Writing about the world to come is a scary proposition, because nothing becomes obsolete faster than futuristic visions. Especially if you're writing about a decade or two from now, your story risks looking ridiculous within a few years. So here are 10 tips to keep your near-future setting from looking too dated.
All artwork by Florent Llamas (Check out his DeviantArt and Facebook pages.)
This is definitely an example of an area that I've struggled with in my own writing, and to some extent this list is an opportunity for you to profit from my embarrassing mistakes. But it's also drawn from the errors I've seen books, movies and TV shows make over the years.
1) Avoid brand names and current pop references
This is probably the most obvious one, but it's still worth mentioning. Stanley Kubrick probably thought it was a safe bet to include Pan-Am prominently in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that's one of the main things that makes that film look slightly weird, even before you get to the 1960s aesthetic still being around 30-odd years later. This almost bit me in the ass recently — I was working on a story and had a character talk about shopping for electronics at Radio Shack. Between the time I finished the story and got it accepted for publication, it became clear that "Radio Shack" might not even be a current reference a year or two from now. (Sob.)
2) Make it radically weird in some ways, but familiar in others
Not everything is going to change in the space of a few years, even though it sometimes feels as though change is happening at an accelerated rate these days. We might get driverless cars on the streets, but we won't get rid of drivers any time soon. We might see changes in food consumption habits due to drought, but hamburgers aren't going away. The future doesn't feel like the future without a certain amount of cognitive dissonance, but some things are always going to remain the same — until they finally stop being viable, at least. A lot depends on picking changes that seem plausible, using today as a starting point. Which brings us to:
3) Don't just extrapolate in a straight line from current trends
This is the big one. It's easy to identify the current trendlines, and just imagine them continuing forever — but that doesn't happen, in real life. Investment booms turn into busts, fads end, and trends turn sideways all the time. Instead of thinking "if X goes on forever, what will it look like," imagine what five more years of X will lead to, and how that will change things afterwards. Even if the trend continues after that, it will probably continue in a different way — for example, the current feeding frenzy for investing in tech startups may still be going on five years from now, but there may be more emphasis on picking winners early, rather than betting on a lot of horses. And speaking of trends...
4) Pay attention to demographic trends, not social ones
The only thing you actually know will happen in the next 20 years is a generational shift. Today's five-year-olds will be young adults, and meanwhile the Baby Boomers will be retiring and dying off. That, in turn, means that social trends will be shaped more by today's toddlers than by the Baby Boomers, and any trend that you spot which is partly shaped by Boomer involvement may not still be going on. Plus trends are fleeting. Another demographic trend to watch: whites will no longer be a majority in the United States by 2043.
5) Look at what technologies are coming soon
And in turn, be aware of what might become obsolete as a result. Blade Runner predicted that we'd be making video calls, but still had everyone using payphones. Also, Back to the Future II still has fax machines in 2015. Obsolete technologies are one of the biggest red flags in a near-future setting, and to some extent this is unavoidable — but if you can predict what's coming down the pike, you can also think about what technologies won't still be around. And that way, you can at least have a shot at avoiding the "fax machine" goof.
6) But don't buy the hype about tech progress
Bear in mind that not all technological change happens at the exact same rate. We tend to assume that because computers and related technologies have had an incredible revolution in the past 20 years, all technologies will behave the same way in the next 20. We'll cure cancer, we'll become cyborgs, we'll live forever, etc. In fact, computers have been a special case, thanks to Moore's Law and some related developments. We are making some amazing advances in biotech and genetic medicine, for sure, but we're probably not going to solve the most basic problems of human existence (like eliminating aging) in the next generation or so. And nothing looks dated faster than a near future with unrealistically astonishing advances — just look at the legions of 1960s stories that had us colonizing space by the 1990s.
7) Introduce a few dramatic changes, then follow the dominoes
As I mentioned, it's not the future without cognitive dissonance — and a certain amount of weirdness is actually necessary, if anybody's going to buy your future as THE future. But one way to make the weirdness feel organic and not contrived is to create a "future history" that leads from the present to your imagined future, in which certain major tech breakthroughs or social changes lead to a series of (somewhat) logical consequences. (They can't be entirely logical, because we're talking about people.) Try to imagine the dominos falling, including second-order effects as well as immediate effects. That way, even if you're proved wrong, at least you'll have a thought-out alternate timeline — and alternate universes never get old.
8) Avoid current slang
In fact, be careful about slang in general. Nothing marks your work out as the product of a bygone era more quickly than slang. (Says the person who really wanted to call a story about party girls in space "YOLO" and got talked out of it.) And actually, using made-up slang can also mark your work out as dated, because even the made-up slang starts to feel anchored to the time when it was created, for various reasons. (Either because it's similar to real slang from that time, or because it's just of that era — a lot of 1960s and 1970s SF books contain "futuristic" slang that sounds unbelievably bell-bottomed.)
9) Remember that subcultures develop organically
And similarly, if you invent a new subculture that exists in twenty years, bear in mind that subcultures don't just spring up out of nowhere. They usually emerge from older subcultures, or are influenced by them at least. Or else, they emerge in response to current social and cultural conditions. Also, the more outlandish the subculture, the more you need to get inside the heads of its adherents, so that we feel the sense of cohesion and the internal logic that makes them not feel silly wearing shoes on their heads or whatever.
10) Keep the politics vague, but also highly specific
And finally, this is another big one — predicting political shifts is a thankless, damning task. Unless you're going for full-blown satire, going into detail about who the President is and what the political situation looks like in 2025 may just get you into trouble. Probably best to vague it out — but bear in mind the old Tip O'Neil maxim that "All politics is local." The best way to make your future political situation feel grounded, and not likely to be disproven by actual events, is to focus in on really specific controversies and battles at the local level, or affecting one group heavily. Even if you include national political controversies, keep them petty and superficial (because not hatmuch will change in 20 or 30 years.) The best way to keep the shape of your future politics feeling realistic is to make sure it's weirdly specific (and specifically weird.)
Thanks to Annalee Newitz for her help with this one!
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.