Back to the Future

It’s tough being a sci if writer. I mean, we’ve got to predict the future, right?

Even setting the world of Eshu International less than 50 years ahead, there’s a constant tension as I approach scenes. Future weapons, technology, social/economic disparity, laws, business, even little things like clothes, food and advertizing have to be credibly depicted. It has to be simultaneously foreign and familiar so a reader is intrigued, and connected. How the heck…?

I saw author Cory Doctorow on a Google interview a while back, and he said all futurists really did was throw shovelfuls of the present at the big gaping unknown around the next bend. Guilty as charged, yer Honor. I definitely take current trends and shove them off the edge. I try to extrapolate.

For example, take the rise of private military/ security firms around the world. Nation-states are outsourcing war. Paying for patriotism? How will those same nations deal with massive multi-national corporate entities forty years hence? I mean right now, it looks as if Space exploration is going to be privatized in America. Will there be Jet Blue flights to the Moon someday? What about the exponential development and deployment of remote, robotic systems in war zones? In Iraq and Afghanistan, Hellfire-armed Reaper drones have more combat time and confirmed kills than military pilots in-theater. Oddly enough, those Reaper pilots are killing people via network or satellite, sometimes from air-conditioned trailers halfway around the world in Nevada. How to deal with that?

Here is a glimpse at some fascinating technology invented by Pranav Mistry. The clincher for me is when he says he realized humans are not interested in computing – we are interested in information. It’s this realization combined with his brilliant inventiveness that makes the technology so astonishing and kicks it a quantum leap forward. WATCH TED TALK HERE. He realized what people really wanted. And that brings me to me next point.

“Pete, it’s a fool that looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.” – Ulysses Everett McGill, “O’Brother, Where Art Thou?”
It occurs to me that good science fiction isn’t about fictional science. Fact is, I loathe books that read like a doctoral thesis. I don’t give a flip about your theory on practical FTL travel. Ark ship to Proxima Centauri? I want to see people dealing with relative aging, extended space travel, leaving Earth and all known references behind for an alien planet, not read page after page detailing viable cryogenic hibernation or socio-economic stratification in deep space, low-grav arcologies – except to the extent they apply to the story. Technology and theory may titillate, but by themselves they’re sterile. It’s what we do with them that makes or breaks them.

Good fiction is about people’s struggles, failures and triumphs; good science fiction (IMO) is about people wrestling with those same issues in the face of advancing technology and discovery. Any claim to prescience in speculative fiction is the result of asking the right questions and discerning what impulses really move us.

William Faulkner, in his 1950 Nobel Laureate speech, said writers had “forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” He ended with “The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

The engine of the human heart drives history. Clues about how we will respond are found where we did respond. Star Trek is very cool, but First Contact scenarios from the era of exploration and colonialism are sadly predictable. Shift Tense has foreign mercenaries embroiled in an African civil war against a brutal corrupt dictator who is backed by a large European business interest. If that ain’t familiar… Somali pirates raid ships containing a rare natural resource. That they use motor boats and satellite links is icing on the cake. What is the difference between ethnic cleansing by remote, tracked weapons platform and those slaughtered with AKs and machetes?

To the terrorized villagers, none at all.

In his “Finest Hour” speech, Winston Churchill warned of a “new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science” should Britain falter against Hitler and Nazism. The Battle of Britain wasn’t about Stukas and Spitfires. Those were simply vehicles that carried the conflict of soul, mind and ideology into the skies. It was an epic contest of worldviews, truth claims. Allow me a bit of hyperbole here… it was a titanic clash of the human heart.

Should Humanity continue and expand into our solar system and beyond, the simple fact is we’ll bring ourselves with us. Our struggles will continue in different skin. Would to God justice, compassion, peace, and genuine civilization prevail out there because someone in the midst of those inevitable contests dared to remember the good, the holy, the true, and called us once again to our Finest Hour.

2 Replies to “Back to the Future”

  1. Science fiction writers don’t make great prophets–all they can do is look at trends. And you’re right. The plot shouldn’t center around technology, but around people, unless man is the technology. Still, though, the human heart is at stake, even when man becomes the machine (but hopefully this is done w/ a little more subtlety than in Metropolis).

    In one of my WIPs, my heroine time travels 19 yrs into the future. While this is very near future, it tripped me up–my focus turned to researching technology and imagining how humans will communicate 2 decades from now. I had to pull back because I’m not a sci-fi writer, and technology is not what my book is about. But honestly, I’m guessing I share personality traits w/ many sci-fi writers–that is, I could get caught up in endless research because I’m skilled at it. I’m more skilled at conducting research than I am at telling a story.

    I always have a backlog of books on my Nook, but I’ve finally bought yours and will post reviews when I’m done.

  2. Thanks Jill.

    I agree completely. I can get caught up in military technology or historical research, and lose sight of the book. The trick is to distill all that data down into part of the pertinent, practical environment the characters operate in. I usually pick up my gushing geekery second to third review. Oh well, live and learn.

    And thanks for taking the time to get “Running Black”. I look forward to your thoughts. Be aware – it’s a ‘guy’ book. Guns, tech, shooting, explosions, stuff like that.

    Take Care.

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