By Gareth Southwell
Contemporary fiction writers struggle with a present that is always shifting under them. Diligent historical novelists wade through libraries of research to avoid committing some glaring anachronism or embarrassing inaccuracy. And so you might think that writers of science fiction and fantasy have it comparatively easy. The future is a pathless land, an unmarked canvas of pure possibility, where anything can happen – and fantastic worlds even more so. But things are not quite so simple.
In early 2020, I had written and was about to publish MUNKi, a near-future sci-fi novel. Then Covid happened. And, even though the world I was writing about was set some five to ten years in the future, it then became a world in which Covid had happened. At the time, it was difficult to say how momentous an event the pandemic would prove to be. Would it be quickly forgotten, like other alarmist health scares? A passing panic that filled the front pages for a month or two, and then disappeared without trace? Or something that would cast an appalling shadow over the forthcoming years, reshaping the world forever?
And so I decided to delay. By the time I did publish, a year later, I had woven the pandemic into my future world’s backstory, and its future – optimistically – became a time in which Covid was in its past, its characters moving gingerly forward, wounds licked and lessons learnt. But even that was just a guess – one on which the clock is still ticking, and the next few years may yet prove wrong.
There are other options I might have taken. I could simply have turned a literary blind eye to it all and pretended it simply wasn’t happening. This might be termed ‘The Jane Austen Approach’, who, in all but one of her novels, never mentions the then- raging Napoleonic wars (only in the posthumous Persuasion is it directly addressed, by which time everything was more or less done and dusted). And this strategy works out pretty well, for it allows the author to focus on the finely observed romantic comedy for which she is justly famous. There are a few awkward moments, to be sure: in Pride And Prejudice, one reason the flighty Lydia is so keen to visit Brighton is that it has lately become host to a whole campful of soldiers, which contemporary readers of the time would have understood as a reference to Britain shoring up its southerly defences at the most likely point of Boney’s anticipated invasion. So, in all fairness, Austen doesn’t ignore contemporary events completely; she just chooses to knit her delicately woven comedy of manners around and inbetween them.
But surely, you might think, the problem here is only for near-future stories. From the far vantage of decades or even centuries hence, the author need not be concerned with past events – pandemic or Napoleonic – only with forging a world that is coherent and in some sense plausible. But there are pitfalls here, too. Take William Gibson’s Neuromancer, a cyberpunk sci-fi in which sentient AIs roam the ‘Matrix’, personalities are digitally manipulated or downloaded onto hardware, and characters are augmented with cybernetic implants and genetic manipulations to gift them enhanced qualities and abilities. And yet, amid all this far-out futurism, we have a scene in which the main character passes a bank of public pay phones.
The lesson here is that we simply don’t know what is going to change. Writing in 1984, Gibson evidently thought that public pay phones were a safe bet to persist. He’s not alone. The sci-fi movie Bladerunner has similarly stationary public ‘videophones’, a scene from the movie AI has a flooded New York in which the Word Trade Centre towers are still standing, and the annals of sci-fi are full of futuristic people reading newspapers, using cassette recorders or cameras that require actual film. But if you don’t know what’s going to change (or persist), how can you avoid that problem?
This was also faced by Gibson in another of his novels, Agency, part of which takes place in what was then the near-future. But towards the end of 2016, with the manuscript finished, Donald Trump was elected President, throwing a sizeable spanner into the novel’s plot (which had presumed a Clinton victory). Rather than rewrite the whole thing, however, the author cleverly opted to tweak things so that all events happened in an alternate world where Clinton won and Brexit never happened. This is a neat strategy, and one that’s been used by countless science fiction and fantasy writers – in fact, the idea that an author’s fictional world is significantly different from ours in certain respects is the basis of most fantasy. But even in fantasy worlds, there are hidden traps.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord Of the Rings, the action takes place in a pre-industrial setting broadly corresponding to that of medieval Europe, and yet many of its features have a later origin: characters have mantelpiece clocks (16th century), umbrellas (17th century), buttoned waistcoats (17th century), and even play clarinets (18th century). And if the technology behind those developments exists in Middle Earth, then that whole world would be different. But there are also subtler dangers, as such anachronisms can also creep into the language. When the wizard Gandalf creates a magical firework display that resembles a swooping dragon, it passes like an express train, and Gollum watches Bilbo with eyes like telescopes. The problem here is that language is itself a product of history, and often smuggles in references to specific events, people or customs. Does your elven detective spot a red herring (first used in 1807, in reference to hunting), or is your medievalesque knight gung ho (a term originating in the Second Sino-Japanese War, 1937–45)? It’s a veritable minefield (origin, 1877).
So, what can a writer do? Before you reach for your etymological dictionary, remember that fiction is a set of artificial conventions. Authors often sacrifice complete authenticity or realism for the sake of entertainment or readability. A historical novel written in language faithful to 11th century English would likely be unintelligible to a modern reader, and a futuristic or fantastic story that had no commonalities with the culture and practices of our own times would suffer a similar lack of relatability. Readers will mostly overlook or ignore minor discrepancies – even, perhaps, major ones – as long as they aren’t jarring and pull them out of the story. Because, ultimately, speculative fiction, whether futuristic or fantastical, is not about the accuracy or even the plausibility of the world it has built – Star Trek’s transporters and Star Wars’ light sabres may never be scientifically realisable, but it is the role of such technology in terms of plot and theme that is important. And this is ultimately because such stories are not fundamentally about the future at all.
In a 2007 interview in The New York Times, responding to his reputation as an uncanny predictor of future trends (the Internet, augmented reality, etc), William Gibson instead emphasised that: Every imaginary future ever written is about the time it was written in … People talk about science fiction’s predictive possibilities, but that’s a by-product. It’s all really about now.
Which is a good point. If only that ‘now’ wasn’t constantly shifting too…
 All these examples are borrowed from E. Brundrige’s Anachronisms In The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings on Hobbylark, hobbylark.com/fandoms/Anachronisms-in-The-Hobbit-and-Lord-of-the-Rings
 Sci-Fi Writer William Gibson Reimagines the World After the 2016 Election, 25th April 2017, nytimes.com/2017/04/25/books/sci-fi-writer-william-gibson-reimagines-the-world-after-the-2016-election.html
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The future is a pathless land, an unmarked canvas of pure possibility, where anything can happen – and fantastic worlds even more so. But things are not quite so simple.