Writing the Future

The heart of science fiction is, how will the changes we’re seeing all around us make our future look? And sf authors are expected to be, if not accurate, at least plausible. This is something I find incredibly difficult. Some of my most admired authors do it with apparent ease. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up around the place.

Extrapolate current trends—carefully. This may seem obvious. But it’s very easy to mess up. “If This Goes On” style stories are rarely perceived as accurate from a standpoint of years later. Because it never goes on. Predictions are always that global warming or birth rate trends will destroy us, but ten years after that, the trend has gone in a new direction and we have a new set of predictions. The good news is, it’s fiction, you can predict what you like.

More is less. If you think about it, the future is much weirder than anybody predicted. Sure, it was strange, in the 50’s, to predict monstrous aliens, rocket ships as part of daily life, and teleportation. And none of that came off. But few of the writers of the 50s would have dared to predict quantum computing, cell phones, a household without a computer being a strange thing, satellite power, or nanotech. And all of that has happened or is currently happening. Genetic engineering is somewhere in between.

Follow genre conventions—also carefully. To some degree, this is wisdom. Obviously you don’t want to repeat what everyone else has done, or jump into the cliche bucket. But it’s hard to write a space story without faster than light travel. Difficult to write an interesting alien story without aliens. Near impossible to write a colonization story without another planet. (Larry Niven managed.)

Above all, don’t be afraid. We really are writing fiction, and the only judge is whether people buy it. Nobody is going to point and laugh if you predict incorrectly. They will point and laugh (or rather, not bother to read, which is worse) if you predict implausibly. But what really counts is the story. Yes, your worldbuilding, or futurebuilding, needs to be consistent and possible and carefully researched. But that is only the foundation. The heart of the story is the story, and that is what will sell. That is what matters.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cliff Burns
    Oct 06, 2008 @ 09:26:16

    The nice thing about writing SF is that if you’re wrong, it might take 50 years or so to find out. Personally, I long for a world of needle-nosed ships and daily excursions to the red sands of Mars.

    It’s the present day I find disappointing and boring.

    Good post…

  2. asherose
    Oct 06, 2008 @ 15:39:14


    Have you ever heard a song by Tom Smith called ‘Rocket Ride’? If you haven’t, I recommend it highly, along with the rest of his filk stuff.

    I want a shining tower of glass and steel,
    A rubber jumpsuit and a freeze-dried meal,
    The will to survive, the need to explore,
    The love of adventure, who could ask for more?

  3. Terra Kent
    Oct 07, 2008 @ 07:54:18

    I don’t write sf but that is good advice.

  4. asherose
    Oct 07, 2008 @ 08:13:49

    Thank you! 🙂

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