In previous articles, we’ve seen how even visionary pictures of the distant future can look outdated within a generation. But writing the near future is actually far riskier, as this article will explore…
So, for every fine sci-fi story that gets caught on the wrong side of the future, there are much worse movies and series that can’t even present the present accurately. The original KNIGHT RIDER (1982-86) and its various spin-offs were predicated on intuitive artificial intelligence – yep, even in 1982. It was a very fun dream, in tune with the tech-bravado fantasies of the Reagan era, but it still ain’t happening anytime soon – in fact, the things the human mind does really well are exactly the kind of thing that computers have previously been very bad at (such as recognising faces), while computers are vastly better at the things that human brains are very bad at (like calculating the square root of 28402304.284904, for example).
So yes. Then there are the ‘too much, too soon’ visions of the future. CHILDREN OF MEN only came out in 2006, but claimed that human fertility would suddenly end in 2009. Not much use for the ‘long tail’ profitability of the movie. (The P.D. James novel it’s based on came out in 1992. Still, she lived past 2009 herself. The future is always closer than we think when we’re writing it. Party like it’s 1999, people.)
Famous examples like BACK TO THE FUTURE 2 have been discussed well elsewhere, so for our amusement let’s take later spinoff movie KNIGHT RIDER 2000 (released in 1991) as a prime example instead. On the face of it, setting a KR spinoff in the near future made sense, since artificial intelligence was still a pipe dream even in 1990. But in its efforts to seem futuristic, this film made a lot of other mistakes too. The world it tried to paint as the near future was way off. Let’s have a look at why. As you read, consider this. If you were writing a story set only ten years in the future, would you have fallen into any of these traps?
- TECHNOLOGY HAS JUMPED TOO FAR. Human beings can now have computer chips embedded into their brains – even one from 1982, from our 80s supercar-with-personality KITT. Meanwhile, Seattle has been incarcerating felons by freezing them for the duration of their sentences, then just awakening them and releasing them. Not what I’d call rehabilitation. (We also have no good reason to believe that we actually will be able to restore anyone who’s been cryogenically frozen, but lots of future-writers are desperate to use this possibility as a premise for their stories.)
- THE LAW DOESN’T KEEP UP WITH TECHNOLOGY. Quite the opposite, most of the time. Even if human freezing had been ‘normal’ by the year 2000, there’s no way that the law would have jumped on the bandwagon in time, or that this policy would now be up for review like I is in the movie. In any case, this was a really stupid law, that made no sense; why release someone who hadn’t even had to experience their period of incarceration since their crime? It wouldn’t even give them time to consider reforming their character.
- TECHNOLOGY HASN’T JUMPED FAR ENOUGH. There’s no sign whatsoever of the Internet and difference it made to the world by the year 2000. Everyone’s still driving around in cars from 1990 or before. We don’t even see the new KITT car doing any of the cool stunts we saw the old one doing; its virtual reality display looked pretty dated by 2000 too. Yep, it does at one point briefly swim, but the original KITT could literally drive on water (in the series 1 finale), so that was an imaginative step backwards too, and at one point the floating car needs to be caught by a passer-by to prevent it scraping on a wall. Daft.
- The haircuts, the screens, and much of the other visualisation is off. The new KITT is also a step backwards in that it’s not nearly as attractive as the old one, just an amorphous curvy red blob, with square 80s foglamps. (That did at least anticipate the bulbous car shapes of the 90s well, but ‘New Edge’ styling had already left that behind by 2000.)
- And then there’s the news story we overhear, that President Dole has declared peace with ‘England’. How many WTFs can I put into one sentence? The writer of this one should really have known how many leaps of imagination you can and can’t make, for one aside that has no significance whatsoever on plot. “If in doubt, leave it out.”
So, there are plenty of dangers of writing near-future (or even “many of us will still be alive when this is supposed to happen” futures, which come around far sooner than we’d like to think).
We should also consider the ‘I’ll never let it happen’ futures. Think here of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984, which was written in 1948 and for decades was held up as a warning about totalitarianism and the media can combine to oppress us all. 1984’s state surveillance was personified in a Stalin-esque figure called Big Brother, and for decades after, civil liberatarians used references to 1984 and ‘Big Brother’ to prevent dangerous trends from taking hold of state surveillance. However, by 2000, the same term – and its surveillance theme – were reappropriated by the famous reality TV show. As a result perhaps, these reference points fell out of use, while state surveillance and the ever-deeper encroachment of governments into private life grew rapidly. For over 50 years, simply referring to 1984 and Big Brother had been enough to prevent a tide of civil liberties infringements. Then, by devaluing those reference points, TV’s Big Brother rolled the tide right back. Edward Snowden’s revelations were already around the corner by the time the show was in decline.
This level of influence is appealing for a writer with a social conscience. You set out a future so vivid and possible – based on known realities and possibilities from your own time – that the future you’ve set out is deliberately either created or prevented by everyone who has learned from your vision.
For example, a lot of people feel that Star Trek’s idealized future was a genuinely influential force for good in the real world of the 60s and far beyond, which has helped to bring its own vision of a racially and socially integrated and egalitarian future. Live long and prosper!
NEXT UP – HOW WILL PEOPLE BE DIFFERENT IN THE FUTURE?