Back to the Future: Writing Honest Science Fiction

Back to the Future hoverboard

If you own a TV or have access to the internet, you’ve probably already heard that today is “Future Day” – the day that Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel to from 1985 in “Back to the Future: Part II”. The film depicted a future wildly different from today’s reality – hoverboards instead of skateboards, flying cars (and white vans), and peculiar fashions that never quite made it.

As the world celebrates this fun adventure trilogy of films, which are some of my childhood favourites, there’s plenty of opportunity to see how the fictional future of BttF2 stacks up against real-life 2015.

Of course, the films were never meant to accurately predict what 2015 would look like. I’m sure the writers and production crew had plenty of serious discussions about the practical likelihood of certain aspects, but the overriding factor would be originality and humour (and the odd call-back to the previous film, such as the skateboard sequence). No-one can blame BttF for being inaccurate, so let’s just enjoy the spectacle.

It does beggar the question, however, of how to accurately predict the future when writing science fiction. No-one can predict the future, but we can make pretty good guesses. The age-old question of whether science is influenced by science fiction (such as the constant efforts to create hover technology from “Back to the Future”, lightsabers from “Star Wars” and teleportation machines from “Star Trek”) is probably quite pertinent. Sadly, as writers, we can hardly create a future filled with lightsabers simply because that’s a possibility – it would be unoriginal, not to mention fodder for Disney’s legal team (in case you forgot, Disney own “Star Wars” now. Ack.)

I wrote my first novel when I was thirteen. It was a wholly unoriginal science fiction story heavily influenced by “The X-Files”, “The Terminator” and “Back to the Future”. In “Fourth Millennium”, which will hopefully never be leaked onto the internet, my protagonist was a desperate hovercraft racer who undertakes an illegal cyberization procedure to give him faster reflexes. During his next race he is unwittingly blasted a thousand years into the future, where he must prevent a shady cyborg and government organisations from destroying the world with insectoid alien clones.

Yeah, tell me about it.

Needless to say, I soon realised that I should never attempt to publish “Fourth Millennium” or its tedious sequels. They may have been fun for me to write, but aside from the originality aspect, they could hardly be considered accurate depictions of the future. Who can guess what the year 3,000 will look like, if the human race is even still here?

I’m reminded of a piece of literature a lecturer of mine mentioned once. I wish I could remember the name of the story or the writer. In it, a future several hundred years from now is depicted. Modern sci-fi writers have ridiculed the story because the only noticeable difference between the time period in which it was written and the supposed future was that people sat in chairs that floated. Several hundred years of scientific development. Woe betide any writer who makes the same mistake.

Scientific advancement is zipping along at light-speed, so the likes of “Back to the Future” can be forgiven. In just 75 years we have seen the invention of television, colour television, flat screen television, 3D television … smart phones barely larger than credit cards that include sophisticated cameras, calculators, calendars, address books and video games … Gaming that has progressed from Pong to Donkey Kong to Sonic the Hedgehog to Ocarina of Time to The Last of Us (see also my earlier article on the development of the Final Fantasy video game series) … cinema technology that has developed from “Mabel’s Strange Predicament” to “Casablanca” to “Back to the Future” to “Avatar” (Cineworld Sheffield is currently constructing our first “4D” cinema screen) … All within the span of a single lifetime.

My first serious science fiction novel, “Faith in Chrome”, was set 80 years into the future. I decided to be inventive but fairly realistic. I decided that the world would feature sophisticated artificial intelligence programs, but that they were tightly restricted. There would be convenient personal tools in the form of microscopic nanomachines, but that they were expensive and not commercially available. There would be hovering vehicles, but that regular roads, shipping lanes and air travel were generally preferred. Video games are fully immersive online hallucinary experiences. Many processes were mechanised, such as sentry guard duty. Why not? There would be no space travel or alien encounters, not since NASA had its hands tied under Obama and for as long as the Drake equation is our best “evidence” of otherworldly life (although there have been exciting developments on Mars this year, and I’m not talking about Matt Damon’s latest film).

So how can science fiction be more honest, practical and – ultimately – accurate?

Assuming that this is your goal, rather than the wild and brilliant fun-scapes of Iain M. Bank’s Culture books for example, then we can simply extrapolate. My earlier paragraph about TVs, phones and video games should give you a starting point. See where we have been, what we have now, and ask “what next”? Ask yourself if your ideas are practical. Will these inventions be too expensive to make commercially, and therefore cost-prohibitive for most of the world? Were they derived from military technology, as most of our best tech today is? Are they too impractical or unsafe to use (why use expensive, power-hungry laser rifles when lead bullets are cheap and just as deadly?)…? Who would fund their development and why?

As you ponder what your future will look like, enjoy this message from Doc Brown himself, which is as poignant as it is corny:

—db

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2 thoughts on “Back to the Future: Writing Honest Science Fiction

  1. Pingback: Back to the Future: Writing Honest Science Fiction | momentarylapseofsanity

  2. Pingback: Back to the Future: Writing Honest Science Fiction | Toni Kennedy : A Writing Life

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