Every science fiction writer has a story about a time when the future arrived too soon. I have a lot of those stories. Like, OK, for example: years ago, I was writing a story where the government starts using drones to kill people. I thought that this was a really intense, futuristic idea, but by the time the story was published, the government was already using drones to kill people.
Our world is changing so fast, and there's a kind of accelerating feedback loop where technological change and social change feed on each other. When I was a kid in the 1980s, we knew what the future was going to look like. It was going to be some version of "Judge Dredd" or "Blade Runner." It was going to be neon megacities and flying vehicles. But now, nobody knows what the world is going to look like even in just a couple years, and there are so many scary apparitions lurking on the horizon. From climate catastrophe to authoritarianism, everybody is obsessed with apocalypses, even though the world ends all the time, and we keep going.
Don't be afraid to think about the future, to dream about the future, to write about the future. I've found it really liberating and fun to do that. It's a way of vaccinating yourself against the worst possible case of future shock. It's also a source of empowerment, because you cannot prepare for something that you haven't already visualized. But there's something that you need to know. You don't predict the future; you imagine the future.
So as a science fiction writer whose stories often take place years or even centuries from now, I've found that people are really hungry for visions of the future that are both colorful and lived in, but I found that research on its own is not enough to get me there. Instead, I use a mixture of active dreaming and awareness of cutting-edge trends in science and technology and also insight into human history. I think a lot about what I know of human nature and the way that people have responded in the past to huge changes and upheavals and transformations. And I pair that with an attention to detail, because the details are where we live. We tell the story of our world through the tools we create and the spaces that we live in. And at this point, it's helpful to know a couple of terms that science fiction writers use all of the time: "future history" and "second-order effects."
Now, future history is basically just what it sounds like. It is a chronology of things that haven't happened yet, like Robert A. Heinlein's famous story cycle, which came with a detailed chart of upcoming events going up into the year 2100. Or, for my most recent novel, I came up with a really complicated time line that goes all the way to the 33rd century and ends with people living on another planet.
Meanwhile, a second-order effect is basically the kind of thing that happens after the consequences of a new technology or a huge change. There's a saying often attributed to writer and editor Frederik Pohl that "A good science fiction story should predict not just the invention of the automobile, but also the traffic jam."
And speaking of traffic jams, I spent a lot of time trying to picture the city of the future. What's it like? What's it made of? Who's it for? I try to picture a green city with vertical farms and structures that are partially grown rather than built and walkways instead of streets, because nobody gets around by car anymore — a city that lives and breathes. And, you know, I kind of start by daydreaming the wildest stuff that I can possibly come up with, and then I go back into research mode, and I try to make it as plausible as I can by looking at a mixture of urban futurism, design porn and technological speculation. And then I go back, and I try to imagine what it would actually be like to be inside that city. So my process kind of begins and ends with imagination, and it's like my imagination is two pieces of bread in a research sandwich.
So as a storyteller, first and foremost, I try to live in the world through the eyes of my characters and try to see how they navigate their own personal challenges in the context of the space that I've created. What do they smell? What do they touch? What's it like to fall in love inside a smart city? What do you see when you look out your window, and does it depend on how the window's software interacts with your mood? And finally, I ask myself how a future brilliant city would ensure that nobody is homeless and nobody slips through the cracks.
And here's where future history comes in handy, because cities don't just spring up overnight like weeds. They arise and transform. They bear the scars and ornaments of wars, migrations, economic booms, cultural awakenings. A future city should have monuments, yeah, but it should also have layers of past architecture, repurposed buildings and all of the signs of how we got to this place.
And then there's second-order effects, like how do things go wrong — or right — in a way that nobody ever anticipated? Like, if the walls of your apartment are made out of a kind of fungus that can regrow itself to repair any damage, what if people start eating the walls?
Speaking of eating: What kind of sewer system does the city of the future have? It's a trick question. There are no sewers. There's something incredibly bizarre about the current system we have in the United States, where your waste gets flushed into a tunnel to be mixed with rainwater and often dumped into the ocean. Not to mention toilet paper. A bunch of techies, led by Bill Gates, are trying to reinvent the toilet right now, and it's possible that the toilet of the future could appear incredibly strange to someone living today. So how does the history of the future, all of that trial and error, lead to a better way to go to the bathroom? There are companies right now who are experimenting with a kind of cleaning wand that can substitute for toilet paper, using compressed air or sanitizing sprays to clean you off. But what if those things looked more like flowers than technology? What if your toilet could analyze your waste and let you know if your microbiome might need a little tune-up? What if today's experiments with turning human waste into fuel leads to a smart battery that could help power your home?
But back to the city of the future. How do people navigate the space? If there's no streets, how do people even make sense of the geography? I like to think of a place where there are spaces that are partially only in virtual reality that maybe you need special hardware to even discover. Like for one story, I came up with a thing called "the cloudscape interface," which I described as a chrome spider that plugs into your head using temporal nodes. No, that's not a picture of it, but it's a fun picture I took in a bar.
And I got really carried away imagining the bars, restaurants, cafés that you could only find your way inside if you had the correct augmented reality hardware.
But again, second-order effects: in a world shaped by augmented reality, what kind of new communities will we have, what kind of new crimes that we haven't even thought of yet? OK, like, let's say that you and I are standing next to each other, and you think that we're in a noisy sports bar, and I think we're in a highbrow salon with a string quartet talking about Baudrillard. I can't possibly imagine what might go wrong in that scenario. Like, it's just — I'm sure it'll be fine.
And then there's social media. I can imagine some pretty frickin' dystopian scenarios where things like internet quizzes, dating apps, horoscopes, bots, all combine to drag you down deeper and deeper rabbit holes into bad relationships and worse politics. But then I think about the conversations that I've had with people who work on AI, and what I always hear from them is that the smarter AI gets, the better it is at making connections. So maybe the social media of the future will be better. Maybe it'll help us to form healthier, less destructive relationships. Maybe we'll have devices that enable togetherness and serendipity. I really hope so. And, you know, I like to think that if strong AI ever really exists, they'll probably enjoy our weird relationship drama the same way that you and I love to obsess about the "Real Housewives of Wherever."
And finally, there's medicine. I think a lot about how developments in genetic medicine could improve outcomes for people with cancer or dementia, and maybe one day, your hundredth birthday will be just another milestone on the way to another two or three decades of healthy, active life. Maybe the toilet of the future that I mentioned will improve health outcomes for a lot of people, including people in parts of the world where they don't have these complicated sewer systems that I mentioned. But also, as a transgender person, I like to think: What if we make advances in understanding the endocrine system that improve the options for trans people, the same way that hormones and surgeries expanded the options for the previous generation?
So finally: basically, I'm here to tell you, people talk about the future as though it's either going to be a technological wonderland or some kind of apocalyptic poop barbecue.
But the truth is, it's not going to be either of those things. It's going to be in the middle. It's going to be both. It's going to be everything. The one thing we do know is that the future is going to be incredibly weird. Just think about how weird the early 21st century would appear to someone from the early 20th.
And, you know, there's a kind of logical fallacy that we all have where we expect the future to be an extension of the present. Like, people in the 1980s thought that the Soviet Union would still be around today. But the future is going to be much weirder than we could possibly dream of. But we can try. And I know that there are going to be scary, scary things, but there's also going to be wonders and saving graces. And the first step to finding your way forward is to let your imagination run free.