This is the #5 post in blog series on writing speculative science fiction. It’s from a workshop I conducted at Writers & Books in February 2020.
So, now that I’ve covered scientific speculation, on to the softer kind of predictive writing, based on social trends. Social speculation is less of a projection of where we think science could take us and more of a commentary on our current culture. For example, some people think that the internet makes us narcissistic – so what would a future look like where everyone is a raging narcissist; maybe we’re already there.
The science aspect in world-building and social or trend speculations help to flesh out the characters. The tech may be the “why” of their lives, but the social consequences are the “how.” How your future society functions isn’t necessarily based around an emerging tech either. Just like with tech, you can take any social trend that’s happening now and project it into the future.
Social speculation is often a way for the author to discuss the status quo without direct commentary. Worried about the looming Vietnam War in the wake of the Second World War, Kurt Vonnegut used a man’s encounter with the humorous alien Tralfamadorians in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. With the alien’s ability to alter time and he wrote harrowing account of the horrors of modern warfare amid comic interactions with the creatures.
Whether you’re imagining the cultural implications of a specific tech – like Gibson’s cyberspace addicted society, or commenting on the direction of trends, akin to Atwood’s commentary on the religious subjugation of women, your characters are uniquely shaped by the futuristic world they inhabit. Just like we’re shaped by the world.
Thought Activity: Back to the Future
Part One: The Past
There’s a two-part activity I call “Back to the Future,” It plays with time and helps me think about how much society and changes in a few decades. We are somewhat of experts in the community we live in – so imagine describing your current 2020 day, and all the nebulous social constructs and interwoven technologies to someone living in the 1980s. I might say something like – “my phone also has a television and a camera, and I carry it in my hand.”
Part Two: The Future
Now reverse it. How might somebody 40 years in the future describe their day and their technology? Maybe they’d say – “it’s like your smartphone, but implanted in your visual cortex. It blurs other people’s faces in public to protect privacy.” So, it’s 2060 – walk us through a day, or a character’s day. What tech or trend has advanced, what’s obsolete, what’s brand new?
The farther back in history you get, the more you have to explain. How would you describe your smartphone to someone from the Victorian Era? Maybe you’d just say it’s “voices and pictures from someone very far away.” And on the other side – how would someone 200 years in the future describe their world to you? – Probably with similar vagueness and logical leaps. When speculating, it’s important to remember that you’re an expert on the present and near future, but the farther you get away from current society, the more unfamiliar your constructed world will become.
This is the #4 post in blog series on writing speculative science fiction. It’s from a workshop I conducted at Writers & Books in February 2020.
In an earlier blog in this series, I said technology is inert if you don’t use it. But unused tech isn’t a reality, and there’s often a direction to take- a choice that goes hand in hand with the invention. Nuclear fusion can be used for cheap power or to destroy whole countries. Social media can uplift and connect, or it can spread misinformation and lower self-worth.
Speculating on the direction of tech use helps shape the actual course of the tech once it’s adopted. Ancient religious texts, philosophical dogma, even the proclamations of rambling 60’s beat poets have little bearing on our current world, which is dominated by hyper-fast wi-fi and 24-hour connection.
Here, sci-fi writers become philosophers. We look to them to present a possible future and to help decide if that’s what we’d like our world to look like. Science-fiction leans toward the dystopian because often, writers wander into the future and run back with dire warnings. However, sci-fi can also offer us a peek into the utopias that may be possible if we play our cards right. The best work provides outcomes that are both positive and negative. This is the most realistic because it’s true to how things work out – nuclear fusion is both, social media is both.
Asimov sought to present a future where we lived side-by-side with A.I. in mutually supportive relationships. He aimed to foster respect for this new kind of intelligence as a counter to the popular stories of evil robots rising up and overtaking humanity. Asimov’s ideas have been around for decades and it’s possible, if not probable that his philosophies regarding the respect and care of A.I. are reflected in the development of the technology.
Of course, the advancement of helpful androids is to everyone’s benefit, especially the people who stand to benefit financially from their creation. Scientific speculation is often tied tightly to the soul of American consumerism. With only a little nudge, you can dream up things that people want. Watchers of the original Star Trek dreamt of the day when they could see the person on the other end of the telephone, just like an angry admiral popping up on the screen to admonish Kirk for his latest tawdry escapade. Or, years later, viewers saw and coveted the all-in-one portable tablet computers on the show’s successor, The Next Generation.
