Writing the Future

This is not the essay on race in America that I’ve been thinking about a lot in the last couple of weeks, and do need to write sometime, at least to express how the topic fits into my books (Book Five is “the American book,” as I’ve been saying for a while, not that they all aren’t, and will have a lot to do with racial tensions in our history). But this isn’t the time, because mine isn’t the voice you need to hear right now on that subject. (Here’s a voice I think you should hear. And please comment with others.)

However, thinking about one aspect of the future (and the past, and how they work together) leads to thinking about the future in general, and to wondering how in the world anyone manages to write about it. I suspect I rather blithely chose 2173 as the year to begin my story because of the Boston Tea Party anniversary, and the vague idea that it was distant enough from the present for someone to have invented time travel, and only realized afterwards that I’d have to invent the intervening history of the world. A century and a half or so is possibly the worst amount of history to have to imagine (in the same way that, so I believe since I’ve been trying to do it, half an acre of land is the worst amount to landscape): enough that plenty of significant events have taken place between now and then, but not enough that people have forgotten about them. (The parallel, in case you’re wondering: too much land to transform into and maintain as tidy bedding areas, but not enough to allow it to go wild. This assumes you haven’t hired a gardener, or… a pet historian?)

Anyway, here are some of my thoughts about writing the future, which will by their very nature be disagreed with by a significant number of speculative fiction fans (and SF is the genre we’re dealing with in the vast majority of books set in a time substantially post-present). But so it goes.

1. The writer is not required to predict the future correctly.

This seems pretty self-evident, though it’s the aspect of future-fiction that’s the easiest to rip apart, given enough time that the future becomes the past (and given that some critics prefer easy inaccuracies as subject matter, rather than large and difficult truths). I do think writers should put some effort into extrapolation from the present into the future, but it’s impossible to get everything right.

Technology is the simplest example. I’m very glad myself to have had the opportunity to edit books I started writing in 2002, wherein I managed to predict the technology of 2012 with reasonable accuracy. The rewrite might last another 20 years or so, and there has to be a point past which I don’t care; in editing Not Time’s Fool I’ve just left in the “retro” notepad computers my characters use in a jump to the 2130s, because why not imagine that iPads and their ilk last even when supplanted by the miasma of ever-present information clouds? Personally, I seldom believe that technology itself is the point; it’s the uses of technology that matter, and what they mean in broader terms – for example, the uterine replicators of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan novels and what they mean for fictional-future-women’s lives. They are in some sense an extrapolation of today’s birth control methods, but with a different twist, the details of which are thought out as needed for each story. (I approve of this method, and dislike multi-paragraph caressing of technical specifics that I don’t need to understand.) We’re not replacing uteruses yet (and in my future, we don’t); if we get there we may approach the matter differently, but even if that happens in the next decade it won’t affect my enjoyment of the fictional approach. I can also find enjoyment in an occasional reread of Asimov’s Multivac stories, even though he got the wrong end of the stick entirely in imagining that computers would get bigger and smarter instead of smaller and more networked; but it’s okay, because the questions raised are still interesting and even chilling. And, in a slightly different vein, I’m not bothered by the inexplicable lack of communication technology in Connie Willis’s near-future time travel series, because even while I’m musing “Why don’t they at least have cell phones, or email, or instant messaging?” I am still appreciating the characters and the humor and the humaneness of the moral arc. (But it is worth thinking this kind of thing out before you start writing, just to avoid throwing readers out of the story too badly.)

2. The writer is free to snack on six impossible things before breakfast.

Although probably it’s best to limit yourself to one or two when you start writing them down; you don’t want to spoil your appetite. I have a vague sort of writing dictum that says I am allowed one totally impossible technology and one major coincidence per book, though I don’t actually count them, and I’m sure that depending on your interpretation you can find more. I did a fair amount of reading about time travel before I started writing, and I’m pretty sure it’s not ever going to happen, but most readers will be able to suspend disbelief in that one thing if the rest of the story is believable. And I do actually quote Arthur C. Clarke’s “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” in Time Goes By, with regard to another method of time travel that my time-traveling characters are having difficulty believing in; it all depends on where you start out from. (Time travel is good for perspective, too; you’re always meeting people whose ideas of whizz-bang technology are hugely different from your own. Accurate sea-clocks; revolving pistols; atomic bombs.) Magic has rules, of course, or it should: not just for moral reasons but because it’s more acceptable, more reasonable, if it’s hedged around with limitations. The same goes for any fictional impossibility.

3. The writer is not obliged to avoid ideology and political slants.

This is more a stance on fiction in general than on future-fiction in particular, but for some reason there’s been fussing of late about politics in SF, as if the genre had always been free of ideological bias until certain people started writing it (read: people who do not agree with me; read: women and minorities; etc.). All fiction is political, or at least opinionated. And it’s completely impossible to invent a future history for our planet without using one’s political brain. When people ask me where in my head all the unpleasant stuff up till 2173 came from, I joke that after all I did invent it during the Bush administration, but it’s not entirely a joke, and though I don’t actually think we’re headed for isolationism and theocracy in the next fifty years, my experiences and observations in the early 21st century are what’s colored the world I’m writing about in the 22nd.

