Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle at a book signing

Building Plausible Futures by Jerry Pournelle

The first thing you must do is decide whether you want to build a plausible future. Many writers don’t. Some write fantasy and have no interest in building futures with sharp edges and rivets. Some, like Harlan Ellison, don’t exactly write fantasy but are successful largely because what they write is implausible. Others aren’t interested in futures at all.

Then there are writers like Frank Herbert. Dune convinces you that the implausible is real. Frank simply evaded most of the tough questions: computer and space science are dismissed with handwaving and religious mumbo-jumbo. He made a fortune with Dune and if you can write like Frank Herbert you don’t need advice from me.

This essay is about classical science fiction stories, the kind that built and even defined the genre during the Golden Age when John W. Campbell, Jr. was editor of Astounding. Those stories generally presented a future that seemed real and plausible; a future in which science, engineering, technology, and the social structures were self-consistent; a future the reader could believe in, at least until he had finished the story. The best of these stories taught the reader something about science and technology, and held up under real-world scrutiny.

Building those futures was never easy, but it was a lot easier in the old days than it is now.

Things were a lot simpler then, and more predictable. Space travel was inevitable even if most people didn’t believe it. All you needed was the courage to accept your own analyses.

For example, Robert Heinlein’s “Requiem” and “The Man Who Sold The Moon” are about a businessman whose ambition is to go to the Moon, and who uses business techniques to get a Moon colony started. Today those stories may be dated, but we can still read them. In their time, they were the epitome of hard-science science fiction,

Heinlein used a simple technique: he took everyday familiar objects and events, projected them into the future, and subtly modified them. One of the most famous lines in science fiction: “The door dilated.” In this one line from Beyond This Horizon, Heinlein takes us into the future.

A dilating door would still be the future to us. “Requiem,” though, begins at a county fair. In Heinlein’s time the barnstormer pilot, or the aeronaut, really did go to county fairs and offer to take passengers for short rides for a fee. Most readers would be familiar with that. In “Requiem,” fair-goers have the opportunity to fly in a privately owned, obsolete, and nearly unsafe rocket ship.

“Requiem” was written in 1939, long before the real space program became a government monopoly. More importantly, though, it was written before the skies were crowded with aircraft; before lawyers dominated the world; before the Environmental Protection Agency; before OSHA and Medicare and the busybody government put a stop to risky entertainment like barnstorming, whether in biplanes or rocket ships—and before TV put an end to county fairs as a standard medium of entertainment. The central theme of “Requiem” could make a good story today, but every one of the details, both technical and social, would be different. In its day, though, “Requiem” was as fine an example of projecting a plausible future as we have. Those who want to learn how to build plausible futures could do a lot worse than study early Heinlein’s ability to link technological and social changes and weave them into a seamless whole.

Technological Projection

Technology projection isn’t particularly easy, but the science fiction writer doesn’t have to do it. We don’t need to predict the real future; we’re only interested in a plausible future.

Even in the real world of professional technology projections, some things are easier than others. For example, you can have a lot more confidence that some development will happen sometime in the next thirty years than you have in predicting when. It’s usually easier to project twenty to thirty years ahead than it is five.

Before you can project technology, you need some understanding of what technology is. You needn’t be a scientist or engineer, and in fact, scientists and engineers often don’t understand the nature of technological development. Technology as a phenomenon is easier to understand than most of its components.

The first principle is that technology goes by “S” curves. When a new scientific or engineering principle is discovered, things go pretty slow for a while. It takes a lot of effort to make small changes. An example would be aircraft speeds and ranges from the time of the Wright brothers until after World War I.

Then a breakthrough is made. The curve shoots upward. Aircraft speed and performance made astonishing gains just before and during World War II. After that we reached the “sound barrier” and the gains came much more slowly. We had reached the top of the “S.” That, in turn, became the base of a new “S.”

Computer power went the same way. Early science fiction had a dismal record of predicting what computers would be like and what they could do. The best SF writers based their future computers on things they knew: fire control computers for warships, and primitive IBM machines. Real world computer technology crawled along so slowly that it was plausible to have stories in which humans could take the place of a damaged or destroyed computer, or even out-perform one.

Then came the breakthroughs, and most of those stories were made instantly obsolete. Even after the breakthrough, when writers were frantically trying to revise their thinking, the sheer speed of real-world advances made most of their stories obsolete within a year of publication.

We are now in the sharp upward slope of the computer technology “S curve: computing power doubles every year while component prices fall. Eventually, we will reach the top of that curve. Meanwhile, plausible stories require that future societies not only have advanced computer technology but that the technology be widespread through the culture. The notion of the computer as hulking giant hidden in a basement and attended by high priests simply can’t hold any longer: everyone has computers now, and will in any plausible future.

The second principle is that technology is interdependent. Advances in one sector influence all the others. New molecular chemistry techniques led to micro-miniaturization which led to the computer revolution. New computer techniques led to new developments in chemistry—and in nearly everything else. It is now possible to do computer simulations of medical and dental problems; economic systems; aircraft. Little remains unaffected.

In the military field miniaturization made possible onboard computers for missile guidance. This brought ICBM miss-distances down from miles to hundreds of feet in a decade. That led to increased research in silo-hardening, which led to hard-rock silo designs, and that development made it possible to conduct certain mining operations that were previously not financially feasible.

Examples of interdependence can be given without limit, and you can’t know too many of them. Burke’s Connections is worth a lot of study.

The important thing to note is that you can’t change just one thing; if you’re constructing plausible societies, you must not only project technologies but think through what effects those technologies will have on other fields—and also what they will do to the social order.

