I’m a firm believer in the idea that science fiction is about the present, not the future. And yet when I started to write my first novel, Autonomous, I spent a lot of time agonizing over how to construct a plausible 22nd century for my characters to inhabit. I was never under any illusion that I was engaging in prophesy, but I wanted readers to feel like this was a future that could realistically emerge from current technologies and social problems.
The book is set about 125 years in the future, and there hasn’t been some giant apocalypse that resets history. I didn’t want my future to make a mockery of how history really works.
So the first thing I did—just to get some perspective—was think about how many ideas and trends from 125 years ago are still relevant today. I was surprised how much hadn’t changed: We’re still arguing over evolution; we still ride in trains and take photographs; we still have radical youth rebellions focused on free love, weird technology, and vegetarianism. A lot of little things are the same, too, like the fact that people in the mid-19th century were reading the Atlantic magazine and camping out in Yosemite. Basically I wanted people in my 2144 to be just as alien (or not) as my great-great-grandparents’ generation is to me.
As I wrote early chapters, I decided that people would still be obsessed with Googling for weird sex information on the internet, and of course they would still smoke weed. Companies would still be suing people over intellectual property crimes, and we’d have even more ridiculously overbroad patent laws. I also wanted to capture the randomness of what survives in the future, so I had some characters visit Vancouver’s Aberdeen Centre. Sometimes a shopping mall becomes a historic building while so-called great monuments are trashed within a generation.
Once I’d nailed down the historical continuity, I had to decide what would change. I actually created a timeline, which I revised a bunch of times as the novel progressed, where I outlined all the major historic changes between now and 2144. Nations broke down and people replaced them with loose economic coalitions. A.I. achieved humanlike sentience. A feminist movement swept through the Persian Gulf. Cities in the Maghreb lifted all regulations on biotech, to attract wealthy companies to the region.
And around 2070, indentured servitude became a cornerstone in the global economy. Ironically this happens after robots gain human-equivalent rights with some exceptions. Robots can be indentured to their manufacturers for up to 10 years, to pay off the cost of their construction. But this creates an interesting legal question, especially if you’re a corporation that wants some indentured human labor. If a human-equivalent robot can be indentured, why can’t a human? I imagined court cases establishing the “human right” to be indentured in economic zones across the world.
We barely hear about any of this backstory in Autonomous, but I wanted to have these events straight in my mind so that I understood what my characters were dealing with. Again, I didn’t think of what I was doing as prediction. I’ve participated in foresight exercises with groups like the Institute for the Future, and for them the hallmark of a good “forecast” is that it encompasses a range of possible outcomes. I was hacking just one path through a thicket of possible tomorrows.
To a large degree, my timeline was an elaborate justification for the story I wanted to tell. When I set out to write Autonomous, there were a few things I knew I wanted to put in my future. There would be human-equivalent A.I., since one of the main characters is a sentient robot. There would be slavery. And there would be pirates, thanks to the aforementioned intellectual property regime.
I think a lot of readers won’t bat an eyelid at the idea that we’d have sentient robots in 125 years but will find it really weird that lots of people are indentured. But I follow A.I. research in my life as a journalist, and I’m incredibly skeptical that we’ll have anything like my robot character in the world for centuries, if ever. Reinventing slavery, on the other hand, feels alarmingly realistic. After all, slavery was legal in the U.S. roughly 150 years ago. Its after-effects are still being felt here in a visceral way. I’d like to think we’re headed toward reparations and civil rights for everyone. But it’s just as likely that we’re going to figure out some new way to turn one another into chattel.
Possibly the most difficult part of building a future was coming up with little details, like the euphemisms people use for slavery, or how they access the internet. Characters have to do things like eat, turn on the lights, and get wasted on a night off. These mundane details lead back to larger questions. What powers the lights? My novel is set after peak oil, so do the lights run on alternative energy? Batteries? Are the lights in fact just glowing bacteria living on the ceiling? Also, when would my character go out to a club? Do we still have the concept of weekends in the future? Do adults socialize mostly in the evening, or are work shifts so arbitrary that they might consider it normal to go to a raging party at 2 p.m.? And what are the kids wearing to these clubs?
I decided that one fashion trend would be ultralight armor, because nanofabrication has led to an abundance of materials that look like iron but are as light as foam. But here’s the thing: Fiction readers don’t want every single scene to have a long info dump about why the kids are wearing armor and painting their ceilings with luminescent bacteria. They just want to see the future in all its shiny or tattered or toxic weirdness. In a sense, that means describing the wonders of tomorrow as perfectly ordinary parts of the landscape.
My characters take it for granted that their roads are made of biodegradable foam, 3-D printers spit out biological tissue, trucks drive themselves, and there’s a popular chain of bannock cafés in northern Canada. Cities are “smart,” with infrastructures that chatter to themselves using relays in the mote net, a network of internet access points that are dusted into the air every year from planes. None of these details are important to the plot—they simply provide a sense of everyday life in 2144.
One place where I didn’t shy away from a little info dumping was when it came to the brain of my robot character, Paladin. I wanted to give readers a sense of what it would feel like to know your brain was running programs put there by somebody else—programs that control desire, action, and all the other things that we think of as making us who we are. I filled in as many details as possible about how Paladin thinks, communicates, and learns from the environment.
That said, I didn’t do the full “it’s a positronic brain” that Star Trek fans might expect because I was focusing on the experience of having the brain, not building it. Again, this is a hallmark of how science fiction paints the future. It immerses the reader in a subjective experience of possible tomorrows, rather than explaining every technical detail of what might happen.
The more we can relate to our characters, the more vivid their future world becomes. This isn’t to say that character and plot can make up for a badly imagined world that’s inconsistent, or scientifically and socially implausible. In my experience, however, most of the work that goes into good world building never finds its way onto the page. Readers see its surfaces and edges, the same way we see our own world. In the process, hopefully, we become more aware of how our present-day world is put together.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.