Guessing the Future for Science Fiction

Taking on the role of oracle is one of the greatest joys and biggest challenges of writing science fiction. There’s something magical about reading a story that unveils entirely new ideas, technologies, or shifts in society, only to see those things come to pass a few years down the road.

It can be equally interesting to look at less accurate “futures” from bygone eras and see how they turned out wrong. What does the hopeful and often hubris-filled science fiction of the post-WWII era say about the society that generated it? What about the gritty and depressing dystopias crafted in the ’80s?

Guessing the future isn’t easy. Occasionally, we get it right and look prescient. More often, we get it wrong in some way or another. But we can at least perform our due diligence by building our fantastic futures on the mundane foundation of the present.

Hard and Soft Science Fiction

There is a stylistic split in the genre of science fiction. It’s not a hard line; it’s more like a gradient. “Hard” science fiction does it’s best to extrapolate from the present in a straight line. In hard SF, the future should be explainable. It should follow logically from what we see in the present. “Soft” science fiction cares less about explanations, crafting futures that are convenient to the story, without worrying so much about the through-line between the present and the future.

In practice, no science fiction story can completely describe all the events and technologies that led from the present to that particular future. There is no perfectly hard sci-fi. And some stories will simply have less to explain. They won’t be as concerned with the technological nitty-gritty of the future.

Still, when we think in these terms, it’s easy to start placing different stories somewhere closer to the hard or soft end of the spectrum. The Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is fairly hard, concerning itself greatly with the details of the technology and grounded in cutting-edge space travel research. Meanwhile, Herbert’s Dune books or the Star Wars movies are fairly soft. The setting and the technologies serve the story, and little explanation is provided for their provenance.

More distance from the here and now, be it temporal (“a long, long time ago”) or physical (“a galaxy far, far away”) is going to add softness. The future imagined in Dune is so many thousands of years in the future that the intervening time couldn’t possibly be accounted for within the text. In fact, after Herbert’s death, a whole swath of Dune books were written to fill in some of that intervening time.

Focus

If you accept that your story is going to be soft science fiction, you may not have to worry too much about extrapolating. Perhaps you’re writing an allegory, where the future setting only serves to contrast with the present day. Perhaps you’re writing a fantasy story, and the backdrop of spaceships and laser swords are purely aesthetic.

Assuming you’re writing harder sci-fi, you’re going to need to decide what your areas of focus will be. Do you want to explore future technologies? Do you want to explore how they might change life for individuals, or across larger swaths of society?

Science fiction must tell a story, but it has the added burden of building and explaining its world as the story unfolds. Every story has a limited number of words it can spend building the world. By choosing specific areas of focus, you can maximize those words, and cut passages that stray too far from those areas.

Find the Starting Points

To build a future, you have to start in the present. There are always interesting things happening in the world. Which of those things relate to your areas of focus? This is the research stage of the project, where you’ll need to look at what trends or technologies already exist, or perhaps what scientists are actively studying in the field.

For example, let’s look at some technologies I’m interested in for one particular story. I’m interested in augmented reality (AR), intertwining of digital and physical worlds, and the increasing power of hackers to affect physical objects and systems as they become integrated with the internet.

For this project, I would look into the various VR headsets and the sorts of applications people are running on them. What about low-cost alternatives, like Google Cardboard? What about prototypes like Google Glass? The AR functionality on modern smart phones allow me to see what furniture might look like in my house before I buy it. What else can I do?

I might also look into recent hacks that affect real-world systems. Iran’s uranium enrichment program was hacked to break their centrifuges. The US has a variety of concerns about the safety of their electrical grid.

For the combining of digital and physical worlds, I could dig into mobile games like Pokemon Go that follow the user’s real-world location to change the game-state, and use AR to project game objects onto the user’s surroundings.

Extrapolate

Once you have some starting points, you need to begin extrapolating. What are people researching today? What isn’t possible yet, but might be possible with one or two simple advances?

