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Everything about our culture has changed so dramatically over the course of the last hundred years that it’s very hard to believe that we’d be the same as we are now in five hundred years.

This is an issue I have when writing and reading far future science fiction; it seems difficult to believe that people would talk the same as they do now, and hold to the same values and cultural norms. Yet if we don’t write that way then we remove our readers’ ability to connect to the characters and setting.

Obviously this is, in part, a question of suspension of belief. It’s not so unreasonable to use behaviours, values and even modes of speech, to create a connection between reader and characters. But how daft does it seem when confronted with punks straight out of the 80s in a dystopian future?

Is there a way that we can show believable change in humanity over time, while retaining enough recognisability to enable readers to connect? The closest I’ve seen is Joe Haldeman’s Forever War series, in which he uses people like us as outcasts in the future to bridge the gap. Are then any other examples that you’ve seen work well?

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This question was inspired by the Genre Contest. Why not go check it out? meta.writers.stackexchange.com/questions/757/… –  CLockeWork Nov 20 '13 at 10:35
    
I want to suggest "Transmetropolitan", a cyberpunk comic book series written by Warren Ellis. It's sci-fi which strikes a shocking middle with constant struggle with things that humanity struggled with for past millennium or two, and driving growth of ires of our day into parodistic proportions (...30 cameras per cubic meter of city space on the average? Commercials in dreams?) - and simultaneously isn't as negative as one might think - there are still significant upsides of the new world! The connection with the "now" is solid and amazing. –  SF. Nov 20 '13 at 13:01
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Why should they be so different? Most drastic changes throughout history resulted from cultures meeting and assimilating or destroying one another. And from major industrial and scientific inventions/discoveries. The way the world works now, with most upcoming industrial/scientific 'revolutions' foretold in one way or another, and the internet acting as a live record of history, any future changes will have to be gradual or at least smooth and strongly connected to the 'past' (present). And for several reasons, I don't believe our 'common' values will change much, unless we turn post-human. –  Mussri Nov 20 '13 at 13:29
    
@SF. Sounds good, I'll add it to my list :) Mussri, while motives remain unchanged values, world views, modes of speech, means of interacting, these change a lot. Think of times when racism and sexism were acceptable. That's a time long gone, and we may find it hard to relate to a xenophobic and misogynistic character. –  CLockeWork Nov 20 '13 at 13:52
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@CLockeWork Sure, in hind-sight. But, could you take this history and present and extrapolate on the future? Because then the slippery slope 'argument' would be quite appropriate for the situation. My point was, unless we physically change (a lot) then modern values/motives will remain, they're in equilibrium. You have the overly liberal and the conservative; I wouldn't identify with any -phobics, but I'd understand them in context. –  Mussri Nov 20 '13 at 14:29
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5 Answers

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No matter how different science fiction characters are from humans – whether they be extraterrestrials, artificial intelligences, or a far future species evolved from Homo sapiens – they must be relevant to readers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that readers identify with those characters, only that those characters “say” something about humanity that the reader then finds relevant.

To achieve that, ask if these non-human “others” in story serve any of these purposes:

  • Metaphors or stand-ins for human characteristics – For example, Mr. Spock with his logic stands for the human philosophy of rationality and logic. HAL 9000 represents how the inability to distinguish between two contradictions can lead to paranoia. The metaphor/stand-on approach is especially useful for writers wishing to criticize a specific human characteristic.
  • Mirrors/counterpoints for humans – In “Star Trek,” the Vulcans’ suppression of emotions is a counterpoint to humans’ expression of them. An alien species that develops space travel might consider those races lacking it (such as humans) to be less evolved, just as we might consider technology-vacant Homo erectus to be less evolved than us.
  • Shed light on the human condition through their interactions – Data of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” does this by questioning his crewmates about what being human means. Such interactions need not be between the non-human and a human but can be between two of the non-humans; as we learn about them, readers then learn something about themselves.

Arguably, as a human writer, all of your non-human characters can’t help but possess some characteristics of humanity because that’s your only frame of reference to work from. Whether or not that be the case, what matters most to a reader is how relevant you make such characters (Whether or not the nonhuman character has a scientifically plausible basis for existing is important, too, but a topic for a different discussion!).

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Thank you Rob, a great answer that I feel best covers what I was trying to ask :) (Admittedly I'm generally thinking of humans, but the further into far future you go, the less recognisable by conventional means I expect us to be) Peter F Hamilton is one of my favourite authors, but I find his characters decidedly 80s, which never did ring true with me. –  CLockeWork Nov 21 '13 at 11:12
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I think you're confusing motives and details.

You mentioned people from 500 years ago being very different from us. What concerns do we share over the centuries?

  • Survival basics: food, shelter, clothing. There really wasn't a "middle class" in 1513, but you could argue there was a merchant class, so a Genovese trader could be worried whether his next shipment of cloth will survive the storm season and pirate raids and make port so he can sell enough to pay his liege lord, compared to a middle manager at Wernham-Hogg who's worried that she'll be laid off and won't be able to pay her mortgage. Project it forward: How do people acquire homes in this future setting, and how could that be jeopardized?
  • Family troubles: marriages, children, grandchildren, siblings. The Genovese trader might be trying to make a good match for his daughter with the son of the duke. The middle manager might be worried that her sister is settling for a boyfriend who treats her poorly because she's afraid of being alone. People will still have families in the future. Will they still marry? Maybe marriages will be limited-term renewable contracts, and the concern is whether someone will renew, or how to convince someone to sign a five-year instead of a one-year.
  • Job concerns: Workplaces have politics. Invent some macguffins to worry about.

