When I was in my teens, in the late 80s, one of my favourite Ray Bradbury stories was “There Will Come Soft Rains”. Published in 1950, it’s a story of beautifully understated tragedy, about a futuristic-style house full of automatic functions, that keeps on functioning (cooking breakfast, dimming lights, reading poetry) even though its occupants have all been killed by a nuclear catastrophe.
I was fascinated, both by the concept itself and by the idea of a society that would not just live with this type of luxury, but expect it as part of everyday life. And in the science fiction stories I was writing I had endless fun inventing my own technological gadgetry. I remember wondering what future books might look like, and coming up with the idea of book cubes—totally dehydrated books that would be stored away from every scrap of moisture and that would expand to full-size once they were taken out into normal air.
Just the other day I came across this article, Ray Bradbury Predictions Fulfilled, which gives a list of technological developments that he wrote about and which have become commonplace in the years since.
For me, this encapsulates the problem science fiction writers face. We live in a society with such rapid technological development that what used to seem to belong to a world of spaceships and aliens is now the stuff of every day. We’ve probably all seen science fiction movies that have dated horribly because technology has moved so much faster than the writers anticipated—huge banks of computers on spaceships, for example, that to a twenty-first-century audience look as out of place as if the ships were being pulled by pterodactyls (ooh, plot bunny).
I started writing my upcoming science fiction young adult novel, Linked, in 2009. By that time, I knew no one was going to be reading dehydrated books! However, at that point, my own reader for ebooks was a little second-hand PDA. To turn pages on it you tapped the side of the screen. So when I had the mother of Elissa, my heroine, reading a book I had her do the same thing. Then, in 2010, while I was revising the book, the iPad came out. And I saw that to turn pages you did that nice swishy thing with your finger. And I realised that it was much likely that that method would remain, rather than the comparatively clunky and intrusive screen-tap method, so I changed that bit in my book.
Now, I try to keep up with technology that’s likely to enter the real-life world in the future—partly because it sparks such interesting ideas, partly because I need to know how not to make my fictional worlds seem old-fashioned before the books are even released! I was delighted to find this article the other day: Innovations That Will Change Your Tomorrow.
However, I’m far from being a scientist, and there are always going to be things I predict wrongly, or things I misunderstand, or things that are actually commonplace now but that I just don’t know about because I haven’t investigated that particular field of science or medicine or technology. I discovered something the other day that I really wish I’d incorporated into The Phoenix, the spaceship where Elissa ends up, but copy edits are done and dusted now and it’s too late!
I know I don’t have a hope of writing “hard” science fiction. When I introduce a futuristic technology, I make sure not to get bogged down in detailing how it works. Not just because that’s the sort of thing I’d be likely to get wrong, but also because—for my type of science fiction—no one needs to know in order to enjoy the story. After all, I don’t understand how my Wi-Fi works, but it doesn’t stop me using it.
What I do love to do is introduce enough futuristic technologies to give a flavour of another world. And, as Ray Bradbury did in “There Will Come Soft Rains”, a flavour of the society that has grown accustomed to using these technologies.
So, in terms of fun futuristic technology, the world of Linked has slidewalks that transport you all over the city where Elissa lives, with forcefields that stop you falling off the edge. The Phoenix is covered with smart-metal, with the capability to repair itself. Elissa’s mother has a whole bunch of machines to help her make dinner, and after the family has eaten the dining-table swallows up the dirty dishes and a hidden cleaning programme buzzes softly into life.
In terms of the society, in terms of what the inhabitants of this futuristic world expect: moving staircases are routinely turned off in order to encourage exercise, and, in the overcrowded city where Elissa lives, ground-level traffic can be so bad that there are landing spaces provided on the roofs of buildings. And although the reader sees Elissa’s mother make dinner with a salad-maker that washes, dries, cuts up and chills the ingredients, and a multi-mixer that she just has to drop a packet of pie-mix into to get a perfectly cooked lemon-meringue pie, the reader also sees her accept a compliment on the food with the comment, “Well, you know I like to cook…” Her attitude towards what counts as cooking is shaped by the technology that, in her kitchen, is everyday
Then, in the wider society of Elissa’s world, regular orbital patrols keep the planet safe from space-pirates, and everyone carries ID cards, and it’s a lot easier to leave the planet than it is to land on it…
Because futuristic technology is lots of fun, but the thing that, for me, really makes science fiction stories interesting is seeing a whole different world: a world with different conveniences, and different attitudes—and different dangers.
IMOGEN HOWSON is the debut author of Linked, a Sci-Fi Thriller coming from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers in 2013. She’s currently living near the Sherwood forest in England. Learn more at http://imogenhowson.com/