This blog entry linked below thoughtfully describes critical skills needed by the modern writer of near future SF: The Burden of the Modern Science Fiction Writer. And because it’s so articulate, so strained with responsibility, and filled with belief–and so narrow in scope–it’s important to respond (because it pushed a button). Two excerpts follow, only to reflect the tone, not replace reading the entry:

To write fully believable, near future science fiction today, you almost need to be voracious antisocial polymath, deeply conversant in half a dozen technical fields, as well as familiar with ongoing social, economic, and environmental change.

….

Or—let me clarify—you can write about these things without understanding, but probably not in a believable manner.

And that’s the burden of the modern science fiction writer. If you want to write believable near-future fiction, you can’t choose a single point of advancement. You need to have a good understanding of advances in many different fields, and you need to be able to imagine how these can come together, for good or for bad. And to be really believable, you’ll need to know more than you ever wanted to know about how the world works, economically and socially, as well as where the trends are heading.

It really works if you replace “modern SF writer” with scientist, researcher, or anyone else seriously trying to advance a field or synthesize a body of knowledge. And it may work for a very narrow definition of SF, near future or otherwise. Unless you’re writing technical or science-heavy SF, an intelligent layperson’s understanding is more than enough to tell stories categorized as SF. You may need to research one or two topics in depth and you should have your work checked by sympathetic experts, but the blog writer seems to offer a very limited perspective of near future SF (or he’s splitting genre hairs on what is and isn’t SF, and aren’t we freakin’ tired of that by now.) Trying to gain the kind of expertise he describes will prevent most people from writing–not out of fear (although that, too)–but because they’ll be so busy lookin’ up and learning about (a nerdy twist on preventing the wrong people from writing).

You still need intelligence and a healthy curiosity complex. You still need big chi writing and storytelling skills. You need to be a what-if junkie. And you need to be able to focus on the key ideas and let the rest swirl around you like flotsam (or, depending on the scope of your story, filter most of it out and let the reader’s mind rest on the key elements–often near future stories are big brained blitzkreigs that are a wonder to read, but can also leave you dizzy. 

Are things really changing faster (as the blog writer says) or do we just have more access to change information (perhaps both, but I think the rate at which information is available is increasing faster than change, and that people confuse the two–learning more faster can be a catalyst, but it can also cause people to hyperreact and initiate unhelpful change). Perhaps it’s this increase in awareness that makes detail-rich near-future SF harder to write: because as readers we’re more aware, we expect more detailed accuracy in our stories? But at what level? How many readers know what’s accurate and what’s not? The key word in the excerpt is “believable.” But to who? The person with real understanding of the concepts or things described or the layperson to whom it sounds good. 

I think there’s good karma in trying to get it right–and writers get it wrong all the time, without ruining the story. And no matter what you do, if you write in a manner that appeals to the reader’s sense of belief, they will believe you, for better or worse, even if it’s schlock in a dross. I hold up the insanely profitable Dan Brown as Exhibit A (setting him down now, as wealth and bad taste have made him rather portly). If you’re writing for a younger audience and you get it wrong but make it believable, you can still spark enthusiasm/interest for the real thing(s), with no damage done. (If you’re wrong for an adult audience, you may generate little cults–fortunately, SF cultists usually practice their rituals in the safety of conventions and online.)

No, if you want to blow it, write characters who lack integrity (a sense of wholeness), are mysteriously inconsistent (writer’s puppets), are boring or otherwise fail to provoke sympathy or interest. Everyone but the jackasses will forgive you for screwing up world details–no one but your drinking buddies will forgive you for screwing up characters.

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