Future Proofing your Fictional World

Have recently been re-reading an old favourite, Harry Harrison‘s To the Stars Trilogy. Best known for tongue-in-cheek sci-fi parodies like, The Stainless Steel Rat or (best name ever) Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers, Harrison also did some “harder” sci-fi.

In speculative fiction, how closely a work’s imagined world corresponds with real world science varies greatly. On one end you have Star Wars or Doctor Who, in which the laws of physics are there to be broken as the plot requires. At the other end are authors such as William Gibson (of whom more later) and Jules Verne, who worked with the technologies available to them and try to logically extrapolate what it would look like within 5, 10, 20 or a hundred years.

Whether speculative fiction is “hard” or “soft” is one of those ongoing matters of preference in speculative writing. Margaret Atwood‘s famous cleaving of stories into “what is possible today” and “what is not possible today” (in conjunction with LeGuin) is at once useful and unhelpful. To be clear, there is nothing inherently right or wrong, more worthy or less worthy about either end of the spectrum. Worthy but dull epics containing scientifically up-to-the-minute renderings of life can be far lesser works that deeply resonating stories set in a universe where “a wizard did it” can be applied in lieu of almost any effect.

Harrison’s world is very much based on a logical extrapolation of cutting edge late 70s science, which is usefully related by the protagonist, an electrical engineer. The one really obvious cheat is FTL interstellar travel*, which allows one of the books to be set on a (well constructed) alien world. Apart from this, Harrison obviously did his homework and made an educated guess as to what sort of world science and technology would bring.

Whilst some concepts have already been leapfrogged (an amazing lighter-sized memory storage device holding SIXTY FOUR KILOBYTES, a GPS unit SMALL ENOUGH TO HOLD IN YOUR HAND), much of his writing about the electronic surveillance state spookily resembles the concerns and debates of today. He does, however, envision that this could only be brought in by a closed dictatorship state, rather than by democratic governments, with tacit public approval.

Later in the series, he delves into space combat, in which not a single laser cannon is visible, and salvoes of fire take long, long minutes to resolve across the vast distance of space. This gives the sequences a grounded sense of reality, and therefore, immersion. The situation feels real, rather than just having the trappings of realism as a means to move the events of the plot along.

For my own work, my setting is erring towards the realistic. Reworking an earlier draft, I have no laser guns or teleporters, no wisecracking robots or benevolent Artificial Intelligences. Also, there are no intelligent life forms other than humans (yet). Where I have included fantastic technology, I’ve tried to at least partially root it in something that exists in science as it stands today. This will unfortunately require me to read up on quantum mechanics at some point in the medium-term future.

This, of course, runs into the other problem with speculative technologies. That they date badly. That they inevitably discount real world developments in the scientific, social and technological fields that have yet to happen, reflecting the concerns and trends of the now:

“The Chinese,” bellowed a drunken Australian, “Chinese bloody invented nerve-splicing. Give me the mainland for a nerve job any day. Fix you right, mate…”

“Now that,” Case said to his glass, all his bitterness suddenly rising in him like bile, “that is so much bullshit.”

The Japanese had already forgotten more neurosurgery than the Chinese had ever known.

– William Gibson, Neuromancer

For Gibson, writing in the early 80s, the idea of China ever moving ahead of the Japanese Behemoth then taking thunderous steps across the world of high technology would have seemed like the most laughable fantasy.  Not quite as ridiculous today, with China the rising power and Japan the defensive former giant struggling to keep their place.

The disconnect between what we view the present as and what we think should “the future” is a factor in how immersive that world will be to the reader. If men (and only men) are using fountain pens writing cheques for a lunar golfing jaunt whilst driving their atomic flying cars across a consumerist utopia, then you’ll likely be feeling as “The Future” bears little ancestry with the present you live in. The use of this setting as satire, however, can be quite effective as a deliberate dissonance.

Another example are technologies like the Internet or cellular communications. Although the seeds of both technologies are common, it’s rare that they’re presented as anywhere near as common or transformative as they have actually proved over the last 25+ years. The future rarely looks as futuristic as we imagine, as the continuing and unforgivable lack of flying cars makes plain. The idea that someone could be uncontactable or unfindable in the age of Twitter or mobile phones seems quite alien today, let alone in the mythical “20 minutes into the future“.

One of the markers of the various ages of Fiction is how it treats the interconnectedness of the characters it writes about. If Pheidipiddes must run to Athens to announce victory in Marathon, this has consequences for the story. If Austen’s heroines wait months for letters to arrive from the Colonies, this has consequences for the story. If the antagonist in Around the World in 80 Days pursues Phileas Fogg with the a assistance of a telegraph service, this has consequences for the story.  In any projection of future telecommunication (be it wristwatch videophones, skull-chip radio or outright telepathy) that’s going to have an impact on what your characters do and how they interact.

Whilst there’s always going to be wriggle room in how your technology features (Gibson again: “The future’s already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”), once you’ve established what the technological context of your setting is, you need to ensure you are at least consistent in its existence, even if not in application.

It isn’t possible to escape this issue. You are who you are, living in the age that you’re living in. The best you can hope for is to get the technology and social organisation of your invented setting wrong in the most well-informed and internally consistent way at the point in time from which you write it.

* – for a non-cheating version of this, I can highly recommend Charlie Stross “Neptune’s Brood” where he examines the economic and social implications of sub light-speed travel in a hard-science (yet far future) setting. It also has mer-people. No, really, go and read it.

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