Ignore the Tulips

One of the things I do is spend a lot of time thinking about the future.  It’s a hazard of being a science fiction author.  The future is our bread and butter.  But the thing is, when you sit around thinking about the future, you start to see certain trends, and you start to realize what shape the future is going to take, and it makes creating different, unique worlds a lot more difficult.

Take Siri, or Alexa, or Cortona, or Google Assistant.  To some people, these technologies are a joke, but I use Alexa every day.  A lot of people use Siri, or Cortona, or Google Assistant, and as the apps get smarter and more capable, the number of people who use them will increase.  Currently, the makers of these apps are already looking to offload the processing load of the voice control from a central server to the device itself.  When that happens, you can expect to see a huge expansion of not only the functionality of these apps, but the level of customization.  Not just different voices, but entire swappable personalities.  On top of that, the AI is getting more and more sophisticated with each iteration.

In a decade or three, we’re all going to be walking around with wise ass AI’s in our pockets, nagging us to do shit we put on our schedule but never had any intention of actually doing.  Not long after that, or maybe before that, depending on which particular branch of technology develops faster, the AI’s and associated technology will very likely be embedded in our bodies.

The Metaverse, which is currently big news thanks to Facebook’s recent rebranding is something anyone who has been paying attention has known was coming since the early 80’s.  There have been a number of baby steps in that direction already.  Things like Second Life and the more recent Decentraland.

What all of this means is, if you sit down and start really looking at where the science and the technology are going, all of the futures you build start to look the same.  Ship designs dictated by the same physics, cultures shaped by the same technological trends.  And then, of course, you run into the worst problem any fiction writer has.

Fiction has to make sense.  It has to have a certain logic and believability to it.  Reality is under no such constraints.  If you don’t believe me, consider Tulip Mania, AKA the Tulip Bubble.  Between 1634 and 1637 tulip bulbs were the hottest commodity traded in the Netherlands.  A skilled worker might make as much as 350 florins a year at that time, and there are records of a single tulip bulb selling for 2500 florins.  That’s more than seven years salary for a single plant.  People made, and lost, entire fortunes over night speculating on Tulip bulbs, and then, in 1637, the bubble just… collapsed.

If I wrote that into a book, chances are an editor would tell me to take it out because it’s too ridiculous, and yet, it actually happened.  In fact, it’s happening right now with NFT’s (Non-fungible tokens which are certificates of ownership for digital goods).  NFT’s are another thing that was totally predictable.  I’ve been expecting NFT’s to happen for something like thirteen years.  I didn’t know the exact form the technology would take, but a decentralized database to record ownership of digital goods was something I saw coming the first time I sat down and seriously looked at virtual worlds like Second Life.  The NFT bubble that’s happening now was every bit as predictable, because it’s happened before with virtual goods.  Back in the early 2000’s, when virtual worlds were first starting up, there was a land rush, and people were paying insane amounts of money for virtual estates.  But if I put someone paying Sotheby’s sixty million dollars for a jpeg in a story, I would get laughed at because of how unrealistic it is.

Which all leads to the question of what to do?  How do you construct compelling sci-fi worlds for your characters and stories to inhabit?  The answer, as the title of this essay suggests, is to ignore the tulips.  Don’t worry about reality, or what the future will actually look like, because I promise you that you will get it wrong.  Instead, create world that are logical, that are internally consistent, and most importantly of all, that fit the story you want to tell.  As long as the world you build could exist, your readers will be willing to believe it does exist for the sake of a good story.  And really, that’s all you need.

So, ignore the tulips, and build the world you need to tell your story.  The future will make liars of us all anyway.  There’s no point in worrying about it.