Most sci-fi is just fantasy in a different setting. But when writing science fiction all writers need to pay attention to what’s really changing and happening now, if they want their writing to catch our imaginations and stand the test of time.
Watching ALIENS again after twenty years (it’s actually over 30 years old, but I was 4 then), I’m seeing all kinds of things that now look quite dated – the opposite of futuristic. Despite the fact I’ve always thought this was one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen, and that it’s still a touchstone for screenwriting theories. The experience brought home something I’ve been saying for a while: that nothing dates faster than the future. As writers, the same things that make it such an attractive subject can also leave our works quickly stranded.
There are plenty of trends we need to recognize, if we want to write science fiction or show the present in a way that’s, well, future-proof. You’d be amazed how many ‘futuristic’ scripts we receive that feel outdated now, never mind soon. Even worse are the ones set so near in the future that by the time the film would make it to cinemas (a minimum of 18 months, realistically, for any mainstream production) they’d already be almost backdated. So much for making a long-term profit thanks to the ‘long tail’ life of DVD/Blu-Ray sales, TV screenings or streaming. And here’s what’s even worse – lots of the scripts we receive don’t even seem up-to-date now, never mind for a release date two years from now and a ‘long tail’.
What will the future look like, even ten years from now? We won’t know until it hits us. A lot of what happens now in the news feels like a surprise at the time – 9/11, Trump, Brexit etc – but wouldn’t be if we all had our ears to the ground more and faced up to reality a bit more honestly. These articles aim to help writers do that, to avoid getting left behind by reality, it’s only human nature to not want to face uncomfortable truths. Wherever possible I try to take a fully inclusive view and avoid bias, but hey, I’m only human – and not everybody will want to agree with the picture painted here, and that’s an important thing to reflect in your writing too.
Many future-proofing issues for writers aren’t so much about machines, technology and other advances – they’re about what people will be like in the times ahead. Writers should keep an ear out for changes and subtle long-term trends in all aspects of life – just to reflect the world as it already is, in fresh ways. That’s true even if you don’t have any need to envisage the future within your writing. After all, a huge part of making your writing sellable is about tapping into something that’s both fresh and convincing. All writers should listen out for changes that will influence our futures – because even historical or fantasy stories still have to anticipate what we’re about to become interested in, and our unconscious desires for the kinds of world we’d like our imaginations to occupy (to escape our dull realities).
A lot of the things that still bug me about future-writing are the same things that bugged me about sci-fi TV shows and films when I was a teenager, which inspired a lot of my own best writing. I studied science hard and tried to push whatever technology I included towards the absolute limits of what might eventually be possible within the laws of physics – but no further. In contrast, most future-writing doesn’t pay much attention to facts. It’s far more interested in creating a dream – or a nightmare. And that’s fine too, as long as it can convince us.
Science is much abused by the fiction that takes its name. I prefer the Italian word fantascienza – a dream or a fantasy of science. Because that’s what most sci-fi really gives us. When writing science fiction, the writers start with a dream of what a future (or alternate reality) could be like, and explore that vision rather than anything that corresponds to science or realism. Then they dress it up with silly science-lite technobabble to make it sound more plausible. While pretending that, for example, we can fly faster than light, and arrive at distant stars in a couple of minutes, rather than the many years it would do even then. (Our bored imaginations are yearning for space to become an intensive and exciting place, rather than the overwhelmingly vast, empty, and almost action-free reality revealed by astronomy.) Relativity has implied – for 100 years now! – that flying faster than light might mean travelling back in time anyway, even if it were possible to put more than 100% of the energy contained in our mass into propelling ourselves forward to make that possible. Ridiculous, and impossible, but STAR TREK and other franchises take this as their premise. Meanwhile, other SF has relied on parallel universes, or controllable ‘wormhole’ portals instead – both ideas that badly distort an obscure scientific speculation in order to imagine the kind of exciting universe we’d much prefer to the reality. But most sci-fi would be very dull and empty if we couldn’t let our imaginations fly away from reality. If we’re honest, that’s the main point of the genre. Scientific realism and caution is usually the opposite of what writers and audiences go to sci-fi for. We yearn for a flight of fancy, not a cautious science lecture. We want the ‘What if’, not the ‘but really’!
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