Back in the U.S.A.

By | May 28, 2009 | 5 Comments

Well, I forgot to mention, but I’ve been in Italy for a week following my wife around and attempting to conquer the country with exactly 25 words of badly conjugated Italian. Which is more possible than you’d think. I got more mileage out of can you tell me where and quanto devo than you’d ever imagine. Of course, everyone seemed to speak English there as well, and this is what usually happened:

JEFF: <garbled, barely-intelligible and badly pronounced phrase in Italian that loosely translates to excuse me, but can you the bathroom in the footwear? Pizza!>

ITALIAN GENTLEMAN: <Sighing>. You’re an American, eh? Give me fifty Euros.

JEFF: Grazie!

Anyway, it was a fine trip, aided by the fact that even in these sad modern times you can jab a meaty finger at a menu and grunt hopefully, and something will be brought to your table. Sure, sometimes it’s Tripe, but that’s Italy.

The trip made me think about world-building, actually, because there are places in Europe which are so drastically different from America, yet they both exist in the same world. Heck, even cities in Italy are very different from each other; Florence for all its Renaissance charm feels much, much more modern than nearby Siena, where Black Death and war apparently froze development for hundreds of years, leaving the city little changed, in some ways, from its Medieval roots.

This got me to thinking about writing science-fiction – at least SF that’s based in the future, like mine. What you’re always trying to accomplish with futuristic SF (well, maybe not always, but a lot of the time) is a believably weird extension of our present. This is sometimes a fine line to walk. On the one hand you want there to be technological advances and seemingly-impossible, unexpected cultural shifts. On the other hand, you want to avoid creating a future world that is completely wonky and disconnected from the previous state of things. Things here in the 21st century might appear bizarre and incomprehensible to someone from the 14th, sure, but there are threads of things that remain the same. A road is still a road, a loaf of bread is still recognizable. Some things – more than you might expect – have remained the same.

This principle applies, I think, to any story set in a future Earth: You have to avoid the temptation to re-imagine everything. Because the future, unless it is so far away as to be completely disconnected with the present, is an extension of said present. Things only change when forces act upon them – better technology, changing climates, new ideas. Some things stay the same despite technology and time, simply because no one can conceive of any advantage to changing them. If you can think of a reason why people will be wearing bizarre plastic suits in the year 2109, fine, go on ahead. You don’t even have to explicitly detail why or how, as long as there’s a reason in your head as you write. But if you can’t think of a good reason why people would wear bizarre plastic suits. . .then don’t make your characters wear bizarre plastic suits.

Look around: I’ll bet you there is tons of technology and infrastructure around you that is old. They invent all sorts of cool new things, but the old sludgy things stick around a long time. The water pipes in the ground in my home town are 100 years old. There’s tons of old copper wire strung between houses. Old cars, old buildings, old technology – just because new stuff gets invented doesn’t mean the old gets swept away in a glorious tide of newness, so if you make your future world a shiny example of all-new everything, it’s going to feel a little plastic.

Just one writer’s opinion, of course. And a drunk writer at that. And a drunk writer with just 25 words of Italian under his belt. What sense could I possibly make?

5 Comments

  • Dan Krokos says:

    Great points, I love seeing old stuff in sci-fi novels–things that seem new and shiny now but are old-hat to the main character.

    Book 4 = Avery Cates + The Italian Job?

  • Drunk or not, this is a great post. This is something I’ve recently been thinking about, because my current WIP is set further into the future than my previous titles. And have you noticed how hard it is to actually think of science fiction-y stuff that seems science fiction-y?

    Ooh, what if I come up with some sort of mobile telecommunication device that also allows you to look up information from all over the world?! Hold on a minute, my smartphone’s ringing.

    Oh.

    OK then, I’ll create a way to transfer large quantities of data from one computer to another using some sort of physical media. Oh, there’s one on my keychain.

  • jsomers says:

    DA,

    Yah, that’s a problem too. You can sometimes solve that by thinking of things we don’t *want* to do with technology, and imagining a world where we *do* it. In other words, not so much the science that’s new, but the application. Taboos broken and all that. because we are definitely living in the future, as Paul Riddell likes to say.

    J

  • jsomers says:

    Dan,

    > Book 4 = Avery Cates + The Italian Job?

    Well, now I have book 5!

    J

  • Damaso says:

    Now for what we really want to know, what booze did you bring back?

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