At the point of writing this blog, numerous media outlets are fondly reflecting on the intrepid Marty McFly and Dr. “Doc” Emmett Brown as they travelled twenty-six years into the future to, well, today - 21 October 2015. Looking through the various news stories, tweets and wall posts, I was struck by how preoccupied we seemed to be by how much the makers of Back to the Future II got ‘right’.
That’s understandable. Near-future projections – whether for comical effect or not - come with a tacit expectation from the audience that at least some of the things fictionalised will end up as part of reality when that near-future arrives. Some things the makers of the film got right i.e. visual communication; some wrong i.e. flying cars, hoverboards, pizzas that cook in seconds (my personal favourite!). In any case, all of this never stopped the film from becoming a commercial hit.
With this in mind, does getting the future ‘right’ really matter? When it comes to writing fiction, I think this depends on two things: one, how far into the future you are writing about and, two, the type of technology and/or society that will shape your future world.
In the earlier days of SF, predicting the future wasn’t just a concern, it was a serious undertaking. Orwell’s (near-future) 1984 and Huxley’s (far-future) Brave New World are two classic examples. (In fact, such was Huxley’s seriousness that he wrote Brave New World Revisited over thirty years later to make checks against how far his world was being realised.) Where Orwell writes thirty-six years into the future, Huxley leaps to over seven hundred. Chronologically, they’re poles apart, but the ironic thing here is, as with Back to the Future II, there are slivers of accuracy that we see today. With Orwell, we have CCTV, an apparent ‘Nanny State’; ‘Big Brother is watching you’ is a commonplace phrase to describe infringements on individual privacy. With Huxley, we have hyper-consumerism, test tube babies and a globalised/over-organised economy. But aren’t these the key messages both authors tried to convey to the reader? There was other detail in both novels that were way off the mark, but these works were so successful because they contain aspects of life that were/are so chillingly ‘familiar’. We can forgive all the other ‘incorrect’ stuff. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation brings a wonderful milieu to life thousands of years into the future with technologies and societies much unlike our own. Does it really matter that Asimov alludes to the continued use of microfilm on Trantor? Not on your nelly!
These days, SF writers are far less shackled by prediction. When it comes to the future, we’re speculative, creative and imaginative to the point that almost boarders (but never breeches) the fantastical. We explore the plausible. We measure the possible based on what we see going on today. We’re not prophets! So what if flying cars, hoverboards and instant pizzas never actually happen. That’s just detail. In the words of Mark Twain, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”