I’ve been on a bit of a classics binge lately. I don’t mean Homer or Euripedes, or even Shakespeare, but some of the classic science fiction writers of early last century, including a couple of novels by Harry Harrison and Marion Zimmer Bradley set in far future eras when the human race has spread to hundreds of other worlds. A pan-galactic human civilization was a pretty common SF trope in those days (still is). The stories were creative and entertaining, but in spite of taking place hundreds, if not thousands of years from now, an awful lot of the everyday trappings of life would be perfectly recognizable today.
I’m talking about things like guns, cars, and ordinary furniture like chairs and tables, not to mention clothes we might wear today (even if only to a Halloween party). To be fair, they didn’t say the cars had wheels and internal combustion engines. Maybe we’ll still call them cars even if they look more like Luke Skywalker’s land speeder. Some of the guns were ray guns instead of projectile weapons. And, really, how many different contraptions can be invented to accommodate the human butt in a seated position? Plus, for as long as we continue to wear clothes, I suppose shirts, pants, and jackets will remain pretty similar. But still, we’re talking about highly advanced civilizations. To build an interstellar empire is going to require faster-than-light travel—very high tech stuff, if it isn’t impossible.
In such a far-flung future will we need—or want—individual cars to get us around? Weapons that have to be drawn from a holster and gripped with the hand? Seems likely to me that if we still need to cover our bodies, those coverings will be in the form of something we’ll spray on, spread on, or extrude from our skin. Who knows if we’ll even have organic bodies that need covering? Or any physical bodies at all?
I’m not criticizing the classic writers. For one thing, they hadn’t experienced the explosion of technological progress of the past fifty years, especially information technology and nanotechnology. My point is not that they were wrong, but that—just maybe—they were right.
There are many ways our future could unfold. From where I sit right now, it’s easy to think that computer tech and connectivity will continue to increase until we experience something like the “Singularity” that Ray Kurzweil and many others predict, when we might actually upload our consciousness into artificial brains of some kind. By that route, or some other, we could end up having no physical bodies at all within a few centuries from now. Even if we choose not to do that, we’ll almost certainly develop technologies that will eliminate the need to sit on anything (how about electromagnetic suspension fields, or antigravity?), or grasp a weapon (isn’t it more likely we’ll have wearable weapons, or even weaponry built right into our bodies?), or drive a vehicle somewhere we want to go (Beam me up Scotty!)
But that’s just the most intuitive trajectory from our current perspective. Maybe it’s totally wrong.
Maybe we’ll just keep on using stuff we’re familiar with for nostalgia’s sake. Or we’ll decide to keep a lot of it because it’s tried and tested and we don’t feel it can be significantly improved. Because we like the solid feel of a chair. Because wearing mix-and-match clothes lets us express our individuality (and our tribe memberships too). Because we get really bored being chauffeured around everywhere when we could be driving ourselves. It’s not knowing these things that makes being a science fiction writer fun.
I guess it’s also worth mentioning that a 100% accurate portrait of the everyday paraphernalia of life a thousand years from now wasn’t the point of these stories. They were created to evoke emotions, express opinions, illustrate themes. They featured relatable characters following intriguing plots that made you want to find out what happens next. Weighing down such stories with too much technical detail or imaginative decoration can actually get in the way of the deep connection between reader and story.
So how much detail about futuristic SF settings do you expect your favourite authors to deliver? It’s fiction writing, not rocket science…or should it be?
Personally, I enjoy it when a writer has gone to the work to understand technology and creatively applied it to invent technical gizmos, transportation systems, digital currency infrastructures, or other detailed worldbuilding that feels true. But I don’t care how smart you are, there’s no way you can predict what human society and its everyday trappings will look like in a thousand years with any accuracy whatsoever. And that’s OK.
Good stories are good stories. I didn’t enjoy these classic tales any less because a character worked in an office with a desk that had papers piled on it.
I guess I’m saying that, even though we’re writing science fiction set in the future, unless the minutiae of your imagined world are the point of your story, it’s OK not to sweat the small stuff.