I’ve mentioned before that I rarely write stories of the distant future. Readers expect authors to include details of that future society, especially the technology. Will we have flying cars? Hotels on Mars? Robot servants? Everlasting bodies? They want to read about that—they want to see it in their minds.
Not only is that stuff hard to predict with any credibility hundreds of years ahead (how many futurists of the early 20th Century predicted the smartphone/online world we experience now, let alone where that path will take us from here?) But if you do it too thoroughly, the reader of today might not even be able to relate to the image you conjure. Why do Star Trek movies continue to show a full bridge crew manipulating physical controls like sliders on touchscreens at exotically-shaped workstations covered with more multi-coloured lights than a Christmas tree? Certainly the technology of the 23rd Century and beyond will make it possible for humans to be little more than passengers along for the ride while artificial intelligences handle all of a spacecraft’s functions. If there’s a reason for the AIs to feed regular data about the ship’s progress and surroundings to the humans, isn’t it more likely to be an immersive virtual reality experience than current-style readouts, blinking lights, and a big TV at the front of the room? And let’s not forget that brain-computer-interfaces are already a reality—if the humans ever do have to take control of something, they’ll just form a thought to “make it so”.
But that would suck on the big screen.
It would amount to a handful of characters sitting in chairs in some nondescript space, maybe with some kind of headset on (but probably not). We might not even recognize them as fully human. As much as our mechanical technology is changing by leaps and bounds, we’ll also very soon have the ability to make significant changes to the human form itself.
Our societies as a whole are fluctuating rapidly, too. Thirty years ago, who would have predicted the way our world has now been shaped by terrorism and our lawmakers' response to it? Or the new emphasis on equal rights for members of the LGBTQ community? Earlier than that, it was racial rights that were in flux. Gender equality still hasn’t been fully resolved, but then questions of gender identity are expanding all the time. Science fiction of recent decades has offered some striking examples of where biological engineering might take human sexuality—the novel 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson includes some interesting possibilities.
But if we go too far in earnestly trying to describe the bizarre paths the human race could take over the next, say, five hundred years, will the result be as alien as anything that might have evolved on some distant planet? How will we identify with such people? How will they speak to us? The easy answer is to say that such characters will still have an “essential humanity” revealed by the author, but that might be disingenuous. Because we could very well have less in common with these trans-humans of tomorrow than we do with the ancient Sumerians of millennia ago.
There can be benefits in pooling our collective brainpower to predict where scientific developments are taking us, especially in helping us to decide which paths we definitely do not want to take. But our primary purpose as writers is to tell stories—stories that entertain, yes, but also offer instruction, philosophical exploration, and catharsis. To do so they have to touch the core human identity within us. None of that comes across if we can’t relate to the story—if we can’t picture ourselves in it.
So, by all means let’s enjoy creative visions of a far-flung future, but also recognize the practical limitations that fiction for a present-day audience dictates: too much strangeness, even if it’s likely to be accurate, can get in the way. And although it might seem like laziness when an SF writer doesn’t make his or her future world so utterly different from our own, maybe it’s not. Maybe sometimes it’s just good storytelling.