How to Avoid Being Flattened By the Steamroller of Progress
by L. Jagi Lamplighter
Recently, a friend sent me an ad for virtual keyboards. If you haven’t seen one, it’s a rather nifty device. You put it on your desk, and it casts a red light image of a keyboard on your desk. Then you type on it, as if it were a keyboard, and letters appear on your screen.
Only, to my friend, the existence of this device was a bit of an embarrassment. He’s a science fiction writer, and five or ten years ago, he wrote a book where he predicted virtual keyboards. He made them up.
Back then. They were science fiction.
Today, they are fact.
Where does that leave him?
How, he wondered, do science fiction writers stay ahead of science fact?
No Escape for the Scientifically-Challenged
I felt for him. I had kind of been there.
I myself am a fantasy writer. You would think I would not have this problem. Alas, even we fantasy writers are plagued with being outrun by the march of progress.
When I first started the Prospero’s Daughter series in 1992, I wanted to make my main character, the five hundred year old Miranda, daughter of Prospero from Shakespeare’s Tempest, seem rich and capable, so I gave her a whole pile of nifty tech devices—not anything as wild as a James Bond gadget, but fancy, hard-to-get stuff that was extremely cutting edge.
By the time the book was published in 2009—I owned all but one of those devices.
I also had a scene where I wanted to show that she was very busy and very capable. So, back in 1992, I gave her many computers, all working at once.
Then, multi-tasking came along. Nobody bothered using more than one computer anymore.
Okay…I updated. I gave her a lot of printers all clacking away. Clacking, mind you, because back then, we were talking about dot-matrix printers. They made a lot of noise.
Couple of years later, I went back to revise the book, and printers weren’t so loud any more.
In the long run, I threw up my hands. I got rid of her high-tech office entirely and gave her an old fashion office with a huge desk and geese honking as they flew by outside.
I wasn’t even inventing the technology, and I couldn’t keep up.
So, what does an author do to actually stay ahead of the invention curve?
The first question this raises is: do they need to? Isn’t it exciting when something you invent something and it becomes real? Won’t all your fans run around with your book in their hands going: “Look, look! This guy predicted that thing right there. He’s got to be brilliant!” Or “This lady’s a genius, she foresaw it years before it came to the stores! You should read her book to see what she predicts will happen once they’re common!”
Sure. For a month.
But very soon—a month from now, a year from now—that new, shiny, tech-toy is going to be old hat. Everyone will have one on their desk.
And then, it’s not prediction any more. It’s just a book. Either it’s a book that seems now to take place in the present day. Or it’s a book that’s wrong.
Either way, it loses the draw of wonder and exploration that made it science fiction.
So what can a writer do?
Here are a few thoughts on how to surf the tsunami of cutting-edge tech and not wipe out.
Science Gone Kaplooie
First possibility: investigate failed scientific inquiries.
No, I’m not talking about alchemy and animal magnetism and other scientific ideas that were shot down so long ago that the general public knows they are screwy. I mean ideas that are relatively recent but did not pan out.
If one reads the science section of the newspaper or magazines, one often sees predictions about new theories and the up-and-coming technology they will spawn. But quite a few of these things never seem to come to pass. The theory turns out to be faulty. Or the execution turns out to be too difficult or expensive.
These failed paths are great fodder for science fiction!
Cold fusion comes to mind as an example. Just think of the changes to society, the SF plot potential, were there was an easy and safe way to make massive amounts of energy!
But, there are many other predictions of which the general public has never heard. Or, if they did, it was so fleeting that it did not really stick. So a story that extrapolated as to the changes had the invention been real seems new and fresh.
And if the idea sounded realistic enough that some scientist believed it or some company considered putting money into it, then it shouldn’t be too hard to make it sound realistic to the reader, too.
If failed science does not provide enough fodder, the next option is to break some fundamental law of nature, make an assumption that just can’t be, and then derive your inventions and science from that.
If done well, it still reads as an interesting and plausible idea, but there’s no chance of it suddenly coming to your local Best Buy…
…unless you turn out to be wrong about it being impossible, of course.
An example of this might be Doc. E.E. Smith’s inertialess drive. So far as we understand, it is impossible to remove inertia from objects, but if you could, it is a wonderful mainly use their drive for traveling in outer space. But there are probably hundreds of other uses. (Can you imagine as a parent if you could put a device on your toddler—or your teenage driver—and no amount of running into things would cause them harm?)
If one starts with one counter-factual premise, that inertialessness is possible—the rest of the derived science can be as well-thought out and as logical as any good SF story, except that the march of progress is never going to catch up with you.
…unless you turn out to be wrong about it being impossible, of course.
Playing Chicken with Fate
The third option is to do what science fictions writers usually do, but just try to do it better. To extrapolate several steps ahead of the absolute latest cutting edge tech and hope that you can outrun the relentless wave of progress. That you can take your ideas far enough ahead of what is possible in the near-future to remain science fiction for years to come.
After all, if you’re wrong, you will at least get your month of being the cool guy who invented the idea of whosawhatits.
To that end, you need to know what the cutting edge, upcoming technology is. One place to look for this is the science and tech section of newspapers. (If you are lucky, the technology described in the latest article will turn out to be one of those that turns out to be a dead end, and you’re fictional invention will never go out of date. )
Or, here are a number of sites tech buffs haunt that might be a good place to fish for starter ideas.
Concluding the Matter
In the end, it’s a balancing act.
The more realistic the story, the greater the chance of real life catching up.
The less close to our current experience the story, the greater chance of outrunning the progress tsunami—but also, the greater chance of losing your readers sense of disbelief.
Writing near future SF will always be risky. But the effort is worth it! At least to those who love the wonder and disorientation of reading good science fiction.
After all, the other option is that every scene end up in an old-fashion office with a huge desk and some honking geese outside the window, and nobody wants to have to read that time after time!
L. Jagi Lamplighter is the author of the YA fantasy: The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin. She is also the author of the Prospero’s Daughter series: Prospero Lost, Prospero In Hell, and Prospero Regained. She has published numerous articles on Japanese animation and appears in several short story anthologies, including Best Of Dreams Of Decadence, No Longer Dreams, Coliseum Morpheuon, Bad-Ass Faeries Anthologies (where she is also an assistant editor) and the Science Fiction Book Club’s Don’t Open This Book.
When not writing, she switches to her secret identity as wife and stay-home mom in Centreville, VA, where she lives with her dashing husband, author John C. Wright, and their four darling children, Orville, Ping-Ping Eve, Roland Wilbur, and Justinian Oberon.
Her website is: http://www.ljagilamplighter.com/
Her blog is at: http://arhyalon.livejournal.com/
On Twitter: @lampwright4