multiple governments failing to deal with the crisis my heroes will take on. And vice-versa if I hated the whole idea.

I think we’re closing in on the end of race based prejudices, despite the efforts of the current politicians. I know too many people of mixed heritage and/or in mixed marriages for that to not happen. That’s not to say we’ll be free of prejudice. I just think America currently, most of the West to follow soon, and perhaps the rest of the world (China and Japan last!) eventually, will stop pre-judging people based on skin pigmentation and a few other external features.

So my stories have a mix of races and a lot of people with the characteristics of several races. And pretty much everyone indifferent to it. A dark complexion is of no more note than the hair color. Someone else might design a world where the races are distinct but equal under the law. Or very much not equal. But definitely race would be an instantly noticed and pigeon-holed attribute of a person.

Medical advances . . . it would be nice to cure a whole slew of diseases, and extend the expected lifespan (again!) with some age defeating drugs. Especially that last. If all you wind up extending is old age full of infirmities, forget it. Rewind the metabolism to where it was twenty or thirty years ago, and I’m all for it. And knees. I want my thirty year old knees back . . .

The main medical advances of the past, the ones that truly changed the human race are vaccinations, antibiotics, and birth control pills. They turned pneumonia from “half of all children die before the age of five” into miss a few days of school. Cuts and injuries , no problem. They changed the expectation of having many babies, hoping to not bury all of them, into having one or two children and never considering they could die.

And they made not having babies so easy that sex and reproduction are nearly unconnected in some people’s minds.

Hard to get more SF than that!

And the development of an artificial womb will increase the separation.

I shall have to add a culture where this has been taken to extremes. Imagine the shock when the system breaks down . . . not that it hasn’t been done before, but I will have fun with it, in my own way.

But if I had a different opinion of the matter I might write about a Utopia of sexual and reproductive freedom. Peace and Love and Unicorns. The Bad Guy (no doubt a white male, leader of a pseudo Christian cult) would be keeping sex slaves, forcing them to conceive and give birth the old fashioned way.

There are dozens—more probably hundreds—of ways to show your readers the potentials and hazards of theoretical future reproduction and sex. Good and bad.

That’s the power of a writer. To pull the reader into a world, to try to make them like it, or not, as we wish. But the writer needs to remember that it is _just_ the world. Your message is not the story, it is the stage setting, possibly a very important prop. But. It. Is. Not. A. Story.

First and foremost you must have a good story. You must have characters the readers will bond with, to experience the story viscerally. Because if they don’t like your Main Character, they won’t give a whoop about your dream—or nightmare—about the future.

They’ll go play a game, and wish for really good virtual reality gaming systems. Even the ones who think they’re already living in a game.

And now for the inevitable bit of self-promotion:

The latest, greatest, and an inflection point in my Wine of the Gods Universe:

Embassy

And in case I have failed to recently mention my YA under the pen name Zoey Ivers . . . Brace yourself for weirdness:

The Barton Street Gym

43 Comments

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43 responses to “The Frozen Past and Malleable Future

  1. There is a simplistic linear kind of thinking that goes into a lot of science fiction worldbuilding. “Since we can see that behavior X has an obvious utility in overcoming environmental factor Y, it therefor follows that once technology Z overcomes environmental factor Y, behavior X will have no use and hence disappear.”

    One example is clothing. In a lot of the science fiction of the 1960s and 1970s it was taken for granted that clothing existed only to protect human beings from the elements and people who live in climate controlled buildings would stop wearing clothes.

    Well, most of us in America today spend the majority of our time inside climate controlled buildings or climate controlled vehicles, And yet, we show no sign of giving up clothing. It turns out that human beings like clothing, even when there is no obvious need for it. Even the most fit of us seem to think that we look better in clothing, we feel more comfortable with our skin covered, and then there are pockets, which are really useful.

    The idea that contraception will bring about a collapse of monogamy falls into the same pattern. In the first place, human beings have understood how conception takes place for thousands of years and while techniques for obtaining sexual pleasure without conception have grown more sophisticated, the ability to have the one without the other has been around for as long as human beings have been human.

