A Review of Writing the Future

Paul Kincaid on a collection of essays edited by Dan Coxon & Richard V. Hirst

I have lost track of the number of books on how to write science fiction that are on my shelves. However many it is, it is a pitifully small percentage of the number of books of this type that are out there. Why is there a need for so many? I suspect it is partly because none of them agree on what they are writing about. What is this science fiction you wish to write? Is it technological, satirical, utopian, weird, fantastic; whatever, there’s a handy guide for you.

Part of it also, I imagine, is because none of them can agree on what they are actually teaching. After all, over the last few decades there has been a proliferation of courses designed to turn you into a writer, and of course they all need their textbooks. But the courses are as varied as the teachers. Some will concentrate on the nuts and bolts of putting words on the page; others will share secrets from the business end of being a writer, from putting in a proposal to signing a contract; still others will fix on some supposed characteristic of the genre, how do you build a world, how do you create an alien, how do you design a spaceship.

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what most would-be writers are meant to get from such books. All too often, the message comes down to: this is how you do something that has already been done. Thankfully, some of the better essays in this latest addition to that overcrowded bookshelf – Writing the Future: Essays on Crafting Science Fiction (Dead Ink, 2023) edited by Dan Coxon & Richard V. Hirst – do suggest that the essence of science fiction lies in breaking new ground, doing what hasn’t been done. Nina Allan, for instance, in her take on the work of J.G. Ballard seems to rebel against the entire intent of the book by declaring: ‘There is no point in trying to write the future, any more than there is a point in trying to write like Ballard.’ While Marian Womack hints that the premeditated planning that is part and parcel of the message inherent in all such books may not be the only approach to writing when she admits that ‘I approach my short fiction writing in a more tentative, experimental way.’ Though, alas, she does not pursue the idea by expanding on this approach; tentative and experimental may be fruitful, but it remains something for the tyro writer to discover all on their own.

Despite Nina Allan’s strictures, of course, this is a book expressly about the future. But that is open to all sorts of interpretations, there are essays here about near-future dystopias and far-future space opera, about the violent posturing of Judge Dredd (‘The Eternal Apocalypse: How British Comic 2000 AD Remains Relevant’ by Maura McHugh, an essay that reads like nothing more than an extended puff piece for the comic while saying virtually nothing about how to write for that comic or, indeed, any other) and the insidious approach of eco-catastrophe. Although it would be wrong to say that all science fiction is future fiction (something that the editors come perilously close to doing in their introduction), this does provide a broad way in to the genre as a whole.

But, of course, we do not know the future and never can; the moment we learn what is coming next it has stopped being the future and become the present. Addressing this dilemma is one of the central mysteries of science fiction, a problem spelled out in the title of what is, I think, the best single essay here: ‘How to Imagine the Future When the Future Does Not Exist’ by James Miller. His solution, echoed in other very good contributions by, for instance, Una McCormack and Toby Litt, is that science fiction is a branch of historical fiction. We find our futures in the past; what has gone before serves as both model and metaphor for what might come next. The whole of history is a catalogue of people being affected by and responding to changes, both good and bad, and we can carry their experiences, their behaviour, forward into the coming years and centuries. If we want to imagine what we might face tomorrow, there is no better place to start than by examining what we face today. Most if not all of the futures we encounter in science fiction reflect the author’s present, either as satire, as dread, as hope, or as aspiration. How much of the optimism of America in the late-60s do we find in the original series of Star Trek? How much of the sense of helplessness we feel at accelerating climate change informs the novels of Jeff VanderMeer?

To me, this interplay of past and present, of historical fiction and science fiction, is far and away the most interesting thing about this book. I would have been happy if the whole volume had consisted of variations on this theme. Or maybe not; ‘Imagining the Future: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?’ by Adam Marek starts with a rather dim echo of this notion and uses it to construct a dully mechanistic device for creating a future. This is the sort of writing-by-numbers approach I thought (I hoped) we had got beyond.

But if not this, what? Sad to say, there are rather too many contributions here that follow the pattern: I wrote a novel set in the future and this is what I did. I often think that the best thing an aspiring writer might learn from such an approach is what to avoid. Other than that there is the eternal bugbear of futuristic sf: prophecy. About two-thirds of the way through the essay ‘Soothsaying in the Modern Novel’, T.L. Huchu admits that science fiction doesn’t do prophecy, but then immediately goes back to referring to sf stories as prophetic. It’s a lazy view of science fiction mostly prevalent among those who don’t know science fiction. Yes, you can identify devices or events in fiction that later have real life counterparts, but the fact that tech designers based the design of a new device on something they had seen in Star Trek does not mean that Star Trek prophesied such a device. The writer that keeps coming up in this context throughout the book is Margaret Atwood for her novel The Handmaid’s Tale. But as Anne Charnock makes clear in her essay, ‘The Shifting Sands of Plausibility’, The Handmaid’s Tale was not intended as prophetic by the author, and was not read as being prophetic when it was published in the late-1980s. It was a satire, an exaggeration of certain then-current attitudes in American right-wing politics. It has become ‘prophetic’ only with the political changes in America in the last couple of years. Unless you believe that, 40 years after you write the thing, there will be a sudden and unexpected swerve in the political landscape that abruptly makes your novel appear prophetic, this is not a good approach to take to your fiction.

The book is in three sections. The first lays out the groundwork, the second covers the imminent dystopia of climate change, and the third takes on a more technological future. But these sections are divided by essays on individual writers: Anne Charnock on Margaret Atwood, Nina Allan on J.G. Ballard, and Adam Roberts on H.G. Wells. And these essays shift the focus of the book in an interesting way. Mostly, with the exception of Toby Litt, the contributors concentrate on what is written; but these three essays look instead at how they are written. In Nina Allan’s words: ‘the way in which an author chooses to employ words – and the words they choose to employ – could be their own story.’ When all is said and done, the futures that are there to be written, the science fictions that the audience for this book are presumed to aspire towards, are made out of words. It is a valuable reminder that writing science fiction is not about creating worlds, designing spaceships, or predicting the future, it is about putting words onto the page in a way that is evocative, effective, and highly individual. That, I hope, is the lesson of this book. ∎

Paul Kincaid is a Clareson Award–winning critic and frequent Interzone contributor. He has published What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest, Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood: A Critical Companion, and two books in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series: Iain M. Banks (winner of the 2017 BSFA Non-Fiction Award) and Brian W. Aldiss.

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