Everybody says we're living in a science fictional era now. Your grandma's poodle is on Facebook, your whole social life is on your iphone, and mega-corps know everything about you. But if you think the world is futuristic now, just wait another twenty years. The weirdness will swarm exponentially, making the world of 2028 easily as jarring as 2008 would seem to a visitor from the Reagan era. So how can we, as writers and storytellers, create a believable medium-near-future world?
Images by Goodnight London.
Extrapolate from current trends...
Certain things happening now will probably carry on, and even accelerate, over the next two decades. The icecaps will keep melting, natural disasters will probably come more often, and droughts may affect more regions. Rich countries will become fortresses of the elderly, with fewer young people who aren't immigrants. Corporations will probably keep becoming more powerful and diversified, unless the next economic meltdown actually weakens their power somehow. There will be less oil, and more fighting over oil. Food prices will keep going up for third-world countries. China and India will be economically resurgent, unless they fuck up. Some forms of social deviance will be marginally more accepted, within wealthy societies at least.
...but don't be their bitch.
Don't assume that every current trend will continue in a straight line — it's never worked that way in the past, and it's unlikely to start now. New technologies will help stem some of the negative trends we're dealing with right now. And unimaginable disasters will spark new cycles of misery that will sweep us all down. Nobody in 1988 could have predicted 9/11 or the girl who hanged herself because her MySpace friends turned out to be mean grownups. (How would you even explain the "MySpace hoax" to someone in 1988?)
The technologies of tomorrow already exist.
Nanotechnology is already turning up in socks and medical devices, and everyone's predicting it'll replace basic circuitry and lead to miracle cures within a few years. People are already chuffed about home robotics, and robots are already helping us fight our wars. There's a lot of talk about amazing replacement limbs that will use nanotech, and even be able to interpret signals from your brain. And there's a lot of reason to be optimistic about gene therapy.
Don't just pick one technology to update.
One of my pet peeves is the near-ish future story where everything's more or less the same, except that there's one miraculous new technology that is transforming the world. It's way more likely that there'll be half a dozen semi-miraculous technologies that will be nudging the world in different directions. (And we can't discount the possibility that things will go to shit so badly that none of those amazing new technologies will come to fruition.)
The story comes first.
We're not writing a white paper here, we're creating LITERATURE. (And yes, it has to be all in block caps, because that's how you know it's serious. John Updike agrees with me.) It's impossible to be "accurate" in depicting the future unless you're a precog or a time-traveler. So the second most important thing is to create a future that's fully alienating and puts the right amount of future-shock on your reader's sushi-like bits. The most important thing is to have it all be in the service of your story, so that all the little details bolster your character and help make the characters' actions seem plausible in context.
So here are a couple of near-future writing exercises.
Writing exercise #1
Let's take a fictional character, we'll call her Betty January, and she has some kind of future job. Like she'll wipe an hour of your life out of the corporate transaction/surveillance databases, or she'll hack your new nanotech/biotech artificial limb to get around the DRM that prevents it from playing the piano like Stevie Wonder. Whatever.
So here's your exercise: Betty goes on a date, with some guy she met online. And it's a really, really bad date. The guy is a pompous dung-wad, and he keeps asking her annoying questions about what she does for a living. Describe Betty's bad date in detail, including how she traveled to the restaurant, what kind of food and drink they have, and what the guy is lecturing her about. Think about details, like how farming might be different in twenty years, or how ettiquette might change if everybody's got internet-enabled crap implanted in their heads. What are cosmetics like in a nanotech/biotech era? But all of the details shouldn't just be random world-buildy lego blocks — they should all be in the service of building the mood of Betty's bad date. And then, as a side effect of portraying her shitty night out, give us a dose of culture shock. (Feel free to post your writing exercise in the comments, if you don't mind random people critiquing it.)
Writing exercise #2
Everything goes to shit. Now that you've done a night-in-the-life type exercise, try writing the day when Betty's world falls apart. You never notice a lot of the technology around you until it fails, so some kind of technical failure should be part of this scenario — but not necessarily all of it. Maybe some corporation finds out what Betty's been up to and has her fire-walled. So suddenly her internet access doesn't work, and her extra arm, unable to download updates, starts turning into dead weight attached to her side. (She doesn't have to have an extra arm, I just threw that in there.) Or maybe there's a natural disaster, like an earthquake, which takes out the phone lines and cellphone towers. The main thing is, write the first five or ten minutes after Betty's world falls apart and everything stops working the way it should. What's the worst she imagines? What desperate measures does she try to get things working again? What does her living space look like to her when she's freaking out and feeling unsafe?