    Monogamy, however, seems to be the ideal for most human beings even if children are taken out of the picture. The fact that homosexuals agitate to get married is proof that while monogamy is important to children, children are not important to monogamy. Most human beings enjoy having a single partner and find it easier to refer to other humans in terms of couples.

    (As I have been single for most of my life, I noticed what I call the “truncated ampersand” that people use when talking about single people. “We’ll invite George&Sue, and Tom&Liz and Bob&Henry and Misha&–[awkward pause]”)

    Then there is the matter of work. In Golden Age SF it was an article of faith that automation would bring about an artistic renaissance. “If we can just give everyone a basic living wage without making them slave in a factory”, goes the myth, “why then, we will have a nation where everyone is an artist or a poet or a musician!”

    That turns out not to be true. Neighborhoods where the majority of people live on some kind of state largess rather than work for a living have not become artistic havens. In fact, such neighborhoods tend to be the ugliest and meanest streets we have. It would seem that human beings are made for work, and most of them do not do well when it is not available.

    I do love reading science fiction, and I particularly enjoy the science fiction of my youth, that which was written in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the older I get the more obvious it is to me that advances in technology have far less impact on the basic nature of humanity than the writers of that era supposed.

    • Yes. The odd marriages, or lack thereof, the lack of want-a-baby are outliers, not the norm. Books that make it the norm are ignoring millions of years of evolution. Cultures that fight it . . . well, they’re the most troubled now, so somehow that route to Utopia seems dubious.

      • Still struggling with building the “society of plenty” myself, for Misha’s second point – humans were, are, and ever will be humans. (Absent drastic genetic work – after which they will not be humans.)

        That awkward pause… Even worse when you suddenly remember that whoever & … are not exactly a couple any longer. Or worse, are two halves of entirely separate couples…

  2. Laura M

    When Gaius Baltar is moaning in one episode of Battlestar Galactica about the tragedy of being from a simple-minded “dairy planet,” I almost stopped watching. I can barely handle one government for a whole planet (Planets are big. And diverse), but one industry? What do the people in the desert do? Milk sand cows?

    One government seems almost doable if a planet is very high tech to allow maximum integration.

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      I remember a Farscape episode with a planet of lawyers.

      Planet. Of. Lawyers.

      *Shudder*

      • Laura M

        I am such a creature, and I shudder, too, but perhaps for different reasons. After all, one would have to seek clients across possibly interstellar distances. Maybe there’s a planet of clients in the same solar system? The client planet would have to be the one to achieve space travel, all so that they could reach the planet of lawyers. Sure, they’d want to do that, on account of all the centuries of unresolved contract disputes that required settling. Makes sense.

      • Arwen

        That was such a terrible episode and I really enjoy Farscape.

    • Bob

      Well, maybe its a planet with a habitable section only as big as, like, Iowa or Wisconsin, and or with a sparse population and a whole bunch of like herd animals.

      I only watch a few episodes of BSG so I don’t know.

      • Very few writers seem to able to conceive of multiple worlds that are each as varied as our own Earth. Usually there are “Desert Planets”, ” Jungle Planets”, “Water Planets” and the like. Inventing a worldwide ecology is difficult, inventing many of them seems like far too much work. There are some works that give the feel of a universe full of realistic worlds–Niven and Pournell’s “Note In God’s Eye”, for example (although the planetary monocultures are nearly as annoying–the Scottish planet, the Russian Planet, the Arab Planet.) Samuel Delaney’s ” Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand”, in my opinion, does it best. At one point the main character is confronted by someone using customs from his home world, but from the other hemisphere, and has never heard of them.

        • Laura M

          That’s a nice touch with the other continent.

        • Bob

          I found the monocultures/ethnicity planets in ‘Mote’ depressingly plausible.

          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

            IMO the “monocultures/ethnicity planets” make sense when you’re talking about planets colonized by humans or by aliens.

            Of course, the monoculture part may been “seen that way” more by outsiders than by people who grew up there.

