I started going about building the science fiction future for my Terra Ignota series, not by trying to predict things that will happen, but by looking for things that have already been changing in the last two centuries, and will with certainty be different in some way in the future. This is a different way of thinking about plausibility, one that comes naturally to me because I’m trained as a historian, so I tend to think in terms of long-term change, and never assume that anything—whether a belief or a technology—will be the same in different times and places. Whether or not you think it’s plausible that we’ll have flying cars in 2450, it’s a certain thing that we won’t have the same transportation system we have now, since transportation technology and transportation culture have changed so many times since industrialization, and are clearly still changing. Thus many different possible transportation systems—self-driving planes, tunnels through the Earth, teleportation technology—are all more plausible to me than the only truly implausible thing: stasis.
I set my series four hundred years in the future, about as far from us as we are from Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, and the invention of the modern scientific method.
For example, one factor that I’m sure, thinking historically, won’t be the same in four hundred years is the size of nations and governments. We’ve seen the size of nations change fundamentally three times since 1600. Renaissance nations were effectively the size of what contiguous territory their rulers/people could conquer and hold, and “France” or “Spain” meaning a king and what he ruled more than a defined spot on a map, since countries shifted constantly as borderlands changed hands. This transitioned to the age of ambitious empires, when mostly-European conquerors competed to snatch up territories, and for a while the majority of political entities on Earth were the subjugated dominions of a few rival powers. As the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, this transitioned again to the post-colonial era, shaped largely by the nationalist idea that every people has a right to self-determination, and that territories on a map should ideally correspond to populations with shared cultural identities. Later in the twentieth century, as the success of the United States demonstrated the advantages larger nations have on the world stage, the Soviet Union and European Union, the growth of China and India as world players, and efforts to create international bodies such as NATO and the UN, have all been experiments in the direction of a transition toward macro-nations. That’s the change that seems to be going on now.
It would be easy to call such macro-nations The Next Big Thing in Government, but if we’re looking four centuries in the future, not just one, it seems more likely to me that we will have at least two more big changes in something which changed three times in the last four centuries. So I tried to imagine a second transition, past macro-nations, caused by the new tensions between them, and the new kinds of people that will grow up in a world of macro-nations.
And just as I’ve tried to think, not one, but at least two changes into the future about the size of nations, I’ve done the same for lots of other aspects of the world which can’t plausibly stay the same because they’re already changing: the speed of transportation, medicine and lifespan, gender and gender pronouns, dominant languages, the penal system, art, identity and nationalism, movies and entertainment, education, pets, the length of the work week, space tech, race relations, what age people see as “adulthood”, what people find “sexy”; these have all changed substantially at least twice in the last four centuries.
I’m sure my answers about how they will change in the next four won’t be right, but the science fiction world I’ve created with them is plausible to me because all the things that have to be different are different. And that gives us a glance at a world a bit more alien than a lot of science fiction, alien in time and culture rather than setting. Alien to us the way we are to Shakespeare.
About the Author
Ada Palmer is the author of Too Like the Lightning (Tor Books, May 2016) and the forthcoming Seven Surrenders (Tor Books, December 2016) and a professor in the history department of the University of Chicago, specializing in Renaissance history and the history of ideas. Her first nonfiction book, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, was published in 2014 by Harvard University Press. She is also a composer of folk and Renaissance-tinged a capella music, most of which she performs with the group Sassafrass. Her personal site is at adapalmer.com, and she writes about history for a popular audience at exurbe.com and about SF and fantasy-related matters at Tor.com.