We are an impossibility in an impossible universe. — Ray Bradbury
So, I’ve been working on a near future sci-fi world-building project….
The problem is, how close to the present does one make a near future sci-fi project without falling into irrelevance or without being tossed out of science-fiction altogether? This question has plagued my near future sci-fi world-building for the past eighteen months, and I’ve been working, searching really, to find a solution to this problem. The thing is, from the research I’ve conducted, the problem plagues all science-fiction writers, including my former writing mentor, Stefan Kiesbye, who attempted to create a cyberpunk-esque tale, Berlingeles, that failed to realize the true strangeness that will (likely) envelop the future. If we take Charles Stross’s work, think: “Spy Kids” in Foreign Policy, we find that the very social fabric comprising the society we cherish today will likely be in tomorrow’s trashcan, or, alternatively, reused and recycled into something we cannot quite recognize today. To make matters worse, truth is always so much stranger than fiction. We can’t make some of this stuff up, people! (Think: Donald Trump, Russians meddling in U.S. elections, artificial intelligences making up their own languages, and viral social phenomenon.)
If we take the Gibsonian approach, sci-fi isn’t about predicting the future. Instead, and I think William Gibson is onto something here, the future isn’t in sci-fi’s crosshairs, but we are concerned about the present. The present, the ever-prevailing present, that thing that haunts us, steals from the past, and leaves its slimy tendrils on the future, is the concern of all science-fiction writers. If we take this thinking a bit further, we find that most science-fiction isn’t about solving future problems, but (likely) to be dealing with the very real baggage we have to deal with in the present moment. Stories about the future of (im)migration are really about the present tense, our time and (im)migration itself.
I am reminded of a recent collection of sci-fi-like short stories collected in Iraq+100, which asked Iraqi writers to envision Iraq one-hundred years from the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. If you read these wonderful stories, you might be surprised to see that many of the authors’ concerns are the concerns of today, and they are not likely to be the same concerns of tomorrow.
We should, instead, view sci-fi as a useful tool, a sort of simulation tool. It allows us, to paraphrase Cory Doctorow, to run simulations about the future, using current trends as fodder. Moreover, sci-fi allows us to see how really (and truly) bad ideas might lead to those dystopian futures we fear so much. Science-fiction is a tool, or rather a collection of tools, that allows us to explore ideas and see where they might lead — that is, their probable (and likely) conclusions. Accurate predictions can come from science-fiction, but they are few and far between. In reality, science-fiction, especially near future science-fiction, is likely to fail to see or predict those trends, those technologies, that will have a significant impact on future societies, which might be a good thing — for all of us.
With that said, I am brought back to my original problem. How do I maintain relevance and avoid from being pushed out of the genre? This question is important when it comes to understanding the nature of the genre and its role it plays within our society. Science-fiction, even the larger umbrella term “speculative fiction,” offers writers a collection of tools to explore the world around us, explore human nature, and to test ideas, among other things. Near future sci-fi is less about predicting the future, but, instead, about testing ideas, exploring trends, and understanding technologies, in order to fully realize them and their desired and undesired baggage.
World-building is just one of many tools that we writers rely on, especially in the so-called genre fictions. World-building, like setting, characterization, language, and even plot, depends on the notion that in order to create a good story (that is, a thought-provoking and relevant story) one must have sufficient world-building. The notion of world-building isn’t new. It has been perfected by speculative fiction writers, but it has been used by everyone from Mark Bowden and his narrative journalism to the works of the Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro or even the 2014 Man Booker Prize-winner, Marlon James.
World-building for near future science-fiction allows a writer to create something that is both relevant to readers and allows the work in question to remain inside the genre. In other words, what I am trying to say is that world-building allows us to tackle the present and the baggage that comes with it. Moreover, it allows us to explore probable conclusions of new technologies, policies, and even socio-cultural trends — that is, the simulation component of any good science-fiction.
If we see science-fiction as a sort of in-depth and creative simulation, we can see world-building as a sort of source code that allows this to take place. World-building establishes the rules, so to speak, and good world-building is meticulous in its detail and approach — like any decent code. However, like any code, world-building isn’t perfect, and it rarely results in what we’d consider the right (or even probable) conclusions.
When it comes to near future, we need to remember that science-fiction needs to be the aim of the project. In other words, we need to have the tools of science-fiction evident within the project, in order to make sure it is proper science-fiction. I would suggest that if the project in question maintains its focus on trying to understand the present, understand the conclusion of current or proposed policies, and the like, we are still within the confines of the genre itself. However, I would argue that we shouldn’t be so rigid when it comes to genre lines. Instead, we need to be inclusive, and we should forget genre-based dogma. We should also keep in mind that sci-fi, as with any speculative fiction, allows the observer to step into a discursive space, in which s/he can explore the realities of the present and have room to breathe.
Originally published on Medium.com G. Michael Rapp. G. Michael Rapp writes about culture, technical change, writing, world-building, and science-fiction.