On writing

When you write science fiction, don’t make your world exactly like this one

Why do so many writers of science fiction persist in creating worlds set far into the future and making it exactly like the one we have now?

One thousand years ago:

  • The once mighty Byzantine empire was falling apart
  • The Song Dynasty was unifying China, creating a central bureaucracy and paper money
  • The Vikings had raided and explored most of Europe, and parts of Asia, Africa and America
  • Western Europe was entering a period of rapid population growth in the middle ages
  • The Aztecs were searching for a home.

Life was considerably different, and a lot of things have happened in the intervening time. The great civilisations of that time no longer exist. As Hamish McRae says:

Go back 1000 years and Asia … accounted for two-thirds of world GDP. Africa accounted for nearly 12%, much more than western Europe …

Empires rise and fall while the economic wheel keeps turning. The last millennium saw the west gain ascendancy—but our decline is inevitable.

1000 years of globalisation, Hamish McRae, November 2001.

Why then, do some science fiction writers persist in setting their novels 1,000 years into the future, and then creating a world based on a Western civilisation almost exactly the same as we have today?

One thousand years has a nice ring to it. It’s far enough into the future to permit anything to happen, to allow all sorts of wondrous technology to be invented—genetic engineering, humans living forever, space travel. You name it, we can achieve it by then.

But don’t tell me the United Nations is the primary ‘peace keeping’ force in the world or the universe. Don’t tell me that the hero of the story, from the most technologically advanced race on the planet, is from one of the current ascendant western civilisations such as the United States of America or Western Europe.

Western civilisation will be history, the United Nations lucky if they make it as a footnote on the page.

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