And so on and so forth. Don't worry about whether people are talking via smoke signal, telegraph, wrist radio, Facebook, or shunt squirt. Focus on the conversation. Our connection to future humanity (and past) is that we have similar problems and concerns and loves. The particulars may change, but mothers are still going to remind their daughters to pee before a long trip.

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Thanks Lauren, though I was only talking about a hundred years ago. Worries and motives are very much a reliable connection, still, rather than being confused between motive and detail I'm simply more interested in the detail at this point. Reading a fantasy where people talk Chaucerian English is hard, it's hard to connect to the characters, but if they spoke as we do I find it hard to connect to due to how unbelivable it is. That said, I'd say the question of motive is certainly a strong aspect of this, just maybe not the whole story :) –  CLockeWork Nov 20 '13 at 12:44
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If you are having trouble suspending your disbelief over a story set in Chaucer's time where people are speaking modern English purely that the reader can understand them, I think that's your issue as a reader, not the writer's or the story's issue. At some point the work has to be accessible to today's audience. Asking that the characters speak in Chaucerian English but are also totally understandable to modern ears is simply too much. –  Lauren Ipsum Nov 20 '13 at 14:06
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When I look at historic and literary sources from the past 3000 years, from the epics of Homer to the present day, I cannot find any fundamental differences between the people that have lived then and those that live today, at least none that are greater than intercultural, class or gender differences among the present populace. We are all driven by the same basic needs and motivations, we have the same variety of character and temperament, the same faults and abilities.

I don't see why people 500 years in the future should be more different from us than people 3000 years in the past. Evolution is a slow process.


And as far as language goes, you ask as if you were unaware that not everywhere on the world today people speak the same language as you. How can an American writer write a novel about people from Mexico, Japan, or Native Americans, who all do not share his language?

Seriously, how is that a problem? SF that attempts to show futurity through future English has always felt ridiculous to me. Just write in your own language. People will understand that Japanese talk Japanese, even if their dialogue is written in English in an English language novel.


In a novel about Japan, how do you show readers that they are now in Japan?

  • State it. Pleople don't expect everything to be different. Japanese are people. They eat. They wear clothes. So just say that we are now in Japan and give Japanese street names.
  • Show the relevant differences. Japanese eat sushi. Explain what sushi is and how it is eaten. Don't talk about clothes, because they are basically the same, and you only need to mention kimonos when they are relevant to your story. (In a story set in the US you don't mention cowboy hats either, if they are not important, althought they signify the US in the eyes of many foreigners.)

The same goes for the future. Based on the assumption that much will probably be the same (people will still lie down on soft surfacs to sleep, sit down to eat, defecate in private, wear clothes in cold climate and develop or maintain a sense of physical decency etc.) you can leave out a lot. Just show the parts that are different and relevant to your story.

Even technically, a lot of inventions and changes have been predicted over the last decades, many of which never happend or never found their way into everyday culture. We still don't have an elevator to space. We still don't have electric cars (yes, we have, but so few that they are largely irrelevant in a novel about our time as compared to the 50s). We have the internet, but its just a way to connect. People will do that differently in 500 years, but they will still check messages, create profiles, play games etc. So really no need to show all the small differences. Just give some different sounding names (let people talk into their implants instead of a mobile phone or give them munti to eat instead of potatoes) and that's enough.

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Yup. Pretty much the only setting the OP would want to worry about this in is a future where most of us are physically (and so most probably also mentally) different from now. Like, a future of cyborgs or virtual reality. –  Mussri Nov 20 '13 at 13:47
    
And then the differences that have to be mentioned would rise out of the story itself. You would just write about cyborgs and have all the necessary strangeness in your text without theorizing about this aspect. –  what Nov 20 '13 at 13:52
    
Not quite @Mussri, I'm concerned simply in the way that people think and act could and likely would change drasticly. I'm thinking of the impact of major social shifts, rather than simple sci-fi tropes. –  CLockeWork Nov 20 '13 at 13:54
    
@what, thanks for the answer. Obviously I'm not so backward as to think no-one in the world speaks any other language than English, instead I'm talking about dialects, slang, and the way we express our opinions through words. –  CLockeWork Nov 20 '13 at 13:55
    
@CLockeWork I emphasized the present day differences, because I believe SF&F are essentially tales about foreign countries and can be created from that perspective. As soon as you stop thinking about future tales as something essentially different from, say, a travel novel, you'll immediately understand how to tackle your problem. How would you tell your friends about your trip to Europe? That's how you write SF, too. (I didn't mean to imply that you are backward, I was just trying to tickle you a bit. Sorry, if I offended you. I have great respect for your answers here.) –  what Nov 20 '13 at 14:00
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Some cultural changes over the past century or five have been very deep, and some have been shallow. It’s much easier for women to get divorced; that’s a deep change. They often announce those divorces on Facebook; that’s a shallow change. (The growth of social media in general is a deep change, but this particular use of those media is shallow.)

For world-building a novel set in the future, I would suggest concentrating on a few deep changes (the ones most relevant to the plot you want to write) and then providing lots of shallow changes to convey the atmosphere. Your protagonist could be anxious about getting a marriage contract renewed, and your story could explore the various expectations, conflicts, jargon, child-rearing practices, etc. etc. surrounding renewable marriages... but you can also drop in occasional references to self-cleaning clothes, robot butlers, and functional health-insurance companies, just to prevent the reader from feeling that your setting is “just like 2013 but with renewable marriages”.

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You need to decide if your far-future (500 yrs) humanity is a continuation of our current society, and if things "went well." If so, medical advances would have increased their healthy lifespans to virtual immortality. People would live so long that the dominant cause of death would be freak accidents. That would HAVE to create huge changes in society. And that's just ONE area of advancement.

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