Thursday, December 9, 2010

Keeping it Current

When writing SF - particularly near-future SF - being able to write the setting and technology in a way so it does not look outdated in ten or twenty years and appears "current" is a real challenge. Doing it and staying true to your own vision is even harder - particularly if you think some things will stay the same. This leaves you open to being accused of lack of inventiveness or lack of understanding of technology, regardless of the fact you are being judged against standard SF tropes.

Reading some Heinlein recently, I found it almost like reading an alternate history - but set in the future. He had an excellent grasp of what technology would do, but it was pictured as an extension of existing technology. Things were still recorded on tapes and wires, and of course everything was analogue. People still smoked (I guess in the late 1950s it was impossible to imagine a world where they did not) and flying cars and taxis landed on the rooftops.

The other thing that often falls flat is money - it loses its value so quickly. As a rule of thumb basically losing half its buying value every decade (but guess what, they were getting $5k advances in 1970 - same as now - work that one out in terms of the 1970s buying power and it will knock your socks off). I was thinking that probably the best thing is to avoid the use of any term that connects with contemporary currency i.e. don't use dollars, yen or rubles. Instead use something in the line of 'credits' - but whatever make sure it cannot connect with the current value of money. At the beginning of the 20th century a millionaire was stupendously wealthy, now the average Western couple would not contemplate going into retirement with around that same value in assets, cash and investments. Millionaire from then probably translates almost as trillionaire in the now.

The other thing that bugs me writing near-future SF is that I believe certain technological elements will remain static. Take the keyboard for example. Our hands and fingers are just such an excellent way of getting data into a computer system. Not that I am saying there will not be some amazing graphical interfaces - but that there will still be keyboards in three hundred years - or at least some version of them. Interfaces, and their success, also depend on the hardwiring of the human brain. I could not write a book into a microphone to save myself - no matter how good the dictation software is. I just think better on the page - and using my fingers.

Despite my contention that keyboards or some version of them will still be around, some critiquers are determined that any SF should be 'really different' and do not see any SF featuring a current interface as being legitimate.

I tend to think, OK, we all use electric lights, but every house has a dozen candles as well, and they have been around a long time. Some things will also layer.

Can you think of any other current technology that you think might remain into the far future because of its utility? Do you agree we me on the keyboard? Or should I admit defeat and replace it with integrated brain-chips? (Grrr. Would you really want a computer in your head? How quickly would you need another surgery to replace it with the latest model? You can't leave your head with the IT guys for the week either. OK, there I go again.)


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Grrr, Chris. You're making us work!

I think people will still be basically lazy.

Chris McMahon said...

Not so much work for me. Reading articles on the future of fiction - that seems like work:)

I guess we should probably ask what people will be asking machines to do for them - then think of the easiest ways.

Mike said...

Y'a know, I was going to say toilets seem like a technology that is going to be with us for a while, but then again, I live in Japan, where heated toilet seats, built-in bidet sprays, and so forth are part of the package. Heck, they're advertising a self-cleaning one. So even though the basic function is guaranteed to be around, there are certainly some twists possible.

And while I was writing this, a Japanese quiz show just did a whole sequence on future baths. Mostly the contestants missed stuff that the bathtub vendors have now. E.g. micro-aeration (filled the tub with foam). Would you like an automated shower that had heads and arms everywhere -- all you have to do is stand or sit there (I think I saw that in Europe years ago, though)?

How about two different self-cleaning tubs? One swirled and produced a separate "catch" of hair and other stuff, ready to pick up in the little basket and toss. The other -- add soap, and it sprayed itself, rinsed itself, and so forth.

Also self-heated floors, heaters, dryers, and so on.

MataPam said...

"You can't leave your head with the IT guys . . . "

::choke:: Oh. My. Handing images like that to a batch of SF/F writers ought to be illegal.

Yeah, think how often you replace your phone. Your calculator. I think that's one thing that drives tech advances. If everything we owned lasted twenty years instead of five, the money fueling the explosion in electronics would be cut to a quarter. If not more. Most people are appalled at the ancient equipment I make do with.

I think any implanted tech will be mostly the connections, with the goodies, at most, subcultaneous. With wireless connectors most probable, the actual working parts in our pocket, cliped on somewhere or in some jewelry.

