Bill Petrocelli

Fact-Checking the Future

This blog was originally posted in SF Signal, which is the 2012-2013 “Hugo Award Winner for Best Fanzine.” Wow! That means I’m in the company of some of the best science fiction. The only problem is that I think of The Circle of Thirteen as being “future fiction’ rather than strictly sci-fi. In any event, I took the opportunity to write about the challenges of setting the story in future decades.

Writing teachers say write with a strong sense of place. Little details can bring a story to life, and the historical setting can often place those details in the reader’s mind so that they don’t have to be spelled out. If the hero is “confronted by a man with a gun,” the context can fill in the picture. If the story is set in Tombstone 1881, Chicago 1927, or Berlin 1944, in your mind’s eye you’ll see a Western Sheriff, a Chicago mobster, or an agent of the Gestapo.

But what do San Francisco in 2056 or New York in 2082 look like? Writers of future-fiction don’t have to do much historical research, but they do something just as difficult: they have to create a historical context on the blank slate of a reader’s mind. The challenge is to merge your vision of the future with the visions of thousands of readers without jarring them to the point of distraction.

The closer a future scene is to the present, the more difficult it is to write. A story set well into the future operates under its own internal rules. No one really tries to fill in all the gaps between the present moment and some far distant time. But if you set a story in, say, 2017, readers might expect you to describe the next version of the IPhone, predict the World Series, or tell them who got elected President in 2016.

I wanted The Circle of Thirteen to be about the changing role of women, and I thought it best to tell it from a future vantage point. I chose the period 2032-2082, because that would place the story close enough to the present world to be relevant but not so close that I would have to update every bit of current trivia. But it’s never that neat. I may have started with a focus on the role of women, but history – even future history – doesn’t move in distinct packets. I quickly realized that I had to weave many other themes into the story, like global warming, economic injustice, and political violence.

How much does a society really change over a period of 30, 40 or even 50 years? Thinking back a few decades, I wonder how much of our present world I would have foreseen. I never would have guessed the Internet, but on the other hand commercial jet travel doesn’t seem to have changed much at all. Historical change is uneven, and things sometimes move in different directions. At one point in the book technical progress and social regression are both happening at the same time. That doesn’t seem to me to be at all unlikely.

The biggest challenge is to avoid what novelists call the “big data-dump” – adding in background facts that don’t fit into the flow of the story. Everything has to be seen through the eyes of the characters. It’s likely, for example, that our current obsession with social-networking will evolve in a technology that allows users to project their discussions on to walls in public places. I decided to introduce that future-fact in a scene where Julia, the protagonist, is racing to get away from the words surrounding her so she can concentrate on her own thoughts.

Another example involves Julia’s house-robot, Toki. He is seen through her eyes, and the reader shares her bemusement at how emotionally clueless he can be. In that case I decided it was better to have Julia be annoyed than the reader be bored.