I’m going to explain to you why I hate the flying car you people continue to complain you haven’t yet gotten despite being promised its delivery long ago.
Let’s forget for the moment that the flying car has become the laziest aesthetic symbol of futuristic worldbuilding in fiction, television, and movies. Because if you want to show ‘em they’re in the future, pan up and have a Dodge Neon on hover jets zoom by. Let’s forget that we’ve seen it a million times in a million variations since the earliest incarnations of modern SFF. Let’s forget the last time we really gave a shit about a flying car was Back to the Future II in 1989.
I loathe the flying car for one simple reason.
It vexes me when folks confuse fantasy with futurism.
Your Camry Ain’t Leaving the 405
You see, the real future of transportation isn’t the flying car. The future of transportation is most likely your grandkids sitting in a Los Angeles-style traffic jam in Omaha, Nebraska. We’ll be lucky to achieve a future in which commercial aircraft aren’t stacked endlessly in the skies, let alone your fucking 20th-generation Toyota Camry bereft of tires. Besides, we now know the future of transportation is inevitably self-driving. Even if the cars fly, your notions of being the pilot are patently absurd.
Also, the cars are absolutely not going to fly.
The flying car isn’t futurism.
And hey, there’s nothing wrong with fantastical futures. There’s nothing wrong with fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with dreamers. They’re essential. They should be encouraged. But fantasy shouldn’t be confused with futurism, which to my mind is no less than the pursuit of literally predicting the future in our stories, or at least trying to come as close as possible with an informed guess.
One Window, A Thousand Mirrors
Futurism in fiction is important for several reasons. Our best futurist authors have driven real-life innovation with their work, inspiring the creators who went on to design influencing technologies and develop influential ideologies. But ultimately futurism is important because it’s what makes SFF relevant to the world around us. Good futurism in fiction speaks as much to what’s happening right now as it does to what may happen decades or centuries from now. It’s a mirror as much as it a window.
The most difficult task of the futurist author is creating a world extrapolated from the one in which we find ourselves today. Always ask yourself if your futurism is based on our world, or on the worlds of your favorite futuristic stories.
The chasm between the two, both aesthetically and in terms of plausibility, can be gargantuan.
If you want to write futurism rather than fantasy it’s time to give up your flying car and absorb the world as it is, now, and the cultural, political, natural, and technological trends forging the paths to the future of the real.
So, hopefully you’ve at least gleaned the difference between those two concepts now.
Let’s hypothesize you still want to be a futurist author.
I’ve prepared some brief notes.
Focus on the Makers
The future isn’t technology. It’s people. We live in a human world, and if you’re writing about a human future, people should damn well be the central focus of your futurism. Even if it’s a future in which we’ve integrated technology with our own forms, even if that integration is overwhelming (as it very possibly may or will be), human emotion and human interaction and human conflict and human agency remain at the core of what makes a story, any story, viable and compelling. People forget William Gibson, despite creating the original “matrix,” didn’t begin Neuromancer with technology. He began it with a man, a hacker named Case, who’d been cut-off from that fantastic virtual world of Gibson’s future. He began with people, and how technology informed and influenced their lives.
I will always find people-focused futurism far more interesting, compelling, and relevant than technology-focused futurism, although we should never ignore the influence of the latter on the former. In fact, that’s one of the key influences to explore, but remember it’s a cause and not an effect.
Culture, community, sociopolitics, geopolitics, these are the futures that truly define the human experience and condition.
The Shades of a Global Future
Here’s one for you: “Afrofuturism.” If you’re unfamiliar with that concept then you have a lot of reading to do before you can even attempt to tackle futurism in your own stories with any credibility. While afrofuturism has been present and vital in literature, art, and music since the inception of each medium, the term is fairly new, coined in the 90’s and more recently introduced to wider audiences by writers like
Afrofuturism is exactly what it sounds like, futurism informed by the experience of being a person of color and descending from the African diaspora. And like any good futurism, as I’ve already pointed out, it utilizes SFF to reflect what’s going on now. Authors like Nalo Hopkinson, NK Jemisin, and one of my absolute current favorite storytellers, Nnedi Okorafor (her novel Who Fears Death, about a young woman in post-apocalyptic Saharan Africa, is on another level of good), have created afrofuturistic works that are, in my opinion, among the best stories in the SFF genre, certainly within the last two decades.
In my admittedly cis white dude view, at its core afrofuturism in SFF is a direct response to two seemingly simple yet obviously very complex things: 1) There are a lot of people of color in the world, a number of them SFF authors, who bring their experiences to their fiction. 2) People of color and their heritage, culture, and experiences have always been severely underrepresented in mainstream SFF and/or outright banished from the myriad futures those mainstream authors have conjured and presented.
It’s the responsibility of every futurist author, regardless of color, from this point forward to address that second part. Ours is a global future, and if your story doesn’t reflect that, if it’s filled with a singular, colonial, white American viewpoint, it is a fantasy based on the shoddy futurism of fiction’s past.
Speaking of the past, I’ve always believed one of the keys to good futurism lies in the patterns of history. We’ve been repeating cycles with increasingly shinier bells and whistles for quite some time now, and if you want to know how people will react culturally and/or as a society to things, look at how they’ve reacted to things in the past.
The past teaches us to account for change, or more precisely humungous paradigm shifts, epochs, and outright singularity. SFF hasn’t always learned this lesson. In the 1980’s futurism in fiction was largely dominated by the idea of a Japanese colonial vision of America, because the Japanese dominated the commercial electronics industry and were viewed as the technological innovators of the future. Of course, the future you now live in is one largely composed of micro-technology branded and marketed in America and assembled by Chinese 10-year-olds (sorry, but it’s true. The misery sustained and perpetuated by your iPhone purchase is as horrific as it is personally inconvenient to you).
- Through A Glass _______________
These are some of the most important things to consider when addressing futurism in your fiction, but in the end this will all be most deeply colored, not by any outside influence or bit of research or historical analogy, but by you. The most basic key to futurism is to ask yourself a whole lot of questions and vet the answers beyond your own mind.
But the most important question falls squarely on you.
Are you a cynic or an optimist?
I went and saw Tomorrowland recently, and it was a lot of fluff, no question, but I couldn’t help being taken with how unabashedly optimistic it was as a work of SFF about humankind’s future. “Dystopia,” “grimdark,” these are the categories that rule contemporary SFF, certainly at the box office. And despite the dystopia disdain I’ve seen widespread and justifiably vitriolic as of late, I can’t look at those works of bleak futures and revolution against oppressive futuristic regimes, and call them invalid.
Of all the questions you have to ask yourself to create futurism in your fiction, the most powerful is, fundamentally, whether you believe the world will get better or worse. That’s everything, and it will reveal more about you and your story than any other question.
Personally, I believe good futurism in fiction falls somewhere in-between, as life and society so often do. But your story isn’t about what I believe. It’s about what you believe.
It’s the engine that drives the whole machine, and without it, without a genuine belief in what you’re creating, any futurism, any story, is a hollow shell going nowhere.
Create a future you believe, first, last, and always.
Oh, and on a final note: Fuck holograms, too. They’re the cheap window dressing of a lazy future setting.