How To Tell The Future

Today I came across this article, posted by fellow CVS member Linda Adams on Twitter. It’s a quick look at where forward looking science fiction got things right when predicting what was then the future, but is now the present.

Those who have followed me for awhile, especially those in my writers group, know of a novel on my back burner called Capsule. The novel takes place in the 2080s, and so I made predictions about  the course of history and technology over the next seven decades. Occasionally, Capsule alpha readers send me articles that make it sound like I knew what I was talking about.

I say this not to pat myself on the back and claim any great ability to predict future trends. Instead, I’m here to say if I can do it, anyone can do it. So here are my tips on how to be the author seen as a predictive sage in some future present. This is going to involve a little more “in my unpublished novel I…” than any one post should contain, but hang with me, there is a point to be made.

Tip #1: Follow the trends. This is why I follow coverage of Apple and Microsoft keynotes with such interest, why I read sites like Gizmodo, Engadget, and io9. When it came to crafting the world of Capsule, the trick wasn’t prediction it was extrapolation. Choose one or two areas of technology that have the potential of being the next big thing then make them even bigger than that. When I started Capsule, augmented reality was just starting, now with Google Glasses inching towards the market, implants that interrupt the optical nerve to put augmented reality directly into your vision seem 5% less weird.

Tip #2: Look for the concept products. It’s not just car manufacturers that come out with concepts that will likely never be reality. None of the concept cars from the 1970s are on the road today, and likely none of the concept tech goods that are proposed in drawings and videos will ever make the market. These are fantastic jumping off points for technology. The Nokia 888 concept, for example, became the origin point for wrist wrapped computers in Capsule.

Tip #3: Exaggerate the annoying. Future based science fiction, when really executed properly, is about the period it’s written in, not the period it’s written about. So find those elements of modern life you want to highlight, and blow them out of modern proportion. Within Capsule that meant a continued thread about technology that brings far flung people together creates walls between people much closer at hands.

Tip #4: Rely on psychology. Alright, this is actually the point of this blog post. Predicting the near future is a skill that is similar to psychic cold reading. Which is to say it’s not a skill at all, but a carefully crafted magic trick intended to fool the audience. In either instance, the underlying requirement of the trick is the trust of the audience, bringing them into a narrative that they want to participate in, even as a rational portion of the brain may understand it to be a fiction. If they like you enough, they’ll remember only your hits, not your misses.

When presented with how prescient Snow Crash feels to a reader twenty years later, Neal Stephenson is quick to point out just how much he got wrong, such as his prediction that some virtual real estate would be far more valuable than the rest. Star Trek has its cell phones, though far later than in reality. It also had a third world war happen in 1990s when eugenically created super men took over the world and plunged it briefly into a new age of feudalism. Blade Runner correctly posited we’d one day have umbrellas with light up canes, but where are my damned replicants and Los Angeles ziggurats? We don’t focus on those misses, however. We focus on the hits. Even in a project that exists only as two thirds of a rough draft, people remember only the hits.

So the real trick to predicting the future in your science fiction? Extrapolate, exaggerate, but then tell a compelling story. Make the reader want to read the whole book, so they’ll see all your predictions. It improves the chances of them finding the one thing you accidentally got right, and that’s the detail that will stick with them.

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