Lying About the Future, OR Reality is Unrealistic


I've written, to this point, five hard-SF novels, with two more on the way – the Boundary Series (Boundary, Threshold, Portal), the Castaway Planet novels (Castaway Planet, Castaway Odyssey, and forthcoming Castaway Peril), and one tentatively titled Fenrir. As hard-SF novels, I worked hard to make these stories as accurate-to-known-science as I could, within the limits of dramatic necessity and the need to not bore my readers with calculations and details that they didn't really want.

But even within hard-SF, the author has to make a lot of choices about what they depict. And contrary to many people's surface impressions, a hard-SF author is (generally) not trying to predict the future; they're trying to tell a cool story set in *A* future – not, in virtually certain likelihood, our future or one terribly like it.

"But why? I thought hard-SF was supposed to extrapolate into our future!"

Well… yes. Sort of. Sometimes. We're telling stories, and the core of most hard-SF stories is "what if" – we ask a question of something that we think is possible, and then build a story around it. Sometimes, yes, that is an extrapolation of technology or social change or whatever that we're looking at… but almost always we're then going to be following it to a focused conclusion. That is, for the sake of a good story, we're not going to look at the slow progression of a set of consequences from one new technology and examine how the whole civilization that we know progresses in the meantime; we're going to drive the extrapolation strongly, to its ultimate conclusion, and preferably in a way that allows a small number of characters to be involved in that conclusion.

So in Boundary the question is "what if aliens DID visit us back in the age of the Dinosaurs… and had a real nasty argument about who owned the local real estate?" This question and its answer lead to the action of the Boundary series that spans a large chunk of the solar system, with most of the same characters staying involved in the key actions.

Is this likely? Of course not! To tell a fun story, I have to make things that are very unlikely to happen… seem inevitable within the context of the story. To an extent, choosing the way in which I answered that question helped. I allowed there to be some extensive, significant, and pretty-well-preserved remains of the alien presence which made it important for people to get to them and examine them, in a detail and with flexibility that no automated probes would be likely to accomplish in anything like the timeframe needed.

For space-setting hard-SF, that bit – "automated probes" – is a real problem. I provided a sequence using automated probe exploration in Boundary, when A. J. Baker's "Faeries" explore Ceres and make a key discovery, and it was pretty interesting as a one-off. But in general, people like stories about people in space – even if, being honest, it's getting less and less necessary to send people out. Aside from making those automated probes into functional AIs (i.e., "people" like WALL-E or R2-D2 or C-3PO who just happen to be metal), the reader's not going to have the same connection with an automated rover as they would over a person.

Thus, a hard-SF author may have to ignore the basic fact that most outer-space exploration work isn't going to be done by human beings; machines can survive in worse environments, tolerate more acceleration, withstand all kinds of abuse, don't require food and water… and don't have friends and family at home who will be devastated if they die. And, as time goes on, those probes will be more and more capable, rather than the current devices that can't move faster than a slow walk and need constant instruction modifications to do their jobs well. It takes very special circumstances (like those I invented in Boundary) to justify sending "naked apes in a can" into deep space.

Automation and intelligent systems have an even greater impact in other areas; in Grand Central Arena I follow some of the current research to logical conclusions that result in what amounts to a post-scarcity society where few people have anything resembling a "job" and people are mostly independent entities from almost everything (very little significant government, etc.); what "work" people do is something that they WANT to do, that's FUN for them.

This unfortunately makes for a difficult-to-grasp environment; many people either have a hard time understanding it, or simply don't believe it could work. And in the latter case they may be completely right, for various reasons.

Such advances, however, also can be very bad for maintaining drama. The modern reader understands the idea of needing a job, of working at some particular task or in some specific category, and keeping at least some of that element present provides a good anchor for the reader as they encounter more outré elements of the story.

In the Castaway series, for example, I not only disable all sorts of automated technology to keep our castaways in a position to be "castaway", I also deliberately ignore the likely level of advancement of even the most casual devices these people have with them.

Castaway Planet takes place about 150-200 years after Portal, and Boundary itself takes place about 30 years in the future, with Portal ending 13 years later. So even taking the lower estimate, that's almost two hundred years in the future. Yet all the devices they use are ones not only based on known science, they're ones whose functions are extrapolations of things that we're already working on. Two hundred years ago, it was 1817; the United States had barely started on its path to becoming a significant country, guns were still one-shot powder-patch-and-ball affairs, long-range signaling used flags or fire, and electricity was a curiosity.

Realistically, the capabilities of the "omnis" that the Kimeis use will probably be available within my life time. The simplest devices the Kimeis and their friends use should be things almost indescribable to us; the people might be unrecognizable, considering current trends in advances of genetics, cybernetics, and so on. Yet would that let me connect with my readers as well? Probably not.

There are some authors who follow such trends and try to describe the societies resulting from them, but the resulting books can be very challenging for many readers, and in all likelihood those books are also ignoring some other predictions or consequences. Authors aren't omniscient or even close to it. We're telling stories – and choosing the setting that best fits the story we want to tell.

So sure, I could have – and more realistically, should have – assumed that all relevant information about the lifeboat/shuttles in Castaway Planet would be available even in the small "omnis" that our castaways carried, and that such devices would be themselves so very capable (even if not intelligent as such) that they could provide the answers to almost all of the problems confronted by their situation.

But that wouldn't make it a better story. Perhaps a more realistic one, but not a more interesting and enjoyable one. We don't want the humans just following the almost-infallible directions of their handheld smart machines; especially in a "Robinsonade" of this type, we want human beings in dangerous situations thinking themselves out of those situations with individual cleverness and initiative, improvising with what's at hand.

Thus, rather than let boring reality take over, I choose to pretend that things only advance a little bit… and the readers, in general, nod and play along, because that allows me to tell the story they'd like to read.

So come, read our books. Let us lie to you.



  1. Ashley R Pollard says:

    Yes, this of all things I’ve had to try to get to grips with, is one of the hardest to find the right balance for. Too little extrapolation and one goes why couldn’t they, too much and one goes that’s not realistic.

  2. Magilla666 says:

    The metal people don’t have to be true AIs for us to get attached to them. Remember Louie in Silent Running?

    But thank you for an excellent piece. Keep lying.

Your comments or questions welcomed!