The capitalist version of sci-fi speculation may be the path of least resistance. You dream up a product you’d like and imagine what the world would be like if everyone had access to it – be it flying cars, self-cleaning clothes, or an immorality serum.
This is the #3 post in blog series on writing speculative science fiction. It’s from a workshop I conducted at Writers & Books in February 2020.
For this blog series, I’ve split speculation up into two categories – scientific speculation and social speculation. You could easily split the genre in any number of ways, utopic vs. dystopic, earth-based stories vs. space stories, and so on. But, Scientific vs. Social is both separate and entwined in ways that lends to an engaging discussion.
So, scientific speculation, for the purposes of today’s blog, I’ve lumped together with technological advancements. It’s anything hard and apart from human behavior or societal trends, although it will undoubtedly be effected by and affect human behavior and patterns.
So how do we as laypeople predict the next breakthrough? For one, scientific and speculative discoveries come from the same mental space, and the most significant inventions are often sudden and underappreciated at the time.
William Gibson, the science fiction author, credited with coming up with the term “cyberspace” – a term we use every day – was simply trying to come up with a word to describe the place behind the screen. He tried out “infospace” and “dataspace” before finally settling on a term that sounded right. He first used the term cyberspace fleetingly in his 1981 short story “Burning Chrome” and then expanded on the concept in his inceptive cyberpunk Neuromancer.
Gibson wasn’t being predictive when he named cyberspace, he was just descriptive. He was prophesizing, however, when he described it:
“Cyberspace,” Gibson said in 1984, “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation. . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.” – Sound Familiar?
So, how does Gibson do it? He has a deep engagement with the present and an insatiable curiosity that drives him to investigate the emerging and the theoretical. He pays attention to the news surrounding science and tech, he watches how people interact with new tech as it becomes widely adopted, and he looks at how inventions have changed society throughout history.
Can you replicate this method? – of course. Here's the thing with scientific speculation: the future is never here. We’ve never arrived at the place that was written about. Instead, we are taking what is already around us and hammering a future out of it. More importantly, we’re considering the ramifications of these breakthroughs – or potential discoveries, and wondering what will happen when they’re widely accessible. What happens when everybody has a robot? Or – what would our world look like if medical science doubles life expectancy? This is where philosophy merges with science and why science-fiction is so important.
This is the #2 post in blog series on writing speculative science fiction. It’s from a workshop I conducted at Writers & Books in February 2020.
This idea of social commentary instead of simple forecasting means the level of accuracy in science fiction isn’t as important as the philosophical content. Just as technology itself is inert, it’s how we use the technology – or how we use the speculation - that matters.
Consider Margret Atwood – the mother of all speculation and her commentary on the religious and societal subjection of women. The elements of The Handmaid’s Tale include women forced to cover their bodies and the subservience of females in the name of religion. Neither of those concepts are new, in fact, they are part of some of the oldest tenants of society. What makes The Handmaid’s Tale speculative is it takes something happening currently and pushes it forward, more and more, until it reaches a future extreme.
Note that a future extreme path for a scientific breakthrough, technology, or social precept is not the end of it. Atwood’s Gilead is not the end of misogyny; it’s a stage of misogyny, and the situation could get better or worse for the women in Gilead.
Don’t be afraid to make drastic predictions when you’re speculating. The future consequences of emerging tech and trends often seem extreme to someone looking forward, while it seems perfectly average to the person living it. The proliferation of automotive use would look radical to someone from the bygone era of horse and buggy. Conversely, someone closely watching the emergence of the combustion engine in the 1800s may have predicted the future widespread use of cars.
When you’re consciously immersed in current science, events, and social spheres you can make canny predictions and adroit philosophies. When you practice on your own, you may want to start with predictions of the near future, something that may emerge in ten or twenty years because we don’t have to squint when we're looking at something close by. I could look at the popularity of 15-30 second video sharing apps like Tic-Tock and imagine a future where video snippets are the new preferred mode of communication – a la text messages.
Your prediction doesn’t have to be completely serious, because it’s some percent commentary and some percent prediction. So, for example, we’ve seen that Andy Warhol’s idea that everybody gets 15 minutes of fame has somewhat come true in our age of blogs, YouTube, and social media. So maybe, in the future, everyone’s 15 minutes is mandated and scheduled, in the name of fairness. I might know, from the day I was born, that, for example, at 9am on February 28th, 2022, I will get my 15 minutes in the global spotlight. I get my whole life beforehand to plan how I’m going to use those minutes.
Use the comment section to tell me your predictions. Save any predictions you make and use them to write short stories or as part of your sci-fi worldbuilding.
