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Writing About The Future In Fiction, by Ben Marshall

In the future, people will have huge television screens, wear disposable silver jumpsuits and eat instant meals you can dial up from a 3D food printer that sits behind a sliding hatch in the kitchen wall.  Wormholes to other planets in other solar systems will be commonplace and we’ll be at war with some kind of Intergalactic Confederation who will want to take over everything for some reason.

Or, we’ll be living in a post-apocalyptic future, with or without zombies, amongst the shattered, radioactive ruins of which we’ll wander about looking for caches of canned goods while returning to our violent, Palaeolithic Lord of the Flies ways.

Or, large swathes of the planet will look like super-large developing-world urban conglomerates, with Bladerunner-esque tech touches, a 1984-ish political system, and an even deeper and more desperate division between rich and poor.

If you’re sceptical the future will be like any of those stock sci-fi visions it’s probably because you’re aware that, as a species, our predictive powers, Arthur C. Clarke and William Gibson aside, are limited.  History is simply too non-linear.

Few in my early life thought personal computers would be such a big deal, that phones would become ‘life companions’, or that the jumpsuit thing wouldn’t pan out.  We couldn’t see social and technological trends converging, in part because it happened so quickly, and also because change came from so many directions.  Immersed in the chaos of our daily minutiae, we can’t see the bigger patterns forming.

So how do we research the future for our speculative fiction and sci-fi?

There are those who study the future for a living, chiefly in academia, business and defence, their methodologies allowing them to extrapolate possible and probable futures.  In general, these professionals are working on specific subsets of the future, with specific starting premises and assumptions.  In other words, they’re not world-building as we are in the literary realm.

Cultural historian and strategic specialist with the Dutch government, Boudewijn Steur, suggests, “There are actually many similarities between studying history and thinking about the future. In both cases, one needs to take multiple perspectives into account, and question what ‘the margins of uncertainty’ are.  Also, both in looking to the past and to the future, we need to ‘distance’ ourselves from the present timeframe and indicate causal relations, between disrupting events for example.”

With my novel manuscript, The Pricking of Thumbs, I wanted to explore the world of 2070, or as much of it as I could cram into a novel.  Thus the narrative stretches from the British Isles, across Europe and Russia to the remote Tien Shan in Asia Minor, revealing the environmental and social changes en route through the eyes of my freak show protagonists.   In the final chapters, I look more at the technological, and build a new form of the homo species – homo connectus.

To do all this, I looked at what I wanted to happen in the world, and then at what would be likely to stop that happening.  My ideal world was self-sufficient, sustainable, globally and locally democratic, and using developing technologies to reduce population size to preserve resources, climate, and wild and non-wild environment.  A greenie’s paradise.

Then I extrapolated current trends – sociobiological (history, politics, anthropology, religion, and neurobiology), environmental (climatology, geology, oceanography, and general evolution) and took a quick glance at disruptive events like the odds of a visitation from aliens (virtually zero), or someone thinking up a new political system fairer than anything anyone’s ever thought of yet (again, virtually zero), or a new energy source derived readily and cheaply from, say, sea water (low).

Summing up all those trends gave me a fairly standard, arguably obvious, future crash, or series of crashes, when the unquenchable human desire for infinite resources meets the reality of those same resources being finite.  This I called the Collapse.

On the technology side – and I had a particular interest in neurobiology for this story – I saw that the concept of a self-propagating computer super-intelligence (often called the Singularity) will become mainstream as global environmental issues increase pressure to think up new technologies to save us.  The Singularity concept is hotly debated, often derided, and widely used in fiction, but it’s one that, after examining the assumptions underlying the premise, I don’t buy into.   That said, to a power-hungry government or corporation on an unstable planet, a tame super intelligence would be desirable tech.

Finally, and related to the above, I also saw that the human species remains mired in its biology – humans cannot think or act beyond a certain set of physiological and neurological parameters.   It’s true we use telescopes, technology, language and math to extend our range somewhat, but it’s clear the only thing our species learns from history is that our species never learns from history.  This points to a cultural reality that the human default for thought and behaviour is the medieval.  This idea isn’t popular but I found no evidence to suggest it’s wrong so it informed my novel accordingly.

So, if you want to time travel into the future, grab the trends as defined by the best current evidence available in the sciences, pit your premises and assumptions about the future against that evidence, let your protagonists hope for the best and plan for the worst – and hang on for a wild ride.  Bonne chance!


Ben Marshall’s author website:

Ben Marshall’s bio page


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Writing Novels in Australia

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very thought-provoking, Ben. Especially since that’s the genre I (mainly) write in… thank you. 🙂

    September 29, 2013
  2. Better question will be how people will and if they will read in the future…anyhow great post!

    March 7, 2014

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