One of the most overblown difficulties in writing science fiction is that of predicting the future. Almost every science fiction writer has spent time explaining to well-meaning relatives or day job co-workers that—except for the rare occasions when a science fiction writer gets a gig working for a think tank—we’re not futurists, we’re storytellers—predicting the future is not really the point of what we’re doing. Meanwhile contemporary fantasy writers come up with werewolves or rarer phantasms right off the bat—and then have development issues most readers never even think of.
Our much tougher shared problem is predicting the present.
The present feels like a wide-open meadow, like a ground floor made of concrete. You don’t have to research it! You know what it’s like! It’s the present—you can just write it! Right? But when you try to do just that, it’s actually more like a balance beam. “It’s roughly like right now” is not a solid platform, it’s a knife-edge that can at any moment tip over into—in retrospect—laughably wrong premises for near-future science fiction or (in some ways worse) contemporary fantasy. The similar-universe subgenres of each are all right—often their divergences are explicitly some years in the past, allowing writers’ minor blips to pass without comment. But the secret-universe subgenre of contemporary fantasy and near-future science fiction can both have the solidity of their speculations undermined by a present that slides out from under its writer.
Or, of course, a present that has already arrived unevenly. It’s the pandemic, of course. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown all this into high relief. Do we have mask mandates “right now”? A stay-at-home order? Do kids have school? Do grocery stores have shortages, and if so, in what? What does “basically like right now” look like? It depends on the day, but it also depends on where you are. But it’s not just the pandemic. Some periods are more rife with obvious markers than others—but that makes people more aware of the problem, it doesn’t make the problem go away.
In some ways the possibility of alternate solutions is what creates this problem. The speculative genres have the double-edged sword of creating other timelines and worlds but also having to justify the plausibility of what we create in them. For a pandemic comfort read, I revisited a childhood favorite—not science fiction or fantasy, at the time it was written it was a children’s contemporary novel, Ballet Shoes. Its happy ending included one of the three sisters going happily off to pursue her dream of spending several years studying ballet with a great master in Czechoslovakia. The book was published in 1936, a mere two years before that country fell to Nazi Germany. Streatfeild could reference this in later books, but no one particularly expected her to reflect the regional tensions in what she was writing. The book became a children’s classic with, so far as I can tell, no one batting an eye at the fact that the “happy ending” is one whose timeline may not actually work if you do the math. Because it’s mimetic genre, no one is doing the math.
So. HOW can we be expected to WORK under these—I beg your pardon, this essay got mixed up, as they so often do these days, with a private DM. Seriously, though: how do we work—in this particular work—under these conditions? What are some successful ways that the near-term speculative genres can navigate periods of particularly fast setting change in ways that will feel real when—let’s face it—the actual world around us does not? While publishers can get “special interest” books from draft to press in a few months, most fiction takes a year or more to get there—which in periods of rapid change is a timeline that might as well be an eternity. With both reader satisfaction and writer sanity at stake here, what’s to be done—other than chucking it all and writing something set on Mars in 2722, or in a secondary world, or in the Jurassic? (All of which, I hasten to add, are perfectly legitimate and in fact quite appealing choices. But they shouldn’t be the only choices.)
One option is choosing a timeline and sticking with it, even if it’s only in your head. The story may be meant to feel like it’s set in “the present,” but you yourself know that it takes place from May 12-17, 2022—or takes place in a timeline that branches off from that point. Anything that happens on May 18, 2022, no matter how momentous, cannot affect what happens in what you’re writing. Will that satisfy either the writer or the readers? Maybe? It’s no worse than any other solution. Boundaries are healthy! Boundaries are good! Lines have to be drawn, and you can draw one sooner rather than later if you need to.
Naomi Kritzer’s Chaos on Catnet had a particularly difficult line to walk: she was writing about a Twin Cities of the near future when the day-to-day present was impossible to know. Even if Kritzer knew what was going on in her neighborhood, she might not find out the details of another part of the city until after her book had gone to press—and the developments of the months between copyediting and publication might render her ideas obsolete. And the political developments unfolding after the police murder of George Floyd were directly relevant to her plot, not a side note that she could afford to ignore.
Kritzer wrote about her choice in a note at the end of the book. At the suggestion of her dear friend and fellow writer Lyda Morehouse, she wrote, not about the shape of policing in the Twin Cities she felt would be the most likely, but the one she wanted to see. She put ideas out there that were inspired by the present she was living through but directly aspirational. She writes in the author’s note, “I think part of what science fiction is for is to think about what the world could look like—the ways in which things could go right, not just the ways in which things could go wrong, so that’s the vision I embraced.” But to get there, Kritzer had to be optimistic not just about the future but about the present she was living through.
Further along this spectrum, a writer who is writing near-future SF or this-world/hidden-magic contemporary fantasy can deliberately think of themself as keeping the escape in escapism. Yes, we want the world of our stories to feel real, to feel grounded. On the other hand, too much grounding can drag the reader back out again, into everyday cares and concerns. It can sidetrack. If the reader wants to ride a subway filled with magical creatures—or have arguments about how they fit in the subway or whether the steel burns them—giving them a vague gesture at how we got to the subway station, with or without our masks on, will be enough.
Some authors choose to cope with the difficulty of the malleable present by making their books malleable as well. Diane Duane has released revised versions of the Young Wizards series that were rewritten to reflect a new present-day sense of technology for an audience a generation and beyond younger than the books’ first set of readers. The first book, So You Want To Be A Wizard, was originally released in 1983, and the most recent, The Games Wizards Play, in 2016, but they are all “contemporary” fantasy. Duane’s 2012 New Millennium edition of So You Want To Be A Wizard came out with a firmly fixed 2008 setting.
This makes it easier to figure out who should have what kind of computer when and how much time has passed, certainly. But it raises the question: will Duane want to do it again? Will the Young Wizards books stay “contemporary fantasy,” or are they now “New Millennium fantasy” permanently? Either answer could work for Duane—and either answer could work for another author pondering the same question with their own variables to consider. But the more one puts into adjusting past work to a malleable present, the less one has—the less time, the less energy, the less attention—for new work. And that’s true not only for the authors, but for reviewers and bookstores too. Large rewrites to bestsellers and classic titles capture shelf space that might otherwise go to new works. Every solution of this sort comes with tradeoffs.
Another tradeoff in this kind of rewrite is how large a change the writer is willing to make to the text. As Duane was very well aware, technology is not merely a cosmetic but a social change. The author/packager of the Nancy Drew books made “modernizing” changes on multiple occasions, but adding smart phones altered mystery plots far more than changing “roadster” to “convertible.” This kind of rewrite can change the heart of a plot, a characterization, or a theme. With a series like the Nancy Drew books, always the work of a collective, this kind of change may be easier for a new set of writers to stomach—and a new set of readers to process. But an individual writer making this choice is facing what could be an endless reconsideration of what might have been a very personal work—small wonder that many fewer individuals choose this.
We are all caterpillars inching along the branch that is the present. Too much consideration of our feet or of the branch might trip us up. The precarious journey through right now won’t actually be better if we let it interfere with our creative process—or our enjoyment of our reading materials. Good boundaries, readjustment, well-considered optimism, and a timely escape are all ways that we can keep enough of our thoughtful and creative selves going until we’re on steadier ground. Or until we’re on a different patch of the shifting ground. The further future holds no guarantees either. The present may be precarious, but it’s the time we have for creating and enjoying others’ works—and for considering the futures we want to build together.
© 2021 Marissa Lingen