Writing: The pitfalls of writing near future SciFi stories

I am churning out a series of 6 SF stories each approximately 40.000 words long. That is 100 pages per story (or a novella) in normal old-0school print.

Right now, with this post, I am procrastinating. I set myself to write a 5000 word short for Strange Horizons about the period of imprisonment of Enakshi Tharoor, the main character in “Sunrise”. It was hinted in “Sunrise” then dropped.

Near future

The series start somewhere in 2021, which is 9 years from now. I make some assumptions in my stories that will probably look completely stupid once we reach that moment, 9 years from now. Mistakes similar to: “It was 15 december 2105. The phone rang in the other room. Johnby, the 2000 kilo positronic robot picked up the horn and said: ‘ the house of mr. Daniels… I am sorry, mr. Daniels is not able to answer your call’.”

Around 1995 The Internet emerged to the mainstream. Search engines like Yahoo and Hotbot emerged. (Now, 2010, nobody hardly remembers HotBot.)  Self-publishing got new dimensions with the possibility to be read anywhere people had a modem and a dial-in connection to a provider.

Wikipedia did not exist yet. Mobile phones were shoe-box sized radio-transmitter/receivers you left behind in your car when you got out.

Johnby the robot will probably have some kind of “brain” using a mix of electronic and quantum-physics-related processes without being really a quantum-computer. Photonic processing might be a realistic option as well.

Probably Johnby will not be a classic humanoid robot at all, for many practical reasons. One possibility is that we simply skip the mechanical robots and use organic bodies instead as these are cheaper to produce. Think for instance of smart computers using the bodies of: augmented cats, augmented raccoons (who have hands with thumbs) or augmented human clones. IF we can bypass all the animal and human rights issues there.

While the phone was an incredible invention end of the 1800’s, we no longer have these things on a fixed location. It has become a personal item. And I guess it will be bound more and more to the body as we move on into future history.

Neuromancer, “The Stars my Destination” and Philip Dick

You see this issue with near future stories in Neuromancer. Many things – while mind-blowing before 1998 – feel outdated to me now. Leap 20 years back in time, before Neuromancer and you find Alfred Bester’s “Stars my Destination” and the work of Philip Dick, including “Ubik” and “Do Androids dream of electric sheep?” later to be used as the inspirational source for the 1983 movie: “Bladerunner”.

Bester wrote some awesome SF with “The stars”, which can be seen in one way as a retelling of: “The count of Monte Cristo”.

What makes those works of Bester and Dick differ from that of Gibson is maybe mostly the use of some magical element. Dick in his hallucinationary, crazy, sometimes paranoid dreams about a reality that always seems to fall apart on the seams. Bester in his almost anarchistic  depiction of an anti-hero: a guy who lost his morale’s, lives for revenge mostly and goes as far as murder, rape and anbandonment of the ones who help him, then re-invents himself: next to his depiction of a world where teleportation (called “jaunting”) is common good.

The result of Dick and Bester’s work is something that becomes larger than life. Even though flawed and outdated, the universes they sketch are still enjoyable due to their (dare I say?) transcendence of the time-period they were written in.

There is enough other stuff in those stories to make them still enjoyable for the kid I was in 1983 and the person I am 20 years later.

I think Neuromancer is one of the most important books of the 1980’s. It definately changed me as a kid and in the things I wanted to write about. What makes it dated is that it tried to be too realistic on certain things, while taking very contemporary elements without really warping them past the 1980’s. In the retro: “2001, a space odyssey” it is OK to take circuit cards out of HAL9000 to murder it. In a near future cyberpunk-story without some reverted technology-element weirdness to make up for it, it seems just old and odd to do something similar with microchips. Especially since it is so contemporary to that period.

Still: Neuromancer remains a nice story about a hacker and power, money, crazyness and street ninja’s.

“Sunrise”

I wrote Sunrise (go here for a brief description and download links to the story itself) as a near-future story, mainly to explore the basis of the story-world of 2060. I try to pinpoint where the technology is coming from, why countries and people who moved through “my version of something similar to the singularity, which is something completely different” do not interfere in the parts that stay behind.

In the story I assume Saudi Arabia will focus to uplift the population by providing the tools and the motivators leading to self-education (1: software to run simulations on any process, 2: solving local issues by the population itself, 3: social engineering). I assume wearables will run 32 cores and glasses and lenses are one direction where augmentation of the body by using technologies to make blind people see is a third direction.

