Romancing the Future

First published in the SFWA Bulletin.

According to Leonard Cohen, it's murder; the advertisements of a British cellphone company suggest it's going to be orange. Certainly, the future isn't what it was, and it isn't much like what we think it's going to be, either. It's going to be stranger than we can imagine, and more mundane. The only thing we can know is that it isn't going to be much like today. That seems pretty obvious, but it's only in the last two hundred years that people have begun to think of the future as another country, as real as the other countries of the world. For most of history, human beings fooled themselves into thinking that things would go on much as they always had. Even in the twentieth century, monolithic political entities (Hitler, Soviet Communism, Margaret Thatcher) believed that they would somehow be immune to time's little tricks. They were wrong. Cohen was right. The future, baby, it's murder.

Writing about the future should not be confused with prediction. There's a curious publication in Britain, Old Moore's Almanac, which lists the events for every day of the forthcoming year, from the weather through sport and politics, to what might happen to the famous and the notorious. Unlike Nostradamus, Old Moore's predications are not framed in vague allusions, but in workmanlike journalistic language, the kind of thing you see in the crime reports of a small town newspaper. A lot of people who don't read much sf suppose that this kind of nuts-and-bolts prognostication is what sf is all about, and of course it isn't. Most sf isn't about predicting changes; it's about how we will live with those changes, or with their consequences. For convenience, we can locate the inception of modern sf at the foundation of Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories in 1926. Before Gernsback, most fiction was not even set in the present, but in the past, as if recollected, at tranquillity and with hindsight, in a memoir. Although a few utopias looked forward, most were set nowhere (which is, of course, erewhon spelled backwards) or on remote islands. Those were the days when there were still a few pockets of unmapped land on the planet, and it was just about feasible to tuck a hidden society into the Himalayas or the African deserts. Nowadays, there would certainly be backpackers, those shock troops of Coca-Colonization, in the hidden kingdom. Even H.G. Wells set most of his sf in the present -- one of the strengths of The Time Machine is the way its journeys into the far future are anchored to the particularity of the present.

But Gernsback was quite specific. He wanted tales of the future. He wanted to show how science (rather, technology) would change the world for the better, and he set up the means of production to promulgate his visions of clean, utopian world cities buzzing with well-regulated transportation. And we haven't looked back since.

One of the problems (and one of the joys) of being an sf writer in the late twentieth century is that we live in the future of earlier sf. There was a palpable frisson when we reached 1984; there'll be a bigger one in 2001. As a genre, we build our fictional edifices on the fossilised remains of older futures. The shining cities of Gernsbackian fiction, like a cross between Speer's brutalist architecture and the inside of a white goods warehouse, with their autogyros and twenty lane highways with the traffic moving at the same speed in the same direction, and their aryan inhabitants, are as dead as the dodo, except when they are used, as in William Gibson's 'The Gernsback Continuum', as an ironic trope. We have overtaken more recent futures, too -- Larry Niven's Tales of Known Space posited manned interplanetary missions in 1975, as did Heinlein's future history. They are still fun to read, of course, but as alternate histories.

Of course, while it is easy to laugh at the implausibility of the shiny cities of the Gernsbackian future, or the famous sf magazine cover showing an interstellar pirate swarming over the edge of an airlock with a slide-rule in his teeth, our own nifty futures are going to contain an equal number of solecisms. For instance, the default future city is no longer based on Brasilia, but on Rio de Janeiro or New York, but there's no reason why, in 2050, say, there shouldn't be clean, ecologically efficient cities or, indeed, why there should be cities at all. The trend for making everything crowded, dirty, dangerous and frayed at the edges comes from the movies Blade Runner and Alien, was codified in the written genre by the cyberpunks, and has infected just about every sf future since. But just because everyone says it's going to happen, doesn't mean it will, and sf's default modes tell us more about our current perceptions of the way things are than the way things will be.

While we don't know what cities will be like in fifty years time, we do know what feels right, and writing about the future in sf isn't about getting it right; it's about making it feel right. The particular problem of sf writers is writing valid, realistic near-future fiction in a time where things are changing more rapidly than at any time in human history. Of course, that's what makes it challenging. (One can always write about the far future instead, by which I mean several millions years plus -- Stapledon's epic visions in Last and First Men are as valid today as they were in 1930, once you get past the first couple of chapters -- but cosmology is in such flux that you can't guarantee that your vision of the end of the universe is going to be valid in ten years time.)