I agree with you about the creating and writing through the fingers, not orally. You may get a holo-keyboard rather than a physical one, or finger position sensors but I can't see going without. But that may just be training, not a physical barrier.

But there's no way to avoid obsolescent language. There will always be something so new, called something so different... it's almost tempting to go retro, with pocket watches - which are also communicators and calculators and computers, cameras, credit cards and ID.

After all, kids-these-days consult their cell phones for the time.

Anonymous said...

I'm running into this problem with my YA novel WIP. It's a lost colony on an alien planet that started with Earth's future technology (when we're able to start transporting people to other worlds). They've however had to work backwards in the technology since they haven't had contact, meaning no supplies, in decades. It's been a real struggle for me to decide what they could keep and sustain and what they had to toss and revert back to more primitive techniques.

For instance, money wouldn't make any real sense, so the different communities (they've expanded) are on the barter system. Travel-wise, they've had to adopt some beasts of burden. They've also lost a lot of the communications and medical capabilities because they can't sustain the technology with parts and whatnot. My brain is actually tired from having to second-guess everything that they might have or not.

As far as Earth goes, I think Rowena's right. We are constantly building better mousetraps because we want easier ways to do things. I personally think dishwashers are one of our best inventions ever! But maybe in the future, we'll have disposable dishes that are also biodegradable or even evaporate-able. We won't need to use the water or the physical labor of loading the dishwasher.


Anonymous said...

Ok, I just had to jump in here.

"But maybe in the future, we'll have disposable dishes that are also biodegradable or even evaporate-able."

Linda, this is a great idea. How about force field created solids like in the hallowed holo-decks on Startrek?...

Clean-up at the flick of a switch.

Ok, I'll go away now.

Dan Casey

Chris L said...

Hi Chris,

I am so with you on the keyboard, but perhaps that's because it's our frontline weapon and we'd feel naked without it. I think the old, utilitarian equipment will be with us for a long time because new tech is so expensive.

There'll always be a section of the community that will want to sit in a bath and scrub their back with a brush, rather than get blasted by technicolour, exfoliating biofoam.

And flying cars? I think not, at least until antigrav comes along. Direct thrust just won't cut it.

When we get our first significant EM pulse from the sun or wherever, perhaps the Earth's magnetic field flipping (as it does every so often), and all hyper-showers and hover-lights fizz out, we'll all be sitting in our bathtubs, reading paper books by candlelight.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


As a mother of 6, I with you on dishwashers!

And clothes that don't have to be ironed.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Mike. Some interesting stuff there - I had not considered technology in that arena:)

Sometimes I think that it's not so much that the old writers got it wrong - or predicted too optimistically - it's that what they predicted for everyone is actually only true for the super-rich minority - i.e. they forgot about the cost of some of the technological innovations.

We don't have flying cars - but not because we cannot conceivably have a personal flying vehicle - but because helicopters are the most efficient solution, and are used only by the rich. They (the rich) are picked up from rooftops in their personal flying vehicles.

With the bathroom stuff, perhaps these marvellous innovations will be used by the Bill Gates' of the world, whereas we will have the basic models.

By the way, where are the hot air personal dryers? All that old SF had the shower that was also equipped with a body-sized hot air dryer. I suspect the energy cost and complexity may have killed that one, but if you factor in the cost of the towels and landry (i.e. hot water) I wonder how the GHG balance would go.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Matapam. That's an interesting way out of the problem - take the tech and give it a retro feel. Nice one. No one can accuse you of sticking with 'now' tech, and it will likely still look funky and different in print in the future.

Plus if it actually happens to become a trend, you are lauded as a visionary!

True: I've often see the Y & I gen fishing the mobile out of the pocket for the time. I think torture will be dead easy in the ages to come - just threaten to separate them from the mobile:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Linda. I am perfectly serious when I say a dishwasher saved our marriage:)

In terms of the tech, I think you are on the right track. You could divide it down the middle in terms of deciding what stays and what goes.

1)Look at the energy. What were they using for an energy source(s) and how has this changed? This will immediately dictate what transport vehicles/energy infrastrucutre they can have.

Stationary energy is fairly basic tech (current stuff anyway - most based on 19th century concepts). They would probably still be able to operate and maintain big elctrical generators, steam turbines etc.

