All stories age. Even those set in the author’s present, that accurately reflect the time and place in which they were written, can come to seem quaint, offensive, or just plain wrong as societal values change. Setting a story in the far future or the undocumented past can’t save an author either, as the plot, the attitudes of the characters, and the theme, will still reflect the author’s values, or the values of a society the author is raging against.
(On the other hand, if a story is set in a very distant period, than much can be forgiven: xkcd.com/771/)
Near-future science fiction is especially vulnerable to aging out. Back in the ’70s, the standard catchphrase “It’s 1984” was used all the time when there was any hint of government surveillance impinging on civil liberties, but we’re long past the date of Orwell’s novel and the phrase is rarely heard anymore — and these days, with the abundance of social media, many of us are signing up to be surveilled.
Technology evolves in unexpected ways, values change, history happens — and story worlds become obsolete.
This fear of early obsolescence or “aging out” makes the near future a scary place to set a novel. What’s the lifespan of a book going to be when the associated history is changing even as the novel is written? My newest novel, The Red: First Light, is set in the very near future. I needed to have “a war going on somewhere.” For various reasons I decided to set the opening conflict in the African Sahel, only to have the region become a big item in the news just before publication. I crossed my fingers and hoped that unfolding political events would not make the story irrelevant. Other elements used in the story have also been making the news, but I won’t mention those for fear of spoilers.
Selecting which technological aspects of the story world will stay the same as in the present, and which will change, is the next near-future booby trap. When trying to set a story in what is almost-but-not-quite the real world, it’s good to keep in mind that change isn’t constant and that well-adapted technologies can stick around for a long time, even as other aspects of the world evolve. It’s also true that individuals adopt new devices at different rates. I got my first smart phone only about a year ago (and good luck trying to pry it out of my hands!) while my husband is content with a phone that just does text messages and calls. So it’s fair to include familiar elements and old-fashioned people.
And then there’s the issue of keeping up with, of being aware of, what is actually possible now. A few weeks ago, a team at Stanford discussed their work creating biological computers to function inside of cells, in 2012 a quadriplegic was controlling a robotic arm via brain implants, and at least within the United States the legality and limits of drone surveillance and technology has recently become a subject of hot debate. As many have already said, we’re living in a science fiction world. With so much going on, is there any need to make things up?
Well…yes. Yes, there is. But still…
Technology is evolving so quickly, in so many places, in so many forms, that it’s all too possible to discover that a made up “future” tech already exists, with its potential repercussions researched and discussed. It’s almost certain that an author will miss some technological development, likely well known to those working in a particular field, that might have affected the story.
One further little twist: There’s also the question of what is “real.” Remember the mosquito spy drone? Not real, of course, but maybe next year?
All these are good, sensible reasons for a writer to stay away from near-future fiction, but despite all that, some of us keep wading in. I like the subgenre, particularly for its relevance to this world we actually live in. Besides, it’s a great excuse to spend time delving into subjects I might not have been aware of, or had the time to look into, otherwise.
Research can be addictive though, and it’s easy to get derailed by details, stymied by the question of whether or not you’ve got it “right enough.” And then there’s the temptation to include all sorts of extrapolation in a story, to explain everything. Robert Jackson Bennett has used the phrase “Hot Mess Novels of Excess” to describe big, sprawling efforts, including his own. Plenty of great books fall into this category, and extrapolative science fiction is full of them.
Taking the opposite approach, an author can deliberately narrow the focus of the story. Less to go wrong that way, right? Maybe. Still, it’s a legitimate choice to aim for a fast-paced, focused tale. This can be techno-thriller territory, cross-genre stuff that can appeal outside the bounds of the science fiction genre – and in full-disclosure mode, this was my goal with The Red: First Light.
So how important is it to stay accurate to the world? Is an extrapolative SF novel spoiled if history or technology overruns it? Yes, sometimes. But a well-written novel can survive long past the obsolescence of the history it contains or the technology it projects. Though I call this sort of near-future science fiction “extrapolative,” we all know science fiction isn’t predictive. It’s a thought experiment. A test bed of what could happen, and where we might be going. A reflection of the human condition.
In the end, it’s the strength of the story that matters.
I think it’s best to regard near-future fiction as impending alternate histories—stories set in parallel universes, still familiar to us, but where events are sure to follow a divergent path.