Building Futures Which Last

World War III failed to happen in 1958. That event was important to Poul Anderson’s Psychotechnic League future history.

After the Soviet Union broke up, there were still new books about the USSR invading the US. And there were sf writers whose series and/or future histories had the Soviets as one of two superpowers well into the future. Jack Chalker had an easy solution for his Well of Souls series — Nathan Brazil pushed the universe’s reset button. Other writers became rather less explicit about history, or declared their failed futures to be alternate history.

Lesson One: Be prepared to abandon your lovely future.

Lesson Two: If you want to continue using the same future, be vague as possible about what will last beyond this week.

Or you can decide not to care. Use the same future everyone else writing future-set fiction does: aircars will completely replace ground cars, videophones will rule, etc. Modify to the taste of a particular editor (North America becomes Arabic-speaking, the Middle East turns Southern Baptist, whatever.)

But suppose you want to get the future right, as much as possible. There are ways to do it.

Learn what predictions have consistently been wrong: Ground cars were supposed to be completely gone shortly after WW II. (Probably earlier, actually.) Voice-only phones were to be extinct by 2000 CE. (Yes, we have videophones — but they’re not the only phones around.)

In economics, there’s “This bull market will continue forever.” In the past, all such markets have gone diving among the sharks; but this one is different because [new technology/right party in office/….]. In politics, “My party will rule forever” and “We’re going to simplify the tax code.”

Study cycles: There are “moral panic” cycles; times when drunk driving or gambling is considered a major problem, and others when it’s shrugged off. There are economic cycles; as I write, we’re on the downslope of one. And political cycles; in the US, one swings between parties and another between ideologies. The two political cycles have gone together recently; but don’t count on this continuing.

Look at the future which has already happened: An elementary school teacher looked out at my class, and said we were the largest class she’d ever taught. After us came the Baby Boomers.

When the Boomers overfilled elementary schools, it should have been easy to predict there were going to be a lot of college students not far in the future. Colleges didn’t prepare for the overflow.

Find indicators which work: During the next fifty years, some countries will fall apart. Others will merely undergo revolutions or go bankrupt.

I use male life expectancy at birth as a sign of a country’s stability. The US doesn’t top the list. (This is apparently partly because babies who would be considered dead at birth elsewhere are counted as alive for the few hours they survive. But that’s not the whole story.)


There are things you can’t predict completely. (Or maybe you can — in which case I recommend investing as your fulltime job. Sexual morality will be different fifty years from now — but different how? Vatican III will probably make changes in the Roman Catholic Church — but when will it be held, and what will those changes be? (My guess: Around 2060. About the changes, I can make one confident prediction — some of them will cause schisms.)

What can you do about these?

Have fun: Pick changes you find interesting.

Decide what works best with your story and characters: If it’s useful for your heroine to be a Roman Catholic priest, change church law so this can happen. (I don’t expect Vatican III to allow female priests; but perhaps Vatican VI or Marsport I will.)


4 Responses to “Building Futures Which Last”

  1. Asakiyume Says:

    This is brilliant, thanks for linking from LJ. I was especially interested in your mention of “moral panic” cycles, because they’re something I’ve observed but not been able to categorize (and hence articulate), and also in what you said about the future that has already happened, and how, in the case of baby boomers, colleges didn’t do that.

    Anyway, really interesting read.

  2. New Trends » Blog Archive » futures Says:

    […] Building Futures Which LastAnd there were sf writers whose series and/or future histories had the Soviets as one of two superpowers well into the future. Jack Chalker had an easy solution for his Well of Souls series — Nathan Brazil pushed the universe’s reset … […]

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Some other thoughts:

    The trends that everybody is talking about now aren’t usually the ones that are important in the long term‐they’re just fashionable.

    Even powerful, long-term trends never go to completion. There are periods dominated by the growth of large, centralised states and empires (eg. 18th and 19th centuries) but the world never gets to be ruled by a single empire, and small states, and non-state polities, continue to exist. There are periods of widespread disintegration (4th – 5th centuries AD, late 20th – 21st centuries) but societies never get completely atomised, and empires do not completely disappear.

    Large, complex societies do not collapse all at once. It takes a good couple of hundred years for a weakened but functioning empire to turn into a bunch of squabbling tribal kingdoms. Short periods of sudden partial disintegration are separated by long periods of stasis or partial recovery. Apocalypse takes a long time.

    There are always many points of view in a culture. There are always people who disagree with the dominant beliefs. There are always whole groups trying to spread their minority view. There are always a few crazy people who disagree even with the most fundamental, unquestioned tenets of their society. Some of those crazy ideas will evolve into a future dominant belief, although this may take centuries.

    The world is not evolving towards your own preferred utopia.

    The world is not evolving towards your own worst nightmare.

    Political ideologies have multiple components that do not keep the same alignment over the long term. E.g. the spectrum from leftwing to rightwing (roughly, belief in equality in some general sense, versus belief in hierarchy in some general sense) is separate from the spectrum from individualist to collectivist. From the early-eighteenth to early-nineteenth century, people whose individualist beliefs would line them up with modern libertarians were nevertheless clearly on the left, while the right was in favour of powerful central government. By the mid-nineteenth century, individualism was dominant on both left and right, and dissenting left-wing collectivist movements (socialism, communism) were appearing. By the end of the nineteenth century, the left was increasingly dominated by collectivism, and the right by individualism. During the first half of the twentieth century, collectivism was dominant on both left and right. During the post-war consensus, first left-wing and then right-wing forms of dissenting individualist ideology appeared (during the 60s and 70s respectively). For a while, the dominant left-wing parties were collectivist while those on the right were individualist. Increasingly, individualism is now becoming dominant on both left and right, forming a new consensus …

    Other cycles include the cycle in aesthetic taste between ornamentation and simplicity. There is a spectacular contrast between, on the one hand, the Victorians with their overstuffed furniture, mounds of bric-a-brac, crowded history and social-commentary paintings, complex prose full of long words and sentences, heavily decorated buildings, complex music for large orchestras, long-winded scientific terminology, etc, and, on the other hand, the 20th centuries love affair with simply, unornamented architecture, paintings stripped down almost to blankness or, for narrative, simple cartoons; the dominance of simple songs in music, the preference for plain prose, the amazing reduction in women’s clothing and accessories, the simplifications in interior decoration, etc. But the Victorian era was preceded by the preference for classical simplicity and elegance of the eighteenth and mid-to-late seventeenth centuries, with its classical architecture, uncluttered paintings, striving towards simplicity in prose and regularity and economy in poetry, etc, which was preceded by the greater complexity and irregularity of the Elizabethan era, etc. (It’s no coincidence, for instance, that the reputation of Shakespeare fell considerably in the period immediately following him, and rose again spectacularly in the early 19th century).

    Change doesn’t happen at a constant rate, and different aspects of culture and society change at different rates.

    Every change has both winners and losers. It’s not generally possible to know in advance who these will be. Every change has many unexpected consequences.

    On the other hand, the fact that some people failed to predict a change doesn’t mean that everybody failed to predict that change.

    Most innovations die out quickly. A few live somewhat longer. Only a very few gain a wide foothold. Some of these are more predictable than others. This applies across all innovations, whether new businesses, new inventions, claimed scientific discoveries, new works of art, changes in language, or even biological adaptations.

    Just a few thoughts.

  4. Tim Silverman Says:

    By the way, that last comment was from me …

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