Not sure what was powering your mode of transport, but often this takes a complex infrastructure (i.e. oil), so beasts of burden sound right if things go pear shaped, with a few electric vehicles still puttering around within a short radius of electricity hubs.

2) What do they have spares of?

For the electronics, if it is a device that is common enough that other machines can be cannibilised, then they would be able to keep these running, just not as many of them.

But if they only had one of the machines that go 'bing!', then they would be in dire straights when the critical components failed.

I think you could have a lot of fun with this scenario. Very interesting layered tech.

Certainly will make things interesting if they encounter the aliens.

"Daric reached for his blaster, but realised, with a sick lurch to his stomach, he only had his slingshot":)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Dan. If you could somehow 'embody' the energy, you could throw them all into a recycling unit & somehow trigger the 'solid' energy fields to dissolve, releasing the energy again. Any dirt or whatever that were on the dishes would be incinerated, and the rest of the energy could be fed back into the power grid.

"Bob sank into his couch with a sigh, and opened his beer. There was a flash, then a tingle of released eneregy surging around him. He found himself on the floor, beer soaking his shirt.

'Goddam pranksters!' he cursed. Some joker had triggered the field of his couch to collapse - and got the beer can as well."

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. Not a week goes by I don't think about how reliant we are on the internet. About 30 years of science and technology - and all our commerce - is stored on magnetic media. And sitting up in the sky is one massive EM field generator.

What happens if we get three months of weird and sustained solar activity that wipes all the magnetics? Chaos!

It is very scary. Even major industrial plants are now being controlled through the internet.

Mining companies in Western Australia are driving mine trucks from thousands of kilometers away sitting in offices in Perth. I kid you not.

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Rowena. Just get them all T-shirts for Christmas:)

Anonymous said...

I'm on board with the holo-deck technology, Daniel, especially if I can get a maid out of it :).


Anonymous said...


Isn't that what the dryer's for? I do NOT buy clothes that can't roll around in the dryer to get rid of wrinkles :).


Anonymous said...


All good things to consider. Thanks.


Mike said...

From Expanded Universe, Robert Heinlein, intro to Blowups Happen

"I do not intend ever again to try to update a story to make it fit new art. Such updating can't save a poor story and isn't necessary for a good story. All of H. G. Wells' SF stories are hopelessly dated . . . and they remain the best, the most gripping science fiction stories to be found anywhere."

Mike said...

"You can't leave your head with the IT guys . . . "

::choke:: Oh. My. Handing images like that to a batch of SF/F writers ought to be illegal.

Please check your head with the IP lawyers before leaving the company. Images may be removed as provided in your terms of servitude contract.

Kate said...

Clothing with woven in micro-utilities and apps. Including washable and/or dirt resistant, wireless hub, potentially therapeutic stuff like ultrasound and so forth.

As for checking my head with the IT guys... Just imagine the blue screen of death THAT would bring. "Your heart has generated a fatal error and will be shut down. Please notify technical support of the problem."

Mike said...

Oh! Just remembered -- Toyota was showing off their latest "crash-proof" car the other day on the news. Built-in radar AND dual cameras (so it has depth vision!). They told the TV guy to go ahead and try to hit the dummy walking across the road -- running at 40 kph, even with the car in driving rain, it stopped well before hitting the dummy. With the TV guy pushing on the gas, and weaving.

Could add something to your future noir -- "What do you mean, they ran him down? That's impossible, cars won't do that. They must have pushed him under the car after they beat him to death."

Lucius said...

I'd say the most important consideration is simply: is it important to the story?

Except for the case of a SF mystery, I don't really see methods of data entry reaching that threshold.

Don't get me wrong, I think keyboards are here to stay. But if skills can be quickly learned via brain-tape or technological magic, a switch to something resembling DVORAK from the current QWERTY standard should occur. I'm not saying it actually will, mind you. It's a good gripe for characters who in current times would complain about people who refuse to use the metric system.

Likewise, enumerated currency isn't something most people talk about directly.
I don't have X number of dollars in my account, I have three months of expenses.
I have enough in my pocket to buy lunch and a lottery ticket. Something purchased costs practically nothing, a bit, a fair bit, a lot, so much that I had to take out a loan, and OMG I hope this plan works.
Play with the form of the money to bring in verisimilitude, not the amounts. Electronic transfers will be common, of course. But handing a shopkeeper a plastic bill with kinetic luminescence in such a world makes for a great plot hook.