This is the #1 post in blog series on writing speculative science fiction. It’s from a workshop I conducted at Writers & Books in February 2020.
Speculative and Science Fiction Writers are the explorers of the future. Until we invent time machines, speculation is the closest we can get to peering into what the future holds for us. But how do we explore? Those writers from our past who got it right, who successfully speculated – how did they do it?
I think about it like this: as we move through time, all of reality is replaced, piece by piece by inventions and ideas that were once speculation. Straw huts became brick huts, and then wooden houses. Medicine was based on magic, and the humors, and then slowly, piece by piece, science. And then better science.
As speculative writers, it’s our job to look forward and find the next piece of reality that’s set to be replaced. It might happen slowly, like medicine, or there could be a catalyst that changes course, like travel restrictions in the wake of 9/11 – we’d never walk through an airport the same again.
There’s no formula to help you figure which arm of society is going to be soon replaced by a cybernetic prosthesis. 100 years ago, who could have predicted that we’d outsource our socialization to electronic media?
On the other hand, some authors can predict the future with astounding accuracy. In his 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner predicted “wearable technology, Viagra, video calls, same-sex marriage, the legalization of cannabis, and the proliferation of mass shootings.”
When asked how he was able to so clearly envision many of the tenets of the near future, Brunner cites his study of history and his intense focus on current events. Science Fiction superstar and inventor of the cyberpunk genre William Gibson (who we’ll discuss at length later) cited a similar preoccupation with the present as his inspiration. As we’ll see throughout our discussion today – speculation on the future is a veiled comment on the here and now.
This series will focus on how study of the past and engagement with the present helps science fiction writers create vivid, believable futures. I hope you enjoy this journey to the future with me.
Other Blogs in this Series:
I read fourteen books in 2019, two over my usual goal of one per month. I’m not entirely sure how I found the time, but a long, electronics-free vacation, coupled with the brevity of Pratchett’s books, had something to do with it, I’m sure.
Here are some of my favorite books I read during the last year, and why I loved them. If you’ve read any of these and want to chat, I’ll be taking over Facebook’s Fantasy and Science Fiction Readers lounge this Friday from 2-4 pm, so make sure to stop by. This takeover is part of the Lounge’s Anniversary Giveaway – more on the giveaway at the end of the post.
Books 1- 5 of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
I had heard about Discworld before and was intrigued, but I like to read all the books in a series, and 44 novels seemed like much too big of a commitment. After some research, I found out that the series is kind of split into subseries that follow different characters, with all the stories occurring on the Discworld.
I read The Color of Magic and loved it. Pratchett’s voice is so light and fun, it’s easy to breeze through these books, which are a deft mix of high fantasy and high fantasy parody. He pokes fun at the same aspects of fantasy that I do, while still telling a complete and compelling story. I ended up reading the first five books in the order they were written, as opposed to the subseries order or the order in some of the complex Discworld series maps I’ve seen online. I’m happy with this reading order, and I’m currently on book six – Wyrd Sisters.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
About half of the fiction I read is outside of the Sci-Fi and Fantasy spheres. I like to focus on classics I’ve missed, cozy mysteries, vampire camp, and current books with a buzz. Commonwealth falls into the buzz category, which is often a disappointment to me, but I found Patchett’s sweeping family saga captivating. However, had I researched it before I picked it up, I would never have read it.
Mild spoilers ahead.
The book starts with a chance encounter, which leads to an affair and an eventual marriage that blends two families. The blended family siblings are the main characters of the story, which covers about half a century of their lives. Their brother’s accidental death is one of the book’s catalysts and the reason why I would have skipped it if I had known. My brother died accidentally a few years ago, and I planned on avoiding books with sibling death as the subject until I wasn’t so raw. However, Patchett handled the topic with care and insight. Deaths like his leave in a hole in reality that can only be lived around, not ever filled, a fact the author understood perfectly.
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The Great American Cookbook by Clementine Paddleford
I’m a cookbook person. I own about a dozen standards, a ton of cooking magazines, and I check out a new cookbook at the library once a week. I checked out The Great American Cookbook, and I knew I had to buy a copy for keeps.
The book is divided by American regions and then by state, with each state offering classic location-specific recipes. What makes this unique, besides the top-notch recipes, is that almost every recipe comes with a story about the person who provided it, often with a description of the cook’s home and meal from the author. It gives each dish a personal, comfy feel.
