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Not long ago I read a novel set in the near future (mid-21st century). My suspension of disbelief was totally fine with time travel, an implanted "universal translator" of sorts, major medical advances... but balked at plot points that depended on people being limited to land-lines (no mobile communication devices, and no "tech failure" that eliminated them). The novel was written in 1992, just a few years before cell phones hit the consumer market.

As a writer, what can I do to help my near-future stories age well? Do I just need to be a great visionary (or settle for getting it wrong, since I'm probabably not), or are there things I can do to track "up and coming, society-changing" trends?

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Friendly plug: this is a seed question for our genre contest, happening now. –  Monica Cellio Nov 19 '13 at 22:51
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Consumer cell phones came on the market September 1983, about 10 years after first cell phone call in 1973, and were well-known by the late '80s, so use of only land-lines in a 1992 novel is even less forgivable than you said! –  jwpat7 Nov 19 '13 at 23:15
    
Well, at over $3k they didn't exactly take off immediately. :-) But I suppose I should have said "became widespread" rather than "hit the consumer market", as you're correct that they were available (if uncommon). –  Monica Cellio Nov 19 '13 at 23:28
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Not only you can't - it adds to the flavor! Looking at how people 15 years ago imagined the world in 15-30 years is a fascinating, fun piece of the reading. I look at my predictions from around '2000 and laugh at how inaccurate some were, while others worked perfectly. –  SF. Nov 20 '13 at 6:16
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What a wonderful question, Monica. This is something that is often not considered by authors. Furthermore, it makes for work that will be enjoyed the world over regardless of era. Well done. –  SnookerFan Nov 22 '13 at 11:39

4 Answers 4

Well, part of the answer is in your question. If you don't want all the technical information, and the explanations of why things are, just skip to the last section, then look for explanation as needed.

Let's go over individual parts.

The novel was written in 1992

First, the year 1992. In 1992, information was rather limited. There was no way to search the internet (the first fully text based search service came out in 1994), and the Internet was still brand new (to the public). Online communities were still in their really early phases. Even in existing online communities, something a few years away may not have been known about yet. In short, it could be very difficult to know about up-and-coming technologies back then.

With the Internet (and everywhere else) now, you have several sources and tools at your fingertips, which you can use to make predictions about technology advances (or even make them up). There's a pretty major contrast between what information you could find then and what you can find now (as well as the difficulty of finding such information).

However, this leaves the question of what you need to do unanswered. It merely provides some explanation on how much easier it will be now.

Near future (mid-21st century)

Regarding near-future, there are obviously going to be some things that simply aren't that advanced. Even today, there are some industries that are years behind others in terms of what they could be now. It's simply because that hasn't been the focus.

Depending on just how far in the future "near future" is (10-minutes-into-the-future alternate world, or 25 years down the line?), you can get away with variable amounts of stuff.

no "tech failure" that eliminated them. [No explanation as to why it's that primitive]

I think the short answer is that as long as you can provide an adequate explanation for why certain technology is as advanced (or as archaic) as it is, you can maintain an adequate suspension of disbelief. It's apparent that the author of the book you read failed in that respect.

Now for my own addition

As a science fiction author (not published yet - still working on my book), here's my advice. Look at the big picture as well as the many individual small pictures. On top of that, know the limitations of certain technologies (and perhaps even research). Knowing the limitations allows you to manipulate them or even make subtle indications as to why something isn't as advanced as one might expect.

Using the tools you have available can help you get a good idea of what might be coming up, and this can make it easier to make certain advancements (or non-advancements) seem logical. Looking at the big picture allows you to make adjustments to the technologies and also see why something might not be as advanced. Knowing limitations will allow you to bend the rules, or even give strict adherence to the rules, but with slightly unrealistic advances (such as something that would normally be 25 years ahead of its time in your book's world). Combining these techniques allows you to make minor stretches in several of the fields.

I suppose you want to make sure there aren't any anachronisms. One easy way is to just not mention technology that isn't critical to the story. You can also use existing ideas, with your own touch. The fewer things you have to explain, the fewer things you have to worry about.

If you're into adding a bit of a comedic spin, you can even lampshade the fact that something's not as advanced as it should be. There are numerous methods for doing this. I particularly like it when a character has to work with a certain primitive technology, and it goes through his/her mind (or he/she even says) that there's really no good reason for it not to be advanced. If you're unfamiliar with Lampshade Hanging (and by extension, TVTropes), the article will give you a good idea of how to go about it, as well as give you plentiful examples.

