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.