Near-Future Fiction

Writing near-future SF or Fantasy can be a nerve-wracking experience. How do you portray your world in such a way that it seems futuristic and unique, but without falling into the bear-trap of predicting the wrong trends?

In some senses, it’s impossible to avoid. Particularly if the story itself is driven by a unique SF idea that requires a pretty specific type of setting. This makes it virtually impossible to avoid sketching a world that will not look like reality when it arrives.

If you are too true to real-world predictions, the setting will look boring. The pace of technological advancement rarely matches the rate at which a writer’s imagination can move (you only have to look at any Golden Age SF story to realise we should all be using rocket-packs and flying cars to get to work by now. OK, communication technology was the exception.). If you try to be too realistic, you are also in danger  – paradoxically – of looking like you don’t understand technology or science. ‘What? He doesn’t even have wormholes?’ I find this a tricky balance. The engineer and futurist in me wants to sketch something that I believe is realistic in time-frame, but I am forced to go beyond this or risk my SF credibility in the eyes of editors and readers.

The best way to future-proof the fiction is to ensure that the story stands on its merits without the SF&F elements. The best SF stories of the Golden Age were driven as much by a true rendering of human emotions and drives as they were by their futuristic SF predictions. The key dilemma may have arisen due to technology (e.g. robots Vs humans), but the motivations of the characters and the situations they found themselves in still had a strong echo in the human condition and the everyday experience of being human.

In my SF story The Buggy Plague, which was set on Mars, I thought I was out there talking about computer drives with terabytes of data storage. That was a little more than a decade ago and we are already there and beyond. Yet hopefully the core story – where an archaeologist tries to stay alive on a planet where man’s own technology has taken on a sentience and will of its own (and avoid a murderer) – still stands up.

Of course it’s far easier to set the story way, way into the future. That way you can be extreme in the technological changes without ever getting caught out (mind you if you are still being read in 2758 I’d take that as a win anyway). Compare that to writing a few decades into the future. Sketching out something like David Brin’s Earth, set fifty years in the future, would involve far more detailed research into trends in technology, energy use etc.

Another way to escape the problem is to make the timeline obscure. You can portray familiar technological elements, with some new twists, yet never spell out the actual date. Just include enough familiar setting elements to bridge to the present.

The story can be set on another planet similar to Earth, where there is the implication is that the technology has been rediscovered, yet perhaps expressed and developed along slightly different lines. This allows the familiar to be placed alongside the new without direct comparison by the scrutinising reader.

The approach that probably trumps them all is to make it clear at the outset that we are dealing with an alternate timeline. One off-hand comment about the Chinese colonies in the New World in the fifteenth century places the story firmly in the nether-zone. From there you can put together just about any sort of technological mix without going off the rails. This also allows you to explicitly give the dates. You can present the world as a direct analogue to current society, without having to worry about getting the technological development wrong. I would have to say I don’t like using this. I tend to be a purist in this way – I like to try and predict our future. But that’s a tough game to play.

So how do you future-proof your fiction? Or do you just follow the story where it leads?

Weird Orbits

When I thought about getting somewhere in a spaceship as a 13 year old it seemed pretty simple – just point the ship in the right direction and hit the go button. Most SF seems to feature ships with plenty of power, certainly for interstellar travel it seemed a case of point and shoot.

But travel in the solar system is all about conserving the precious fuel. The latest navigational schemes are all about maximising the efficiency, usually at the expense of the time of travel. Of course we are talking robotic probes here, so preserving the human cargo is not an issue, just the patience of the organisation that sends the probe (and the engineers and scientists anxiously watching it do its thing).

When Apollo 11 went to the moon in 1969, it followed the Hohmann transfer orbit (see below).


Relatively straightforward in concept, this basically takes the ship from one orbit to another orbit (1 to 3), with one half of an elliptical orbit (2) as the intermediate transfer step. This is nice and neat if you have high-thrust engines that can accelerate or decelerate (i.e. for going the other way) from orbit to orbit in a way that’s virtually instantaneous. In reality, you might have lower thrust, so the orbits are changed over a number of timed bursts, gradually increasing the orbit. These lower thrust manoeuvres require more Delta-v than the two thrust orbit transfer, however a high-efficiency low-thrust engine might be able to accomplish them with lower overall reaction mass. This is an advantage for small satellites where reducing the total fuel mass is critical.

