The Future's Not What it Used to Be

In an episode in the old Babylon 5 TV series a space ship from the 21st century is found drifting in space with only several passengers in stasis. However, only one is still alive. As she begins to adjust to a world of hyperspace travel, interstellar war, and alien cultures, G'kar, a Narn and a rather gloomy guy at this point in the series, comes up to her and says, "Beware, the future's not what it used to be."

As one who was born in the middle of the 20th century and grew up with the image of the 21st century as a magical time when we would have flying cars, wrist watch TVs, robot maids and weekly business trips to the moon and Mars, I have to admit that I agree with G'kar. The future didn't turn out quite like we thought.

Some things did come to pass. We might not have gotten wristwatch TV's, but we have button sized TV cameras and we carry a phone, music recorder, and web browser in a shirt pocket or purse. On the other hand, space is still the abode of a privileged few and only a couple of years ago did a private individual fly a private space ship into space.

So, what can we learn as writers of speculative fiction from the surprises that the 21st Century dropped on us. I think the lesson is one about change. When it comes to change when writing our stories of the future we have to consider three things:

1. Some things change rapidly
2. Some things change slowly
3. Some things don't change at all

Some things change rapidly

Technology changes most rapidly. Just 25 years ago I bought my first computer. It was a TRS-80 Color Computer. It had a big 4k bytes of memory. My PDA has about 50,000 times that. The World Wide Web didn't even exist 20 years ago, now few homes in industrialized countries don't have internet access.

As science fiction writers, we tend to love this Gee Whiz factor of change. One thing we must never forget, though, stories are not about gadgets, they are about people. Some writers become obsessed with telling every detail of the design of the hyperspace drive and then drop in a crew of stereotyped characters (loveable rogue, stunning female scientist/princess/warrior, pure as snow adventurer, wise-cracking robot, etc.) to pilot the ship through a predictable plot. And they wonder why their stories don't get published. People will forgive naive science if the characters connect with them.

Ride the change, but always ride it with some interesting characters and your reader will want to ride along.

Some things change slowly

I am often amused when I see cities of the future set in the later 21st century which are totally alien in appearance. It's as if someone went through and bulldozed the town. I don't doubt that most of the Victorian mansions I grew up with in my hometown of Eureka will still be standing 50 or 75 years from now. I doubt that they will tear down the Empire State Building, the TransAmerica Tower, or the Eiffel Tower to make way for postmodern glass towers.

You can make a reader feel at home if you can take a bit of home with you into the future. Remembering again, Babylon 5, security chief Garibaldi watched Daffy Duck and Road Runner cartoons. To think that they would survive into the 23rd century may stretch credulity, but then we still watch the buffoonery of the Barber of Seville and the comedies of Shakespeare were the sit-coms of his day. The pop culture of one era becomes the classical heritage of the next.

Language probably is changing more slowly now than at any other time in history. Language in the past morphed into dialects and patois of various regions through isolation. But there are few places in the industrialized world that are isolated today. That means a general standardization of language. Certainly, slang and colloquialisms will appear be discarded, be changed, reappear and disappear throughout history, but the standard language, aside from terms referring to new technology has changed little in the past 100 years or more.

Spicing up the dialog with some well chosen futuristic slang helps a story, but making the language practically a code to be broken doesn't help much.

Some things never change

For the most part basic human nature doesn't change much. We all have a need for security, acceptance, love, self-expression and God's love. That won't change in 100 or 1000 years. We will continue to struggle with the desire to do well but not being able to do it. Paul had that struggle 2000 years ago and I had it this morning.

One final thing will not change. God still loves us and, to quote Bill Bright, has a wonderful plan for our lives. Whether I ever get my flying car or wristwatch TV, knowing that God's love for me never changes helps me look ahead each day with hope.


Andrea Graham said...

we probably could do a wristwatch tv, but why would we want to?

Terri said...

Why do people try to watch full length movies on an I-Pod?

Some bits of technology, aside from the Gee Whiz factor make little sense to me at all.

Other bits of, to my mind, silly technologies include:

1. Text Messaging. You have a phone, talk to the person. And if they can't be disturbed by a phone call, why do you think they are going to be less disturbed by the phone ringing with a text message?

2. Web Browsing on your cell phone. The screen is the size of a postage stamp what are you going to be able to see without a magnifying glass. To a lesser extent the same goes for reading email on a cell. You get maybe five words per screen. Now, on a PDA with it's larger screen these make more sense.