Fantasy and Sci-Fi Reader’s Lounge Giveaway
Facebook's Fantasy and Sci-Fi Readers Lounge is one of the best places on the web for genre readers and authors. They're celebrating their first anniversary with this awesome giveaway! Here’s the link to enter: http://fsfreaders.com/event/one-year-anniversary
Remember to stop by the lounge for my takeover on Friday, January 10th from 2-4pm EST!
How many books are you planning to read in 2020? What’s on your list? Tell me in the comments!
by Alison Lyke
Happy Winter Solstice! It's the last one of the decade. In honor of the day, I wrote a fantasy, flash-fiction story. So, cuddle up by the fire and enjoy!
Abrin was born on the last second of the last day of the millennium. He was an ending and a beginning wrapped up in one person. Someone born at such an extraordinary moment could be a natural sorcerer with new kinds of powers learned and studied throughout his lifetime. Or, he might be an abomination too deviant to be allowed to live in this world. Abrin had been alive for nearly two decades without performing magic, and it looked like the latter was the case. On his twentieth birthday, the guardians of magic came to collect their due.
Since he was an infant, the wizards had visited him on the last day of the year. They’d ask him endless questions: Do you have strange dreams? Do you smell things that aren’t there? Have you ever wished something into existence? The only thing young Abrin wished was that the wizards with their bright robes and probing wands would leave him alone, which never did come true.
As an adult, Abrin was only interviewed by bureaucrat wizards who wore smart suits instead of spangly robes. They didn’t ask him a lot of questions, just “Have you performed any magic you could reproduce for me?” In the last three years, he’d seen the same wizard on his birthdays, a bespectacled stodgy fellow ironically named Angmar the Radiant.
“If you don’t have anything to show me next time,” Angmar said matter-of-factly on his last visit, “you know, that’s it for you.”
Abrin resented the wizards and their predetermined ideas of who he should become. He preferred to lay around his family’s farm doing odd jobs and fishing in the stream that ran the length of the property. His mother and father had long given up on him becoming anything but a sacrifice to incomprehensible wizard gods.
As the sun set on the last day of the year, Angmar knocked on Abrin’s kitchen door. The sound was muted by the flurry of falling snow blanketing the countryside. The wooden door sprung open to reveal Angmar, and a contingent of tough-looking wizards come to cart Abrin away.
“Who opened the door?” Angmarthe Radiant asked when he spotted Abrin, seated in front of the hearth on the far side of the farm kitchen.
“I did,” Abrin said. As he rose from the stool, all the objects in the kitchen lifted three feet above the ground. The table, stools, ice-chest, and even the dog bed, complete with its resident hound all began to float.
Angmar and his goonish wizards were elevated as well. Abrin made a dismissive wave with his hands, and the men flew back out of the door and landed roughly on the snowy ground outside. “I guess that’s it for me,” Abrin added as his kitchen door slammed and locked without him lifting a finger.
Remember, it only gets brighter from here!
I wrote this blog as part of my upcoming Dark Spirits Author Takeover of Facebook’s Fantasy and Science Fiction Readers Lounge. Join me this Friday, October 4th, and we’ll talk all about dark and evil ghosts.
Lord Banquo from Macbeth by William Shakespeare
,Macbeth and Banquo were war buddies until the Three Witches foretold that Macbeth would be king and Banquo would father a lineage of kings. After Macbeth kills the reigning king and assumes the monarchy, Banquo pledges his loyalty, but wonders about Macbeth’s quick ascent to the throne. “I fear you played most foully for it,” Lord Banquo says of Macbeth’s crown, prompting Macbeth to turn his foul play on Banquo himself. Macbeth succeeds in having Banquo killed, but his son narrowly escapes.
Banquo’s bloody ghost haunts Macbeth’s feast, as an apparition only Macbeth can see, inhabiting Macbeth’s seat at the table. Lord Banquo’s ghost shows up again later in the play, along with eight of his future descendants, all destined to be kings.
Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Many people would name the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come as the spookiest of specters in Dickens’s parade of phantoms, but I argue he was doing his job. If Scrooge were a good person with lovely Christmases in his future, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come would seem like a jolly elf.
On the other hand, Marley’s ghost is bleak. He’s doomed to an eternity of chain dragging and painful wailing. Marley is damned, not to hell, but to Earth, where he’s compelled to wander endlessly, carrying a physical representation of the anguish he inflicted on others by being greedy and selfish. If I were Scrooge, I wouldn’t need the other three ghosts to convince me to clean up my act, seeing Marley’s spirit would be enough.
