Friday, 8 June 2007

The shadow of the near future

As I come to the end of writing The Infinite Day I find myself in some ways in the most difficult part of the book. Some of the issues I do not want to go into here because they involve plot spoilers. But there are other things.

One is that I am forced to discuss the near future, rather than the far-future in which the book is set. This is largely because of something introduced in Book 1 and alluded to ever since; the great intervention of God's Spirit in the 2050s and the subsequent rebellion four decades later. This raises a well-known paradox of science fiction; it is far easier to write of a hundred years hence than ten years.

Why this should be is worth exploring. It is not simply that it is safer to write of the far future. You know the sort of thing: “All being well, many of my readers will live to see 2050; none will see the 13th millennium AD so I can happily write anything about it.” (By the way, it also gives you a longer period of time for your work to become a ‘prophetic classic’.)

A hundred years is also a long enough time for technologies to a) be invented, b) be tested, and c) become widespread plagues on society (see, for example, cars, television and the Internet) whereas ten years doesn't really bring too many changes. The result is that we are prepared to believe all manner of strange things may have occurred in a hundred years time; we are less convinced that such things may have happened within a decade.

There is another reason why the near future is problematic. It is that a decade from now things will, no doubt, be a mixture of the predictable and unexpected. So on the predictable: there will be overcrowding, culture wars, environmental disasters. Culturally, there will be Pirates of the Caribbean 14 and Oceans 24 available for digital download in our home cinemas and the Rolling Stones will still be performing gigs somewhere. But it’s the unexpected that concerns us: the world can change very rapidly in a very short period of time and that is hard to get right.

Imagine if, in 1997, Chris Walley had written a book set in 2007. Some things he might have got right: for example, there were growing concerns about the environment, and the unstoppable rise of the digital economy was already pretty much taken for granted ten years ago. But what about the unexpected events? 9/11 for instance exceeded the imagination of the most bizarre fantasist. And who, ten years ago, could have had seen British and American armies mired in Iraq and the widespread dismissal of the fundamental values of justice in Guantanamo Bay and the ‘extraordinary rendition’ procedures? Surely, a dark fantasy, critics would have said. Truly, truth is stranger than fiction.