The Perils of Near-Future Science Fiction—and How to Write it Anyway, by Shallee McArthur

Science fiction. It makes people think “voyages of the Starship Enterprise” and “in a galaxy far, far away.” Those things—far flung futures, space adventures, new planets, etc. etc.—are some of my favorite things about science fiction.

But that’s not the kind of science fiction I wrote. (At least, not for this book.)

The Unhappening of Genesis Lee is about a girl who’s genetically altered so that her brain can no longer store memories. Instead, she uses the rest of her nervous system to store memories in external objects through touch. It takes place in Arizona in the year 2084. That’s not exactly next week, though it’s also not far, far away. All things considered, 70 years in the future is relatively soon. And sometimes in the world of science fiction, “soon” can be a little dangerous.

The world has reached a point where the theories of yesterday are tomorrow’s news stories of success. We have so much technology, it enhances our ability to create more technology, faster. For a writer of near-future sci fi, there’s always the worry that the progression of science is going to outstrip your imagination. In a previous story, I wrote about a kind of body armor that I thought was so cool and high-tech…only to find out it was actually a real thing already.

There’s nothing worse than having your futuristic story look behind-the-times.

So what’s a writer to do? I’ve learned a few tricks that help me write better near-future science fiction—and these can extend to all genres.

Research – To me, this is a given. It’s science fiction, after all. This doesn’t mean I’ve got to become an expert in thermonuclear astrophysics overnight, but it does mean I better look beyond Wikipedia and that one cool news article on Hypable. Look into the history of the science—how it got where it is now. Look into where the experts want it to go—what’s their vision of the future? Over the course of writing Unhappening, I read approximately eleventy billion science journal articles about how memory works and what current research is doing with memory. And a good thing, too, because I had to modify some things along the way!

Imagine it more than once – I’m sure we’ve all had that moment—you read something online and immediately think, “That’d make a killer story!” DON’T just sit down and write a story based on that cool new thing you learned. That’s the easiest way for your story to be old news before it’s even written. Instead, speculate. (It is speculative fiction, after all—though this concept applies to pretty much any genre.) Ask what could go wrong. Ask what could go right, and then go wrong. Ask what society will look like if this thing happens, how economies and communication and human interaction will change. Ask what other advances this could lead to. Basically, imagine the idea more than once. Come up with three or four or ten possibilities that could come from this single new thing, and write the one that wasn’t your first thought.

Focus the story on universal human truths – This is the single best way to make sure your book won’t become irrelevant. People don’t care as much if science passes up your science fiction—if you “got it wrong”—as long as the story is focused on the universal human truths behind the science. In Unhappening, the heart of the story is really about forgetting. Because forgetting makes me afraid. It makes all of us afraid. It’s also about remembering, and the power in memories to shape us as human beings. It’s a story that asks what makes us who we are, and that’s something that will exist even if memory modification treatment for PTSD doesn’t happen the way my book claimed it would.

George Orwell wrote 1984 in the year 1949. The story speculated a mere 35 years into the future. But just because the book was “wrong,” because it’s now 30 years past its title-imposed expiration date, is it any less relevant? I think the entire world around us would say no.

I’ve read before that near-future sci fi is a gamble, even that it’s no longer possible to write it and stay relevant in this day and age. I disagree one hundred percent. Science fiction is and always has been about possibilities, not probabilities. It’s why people love it—it’s why I love it.

So go dream up what might be possible.

Shallee McArthur originally wanted to be a scientist, until she realized she liked her science best in fictional form. Her debut YA sci fi, THE UNHAPPENING OF GENESIS LEE comes out November 4th. Her other adventures have included wrangling a group of volunteers in Ghana, changing her hairstyle way too often, and raising two small nerdlings with her husband.


Alethearia Moon said...

There are tons of TV shows that take place in the near future, usually placing it only one generation from now - Continuum, Almost Human, Fringe, and Alphas to name just a few. And then there are all those movies that "take place sometime next week" or "in a couple of months" or "in the near future". All of them continue to be good movies and TV shows even if they're exact date is off.

Some of the stories that have had the deepest impact on me and my world view have been Sci-Fi books in the near future - The Hunger Games, Divergent, Matched, Uglies. Heck! Anything distopean or post-apocalyptic is technically sci-fi, and it seems that those books/movies/TV shows are the ones that leave lasting impressions with entire generations of people.

Victoria Grace Howell said...

Nice post! I'm writing a relatively near future piece and this will be helpful. Thank you!

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Eliza said...

When I read this, the first thing I thought about was Ender's Game. On one hand, Orson Scott Card predicted blogging and tablet computers. On the other, he has Ender use a "child sized computer" in the first chapter and compare it to an adult computer. Yeah, we do have small computers. Schools buy them because they cost less. But they aren't "child" computers. But the story stays relevant for other reasons.

Politics ThatWork said...

Here is a list of some great near future sci fi books/