Writing the Future #6: Foresight
This is the 6th (and last) post in blog series on writing speculative science fiction. It’s from a workshop I conducted at Writers & Books in February 2020.
The convergence of the social and the tech is what makes a story. Authors project a world into the future, and now create the people who live that future. The character’s movement through this new world is shaped by the tomorrow the author created. Maybe the character will need to overcome the obstacles presented by science or society, perhaps she’ll work with to improve the world, maybe he’ll be the inventor or the catalyst.
Instead of explaining this world, it’s best to give clues about it through the character’s interaction with their environment. Take, for example, Offred’s interaction with her room, upon waking, in A Handmaid’s Tale:
“When the window is partly open--it only opens partly--the air can come in and make the curtains move. I can sit in the chair, or on the window seat, hands folded, and watch this. Sunlight comes in through the window too and falls on the floor, which is made of wood, in narrow strips, highly polished. I can smell the polish. There's a rug on the floor, oval, of braided rags. This is the kind of touch they like: folk art, archaic, made by women, in their spare time, from things that have no further use. A return to traditional values. Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want?
On the wall above the chair, a picture, framed but with no glass: a print of flowers, blue irises, watercolor. Flowers are still allowed. Does each of us have the same print, the same chair, the same white curtains, I wonder? Government issue?
Think of it as being in the army, said Aunt Lydia.”
We can tell, just from this description of this future room, that Offred is trapped because the window doesn’t open. Her picture, ominously, doesn’t have glass. We can take a few guesses as to why. It also makes the reader wonder – who is the “us” who gets government furniture and is there a “them” who doesn’t?
The Power of Foresight
Social and scientific speculation combine in essential ways, and the rest of the world is taking notice. You may find yourself speculating on how climate change will change the future of sports and other outdoor activities. If you do, you could end up among the science fiction writers France has hired to take part in its Defense Innovation Agency – a group of writers who create speculative climate change scenarios for the French military.
Whether it’s predicting the future for the military, telling futuristic stories, or philosophizing on the impact of new tech, science fiction is a vital part of the fabric of the present and it helps to weave the tapestry of the future.
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.
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