After all, the sexual revolution owes more to cheap motor cars than anything else. Before the motor car it was very difficult for young people of opposite sex to be together without adults; after the motor car, adult supervision became nearly impossible. (And for that matter, the adults had new opportunities.)

We’re now in an era of bifurcated morality: high tech people generally aren’t perceived to be motivated by religion and haven’t found another philosophical basis for faith in law and justice. Meanwhile, we have the new rise of fundamentalism, both Christian and Moslem, at precisely the moment when all knowledge is available to just about everyone. It makes for interesting times.

Tools of the Trade

In order to keep the present from overtaking your future before you have finished your story, you have to keep up with current trends. This isn’t easy. After all, I live in a world that was science fiction when I was in college. I sit at a computer console that connects me to tens of thousands of highly educated technologists; I can get the answer to nearly any question in minutes to hours. The Soviets have built the space station the US would have built in the 70’s if it weren’t for Proxmire and his ilk. Terawatt lasers of high efficiency have been developed for strategic defense. Technology pours out, and if you’re not careful you can write a story about a future invention that’s already available in your DAK mail order catalog.

The indispensable tools of the trade are High Technology magazine and the weekly Science News. These aren’t enough, but you can’t do without them. A magazine that used to be useful and isn’t now is Technology Review. Scientific American used to be indispensable; now it’s useful, but just barely. Both these magazines succumbed to the notion that politics was more important than science.

Perhaps the best of the science magazines is the British publication New Scientist. It isn’t cheap. Because of its political slant, and its British origin, it cannot and should not be the only science magazine you get.

From there you will need some specialty publications. Business trends are best tracked in The Wall Street Journal, which also follows commercially important technology trends. Fortune will do a good job of condensing and summarizing business developments. Aviation Week and Space Technology is valuable to most science fiction writers, but it’s expensive. BYTE summarizes the latest trends in consumer-available computer technology. All of these are available in the libraries.

There are also books. Writing and Selling Science Fiction by the Science Fiction Writers of America, available from Writer’s Digest Books, is one of the best. It contains my longer work on this subject, as well as essays by many other writers. Science Fiction Today and Tomorrow, edited by Reginald Bretnor, (Harper 1974) is I think out of print but well worth the trouble of finding it.

Once a writer becomes established by publishing a few stories and books, he will find ways to get on various mailing lists, such as NASA’s news briefs, and the technology announcements that pour forth from university and commercial laboratories. Indeed, the problem may be to avoid getting too many of these publications; but they’re indispensable for finding out what’s happening at the cutting edge.

A Sense of Structure

The most important prerequisite to inventing a plausible future is to have an understanding of the way the world works. That’s not easy since no one knows how the world works. On the other hand, if you don’t think you have a fairly good idea, you’ll have no framework to build your future on.

It used to be that the whole purpose of education was to give students a working knowledge of how the world works. We have since opted for “educating the whole child,” meaning that we teach people nothing. Unless you had an atypical modern education, you’ll have no choice but to teach yourself.

You learn by getting around and doing things, asking questions, and watching other people do things. Writing is never a full-time job. You’ll also have to read books. Arthur C. Clarke used to counsel writers to read at least one book and one newspaper each day. If that’s too much, make it a book a week; but you must read and read a lot.

The books needn’t be on technology. The only way I know to project the future is to know a lot about the past. To see what impacts new technologies will have, look at what the old ones have done. It also helps to read biographies and especially autobiographies: of scientists, to be sure, but also of people like Albert Sloan and Henry Ford, movers and shakers who have turned technology into social change.

How I Got This Way

I’m told I do a reasonable job of creating plausible worlds. I like to think so, and people I respect confirm it. What I am not an expert on is teaching anyone else how to do it.

In my case I spent a lot of time in universities studying nearly everything except English literature; then more years in space science, working at the edge of technology and sometimes making technological forecasts. I also wrote research proposals for aerospace firms. The experience was invaluable; I used to tease my SF writer friends by saying that I wrote science fiction without characters or plot and got paid more per word than they did.

When I got out of the aerospace business to write full time I ended up writing a weekly column for a national newspaper. I’d answer questions like “what is a laser?”, and “what caused the Ice Ages?”, in exactly 700 words. I guarantee that three years’ experience at that will give you a broad base in the sciences, and teach you not to waste many words.

In other words, I had a fair amount of education and training, and experience, in understanding this world before I started building new ones; and I don’t know of any easy substitute for that.

Nobody ever promised it would be easy.

This article by Dr. Jerry Pournelle was originally published in Writers of the Future Volume III. Timeless advice then and now.


Dr. Jerry Pournelle

Dr. Jerry Pournelle

Jeffy Pournelle was that legendary figure, the Renaissance Man. It included his mastery of the épée as well as other deadly weapons, but it also covered his two Ph. D.’s, his master’s degree in statistics and systems engineering, his bachelor’s degree in mathematics, and his chairmanship of the Citizen’s Advisory Council on National Space Policy. Then, of course, there were his definitive regular columns on computers for Byte and InfoWorld. And all of that wasn’t even the half of it.

In the world of SF, his contributions included editorship of many anthologies, any number of nonfiction pieces for the SF media, the presidency of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and, of course, his stories and novels. Those he wrote alone and in collaboration with others, notably fellow Writers of the Future Contest judge Larry Niven. He was a fixture on the New York Times bestseller list, with such blockbusters as The Mote in God’s Eye, Lucifer’s Hammer, Footfall and Oath of Fealty.

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