The Tightrope Act of Near-Future Science Fiction

Asking what our world will be like just a few years from now, near-future SF writers draw their vitality from their knife-edge topicality. But no other type of literature has such a potentially short shelf life

You only have to turn on the television news to realise that we live in a futuristic world and that things change with dizzying speed. When rolling-news channels struggle to keep up with the pace of change, what chance do novelists stand? Fiction set in the near future casts a weather eye on the technological and social trends of today and asks, What will this be like in another 10 years? It tends not to feature aliens or interstellar travel, preferring to focus on characterisation and social commentary, and depicting a world almost identical to our own, with the addition of one or two speculative elements.

Near-future fiction is a tightrope act, a game played with the audience. It’s a way of looking at the world, reflecting it through a prism to make the everyday extraordinary and the future relevant to the reader. But it’s a risky undertaking. If you assume it takes 18 months to write and publish a novel, world events may have rendered the entire premise of the book obsolete before it hits the shelves. Maybe even before you’ve finished writing it. No other literature has such a potentially short shelf life.

William Gibson, for example, is credited with predicting the internet in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, but he was writing at the height of the cold war, when a confrontation between the superpowers seemed inevitable, so, naturally, he includes such a conflict in the book, limiting it to a small-scale exchange of nuclear weapons. Nobody could have foreseen that just five years later the Berlin Wall would fall and that, not long after, the Soviet Union would collapse, relegating his book to the shadowy realms of “alternate history”.

In an even more extreme case, Charles Stross, once complained unexpected real-world events (in this case the result of the UK general election) had forced him to rethink the plot of the novel he was writing. It’s this knife-edge topicality that gives near-future fiction its vitality.

Writers such as Ian McDonald, Bruce Sterling and Lauren Beukes use the near future as a canvas for terrifyingly plausible speculation. In her debut novel, Moxyland , from 2009, Beukes shows us a vision of South Africa a few years from now, where mobile phones have evolved into a kind of social passport – credit card, ID and web access rolled into one – and drinks companies are paying influential young people to become addicted to their products.

In The Star Fraction , from 1996, Ken MacLeod tours us through a Balkanised United Kingdom, his characters leading us through a society that has fragmented into a jumble of ministates where every interest group has its own scrap of fiercely defended ground.

As well as technological and social change, catastrophes play their part. The near future is a setting particularly suited to depictions of disaster, whether intended as dire warnings or simple entertainment.

In JG Ballard’s 1962 novel The Drowned World, solar flares have melted the ice caps and turned London into a steamy swamp. The action of Colin Harvey’s 2010 novel Damage Time takes place 40 years from now, at a time when flood defences are needed to save New York from the rising sea and the US is bankrupt and close to collapse. And in Stephen Baxter’s 2008 novel Flood we watch the world engulfed by water from subterranean aquifers, and every scrap of land drowned beneath the waves. The world we see drowned is ours, and the peril is therefore immediate and visceral. We can imagine living through those events.

While reading we can pause to wonder, Where will I be, and what will I be doing, when all this comes to pass? Or, in the case of the more dystopian futures, What can I do to prevent this from happening?

Near-future fiction comments on our world by imagining how it might change. Like Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, it shows what our lives might be like in a decade or two, so forcing us to think about the choices we make today and mentally prepare ourselves for tomorrow.

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Author: Gareth L Powell


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