Computing power, internet speeds, and many other “base” technology enablers tend to increase steadily over time. If the only limitation on something today is the speed of computers, chances are good that the limitation will go away in the future. The price and size of popular technology tends to decrease over time as well. Any technology today will likely become smaller and cheaper in the future.

These are surface-level extrapolations. To go deeper, you need to think about how the technology might be used, and what it might enable. What might good and selfless people want to do with this technology as it advances? What might evil, selfish people want to do with this technology? Can it be an enabler of other technologies or societal shifts?

Technologies do not stay isolated. They don’t live in silos. They cross-pollinate, mix, and work in tandem. Sometimes they obstruct one another. How might this new thing affect other technologies, positively or negatively?

Back to the example of AR, digital/physical crossover, and hackers.

I imagine a future where AR is ubiquitous. It’s powered by mobile devices (something that’s already happening). It’s displayed on glasses (similar to Google Glass), and it’s controlled with a strap around the fingers, for motion control (a streamlining of Nintendo’s console controllers, Microsoft Kinect, and many similar technologies). I imagine that AR could use mobile location technology to provide location-relevant data. A bluetooth “beacon” might also transmit to nearby devices.

With this kind of ubiquitous AR, physical objects might be unnecessary in many contexts. A clothing store might not bother with a sign out front, or even outfits on mannequins. A sign that appears to nearby shoppers in AR could be cheaper and more eye-catching. The AR outfits in the window could be tailored to each individual shopper and their search history, or on a carousel that displays hundreds of options, one after another.

The crosswalks on the road could be virtual, communicating with local traffic to determine when it’s safe to walk.

On the other hand, hackers could graffiti an AR storefront without the bother of buying spray paint and sneaking out at night. They could graffiti hundreds of storefronts from their basement. Perhaps they could convince passing mobile devices that they’d made a purchase as they passed by. If they were nefarious enough, they might alter the crosswalk algorithms so pedestrians step out in front of cars.

Technology and People

Even the hardest, most tech-oriented science fiction has characters with motivations, goals, conflicts, and challenges. Technology is only interesting in context with people, even if those people are aliens, robots, or sentient jars of mold.

Technology sometimes affects us at a personal level, affecting our behavior as individuals. Sometimes these effects are more powerful in aggregate. Many of us are familiar with the changes in personal behavior we’ve seen in the rise of social media. As societies, we’re still in the process of working out how those changes will ultimately affect our politics and our social discourse.

Technology can affect our behaviors and the ways we interact with one another. One hundred years ago, relatively few businesses had branches in multiple countries, and those branches were more independent. Now, many people in large corporations have regular phone conversations and video meetings with their counterparts around the world. Products and services are launched globally, and directed by corporate leaders halfway across the world.

Back in our example, how might ubiquitous AR affect interpersonal interactions? If I run into an acquaintance on the street, and I don’t remember her name, a quick image search of her face could help me find it and avoid embarrassment. Of course, the privacy implications of this type of technology is considerable.

We already see many people absorbed in their phones on public transport and in public spaces. When AR makes your entire range of vision into a screen, will that exacerbate the effect. Will we finally be isolated in our own little virtual bubbles, as many doomsayers have been complaining about for years?

Final Thoughts

Extrapolation is hard. Of the thousands of works of science fiction that are produced, only a few are going to hit the mark, and only some of the time. However, even if we can’t always guess the actual, literal future, we can at least produce futures that are logical, well thought-out, and internally consistent.

Internal consistency means making sure that one technology doesn’t preclude or contradict another. Some technologies are mutually exclusive. Betamax and VHS can’t both take over the world. CDs and Zip drives don’t live side-by-side indefinitely.

On the other hand, conflicting technologies can precipitate interesting societal conflicts. Does it make sense to have a future where people grow organs in labs to increase their longevity, while also developing the technology to upload human minds into computers? Maybe not. Or maybe this is what precipitates a global crisis, where we have to decide as a species whether being human requires a specific physical form or not.