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Consider general problems/trends/concepts instead of specific realizations/models, then think up techs that resolve/accentuate the general ideas you started with.

Techs here don't have to be electronic. Anything that has a clear method/blueprint is a tech to me. So, a government, a math theorem, a tablet, a pen and a paper, a template of anything, a human language, a programming language, and so on and so forth, are all techs as far as I'm concerned. Although I'm sure I'm butchering the definition of the word right now--apologies.

So instead of "cell-phones", think "easy communication". Radio waves were already being utilized for radio/TV and various military uses. Sure it'd be desirable to have the hassle-free (physically, no wires and all) way of radio communication be more accessible. Now, how does it become available? Is it an offshoot from a high-budget military project? The brainchild of a mad scientist? How would it be different in either case (or in others)?

Notice, I didn't say "imagine its final look and function". I said, "get the general concept, think up/find sources that could help make it real," and then, "see how it'd differ, being the result of these different beginnings, each considered in isolation or close pairs".

In other words, don't pick a reference frame, just keep jumping and paint a fuzzy as fuzzy can be mental map of the relations between the different ways to realize your conceptual tech in the real world, as it is considered from the different perspectives of different beginning points.

So, instead of little note-pad-sized screens with keys, cell-phones could have started off as a sort of portable communications portal,still reliant on central com-stations? Like, a bracelet that lets the wearer access a phone-box (small ones, that are themselves wireless, but bigger than modern mobiles), the bracelet being his number. Or maybe it began with text messaging, and that became cell-phones' dominant use afterwards. Sure, it sounds ridiculous to us, but I'd have no problem believing it, considering the different origin stories of the concept and its realization (though I haven't talked yet about origin stories for concepts, that's to come).

So, let's take a modern example... Let me know in the comments which you prefer:

  1. Trans-humanism;

    I pick trans-humanism. Expect an edit soon-ish.

  2. Global communications, AIs and virtual reality;

    This would be more difficult than I'm willing to handle. Fair warning, Matrix and like-minded movies aren't good examples here. A better one would be the Riverworld series, which is still far off the mark.

  3. Space travel and inter-planetary -stellar colonization.

    See the manga/anime Planetes. It handles this quite nicely and is fairly accurate as to what we can do in the present and what we strongly suspect we'll be able to do in the near future. The story takes place around 2075, so it's a 'future on the doorstep'. I'll try to find a work where society is more significantly different from now.

Be warned, however, that I'm not even a 'respectable amateur' in any of these subjects. So my detailed example would be quite a bit detached from the latest in the fields. After it's posted and judged, tell me whether it's yeah, urgh, or please no. I'll try to explain it in a more abstract manner

That wasn't as detailed as I'd hoped I could make it. For now I'll ask you to accept it as is... Let's see if I don't botch it up in a later edit ;)

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Your answer is pretty clear. It also helps clarify some of the points I didn't go into in my answer :P. I'll leave those points to you so my answer doesn't grow too long :). –  JMcAfreak Nov 20 '13 at 3:07
    
So, should I pick one? –  Mussri Nov 20 '13 at 13:31
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Pick whichever best allows you to explain -- thanks! –  Monica Cellio Nov 20 '13 at 19:55
    
Wah! I must've been sleeping or something. Dear current readers and web-surfers, I'm sorry. I always say "Be clear! And precise!" but here I'm say "I'll try to be more abstract"... Forgive me. Overhaul incoming. –  Mussri Apr 12 at 15:58

Sci-fi sets a story in the future or in an alternative universe in order to make a point about here and now. Some of the best "classic" sci-fi by Arthur C Clarke et al was written before personal computers, let alone cell-phones.

Steampunk is a handy way of getting round this, by positing societies that through some apocalyptic failure have had to regress to steam power, airships etc, while still retaining sci-fi ethos.

I think you should base your fiction on what is possible now, even if it's just in the testing stage, and find a way to explain that further advance on this was rendered impossible - maybe through global monetary collapse?

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The web has lots of research trade e-zines, with articles written by and for laymen, that would help you. Then there are magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. Also magazines like Scientific American, Science News, Science Daily, and Wired Science. Omni magazine is coming back, supposedly. Also, go to a book store, find books by Alvin Toffler, and closely-related books.

It's not hard to predict (in general terms) the future of technology 10 or even 20 years out, if you're paying attention. Things often take 10~20 years to go from lab bench to store shelf. Where it gets hard is 30~40 years out, because some of the discoveries have not yet been made.

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