            IE People of Continent A see the differences between them and the people of Continent B but outsiders might not see the differences.

            IMO the problem is when the Homeworld of an intelligent species is a monoculture world. 😉

            • Bob

              Yeah, it’s plausible since the settlement was planned that way. Much the same way you’d see a settlement that’s almost entirely Quaker or Catholic or from one portion of Europe in early America.

              • And stories set in the CoDominion/Empire/Mote universe often showed that the planets themselves were normally diverse – even Tanith, pretty close to the stereotypical Jungle World, was that way due to the shape and location of the colonized land masses.

                Monocultures made sense in context – most of the voluntarily settled worlds had been settled by specific ethnic/cultural groups, usually with preservation of their differences being a major motivation for the settlement. And even the more cosmopolitan worlds would tend to develop a planetary culture over time (at least as viewed from outside) since they started out with high speed communications and travel, but travel and communication with other worlds still took multiple days to multiple weeks.

                It doesn’t mean that they were shown as totally uniform, and even uniform groups can splinter (note the multitude of Mormon groups at cross-purposes shown in the first part of The Gripping Hand – even if the Imperials didn’t think the differences were major, the locals certainly did).

                On the whole, I think Niven and Pournelle did a far better than average job of world building.

            • The Other Sean

              I’ve got a few ways to explain monocultural homeworlds.
              1. Current culture is result of one culture slaughtering or aggressively absorbing the other cultures.
              2. The intelligent species had a very compact, limited geographic range until relatively late in its development. Therefore, geographic dispersion came from a relatively-homogeneous base.
              3. Alien interference (e.g. invasion, uplift, tech transfer)

              • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                Nod, I’ve thought about Number 1 as an explanation for monoculture aliens.

                For that matter, one of my “not written” story universes contains a Master Race that conquered all of the other peoples of its Home World and thus had a Single Master-Culture along with the Master-Race genetically engineering both itself and the Slave Race into two different species.

                Mind you, as the “Master-Race” expanded to the Stars, it began to divide into at least three different cultures.

                In some ways, they see themselves as being a single Culture but they acknowledge the major differences between the sub-Cultures.

                Oh Humans are close friends with one of the sub-Culture, somewhat friendly toward the second sub-Culture and are in a near-state-of-war with the third sub-Culture. 😉

              • Option Two is how I posit the Azdhagi developing. That and they are apex pack-based predators that happened to get a jump-start on the other species on Drakon IV. The True-dragons showed up, looked around, and settled the “unwanted” areas before the Azdhagi had the means to evict them. Now they pretty much get along by not-exactly ignoring each other but living and letting live.

            • zyffyr

              The ‘seen that way’ thing happens today on Earth all the time – I have conversed with numerous Europeans who are certain that the USA is exactly the same culturally in all areas but who can speak at length about the cultural differences between the various regions of their country.

              Small differences matter to people when they are close up, but at sufficient distance or with small enough observation time they disappear into the background.

        • Randy Wilde

          although the planetary monocultures are nearly as annoying–the Scottish planet, the Russian Planet, the Arab Planet.

          I need to dig out my old Traveller 2300 RPG stuff… I think it had things like this. IIRC, when Earth developed the “jump drive” allowing easy interstellar exploration and colonization, the UN or somebody divvied up the surrounding space between nations like the Pope dividing South America between Spain and Portugal.

          Sure, there would have been some cross-culture emigration going on (which would only increase as time passed), but planets in the Russian sector of space were colonized by a very Russian-dominant population and would have started out with that heritage and culture as a baseline.

          • Yes, but one would expect them to drift. The “The Only War We’ve Got” segment in Joe Halderman’s “All My Sins Remembered” is a good example of that.

            • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

              Of course they’ll drift from the starting culture but an outsider not familiar with the starting culture might not realize it.

              As I said earlier, outsiders might not realize the differences between sub-cultures on the planet.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      Once I had an dysfunctional interstellar empire build up a planet as almost entirely light transit.