3. Screen in Screen TV. Unless you are a technical director at a TV studio lining up your next shot, why would you want to try and follow two different shows at the same time.

4. Self closing trunk. I had a car like this. You still had to close the trunk part way and then a little motor pulled it down the rest of the way. What's the point?

Of course, that same car had a heated side-view mirror, which at first I thought was a bit silly, until the first hard freeze. So, I guess some "silly" things might have a point.

But then there's also a car out there that detects whether or not it's raining and turns on the windshield wipers for you. Which makes you wonder if a person who doesn't know if it is raining or not should be driving a car in the first place.?

Oh,it sure feels good to vent.

What about others? What technologies did you want to see (fold up cars, pneumatic tube travel, space hotels) that didn't come to pass? Or what types of technology make you think that some researchers just plain have too much time on their hands?

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks. Well said!

Grace Bridges said...

I have a feeling that there's a lot of stuff that would be possible by today's technology, but no one has done it yet for some reason. I'm talking really useful things, too. I've tried to invent some of them myself, though admittedly most require more than the average home-handyman toolbox. Things I'd really like: remote-controlled lightswitches and door-openers (for letting cats in when you're half asleep! I have succeeded here with string in eyelets)... MP3 telephones, heated/cooling clothing, a cyberglove to replace the mouse - or even a retina sensor! - and how about Frank's com-shades? With web functions, e-books, navigation, etc!! A personal electricity generator powered by walking. Better yet, a mobile phone/PDA/MP3 player directly running off this power. Uh... maybe that's enough for now...

Deborah Cullins Smith said...

I agree 150% with the concept of building our stories on characters instead of the techno-babble. Not everyone even WANTS to know how a warp drive operates! But they do want to meet interesting people with problems to solve and lives to grapple with. We have to find a common ground with our readers. When the Star Trek books starting coming out a couple of decades ago, they were largely character-driven plots and they were terrific. But as time went on, they became more and more driven by the technology and quantum physics. That was the moment I lost interest. I wanted to see the personal lives of the characters I had grown fond of -- but the authors aimed more at wormholes and parallel universes, or scientific premises that just shoved the people around like rag dolls. When we look at the books which are considered classics today, they all have one thing in common -- characters so unforgetable they have become household names. A good example is the Stepford Wives. Even younger people who have never seen the movies or read the book still know the term "Stepford Wives". Why? Because you came to relate to the characters of Joanne and Bobbi and all the other women who became playthings for their husbands! And how many people can quote Shakespeare's characters, like the miserly Shylocks (Merchant of Venice) or Hamlet, or even Ophelia? And, of course, the characters of this generation: Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Anakin Skywalker, ObiWan Kenobi, and Yoda. Everyone on the planet knows who they are! (Except possibly my Mother...) Characters bring a story to life. I hope someday my own characters will be that memorable. Thanks, Terri, for a wonderful post!

gificor said...

I wished they get the flying car thing down. It would be fun to fly over the countryside buzz some cows while I am on my way to visit my sister in Philadelphia.

I totally agree with having more character driven stories instead of 5000 word technobabble treatises. I love Star Trek: The Next Generation during its first few seasons. You can tell that they were running short on new and original story ideas in the later seasons because the writers relied more on a whatchimacallit or a doomahickie to solve the problem. I wanted to learn about why certain races did the things that they did, not the details of tachyon wormhole teritiary emissions.

Give me characters that I can feel with and ditch the twenty pages of hyperdrive 101. God bless Firefly.

Headless Unicorn Guy said...

That was the moment I lost interest. I wanted to see the personal lives of the characters I had grown fond of -- but the authors aimed more at wormholes and parallel universes, or scientific premises that just shoved the people around like rag dolls.

Deborah, what you're talking about is a repeat and parallel of what happened in the early days of SF in general.

Except instead of character-driven, the first SF was plot-driven in the pulp tradition, i.e. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Mars Needs Our Women.

Some change came with Hugo Gernsback (who coined the term "Science Fiction") and Amazing Stories, but these were still firmly in the pulp tradition.

Then came an editor named John Campbell and the zine Astounding (later Analog), under whos editorial influence SF became the Genre of the Idea, a scientific Great Idea or technological Gadget, the contemporary versions of "wormholes and parallel universes or scientific premises" that achieved Prime Importance over Character and Plot, "shoving the people around like rag dolls".

Then in the 1960s came New Wave SF, an experimental sub-genre that achieved recognition as Serious Literature -- at the price of acquiring all of Serious Literature's bad habits.