Not everything changes rapidly, of course. If you stuffed Hugo Gernsback in a time machine and transported him from 1926 to our present, he wouldn't be surprised by cars or passenger planes or the Space Shuttle, or by TV or movies, or by fax or video machines, nor even by computers. All those things existed or were envisioned back then, although they were packaged differently. But he would be amazed by antibiotics, genetic engineering, rock music, shopping malls, the Internet. . . . None of that stuff was around back then, in any form. And he would be horrified by the dirt in most people's homes (we have all these labour-saving gadgets, but they don't work as well as they might), by the graffiti, and the crazy people we allow to wander around on our streets instead of treating them, and the huge numbers of drug addicts. Well, maybe not the numbers, but what they are addicted to. He would know all about cocaine, and could probably understand people using crack, but horse anaesthetic?

Everyone gets the future they deserve; the future envisioned by every era is no more than a heightening of the present. But simply heightening a single trend sharpens it to satire, which is what most mainstream authors, from P.D. James to Martin Amis, do. A believable future consists of dozens of interwoven elements. We no longer have futures in which one big change effects everything else; we've lived through a series of big changes, and we know how stubborn society is, how much inertia it contains. Generally, today's futures are denser, more random, more like life. We no longer think we have to invent our futures from the sewage system up (much of London's sewage system was built by the Victorians, and it's going to have to last a while longer). In fact, we don't need to invent much. The future is an invisible country that lies all around us, and with a bit of excavation we can work out how its people lived their lives.

My novel Fairyland, which despite the title is near future sf, starts in London about ten years from now and ends in Albania some twenty years later, after a detour through Paris. I wanted to write about near-future Europe, and I'd been working up to it in a few short stories set in the same history. And I wanted it to be as realistic as possible, so I set myself a few ground rules.

First, research. Not only the usual suspects, like New Scientist, Discover Magazine and Scientific American, but newspapers and news magazines, especially the business pages and life style sections. You can't predict where popular culture is heading, but if you can get a handle on what is happening right now, then at least you can invent some plausible trends. Business is obsessed with the future, and not just with what the price of copper will be doing in the next six months. The future is, in fact, big business in itself, and several people have made themselves millionaires by claiming to be experts. The Economist provides terrific coverage of social-political trends. And a lot of the stuff that happens in the background of Fairyland is simple reportage -- stuff I observed while travelling around the States and transferred to London (different countries exist in different years -- if London is 1996, then Albania is 1950, Japan 2010, Los Angeles 2000. Bosnia is 1914, or maybe 1490. And so on.).

Second, don't change everything. Connect the future with the present. Most of the characters in Fairyland have lived through the times we are living through or have lived through. One was there when the Berlin Wall fell. Another had a minor reggae hit record in the 1980's. And so on. People still put their pants on one leg at a time, and sit around in pubs drinking lukewarm beer.

Third, throw in a few random reversals and monkey- wrenches. Smoking is socially acceptable again, since it no longer gives you cancer. Birds are extinct. The nuclear processing plant at Sellafield chernobyled, and rendered much of North England uninhabitable. There has been a second civil war in the US, when fundamentalists tried to secede from the Union, and the British monarchy is no more (some might say that these last two items are no more than extrapolations).

Fourth, the usual informed guesses we all indulge in, and stuff we have to deal with because they are real, ongoing processes. So in Fairyland, global warming has warmed up London, but also caused unexpected changes elsewhere. London, like LA, is becoming a third world city, with assassination of street children, loss of public space, malaria, a higher crime rate and a greater population density. Europe is swamped with refugees from environmental disasters in Africa (the biggest commodity shortage in the next century will not be food or fossil fuels, but potable water; already, Egypt is limbering up for confrontations with countries upstream of the Aswan Dam).

Fifth, the sf element. That is, the one big change which informs the plot, the change that hurts some people, and empowers others. The novel is about how people deal with it. All the rest is background, but without the other four elements in place, the fifth will float free. That's why it is so hard to write sf novels. And why it's so much fun.

Designed with Mobirise html website template