  3. Bob

    But The best part of writing a society is imagining all the ways it can screw up!

  4. Draven

    I have a concern that artificial wombs will increase the mother’s emotional detachment from the child.

    • Which is a good basis for a story. An epidemic of abandoned babies. “Well, yeah, nine months ago it sounded like a good idea, but I’ve been promoted, there’s a lot of travel involved . . . ”

      On the other hand, “Nanny” may be a booming career field. Or Nannybots a huge manufacturing growth sector. Or both.

      But story-wise it’s better as background or plot point. Not a lecture on the future of parenting. Subliminal propaganda.

      • The Other Sean

        The Nannybot idea gives a few good sci-fi technothriller concepts.

        1. The Nannybot was working out really well, right until it got infected with ransomware. “Send us 30 BitCoin or the nannybot will never return your daughter.”

        2. The Nannybots were working out really well. They were affordable. Every parent in America could have one if they chose. And then North Korea sent the kill signal, and America lost its next generation in the blink of an eye.

      • TRX

        More of that goes on than most people probably realize.

        My mother kept babies for the county in the 1980s. She mostly got the “dumpster babies” that made enough noise for someone to notice. She got several of those per year.

        We’re talking about a relatively low-crime county of about 125,000. From comments by the social workers, maybe one baby discovered every month. I’d guess 10x that many that wound up being compacted by a noisy garbage truck.

        • Yep, and abortion statistics are appalling. There was a long thread on the Bar once that concluded that in the future, evolution would result in a population of individuals who, due to a genetic trait, wanted to have children so strongly that it could overcome societal disapproval..

          • Mary

            Yeah, evolution is in overdrive selecting for people who really, really, really want children. and against anything that would interfere.

      • Randy Wilde

        On the other hand, “Nanny” may be a booming career field. Or Nannybots a huge manufacturing growth sector. Or both.

        Or unionized government workers.

    • Bob

      Not to mention training up a generation of sociopaths…

    • Bob

      One of my long since discarded attempts at a novel had something of this element: the villain had been raised, educated and even taught how to speak by nannybots and mechanical toys. As a result, on a very fundamental level she doesn’t believe other people are ‘real’. Just objects to be used to accomplish a goal or eliminated if obstructions.

  5. RNB

    Ursula K. LeGuin has called on science fiction and fantasy writers to imagine ‘alternatives to capitalism.’ I almost shouted ‘Communism!’ — then I realized she probably meant ‘alternatives to capitalism that don’t result in immiseration and mass death.’

  6. mrsizer

    I’ve thought about the real-life reset button. It’s an odd concept. If the entire universe resets, nothing would ever happen. Someone, somewhere would always be pushing the button. It can’t be just the person pressing it or it wouldn’t work. Any sort of bubble/effect radius would have the same issue as just one person pressing it: The people on the edge of the bubble would go back, but the people they were interacting with wouldn’t; it effectively copies the bystanders: Each one gets a new interaction with the people who went back, but their not-gone-back selves are still there, somehow. Memories rewritten? Remember both timelines?

    For now, an Earth-sized bubble would work, sort of. What about someone on the moon? In the space station? “Houston, this is the International Space Station. We seem to be experiencing significant clock drift. Why did your signals suddenly start sending ‘last week’ as the time-stamp?”

    And then there are all the button pushers after any significant event. I know the lottery numbers, reset! I know the game winner, reset! I know the stock market moves, reset!

    • Yep. It makes games tolerable, but really life impossible.

      Unless there are a very small number of people who are real . . . wait . . . I don’t have a reset button.

      • Actually, each of us has a reset button. However, resets are best explained as reincarnation… You get to start all over again! So don’t hurry to reset, okay?

        • Yeah . . . maybe . . . Personally I think we’re tadpoles looking up at the water surface and saying “. . . and then we’ll be swimming around in thin air!” There’s only one way to find out, and I’m in no hurry.

  7. Hey,with enough Wiki editing and Facebook blocking we can MAKE the past malleable and EVERYone an NPC…