Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Writers: How to Tell the Future

By R.W. W. Greene, @rwwgreene

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: One of science fiction’s strengths is showing future possibilities and what life might be like in them. R.W.W. Greene shares tips on how to create plausible (and intriguing) futures.

R.W. W. Greene is the author of The Light Years and Twenty-Five to Life, on bookshelves now via Angry Robot Books. He is represented by Sara Megibow of the KT Literary Agency.

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Take it away RWW…
There was a time wherein cellphones were getting steadily smaller, from the brick-sized majesty of the Motorola DynaTac (1983) to the Mobira Cityman (1987) to 1989’s Motorola MicroTac (about the size of a pack of chalkboard eraser) to the rugged Nokias of the ’90s and early Naughts. There was even a joke about the trend in the movie Zoolander (2001), and sci-fi writers were racing ahead with ideas about how small phones could go. Subdermal skull implants with antennas grown like coral along your spine? Sure!

The trend shattered in 2007 with the introduction of the iPhone, and today’s model can barely fit in your pocket much less under your skin. Take heart, soothsayers! Not even the dreamers at Star Trek, a group that ostensibly predicted the flip phone got it right. Tricorders, PADDs (Personal Access Display Device), and communicators have ever been separate devices, future design choices ignored by the wizards at Apple who insisted on merging them in reality.

(Here’s more with 7 Tips for Creating Believable Fantasy or Science Fiction Worlds)

Writing the future ain’t easy. It’s a moving target, and getting an idea on the page and in front of an audience before it comes true is increasingly difficult. I’ve lost track of the things I needed to delete or change in my latest book, Twenty-Five to Life, which I started writing in the heady days of 2010. There are doubtless many ways of prognosticating – Tarot, Magic 8-Ball, Phone a Pal – but I stole the one that works best for me from a discipline called ‘futurism.’

It starts with a piece of paper divided into five columns.

Leave the top of the first column blank, but at the top of column two write the word ‘probable.” Atop the third column write ‘possible.’ Column four gets the label ‘preferable,’ and five earns ‘wildcard.’ Then in column one, write the name of the thing you want to make predictions about. We’ll use ‘marriage’ as an example.

In column two, write a few bullets about the probable future of marriage – expansion of access, changes in definition, secularization, later onset, etc. 

In column three, write a few bullets about what is possible for the institution – line marriages, term marriages, online annulments, mandatory pre-marriage counseling, etc. 

Column four gets the preferable future, the one that makes marriage better. (I’ll leave that one to you. My preferences may not be yours.) 

Finally, dedicate that final column to the wildcard; what could come into our lives and upset the marriage applecart? Amorous artificial intelligences, for example. A despotic theocracy that sets us back two-hundred years. A virus that makes women eat their husbands after conception. Artificial wombs. Strict population control. Chips built into wedding rings that make it possible to know where your spouse is ALL. THE. TIME.

There you go, you’ve thoughtfully prognosticated, and now you have lots of ideas for your story. Are they right? You might be surprised. Taking the thing through the probable, possible, and preferable lets your logic and prior knowledge of the subject kick in. The wildcard kicks everything off track, but now you know where the rails were and can write accordingly. It was kind of a foregone conclusion that once our phones could show cat pictures, play games, and give us directions that we’d get hooked on the things. Everything we need is right there in our pockets, and we are so easily amused.

(Here’s more with 6 Secrets of Science Fiction and Fantasy World Building)

You don’t need to run every bit of your future through the columns. A kitchen table, for example, doesn’t need a lot of improvement. Power and tech are never going to get cheap enough to make them anti-grav, and what’s the point? It’s a table, and it works just fine with legs. World-building is in the details, though, and one well-described thumb can reveal the whole hand. What’s the future of wheelchairs, for example? Or dishwashers? Or dishes? Will all forks and spoons finally merge into sporks?

I eagerly await your answers and the fiction in which they appear.

About Twenty-Five to Life

Life goes on for the billions left behind after the humanity-saving colony mission to Proxima Centauri leaves Earth orbit ... but what's the point?

Julie Riley is two years too young to get out from under her mother's thumb, and what does it matter? She's over-educated, under-employed, and kept mostly numb by her pharma emplant. Her best friend, who she's mostly been interacting with via virtual reality for the past decade, is part of the colony mission to Proxima Centauri. Plus, the world is coming to an end. So, there's that.

When Julie's mother decides it's time to let go of the family home in a failing suburb and move to the city to be closer to work and her new beau, Julie decides to take matters into her own hands. She runs, illegally, hoping to find and hide with the Volksgeist, a loose-knit culture of tramps, hoboes, senior citizens, artists, and never-do-wells who have elected to ride out the end of the world in their campers and converted vans, constantly on the move over the back roads of America.

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  1. RWW
    This is a great method for world building! I wonder though about the wild card category. Isn’t there usually something that causes a radical departure from the norm. I mean, my grandparents would never have imagined there’d be little foil covers beneath the lids of medicines but one person tampering with the contents changed the whole packaging process. So maybe, ‘wildcard’ also carries backstory implications as well.

  2. That's a great point, and I imagine that any 'crazy' idea you come up with will arrive trailing streamers of its past. You have to have a 'how' in there somewhere.

  3. I had trouble with my scifi series when I realised that when I caught up with tablets, their viewpads would be redundant... so there's a moan somewhere about all the technology lost in the spacewars of the 2200s...
    But what I really liked in the last view years was realising Asimov's Mule was alive and well and kicking the fabric of orderly life on Earth to hell.

  4. A table without legs would suit me fine, fewer knee bruises. ;)

    Future wheelchairs is intriguing. Hover chairs?