The Near Future

Structuring a story background of the near future—twenty, thirty, or forty years from now—is in some ways more difficult than creating an entire alien planet in some impossibly distant future, because it cannot be made up wholly of the imagination. You must research to discover what engineers and scientists project for each area of living. From this data, you must then extrapolate a possible future, one which might logically rise out of the basis for the future which we are building today.

This doesn't mean that every science fiction novel set thirty years from today must be placed against the same background. The future, even extrapolating it from today's conditions, may go a million different ways.

For instance, a writer may set two different stories in the same future period, though he builds utterly different backgrounds for them. In The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, the authors project a future within this century, a society in which high-pressure advertising agencies have gained terrible influence over the minds of the masses and have become, in effect, rulers of the world. The same authors, in Gladiators-at-Law, intricately develop another near future in which big business has grown so large it's begun to collapse from within, society collapsing with it. Each future is believable; each could come to pass.

The trick lies in how well you detail your future. If you paint it in broad strokes, no one will accept it, including an editor. When considering the background for any science fiction novel, be sure to give careful thought to each of the following:

Moral codes ofthe future. Assume that morality will change, and that it will change radically. Don't assume your own morality will inevitably dominate the future or that present-day morality will continue to be accepted. Remember that, in the early 1950s, no one would have believed that "free love" and "group marriage" would become commonplace two decades later. Though morality will most likely continue to be liberalized, even this is not a certainty. The future has infinite possibilities. All you can be certain of is that it will be different from today. A few moral questions for you to consider in the context of your future society: Will marriage exist as an institution? Will pre-marital sex and adultery be frowned upon or not? Will murder still be considered immoral? Will murder, in the service of your country, still be considered moral?

Domestic politics. Will there still only be two major political parties in the United States, and will they still be Republican and Democratic? Will the U.S. still be a democracy? What effects will data banks on private citizens (being put together even today) have on the conduct of politics? Will the war still be an issue? Another war? The space program? Will poverty be a political issue?

World politics. Will the U.S. still exist? Will Russia or China? What new power will have arisen as a major agent in world affairs—Brazil, perhaps, or Israel? If your novel is set on an alien world, what is the nature of galactic politics and diplomacy?

Religion. Will the U.S. remain predominately Christian? Set aside your own religious views and extrapolate honestly. Will religion play an even more important role in politics, accumulating even more establishment power? Or will the boom of scientific discovery eventually be the death of belief in supernatural beings? What new religions might arise?

Day-to-day life. This is the most important area of background detail in the future you are constructing, for it is the one which will be constantly in the reader's eye. Morality will play an important part; politics may be mentioned marginally in your story; religion may figure only vaguely in your tale; the international situation may influence only a few paragraphs in your book; but day-to-day life in the future will be visible in every scene. Will the population explosion do away with private dwellings (as it presently appears it will have to), thereby forcing everyone to live in space-conserving high-rise apartments? Will people eat the same foods or be forced to consume flavored algae because of vast food shortages? Will automobiles exist, or will they have been replaced with other transportation systems? How will people dress? Over the last century, as man has gained control of his environment, he has had less need for the protection of clothing. Will nudity then be casual in the future? Will books exist, or will they be replaced by mechanical devices? Will children go to public schools or be taught at home by television and robots? Will marriage exist? Will the pollution problem have been solved, or will people wear gas masks on the street and salve their skin to ward off deterioration caused by a caustic atmosphere?

Will marijuana be legal? How will food be prepared, perhaps without human contact? Will cancer have been cured? Will madness have been cured? Will we have settled on the moon? On Mars? Beyond?

The questions go on and on, and you must have answers to them; you must know your future so well that, if a friend quizzed you about it, you could answer him with the same alacrity you'd answer questions about the real world, the world of today.

As a potential writer of science fiction, you would be well-advised to read Dune by Frank Herbert, a science fiction classic set in the far future that has sold more than a million copies and which contains one of the most detailed futures imaginable. Likewise, Robert Heinlein's million-copy classic, Stranger in a Strange Land, a book which details a near future so well that few authors have ever approached its catalogue of extrapolative minutiae, is well worth your perusal.

You should understand that not every novel in this genre requires such a wealth of background in the finished draft-but you should have your future so well thought out that you can apply detailed background in any scene that demands it. Some writers keep elaborate notebooks full of background data for the future they're drawing, and Robert Heinlein has even gone so far as to plot a Chart of Future History, outlining major events over several hundred years and slotting his stories into this future. I find that careful thought, before beginning the first page, plus a few notes is all that I need. I don't keep notebooks or charts, but hold the entire scheme in my head, to keep it more flexible than it would be if I wrote it out on paper. Each author, through trial and error, must find out which method best suits his temperament.

A warning: When considering all of the researched and extrapolated elements of your near future, be sure that they mesh into a coherent whole. For example, if you extrapolate a future U.S. run by a right-wing military junta, democracy abolished, do not also portray a society where the arts flourish. These two elements—dictatorship and artistic energy—have never co-existed in one country at the same time, and seem unlikely to in the future. Do not portray a future where the Christian Church governs the world and sexual liberty is encouraged; the church would have to change drastically for this to be believable. In short, a society works only when the majority of its parts are compatible and when few if any of its parts are downright hostile to the majority's philosophy.

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