I assume Android, Linux and Windows are still there, that Google, Google Translate, Google maps and Bing are still there, which might as well be like writing: “he pulled the 32 pin, 8 bit QuantumTeriffic  CPU from the computer that filled the better part of his room, still radiating heat from several parts exposed to the open air, then replaced it for a faster and smarter version before he switched it on and started “hacktheshitoutofit.exe” again from the DOS command line, using a 115.000 baud modem to connect to the world. His clock indicated it was July 23, 2012.”

Some things should remain magical and are better not mentioned at all.

Alternate realities

One of the ways out of this trap of writing near-future stuff that is either already outdated five years from now, or just too far out, is to move to an alternate reality. Stuff that could have happened if things would have gone a different direction. While still near future, it is plausible and recognizable enough as an alternative direction to withstand the test of time.

While trying to be as plausible as possible, finding solutions for the problems I create (why does Europe slide down in an IP deadlock? Why does it become like it is in 2060? Why would Saudi Arabia start to develop and sell wearable super computers on the world wide market? Why is my main character working there?) I also realize everything I write in this fashion has a ticking time bomb inside, making it old if I do not do something special.

Basic parameters

Style is one.

Characters is two.

Situations and scenery is three.

World is four.

Interaction is five.

Magic everyone would like to possess is six.

I introduce magic by the use of simulations and make that magic tangible by describing software able to simulate Paris and predict the economical and social  future development of that city over the period of one year. Who would not like to have that now?

The interaction in SF stories is usually on three levels:

  1. Between people
  2. Between people and the world they live in
  3. Between people and the technology/magic/objects they are surrounded by

The world itself has become something different, something new. It speaks. It connects. It forces interaction from and with the characters living in it. Cut that interaction out and you have a painting without backgrounds. A story that is like any other: people walking around, doing stuff. But it is more than just this. The “world” is a character, or a group of characters as well, with specific agenda’s, a specific purpose, specific rules. Acti with it and you are OK. Act against and you can get hurt. Think for instance of crossing the street without looking.

Situations and scenery help to shape the world, make it visible. Something happens somewhere and the better I can give you an impression, the more a story and the world in which it plays come to life.  Situations and scenery also need to be strong enough to engage the reader. Strong enough to move the reader, make the reader want to imagine it. They help paint the characters, show who they are, how they react, what keeps them awake at night, why they love or hate the other. How they love or hate each other. Make them real.

The characters all have background stories. They need to. They have relationships with and between each other and with other people. They have to. One scene can be completely different when one of these relationships changes. They have preferences, ideals, lack of ideals. They loathe specific stuff, like other stuff, prefer specific foods and specific ways of preperations, will never eat other foods. They act one way in one place, another in another. They remember. They get rattled, soothed, get put on the wrong foot. I usually get stuck when these elements are unclear to me. “Why would he/she act like this? What is the motivation, the reason, the background?”

The style is something else all together. One single scene can be described and painted in many ways and how polished or raw that is depends on the writer and the mood at that point. How realistic or fake the same thing feels when reading it. But also how it applies to the generic taste.

Pittfalls

I touched some in this post.

I think this list would be covering some:

  1. Being too contemporary – What is happening and important now will probably be old next year. This goes from fashion to technologies. Using punks or metalheads or dubstep-lovers as a template for future groups only works when you mix it with other elements. For instance: the 1979 mohawk is in a milder form (without the spikes, but with the same principles) what you see kids wearing as a hairstyle on the streets of Amsterdam and Firenze in 2012 for real. No leather jackets with spikes though. Three years from now, it is possible nobody will care about Twitter or Facebook at all when either has died or replaced by something newer.
  2. Being too specific – Nobody can predict what the future will look like 10 years from now. Nobody in 1985 suspected technology would move so fast in the next 20 years on some levels that things like Google Maps, smartphones and Layar would emerge exactly as they did. For such technologies to imagine (street maps on a wearable device you have available everywhere) is – however – not that hard. Our needs have not changed much. Take away the specifics and what we have and do is still very parallel to 20 and 60 years ago, only different.
  3. Being too excessive – The future history evolves incredibly fast but also incredibly slow. The development of technology at this point is almost impossible to predict. Will we have smart tables at some point, projecting images? Or will instead some internal system do all the work? What will culture do? Which direction will it move? What will be the most important directions? Utopian? Distopian?
  4. Being too modest – One thing that will not happen likely is a stand-still. When I tried reading “Infinite Jest”, I was bored out of my mind with the lack of any world building that was out of the ordinary. Technology progresses unless there is some blocking factor, usually market related. If not, things will change. Computers, phones, houses, doorways, the way we harvest energy, the sources we harvest energy from.
  5. Afraid to be wrong – Any good story takes certain risks and thus will – by default – make assumptions that will be wrong. For instance: will the main energy source still be oil in 2020? Or do we make moves like Germany, using more and more wind and solar energy instead? A minor question, a big assumption with a big difference. To get away with that is to build in certain tricks, making it plausible that if the future/the past would have taken a different direction, indeed we would still have that specific situation or solution.
  6. Lazy assumptions – How easy is it to make a wrong assumption based on a lack of research. What is going on in the fields you write about? The things you touch? Both the forces that drive things forward AS the things that hold developments back are important in this, I think. To explain why a possible future might go that direction AND did not go into another is the perfect way to cover up your mistakes and to cover up your wrong assumptions.
  7. Wrong timing – When did we clone humans and have commercial trips to the moon again? Some novels assumed that before 2000 we would fly to Mars and have colonies there while still using electron-tubes for electronic processes. Reality has been a bit slower than that. And faster in other accounts.

Themes

I was wondering where to place the part about themes. They turend out not to be part of my list of 6 basic parameters.

I guess in general the themes, as I look at it now, are the choices you make from all these elements. What kind of characters will I use? What keeps them awake? What is the leading element in that? What about the world itself?

“What will you focus on?”

For instance: all stories in the series on “the downfall of Europe” focus on love, the question of “what is freedom?” and on estrangement in one way or another. Each character develops as I write them and starting with some basic assumptions (and generally starting with shamefully bad writing) I edit them to fit the story as a whole. Each character shows a different viewpoint on these themes, from cold love to romantic love to broken love, to mundane love. From wondering what freedom is, to deliberately choosing an environment (Europe) that is restricted in almost any possible way, to sophisticated ways of brainwashing and implanted responses and thoughts. The estrangement can be from friends, from their own people, from ideas and from themselves.

I tend to overdo things in this department. Each story touches more than 3 themes and more than 3 narrative elements, making it more complex to keep things together and more prone to fall apart. Consider you read a story you think is about “A” but at a certain moment drops that “A” completely turns out to be about “B” all the time. What disappointments! What shame! And how forgettable a writer and a story becomes due to that!

How I think I can pull it off

When writing “Sunrise” and “Limiters” I had two main elements that were fragile as the stories were at that point.

“Sunrise” talks about uplifting an entire population, but I had not landed that solidly. Until I inserted an extra chapter called “Birthdays” in which the main character visits the birthday of one of the girls in her project. Instead of talking about it from a distance and everything feeling wrong, I dived right into the place, sat down with the main players and wrote a scene that is really nothing more than a birthday party with some girls.

Without that scene, the entire premise of the story, the reason why Enakshi, the main character is there to begin with, would have been weak to say the least.

I do something similar in “Limiter” where I step into another place and take the story to a specific point to land specific elements that otherwise remain floating, allowing the reader to make that “click” and land it. On hind-sight one of the most important elements is a girl from a similar background of Abayomi (the main character in “Limiters”) that lives with two friends in Paris, 6 months pregnant from a boy from Bretagne. While all the other things in that chapter help to bring other parts together, the pregnancy itself is what makes the love-story part “click” with that nice and definitive sound. At least when I wrote it.

Using this to survive the test of time

“Sunrise” and the five successive stories will either fall, stumble or have a delicious future based on these six elements: style, world, character, situations and scenery, interaction and magic.

If I get it all right, it might be still readable and enjoyable when the time arrives in which they play: 2060. Even better would be when the elements and themes I use are still relevant than.

I guess I will need some extra sessions to get there. For now, I am only halfway. The stories work for about 90%, with some work still to be done, but I did not smash them against the wall of future-proof things yet, to see how they will hold up and what will break off.

I also still need to read it from the point of view of: “bringing everything together and closing all relevant lines” to make them a solid whole you can smash, stomp on, drop from a plane and that will still be quite recognizable and still working when you pick it up from all the abuse and flip the “on” switch.

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