The Human Condition:

Storytelling the Future – October 26, 2014

Crystal ball

Back in my university days we had a time, around my senior year, when campus radicals and their calls for “relevance” in the curriculum inspired a number of new, unorthodox, and generally short-lived courses of study. It was an admittedly silly season, when serious professors tried perhaps unserious things. For example, I took a course in magic and witchcraft that was actually a hybrid of comparative literature and anthropology and was remarkably instructive for a young writer interested in science fiction and fantasy.

I also took a course with my mentor, Philip Klass, about predicting the future, and this was more grist for my science fiction imagination.1 We read from noted futurists like Alvin Toffler and historians and economists like Robert Heilbroner. We studied probability. We learned about trend analysis and about the danger of relying too heavily on current trends.2 That course became an overview of historical analysis and was useful to me because it knit together ideas from many of the required courses I’d taken over the years in the College of Liberal Arts.

As a science fiction writer, I tend to read a lot of history as well as science. But I don’t dwell on—or live in—the past. I read historical novels with pleasure, but I’m not much interested in writing them.3 My entire focus is directed forward. Personally, I’m always anticipating and living in the next six months to a year, rather than looking backward over my life. Politically and economically, I look forward through the next couple of decades—even beyond the years when I’m likely still to be alive. So the problems that people around me perceive as most important right now I generally see as either hiccups or aberrations, to be fixed through advancing technology or ongoing political processes. I’m more concerned with the problems and opportunities that are coming down the road.4 I once quipped to a colleague at work that I actually commute here each day from about thirty years into the future. That is where my mind lives.

Predicting the future in general is hard, as I learned in that class back at the university. Predicting it with great accuracy—calling for precise dates and descriptions of events and their players—is impossible. But seeing the broader curve, knowing which way it bends, and understanding that for every sudden rise you can expect a comparably sudden fall … that kind of sorcery is always possible. Commodities traders do it everyday, and the good ones make money at it.

Writers do this kind of prediction, too. The processes of plotting, outlining, and then writing a novel are acts of projection. The writer takes a starting situation—the main character, his or her past life and current prospects, and the prehistory of the story’s setting—and then projects from there what the character will do and what will happen next. And from that point, the writer then projects the succeeding set of circumstances and reactions … on and on, until the story comes to an end. Plotting and outlining are like viewing the broad curve and bold strokes of a future history. The actual writing is like living moment-to-moment with the character and experiencing that future as it unfolds.

The writer does have one advantage that the futurist lacks: the past of any character is not fixed and immovable, as it would be in a history. True, the historical circumstances of a story set in contemporary times may be fixed,5 but the character’s personal history, upbringing, education, and even his or her personality itself are still fluid. The writer can go back and change the precursors to the story in order to make any desired outcome logical and necessary.

But that’s not what it feels like as the writer works on the story. The characters must be “real people” in the writer’s imagination. Details can certainly be retrofitted to create drama and foreshadowing—and to manipulate the reader’s expectations—but the main characters and major events in any story must have a degree of solidity, of fixed and opaque nature, or else the whole process of writing his or her experiences falls apart in a flurry of forced choices, logical inconsistencies, and factual incoherence.

Like the futurist, the novelist must consider many factors in creating a “future history” for his or her characters. These include the character’s past actions, current intentions, and personality traits; the actions and intentions of other characters in the story; the probable events and dangers inherent in the setting and the time covered by the story; and the intended reader’s level of understanding, sensitivities, and capacity for disbelief. Miss one or two details, or get them wrong, and the reader might pass them off as annoyance or register subtle dissatisfaction with the novel. Miss a major story arc or get a significant detail out of place, and you’ll have the reader sputtering, “But, but, but …” and perhaps even throwing the book across the room.

The future does not yet exist, until we live through it, and that’s what makes predicting the future so exciting and dangerous. The story of a novel does not yet exist, until the author sets the words—and the images and actions they represent—in final order, and that’s what makes writing so exciting and dangerous.

Books, whether set in the past, present, or future, are actually histories that unfold first in the writer’s mind and then in the reader’s. The narrative takes us to a place and time that may never have existed and gives us a chance to meet people who never lived. But for the book to be successful, the reader must feel—at least for the moments of immersion in the story—that it is a true record of events, and that the characters actually lived in the story.

I don’t know of any act so perfectly satisfying as creating out of pure imagination and common English words on the page an actual, living, breathing, beating piece of imaginative history. Maybe the work of painters and composers—carried out in the different media of color and sound—or of film directors—who work both with a script in words and through the talents of actors, set dressers, wardrobe designers, and location scouts—can approach this sensation of creating something out of nothing. But for the writer it is completely enveloping, because the novel includes colors and sounds, smells, location and action, personal reactions, and big dollops of believable history along with the story.

Of course, another way of looking at the process is that the writer is simply a bald-faced liar, creating stories out of imagination. But as with any successful liar, the stories have to work. They must account for all details, include just enough of that ah-ha! quirkiness to ring true, but not offend the hearer’s or the reader’s sense of logic and proportion.

As such, effective storytelling can be a lot harder than trying to predict where the stock market will be a year from now, or when and where the next war will start.

1. Philip Klass wrote science fiction under the pen name William Tenn and created remarkable and yet warmly human stories about alternate realities.

2. It’s called the “if this goes on” fallacy, where the futurist fails to consider other, countervailing influences. I had a chance to put this in action—at least in the privacy of my own head—while sitting in a quarterly departmental meeting soon after joining the biotech company. Our division vice president was reporting on the currently strong sales of the reagents sold to support processing with the company’s genetic analysis equipment. In the past couple of years, most of that equipment had been acquired by the Human Genome Project and other laboratories attempting to sequence the genome. The vice president’s chart showed this bump in sales over the previous two years and projected from its peak a straight, dotted line right up into the stratosphere. Our future was secure! We were going to be rich! But I sat there thinking that the first draft of the genome had just been published, so this burst of activity was probably going to end. True, in the long run we did sell lots of reagents, but not along the same sales curve as the run-up to the Human Genome Project.

3. For example, when I thought about writing a biography of Julius Caesar, because a lively and interesting text did not seem to exist at the time, I ended up re-imagining Caesar’s life projected into the American future in First Citizen. In fact, the only time my writing has ever delved into the past was my two recent works of general fiction, The Judge’s Daughter and The Professor’s Mistress, which were attempts to look at influences in the mid- to late-20th century and how they had shaped my life.

4. My latest novel, Coming of Age, which has just been published in two volumes, is much more my kind of story. Through stem-cell technologies, the two main characters live for another century beyond the traditional “three score and ten.” To write that, I had to project the next hundred years of American history. Whoo-eee!

5. But even then the writer can take certain liberties, especially in the realm of science fiction, where it’s standard practice to create alternate histories.