Avoiding the Art of Divination

Written by Ian McDonald

Wisdom argues against writing near-future science fiction. You may live to see it all become alternative history. You may be beyond wrong in your speculation. You may have to suffer the expectation that you’re writing prophecy, and the rain of bricks when people realise you’re not. A hundred pitfalls lie before you as a writer. Gods know, I’ve fallen into each and every one of them. And I don’t care. This is the SF that interests me most. If you worry about expectations, the judgement of posterity, or the opinionocracy, you’re dead as a writer. As Beckett wrote in Worstward Ho, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

My 1997 book, Sacrifice of Fools, was set in 2004. Sure as eggs is eggs, the 2004 I lived through was not the one in the book, but to be honest, any future where one hundred and eighty thousand aliens arrive in Northern Ireland to settle isn’t that likely. What I wanted to do in that book was to look at Northern Ireland’s particular social pathologies and insane ideologies and, for me, the effective way to do that was with complete outsiders. But to be able to do that, I had to be able to connect to the Northern Ireland I live in, and have lived in. It had to be near-future—touchably near-future. I had to be able to get there from here.

I’ve said that prophecy is not the SF writer’s job, but Sacrifice is one of the few times I almost predicted something. The book has a reformed police force I called the Northern Ireland Police Service. In reality, post the Good Friday Agreement, the force was renamed the Police Service for Northern Ireland. PSNI is a safer acronym than NIPS, I suspect.

But hey, prophecy’s not my job. Connection is. Only connect. In my imagined futures, I need to be able to get there from here. I like to be able to look back and see my house from there.

In my own writing, near futures of mine that have already been outdated include the transformed East Africa of Chaga/Evolution’s Shore; Kirinya; and Tendeleo’s Story. So be it. Doesn’t stop you enjoying them. You just push them forward the requisite years ahead of your own “now” (apart from the references to fax machines in Chaga/Evolution’s Shore). On the near horizon is the 2027 Istanbul of The Dervish House. The fact that Turkey in 2017 is almost the exact opposite of the one in the book says a lot about where real dystopias lie.

In my SF, I need to be able to draw a line from my desk to the future. I will either be old or dead when it arrives (you miss so much—you’ll be dead for much longer than the time you didn’t exist before birth)—and that’s salutary and invigorating.

The two Luna books—New Moon and Wolf Moon—are set in the early years of the next century. I hummed and hawed for quite a long time before setting dates—I prefer readers to navigate from time-signposts, like known events and character’s ages—but I had to do it to make the narrative make sense. But I didn’t want my moon to be hermetically sealed, disconnected from the worlds I inhabit in space and time. So there are signposts in Luna: New Moon, like Adriana’s father complaining about the graft and lack of legacy after the Rio Olympics, which pegs that at 2016. There’s a connection to my life and times. I can get there from here, like the silver ladder that the young Adriana sees, cast across the sea by the rising moon.

The cities and culture of Luna may seem impossibly advanced but a quick look at the history of technology shows that tech can make astonishing advances in a couple of decades. I still have my 1997 mobile phone. It’s big, it’s black, and it makes phone calls. And sends the occasional SMS. My model for the amazing cities underneath the moon was the construction of Dubai—twenty years ago, there were none of the towers, superhighways, dodgy geoengineering, and Ferrari police cars we see today. The world works faster than we think.

Likewise, the kind of near-futures I write about change. The issues that inform me as a writer today are not the ones that stimulated me twenty, or even ten, years ago. Nor should they be. All SF is about the times in which it was written. I have a section of a future fiction project I wrote three years ago—I know I will have to go back to it and see how much of it I can keep. The opening is very much pegged to the London Riots and death of Amy Winehouse in 2011; remembering how the future looked like from there, it seems very different now from how history has panned out. In Luna, I’m taking a look at the implications of the third industrial revolution, as mechanisation takes grip. I find I can really only write about a near future, or explore its issues, when I draw close enough to it to see the snows on the summit just over the horizon. Times change everything.

It’s a high-wire act. Good. SF should be. Keep watching the spangles: ignore the feet, the balance pole, the terrified expression (sometimes becoming a grin) on the face of the wire-walker.

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