In the Future, We Will Look Like Zebra-Lemurs (5 Things To Remember About SF)

Nickelay Lamm predicts we will have huge, lemur-like eyes in the far future.  Presumably this will be driven by sexual selection from millennia of watching Anime. I added the zebra stripes. Because, really, who doesn't love zebras?

5 Things To Remember About SF


1. Science Fiction can be about the past, the present, or the future.

Short cut answers to the question, ‘what is sf?’ reach for topics typical to the genre: “SF is about the future,” or “SF is about space travel,” or “SF is about aliens.” Of course, SF doesn’t have to involve space travel or aliens, nor does it have to be set in the future. In fact, there is a whole sub-genre of SF that is set in the past: Alternate History. (One of my favorite sub-genres, in fact!) But whether it takes place in the past, the present, or the future, all science fiction deals with the question of how things change.
In a SF story, the author is proposing a thesis about change:

“If this happens, then that will happen.” (Future)
“If this had happened, then that would have happened.”  (Past)
“This is happening, because that is happening.” (Present)

So is SF about predicting the future? No, not really. It’s about predicting change, but that’s not the same thing. Which brings us to our next point. 

2. Science Fiction is about extrapolation, not prediction.

Prediction would be saying, “This is what the future will look like.” Humans are notoriously poor at predicting the future, and although, arguably, sf writers have done a better job than most futurists, if we judged sf works only by how many of their descriptions had been true predictions, it would be a sorry record.
Take Orwell’s 1984. The world in 1984 was not a dreary dystopia completely dominated by three warring totalitarian powers. In fact, the Soviet Union, which was most like the societies he depicted, fell only six years later. Taken as a futurist, Orwell failed.
However, that wasn’t the point of 1984. Orwell, a former Communist who was horrified by the direction he saw the ideology going once it was in power, wanted to show, in vivid and personal terms, what it would mean to live in a world where there were no longer any free societies, only rival totalitarianisms. 

3. Science Fiction is about extrapolating social and technological change.

SF is about extrapolating change, but only certain kinds of change. Supposed the story question was: “What if a waitress fell in love with a billionaire?” That situation would no doubt involve change in the emotional and financial state of the waitress, but it’s obviously a better set-up question for a romance than a SF novel. Now, if the question were, “What if a waitress fell in love with a billionaire…and then she found out he was a robot?” that would clearly be SF. But why? Not just because it involves robot billionaires, which don’t yet exist (correct me if I’m wrong), but because suddenly this love story has implications far beyond the mating game of two individuals. The question of whether a human can love a robot, at least if he’s rich enough, has implications for all humanity.

Or suppose the story question was: “What if anti-gay terrorists were going to release a bomb in San Francisco?” That would make a good premise for a Thriller. But it’s not a SF question, because we already have terrorists, and anti-gay movements, and San Francisco. Now, if the question were: “What if anti-gay terrorists were going to release a bioweapon in San Francisco, using a new technology that only infected anyone with the ‘gay gene’?” That would be SF. Why? Because this premise now asks a larger question about how a new technology (such a targeted bioweapon) and/or a new discovery (the ‘gay gene’) could interact to be a game-changer in human history.

SF is about change, but that change has to have larger implications than changes to individuals, even though SF stories are, of course, about individuals. The social and technological changes indicate something critical is different from our known present. 

4. Science Fiction is not written in a vacuum.

Science Fiction is not written in a vacuum, but in response to other SF and ideas about the future, the past, and technology. This has ups and down.

On the down side, you have to fight against falling into ready-made clichés. You might come up with what you think is a terrific idea, but readers immediately recognized it as a re-hash of Star Trek/Star Wars/Battlestar Galactica. You have to work hard to push past the obvious, easy answers, which are probably sloppy borrows from other SF, and search for true originality.

On the upside, as long as you are aware of the dangers of clichés, you can also lean on them strategically. You can use conventions, complete with acronyms, such as FTL drives (faster than light), without having to waste your info-investment opportunities. You focus your originality on the area that is relevant to the thesis of your book—at the heart of the issue you are interested in exploring. You can let sci-fi conventions fill in the rest of the story, the way literary writers use their readers’ knowledge of the contemporary world (and other literary works), and regency romance readers use their readers’ knowledge of Regency England to give a leg up in world-building.

David Farland calls this ‘resonance.’

For example, in Orson Scott Card’s classic military sf book, Ender’s Game, his aliens are amorphous BEM (Bug Eyed Monsters) intent on conquering the Earth. (Other books in the series may complicate that, but I’m referring to the first novel, which, after all, stands alone on its own merits.) Card is perfectly capable of building more complex, less clichéd aliens, but that was beside the point in Ender’s Game, which was about children fighting wars, not really about the aliens at all. Card could use his readers’ knowledge and expectations of BEMs as a prefabricated building block in the story structure he wanted to build. 

5. Science Fiction must answer, implicitly or explicitly, current commonly held expectations about what kinds of technology will change.

Because SF is not written in a vacuum, a writer building a new story universe must address, current commonly held expectations about what kinds of technology will change. This can be don implicitly or explicitly. Keep in mind, though, that if these things aren’t explained, or explained away, readers may wonder about them:

-       Colonies in space
-       Aliens

Suppose, for instance, you want to hypothesize a future in which humans have evolved bigger brains, lemur-like eyes, and zebra skin. Also, they all live in Antarctica, the only habitable continent left. You don’t specifically have to say that they don’t have robot servants, don’t have faster than light travel, aren’t living on another world, and haven’t met sexy aliens from Zor-la. That will be obvious in the context of the story. 

But at the back of your mind, you must have answered the question of why these things don’t exist

It could be as simple as the premise that faster than light travel and aliens don’t exist, or at least still haven’t been discovered yet after another 100,000 years. In other words, your worldbuilding premise is: What if all the dreams of a Singularity, colonies in space, leaving the Earth behind, and a dramatic break with our present biology were not possible? How might we still change in 100,000 years? (Stripes! Anime eyes!) You might even allow that those things do exist… maybe at some point, humanity was divided into “Those Who Left” and “Those Who Stayed,” but this story is about the latter.


dolorah said…
That was fascinating; and answered a lot of my questions about how to write SF. Thanks Tara.

Cicada said…
Interesting that I have always thought of my inclusion of ideas from other SF authors and tales as a tad taboo. For some reason I just figured each writer out there came up with their own selective ideas without outside influence, and not so much from a collective imagination of writers as would exist by what you explain.

As always, this post was a wonderful read. Keep it up!