The other alternative is to use the slingshot effect. The principle here is conservation of energy. The spaceship uses the gravity of a planet to increase its speed. The planet is slowed down by the smallest of margins, but for very little applied thrust the ship can pick up a real burst of speed. The Cassini probe used this approach when it journeyed to Saturn. It first set off toward the centre of the solar system undergoing two close encounters with Venus, then swung back past Earth and onto Jupiter before turning to Saturn. Again, like the Hohmann transfer that took us to the moon, this is all about swapping orbits via an intermediate orbit. What about just changing directly from one to the other?

There is another subtle approach that is being used to bring spacecraft to their destinations while using the lowest amount of fuel possible. This exploits strange regions of chaos that can occur in areas where the gravitational force of two (or more) bodies cancel out. The most well known of these are the Lagrange points in the Earth-Moon system, where I still imagine the O’Neill colonies spinning away.

This approach exploits the orbits that intersect with these ‘null’ points. Once inside the null point, a ship can apply a very low amount of fuel – and taking its time – cruise out of the zone and straight into a new orbit without having to blast away its fuel in a high-cost Hohmann transfer manoeuvre.

This scheme was used to bring the Japanese space probe Hiten back from Earth orbit to the Moon after it had all but run out of fuel. Edward Belbruno, an orbital analyst at JPL, came up with a scheme that allowed the probe to visit the Moon’s Trojan points (where gravity and centrifugal force cancel out) to examine cosmic dust. The scheme used the L1 Lagrange point.

Astronomers have observed a strange orbital network in the solar system where natural bodies take advantage of the ‘chaos’ in these null zone to swap orbits. One example is the comet Oterma, which was orbiting the sun in 1910, it changed orbit a few times, orbited Jupiter for a while, and then orbited the sun in a new orbit that brought inside the orbit of Jupiter. Then it had enough of that and went back to orbiting Jupiter again, then looped back outside the orbit of Jupiter to orbit the sun again (where it is now). Crazy but true.

Natural bodies seem to have a  propensity to ‘change stations’ at these cosmic transfer points. The strange thing is that these points are truly chaotic – there is no predicting what will happen if a body crosses into them. They might emerge in the same orbit, or into one fundamentally different. We can exploit these by forcing the change – using a precisely timed bit of thrust. Of course the down side is it takes longer.

Just think where we could travel in the solar system if some form of ‘suspended animation’ and the length of journey was not such an issue?

Nice to think of these natural orbital transfer points housing space colonies and tourist resorts. Maybe casinos?

Aha! Moments in Writing

Thinking back over the years I’ve been pounding away at the keyboard (at the beginning I actually typed stories on Dad’s old police-issue Remington. It wasn’t pretty), got me thinking about moments of key realisation in the writing craft.

I guess for me the first one of these points would have to be understanding the need for true inventiveness. As for most writers, when I started off I wanted to recreate what I loved in fiction. In this case, sword-and-sorcery in a fairly familiar fantasy setting. My first ‘aha’ – triggered by the advice of a more experienced writer – was understanding the need to be original in the worlds I created. That more than anything shaped my later work.

Following that was less of an ‘aha’ I suppose than a gradual understanding of point of view. Again, like most newbies, there was plenty of head-hopping in my early efforts, although to be fair this was more common in the sort of work that was inspiring me than what is on the shelves these days.

Then the sinking realisation that being as good as what has gone before is not good enough – the writing craft moves on.

Next was probably the daunting realisation that just because I was feeling something when I wrote and/or re-read a particular passage of my own work did not mean anyone else would. That opened up a whole issue of writing craft – kind of like realising the solid bridge you were standing on was really a tightrope over an abyss. Evoking something in a reader’s mind was a lot harder than I thought.

There were plenty of others: active Vs passive, ‘show don’t tell’ , ‘direct’ experience through the use of physical sensations in a character, the ever-present struggle to create emotional resonance in the reader.

What were your ‘aha’ moments?

Creative Burnout

Having finished off my Urban Fantasy, Distant Shore (my Next Big Thing:)), and sent it sailing away into the unknown, I’m back to working on my Jakirian fantasy series. As usual, starting a new project is like trying to get blood out of a stone. Added to the normal challenge of changing channels is the creative burnout I am experiencing from the massive push I gave Distant Shore in the lead up to completing it. I’ve never put so much into a piece of work. My creative storehouse of energy is doing a really good impression of a hole filled with super-hard concrete. I reach in and just get blank grey.

That’s not to say I’m not making progress. It’s just painfully slow. When you’re firing, and the work is flowing, all those myriad little creative solutions you need to rework prose and rewrite come so effortlessly. Now – not so much.

At the moment I’m just gritting my teeth and hoping that time will allow the old creative engine to crank up again.

How do you deal with creative burnout? Anyone got any ideas?