If you find yourself having trouble, you might be tempted to go into the far-flung future, because there’s so much room for things to happen in the intervening time. Instead, try getting as close to the present as possible. Extrapolate tomorrow. Practice working your way outward.

Have you seen any new technologies that inspired you? What did you extrapolate from them? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll see you in the future!

Is Cyberpunk Retro-Futurism Yet?

The author of Neuromancer – the book widely considered to have kicked-off the cyberpunk genre – says it’s now a retro-future. That’s pretty interesting, considering how much high-profile cyberpunk seems to still be happening.

For those who don’t follow video games, Cyberpunk 2077 was perhaps the most hotly anticipated game of 2020 (before it ended up releasing late, dogged by accusations of employee abuse and so buggy that refunds were offered on some platforms). Blade Runner 2049 was a lauded, big-budget movie just three years ago. And most of the streaming services have their own recent cyberpunk offerings.

Through five decades, we received a steady, if inconsistent, stream of cyberpunk literature, cinema, television and games. Not only that, but it gave us an almost absurd number of ___-punk sister genres, cribbing the dystopian outsider aesthetic and patching in various kinds of technology.

Death of a Genre?

Unlike most genres that take place in the present or a particular historical era, most science fiction has a built-in shelf life. While most people might be able to look past the 2019 “future” date of the original Blade Runner or the clunky flip-phones of The Matrix, there comes a certain point where an imagined future starts to feel stale.

The parts of these retro-futures that actually came to pass seem somehow more depressing, more mundane, more obvious when we live inside them every day. The predictions that failed often seem further away than they did before, or outright absurd.

Some of cyberpunk’s staying power might owe to pop media’s perpetual mining and re-mining of nostalgia for remakes, reboots, sequels and spiritual successors. Cyberpunk has also accumulated plenty of visual and tonal markers that have been used (and abused) to provide quick and shallow style. For every Matrix, there’s an Equilibrium or Aeon Flux.

It seems clear that if cyberpunk does die, it will be a slow, sighing death. Most science-fiction genres and styles don’t go away completely. They inform the sub-genres and successors that follow, transforming or splintering.

Where is the Center of the Universe?

Back on Twitter, Aaron suggests that the future is in “Gulf Futurism, Sino Futurism, Afro Futurism.” It’s not hard to see that these are all sub-genres with very different geographical and cultural centers from old-school cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is rooted in extrapolations of 1980s American culture. Even when it goes as far afield as Hong Kong, it’s more 1980s British Hong Kong than post-handover Chinese Hong Kong. The neon hanzi are largely window-dressing.

There is certainly a deep vein of anxiety in America that suggests that the country’s cultural and economic influence on the future is waning. That refrain seems to be getting louder, not quieter. Meanwhile, other places in the world are seeing their cultural and economic influence grow at breakneck pace, even as technology upends old norms and traditions.

Gulf futurism centers the world on the Arabian Gulf, while Sino Futurism looks at the future through a Chinese lens. Afro Futurism explores futures and themes not only centered on the African continent, but also on African diaspora and the complex intersections of culture and history that brings.

Cyber, Solar, Bio or Steam

Other Twitter responses mention solarpunk and biopunk, offshoots that focus less on traditional cyberpunk technologies like AI and VR, and instead explore the consequences of things like environmental disaster, climate change, and runaway biotechnology. In a world where climate change becomes more apparent every day, these themes are more relevant than ever.

Meanwhile, there are many other derivatives that shift the aesthetic from futuristic to fantastic. Genres like steampunk and dieselpunk are more fantasy than science-fiction, enjoying anachronistic alternate universe playgrounds that are concerned with the themes of the last century rather than the themes of the upcoming one.

Fodder for the Reading List

Cyberpunk will continue, in some form or another, but it’s getting long in the tooth. Maybe its latest micro-renaissance will prove to have interesting things to say about our modern dystopian world. And even if it doesn’t, it’s interesting to see the genre splintering in so many different directions. If nothing else, these tweets have inspired me to sample some of these other sub-genres.