The Dead Men of Dunharrow from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Dead Men are a ghostly army, also known as the “Oathbreakers” because they refused to provide promised aid in the ancient war against Sauron. They are cursed and must haunt the caves and the mountains they fled to when running from the conflict.
To earn their freedom, the Dead agree to fight in the latest battle against Sauron. While they appear as a spectral army, complete with horses, banners, and weapons, they don’t fight with their swords; fear is their weapon of choice.
Miss Jessel and Peter Quint from The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Jessel and Quint are by far the darkest spirits in literature and the first ghosts I thought of when conceiving this blog topic. Before their deaths, Jessel and Quint were illicit lovers working at the Bly estate, spending a lot of time with the two young children living at Bly, Miles, and Flora. If the children’s current governess’s grim musings are to be believed, the pair survived death by possessing the children.
The Turn of the Screw is especially terrifying due to the implied corruption of innocence, coupled with the creepy, gothic atmosphere suffocating the residents of Bly. Jessel and Quint’s ghosts may not be real, but if they aren’t, then there’s something seriously wrong with both the children and their governess. Very dark indeed.
What is the darkest spirit or scariest story you've ever read?
This post is in honor of my upcoming Mystery Takeover of Facebook’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Readers’ Lounge this Thursday from 10 am to 1 pm. Stop by to talk about mysteries, play games, and access exclusive giveaways and prizes.
My Favorite Mystery Novels
I have always loved mysteries. As a kid, I was enamored by the likes of Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Kids, and Encyclopedia Brown. Even though I write mostly sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, I still enjoy curling up with a cozy mystery on the occasional dark and stormy night. Also, almost every great book has an element of mystery to it, and I try to keep that tradition alive in my stories.
A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell
Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, pulls a rare magic trick with the characters mentally and physically fleeing from the consequences of events that occurred decades ago, while keeping the central incident hidden until the very last pages. This story of a young heir to a large estate, a hot, rainy summer, and a series of poor choices reminiscent of everyone’s wild days turns into a taut, claustrophobic thriller.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
In this Agatha Christie novel, each of the ten characters gets their study; no one is who they say they are, or even who they think they are. The story has many twists that keep you guessing – if you can avoid spoilers for this famous novel.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
The movie was well done, but it does not do justice to the book’s multiple narration format. Where Amy has “gone” and why is up for debate along with the nature of villainy and the reliability of each of the book’s narrators.
My last two favorite mysteries are series:
The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris
This series of novels checks off all my boxes: vampires, Louisiana, magic, and fun! These stories revolve around a telepathic waitress and her adventures with local paranormal personalities. The writing is a little pulpy, and some of the books withhold too much, so you don’t get the chance to figure out the mystery, but overall, these books are fun and fast reads.
The "Cat Who" Books by Lillian Jackson Braun
These nearly never-ending adventures of aging journalist Jim Qwilleran and his two preternaturally intelligent Siamese cats are my favorite mystery novels. The mysteries are relaxing and comfortably formulaic, though well-written. Many fans enjoy the grittier early stories, which cover Qwill and the cats as they solve mysteries related to his job at a big city newspaper. But I prefer the later books following Qwill’s relocation to the sleepy, idyllic (yet somehow still crime-ridden) Moose County.
Thanks for reading and don’t forget to join me in the Fantasy & Science Fiction Readers’ Lounge this Thursday!
This is # 5 of a 5-part blog series on how to make fantasy and science-fiction world's feel real. It's based off of a science fiction and fantasy world-building prompt session I ran at this year's Ladder Literary Conference.
About this World-Building Series
When we think of a fantastic world, we often think of the broad strokes, but it’s the small details of the world that make it come to life. Those little details are what we’re going to focus on in this blog series.
Tapestry of a Thousand Threads
A solidly built world can be a launch pad for a handful, or even dozens, of stories. Terry Pratchett wrote 42 books based all based in his high-fantasy Discworld. Steven Erickson’s Malazan series spans hundreds of years of his world’s history in ten massive volumes.
These worlds are so expansive because they are livable and complete. We can imagine ourselves in them. Each detail is tied to a piece of history, custom, religion, technology, or magic, and all of these elements weave together to make the tapestry of the world.
Walking Through Your World
As Terry Pratchett said, “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
As writers we create a places that we, and eventually our readers, can go to and return from. The ability to travel by just turning the pages opens up a whole world of fun and possibility.
Final Prompt: Go into your world and walk around it as if you are a tourist visiting a new place. Walk down the street, go to a cyber-café, run from a monster, meet a wizard, start your quest...