Essential writing skills: making a credible near-future setting

Near-future settings have been part of the territory for many novelists since George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry mainstreamed SF. These days, science fiction sells, and it doesn’t have to be way out. Tomorrow’s near-future will do – different enough to make whatever point your novel’s about.

Packard: 1935. Building: 1932. Photo: 2015.
The timeless stylings of modernism. Packard: 1935. Building: 1932. Photo: 2015.

For all that, actually generating such a world is a lot harder than it seems.  The biggest pitfall is the ‘recency’ phenomenon, where some recent or current event – maybe the latest science discovery – defines the future world. That works in the immediate – the author produces something that seems hip and amazing, because it’s keying into whatever’s in front of readers right at the moment. But not for long, because today’s big event inevitably becomes yesterday’s old hat. Or forgotten.

The best example I can think of is a TV show – Gerry Anderson’s UFO of 1969-70, his first live-action SF series. It was set in “1980” – and that future was decidedly “mod”, filled with the latest extreme styling of London’s late swinging sixties. A world of Nehru jackets, purple wigs, pants-suits for women and some truly scary submariners uniforms.

At the time it worked a treat. This was The Future. Today its stylings seem absolutely “period” to the time when UFO was made. “Mod” was, of course, a brief trend – a hiccup in a century of styling that was more generally defined by “modernism” (which isn’t “mod”). A pity, because Anderson also nailed the late-1960s trend for gritty character stories in that series, more so than in any other he made.

I mention UFO’s hilarious mod “future” because it’s so obvious, but things that swiftly date SF stories also emerge in dialogue, in the settings an author describes, even in the issues the author tackles. The problem is one of depth. The stuff that captures our attention, spectacularly, is often also transient. News, social trends, styles – all come and go. All of them, of course, are different expressions of deeper human realities in various ways. Remember ‘boom boxes’? Killed by the Walkman even before digital music players came alone. But in terms of the human psyche they fulfilled the same function – which included self-validation through asserting status via whatever the latest trend happens to be.

It’s this lower-level motive that authors have to focus on to make their SF near-futures credible. How does whatever detail being written into the story – some new invention, some fashion, or some trend – reflect deeper human issues? Human nature doesn’t change much over time. We’re all riven with kindness, hate, ambition, greed, selfishness, generosity and all the many characteristics that make us human, both individually and as a species. And that is where the author needs to focus, if they want their future setting to engage readers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


2 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: making a credible near-future setting

  1. I was clearing out one of my desk drawers yesterday and came across an old Walkperson (as we PC Wellingtonians would say).

    Love UFO, a series someone once said Gerry made to save on string. But I think that Sylvia’s contribution should be emphasised. Those costumes, make-up and conversation pits (along with almost undrive-able gas turbine cars!) were amazing. I know the As ended up scratching each other’s eyes out, but as a social historian I now find her/their view of the near-future as fascinating as neck-to-knee swimming cozzies in 1910 Wellywood. Or…..

    … in the 1990s I attended the late David Johnson’s launch of his maritime history of NZ. He pulled a 3.5-inch disc from his pocket and said that it contained his next book and that was the way of the future. I was impressed….

    But now ….discs? If I ever get drunk enough to do a sci-fi novel I’ll set it thousands of year in the future…. The mediocre Space 1999 showed the problem….

    Oh, and the submariners’ uniforms weren’t all that bad compared to the moon base purple wigs and pre-Madonna cozzies…. It depended on the bod….

    1. Yes – I gather the ‘uber mod’ styling was largely thanks to Sylvia Anderson (she also ‘did’ Space 1999, I believe). I just had to look it up and discovered one of the submariners was played by a Wellingtonian by the name of Anouska Hempel, nee Geissler. I tell you, Kiwis are everywhere.

      The cars were hilariously modified Ford Zephyrs. I believe the gull-wing doors didn’t actually work and had to be lifted by an off-camera stagehand. Straker’s was sold for 50 quid after the series and has since, I believe, been reconstructed. I’d hate to own one for real. Gas turbines have NO acceleration and the chance of winning a fuel economy prize is approximately zero. I’m sure Anderson was well aware of the limits…

Comments are closed.