Future Proof?

How important is it to future proof your story? I don’t tend to write a lot of contemporary fiction so it isn’t much of a problem for me, but I do read a lot, particularly action stories trying to be set in the universal ‘today’, and sometimes I think the book suffers for not being edited with the future reader in mind.

Recently, when I read a description about a supposedly cool character wearing shoulder pads and torn jeans I was completely pulled out of the story. This is one of the main reasons why I don’t tend describe what a character is wearing unless it is important to the story. This year’s dashing may be next year’s try-hard.

The book I’m reading now was published in 2000 and it keeps referring to the World Wide Web as if it is something exotic and daunting. The characters also carry on highly confidential conversations on their mobile phones, despite the fact that they are being hunted by every law enforcement agency in the world.

Both these things severely date what is an otherwise contemporary book, and the author is going to great pains never to refer to a date, as if they want it to remain contemporary for years to come. If only he had done a little more research on mobile phones to learn how non-secure they really are, which is something Prince Charles and Camilla taught the whole world a few years later.

I was travelling the world in the year 2000, so I have a pretty good recollection of what technology was around then. I was regularly emailing my friends with travel updates, and internet cafes (note: internet cafes, not World Wide Web cafes) were everywhere –even the middle of Fez where many of the other buildings still didn’t have electricity!

The point to telling you this is that back in 2000 access to the net was already becoming a big priority for many people. No we didn’t tweet, post Facebook updates or blog, but we were tapping into it regularity. It clearly wasn’t going to remain a mystery to many people for much longer. So perhaps the author should not have laboured on for so long about the WWW as if using it put his character above the average Joe.

I’m not saying it is easy to predict what is going to be normal in ten years time, and I’m not saying that I never get it wrong either, but I think if you are trying to write the eternally contemporary novel you have to be prepared to put in the hard yards and do some serious research about the technology in your story. And even the best stint of research won’t keep you story current forever.

Which makes me wonder why the author does try so hard to hide the year? What is so wrong with anchoring a story in a certain year or decade? I love to read books that are unashamedly set in the 80’s or 90’s. I’d actually be tempted to write one today so that you can have some mystery without mobile phones and CCTV at every corner.

At the end of the day it is fiction, I don’t believe that the magic is diminished if we know it didn’t really happen because the year 2000 was over a decade ago and we would have heard of that virus if it had really been threatening the world. When we read old science fiction and their technology is way off the mark of what really happened, it doesn’t undermine our enjoyment of a good story, we understand it was written in a different time. If this book had mentioned the decade, instead of sending me searching on the copyright page, I’m sure it wouldn’t have annoyed me anywhere near as much as it did.

One thought on “Future Proof?”

  1. This was also an issue with one of my favourite recent reads — Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book. It was written in the 1990s, but set in our near future, and much of the plot relied on people not being able to get in contact with each other — mobile phones didn’t exist! It really dated the novel, but I loved it anyway.

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