The corollaries here are: the writer is not required to adhere to the ideology of the reader (which would in any case be more impossible than time travel), the writer isn’t obliged to be explicit about politics unless desired (and ideological rants are generally boring in fictional context), and the characters’ beliefs and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the writer.

Also, dystopia is a valid choice for the fictional future, but not the only one.

4. The writer can make choices for symbolic or metaphorical reasons, or because they are convenient to the story.

Or even just for the sake of a joke, e.g. making Minnesota a desert so Dr. Lake can hand a quip about their surname down to his daughter. I think it is reasonable and even required to research climate change when writing about Earth’s future, and I did study speculative maps of sea level rise and so forth, but if you tried to map out my world in terms of where the water is, I doubt it would be internally consistent. I needed to flood Amsterdam while leaving part of Popham Beach, Maine above water, and while those choices may not make hydrological sense they do work narratively. Which for me is enough. (More on this when I get around to the essay on historical fiction.)

5. The writer is allowed to make readers use their brains.

In other words, some of this future-history stuff you need to figure out by yourself from context, rather than from “As you know, George” paragraphs of what-happened-when. I try to avoid sticking bits of history textbook into the narration whenever possible; occasionally there’s no way around it, or I’m too lazy to figure one out, but for the most part it’s going to leak out a small piece at a time in dialogue between people who assume that history is something they all learned in school.

6. The writer may make use of unreliable narrators.

And to continue from the previous thought, not everyone remembers what they learned in school, or cares; and there are subjects the point-of-view characters would rather not discuss. This happens in multiple places in my books, but particularly with regard to the American Arcadians and their views on race. As early as the second chapter of Time for Tea, there’s a distinct air of “No one racist here; that’s all those other people over there” along with “We don’t talk about that sort of thing,” and I can tell you for sure that every time George insists that his father is not a racist, somewhere deep in his brain there’s an echoing “Oh shit; yes, he is.” This is a very difficult sort of dance to pull off, and I’m sure I haven’t done it perfectly; it’s too easy to read the surface layer and ignore the guilt bubbling underneath. And it does take quite a while to boil up to the level of obviousness. But from a narrative standpoint, it’s interesting to play with.

7. Both the writer and reader need to remember that progress through history is not a straight line or a mathematical arc.

There’s a bit of metaphor about this coming up in Time Goes By, using the tacking back and forth of sailboats: generalized progress, but not direct, and at the mercy of wind and current (so you might even be moving backwards for a while, in the context of some imagined goal). I think this can be seen in very broad terms – say, if your world is marred by war or natural disaster or political paralysis or something else that keeps you from making progress, technologically or philosophically, then you’re going to end up backtracking for a while – but it can also inform small and particular decisions. One of the first bits of critique I got on an early chapter of Time for Tea was that the characters were being too formal with each other, calling each other by title and surname on first meeting; the assumption was that since we’ve been moving away from formality in our interactions for a while now, that we’d just keep going in the same direction, and possibly we’d not only use first names exclusively but get an automatic read on those ID chips and find out all sorts of personal information that would be picked up in conversation immediately (just as we nowadays may reveal quite a lot in our Facebook profiles). But there’s no reason this is necessarily true; in a century and a half there’s plenty of time to rethink personal interactions and retreat to, or reinvent, a sense of privacy and of polite discourse. I made this sort of back-and-forth explicit in a bit of narrative about the self-directing cars that everyone in the 2170s “drives” – yes, we’ll have these in a few decades, and yes, the cars will then be programmed with personality and will talk to us, and then… we’ll all get tired of that and go back to efficient silence. When I send Beatrice back to the 2130s in Not Time’s Fool, I get to have a little fun with that concept, and let her argue with a taxi that’s determined to relate a tourist itinerary she has no interest in. She also gets to ride in a truck that’s actually driven by a person, which at that point in her history is still a possibility, though perhaps only a little blip of one due to situational poverty or historical pride or other factors. One should also note that many Americans in my books do still have their own cars despite infrastructure alterations; this may count as a political statement, or a joke, or something else entirely.

That’s my list, for now at least. I could easily write another essay on how future-fiction is closely related to the alternate-history genre; writers of alternate histories are, in fact, imagining a new future that starts from a point in the past rather than from the present. They have the advantage of being given historical figures to work with, and a lot of historical context, but those also work as a disadvantage. It’s a genre that requires a vivid imagination along with a scholarly insistence on boundaries of fact: a very difficult trick to pull off well.

And since my books also count as historical fiction, I could write about how imagining the past is similar to and different from imagining the future, and how my above criteria apply to that exercise of imagination, but that really would have to be another essay! And not one I have time for at the moment.

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