The closer your speculative future to today is, the shorter the science fiction story has to be.
Why is that?
Most science fiction authors are all too well aware how they can develop a world, only to find an announcement in some science journal or news channels that means they got aspects of world technology wrong. Some good classical examples include H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars.
But why are near future tales so particularly vulnerable to this problem?
Well, we do have a lot of technology, cars, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, computers, x-ray machines, nuclear power stations, wind generators… well the list can go on and on and on… Each of these technologies can be extrapolated. Cars can become driverless and can cross rivers. Vacuum cleaners can clean the room by themselves and worse can decide when the room needs cleaning. And so it goes on. These kinds of technology development are fairly predicable. The problem comes knowing how fast the developments get to market relative to each other. But most readers tend to shrug any such time anomalies off.
So what causes the annoyance with the future technologies not being predicted correctly?
When the extrapolated technologies reach a certain level they can be combined with another technology to produce something really unexpected. With hindsight such inventions are obvious. Well, the aeroplane was obvious before it was invented, wasn’t it? Err… not until the three-axis controls were invented by Orville and Wilbur Wright, which meant fixed wing aeroplanes could be steered and controlled.
The appearance of these cross-technology inventions is unpredictable. Some of them go on to make a profound change in society – like the fixed wing aircraft example above. And to those that grew up and lived with such inventions, they can’t understand why it was so difficult to produce.
These cross-technology inventions have a nasty habit of making hard cumbersome ways of doing things obsolete. What would you think of a horse-drawn plough being put into a story when you were already driving tractors?
But we are living in an age when cross-technology inventions are the basis of most inventions, and they are coming in thick and fast. So it is comparatively speaking, easy to get the near future technology so completely wrong.
When it comes to writing novels, there is a lot of whole building, which for near future stories means a lot of technology development. Add to this the length of time that it takes for a novel to be written and published, there is more chance of something technology-wise being out of kilter with what is happening in the real world.
So what do you do if you have a wonderful technology invention that is likely to happen in the near future and you want to put it into a science fiction story?
Well sticking to writing a short story about it means you can get that idea down quickly. Secondly, when it comes to picking a magazine, pick a magazine that accepts or rejects your story quickly. Be wary of magazines that are quick to accept and then hang onto the story for several years before publishing. The quick turnaround time reduces that chances of a technology-crossing invention killing the credibility of your story.
Which is why short story markets, like the Kraxon Magazine and Daily Science Fiction are so important. They are the true banner-wavers of near future science fiction.
Talking of Kraxon Magazine, I’m absolutely delighted that my short story Cyber Control was voted the favourite story in the magazine for 2016!