Of course, if the gizmo is the focus of the story, it's obviously important enough to focus a lot of attention on.

Dave Freer said...

I think, seriously, that microgadgetry may infiltrate many things, but I think we may find it easier and cheaper to return to a servanted era (multipurpose automatons who do all the functions of servant in say the 18th Century, Not as well as 1000 dedicated devices, but well enough for us, moving humans to upper middle class equivalents even if they are trailer trash -- which will change the very basics of things like house size and flooring and footwear, and much of our behavior.

Mike said...

"Lift your feet, John, the roomba is trying to clean the floor." "I'm the man of this house, and it can darn well clean around me!"

MataPam said...

And of course if the improve provigil or whatever it's called, enough that we no longer require sleep, will we still have homes? Or just over sized lockers at the gym where we clean up? Clean house? How old fashioned! She has a _house_!

Chris McMahon said...

Hey, Kate. Leaving IT systems in charge of your body? Not in my lifetime - I hope!

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Lucius. The issue with the keyboards is breaking credibility with the reader. It is important to make the setting believable even if it is not neccessarily crucial to the story. I may think we will still have keyboards, but if most SF readers think we won't then me leaving them in breaks credibility. I'm still not sure which way to go.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Dave. Let me know when I can order mine - I have a long list of chores for it:)

David Barron said...

Speculate based on the science of today, sell, then in five years when we have subatomic toothbrushes speculate based on the science then.

It's speculative fiction, not definitive fiction. It's more fun to be the guy who invented the waldo than to be the guy who glossed over terms because he might be overtaken.

Lucius said...

Thanks for the welcome.

I get your point, but it seems that I was less than clear in making my own. Which was simply "is there a reason to include the detail?"

To illustrate:
"She sat down at the console, and punched in her impressions of the day."
The salient point is the diary itself (and perhaps the system/media it's stored on). In this example, the method of data entry is largely irrelevant. (I mean, you could work in some sort of keylogger/dataport parasite/thingy where it would become relevant, but this would quickly cause it to become a major focus of the story.)

;) Of course, I'm strictly amateur status as a writer, so add as much salt as you deem appropriate to any advice that I might offer.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


I read a couple of books, one written 1790 and one written 1860. There was absolutely no attempt to explain anything or give a feel for the time at all.

Mike said...

Just for fun...

"She sat down at the console, and punched in her impressions of the day."

"She sat down at the console, and punched in her impressions of the day. The sticky G key irritated her, but she didn't take time to switch keyboards."

"She sat down at the console, and punched in her impressions of the day. The table clicked under her fingers as she stroked the virtual keyboard."

"She paced across the deck, impatiently dictating her impressions of the day as her journaling agent questioned her. Damn, why had she let that twerp shake her?"

"She scrolled rapidly through the day's audio-visual record, adding comments to expand the record with her impressions."

"As she lay in bed, she quickly thought a series of notes into her id-journal."

Lucius said...


Was that written in, or placed in? (I'm guessing placed in, simply because that makes a a lot more sense.)
I would say whether that's a feature or a bug depends on the genre. The readers of a romance series about a Navy SEAL who has gone back in time to become a viking most likely aren't very interested in what life and customs among the vikings were really like or the mechanics of time travel. Those simply aren't the focus of the story.
Or as a different example (one that doesn't make us all want whimper), I've read a story about a boy and his dog. Borrowing your words, there was absolutely no attempt to explain anything or give a feel for the time at all. And that was a strength for the story.

Sure, tech is going to play a role in a Sci-Fi story, and exploring that will almost certainly be a focus of the story. But there are only so many rabbits you can chase before you're derailing the story. ;) Getting distracted with tangents is something I can actually claim to be a bona fide expert on.


Those were great counter-examples.
But if you're concerned that a detail unimportant to the story might derail the willing suspension of disbelief of readers, why include it?

Mike said...

Oh, sorry, Lucius, I wasn't thinking of those as counterexamples, just exploring how adding details changed the feel of the thing. I agree, sort of, that you don't want to derail the story, although sometimes those details make it feel "real" too. Something of a balance, tone, and voice issue (hah! a shotgun blast of issues, perhaps?).