Choosing the time period of a story is one of the most important things a writer has to do. It can be easily glossed over, because we tend to focus a lot more on the physical surroundings in which the story takes place. But those surroundings will look vastly different, and perhaps even serve different functions in different times.
It makes sense that the time period has plenty of importance in historical fiction. After all, 200 BC is not the same as 1200 AD, and starting with the nineteenth century, every single decade changed the world in some fundamental way. Nowadays, it’s every year.
In science fiction, where the grand majority of stories happen in the future, choosing how far into the future to go will have a big impact on a great many things:
- the plausible level of technology humanity will have, from big things like FTL travel and AIs, to small things like mobile phones and kitchen appliances;
- the likelihood of our colonizing the solar system or the galaxy, or being colonized by aliens;
- the state of our planet, and even of our solar system;
- the life expectancy of an average individual (living on Earth, versus living on a space station, in a closed and regulated environment, or on an alien planet); etc.
Despite the near infinite ramifications of causality throughout human existence, fiction need not be as complex and… exhausting. 🙂 For a storyworld to feel believable and complete, all a writer needs to do is stick to the basics of human life (covering as much of Maslow’s pyramid as possible) and just imply everything else.
This may just as well be the number one rule of worldbuilding. Or storytelling in general. *nods approvingly*
A SF storyworld can be built in any of the following time periods:
The Near Future
In SF, near future can be anywhere from the next ten years, to the next century. Most likely not past that.
Near future comes with its own particular set of challenges, and IMO it’s more difficult to write believably than far future. Why? Because we can already do pretty accurate estimations of where we’ll be 50 years from now, both from a technological as well as sociopolitical perspective. Of course, nothing’s set in stone, and even the experts have wildly different opinions about where humanity’s headed. But the challenge remains:
A story set in the near future had better take our current state into account, and extrapolate logically.
Where will we be 50 years from now? Just consider, 50 years ago we still had colorless TV, flying overseas was a privilege, and the pocket calculator was still being invented. Today, we’re launching rovers to Mars and printing 3D prosthetics at home. In 50 more years, we’ll likely have quantum computers managing our lunar colony, implanted bio-computers enhancing our body, and super AIs running global economy. Earth will also look vastly different. We will be able to control the weather, farm the oceans, walk barefoot on Antarctica, and only see wild animals in movies.
Technological development is a giant, rolling ball that can’t be stopped.
There’s some form of apocalypse.
Then all bets are off, and you can pretty much reset the level of social & technological evolution. Depending on how much infrastructure survives, you will then have to speculate on a believable new society growing from the ashes.
Assuming you don’t want the world to end, you have to be careful with near future speculations, as there are plenty of plausible versions of it already being discussed by the great minds of our time. And you’d have a lot of research to do to not mess up royally and get trashed on Reddit.
But basically, if you stick to the first rule of worldbuilding (see above^), you should be fine. Besides, there’s nothing a few hours of
procrastination online research can’t fix.
But I much more prefer–
The Far Future
Anywhere from the next century, to the next millennium, or even the next million of years.
Far future is a bit easier to get right because no one can realistically see that far into the future, and you can get away with a lot of wild imagination. Nanites with their own little AI minds? Technologically aided telepathy across the star system? Instant communication through time? Teleportation? Genetic engineering that lets you colonize a planet in a day? Immortality? Or if you’re not so utopically inclined, weapons that can harness the power of a star to blow up any size planet (I may have toyed with that my Ascendancy storyworld). And lets not forget artificial habitats the size of Jupiter.
The downside of this much freedom is that, while you go wild and upgrade your weapons, medical kits, and spaceship engines, you can easily forget to upgrade lesser things, such as… waste disposal systems, food production, cosmetic industry, or perhaps even one-on-one communication technology. If you have immortal bionic people travelling the stars, communicating instantly across the galaxy, but you have them running around on the ship looking for each other, you may have an incomplete storyworld design. 😉
Far future settings become a necessity in stories involving galactic empires and multi-species societies, as creating and organizing such things in real life would require monumental effort and lots of time. They are also necessary if you have such advanced technology, that 50-100 years would simply not suffice to produce & distribute it. But you can always attribute it to ancient aliens, or humans returning from the future.
My favorite far future storyworld is Dan Simmons’ Hyperion world. It’s one of the most detailed, amazingly imaginative and compelling worlds out there. But Peter Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star world is also awesome. And Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space. And Larry Niven’s The Mote In God’s Eye. *siiiiigh* I have to re-read them sometime soon. I love far future mega-worlds!
An alternate time in SF can mean anytime in the history of humanity, but it’s usually around a very important, historic moment, such as a great battle, a world war, or the death of an important historical figure.
It can also mean a contemporary period, but set very far away from Earth, on an alien world (usually involving abductions), or in a parallel universe, where history has taken different turns.
While jumping over to another dimension may come with plenty of flexible worldbuilding, it still requires logic to function, and a lot of… okay, fine. Alternate timelines are the most flexible of all, and you can pretty much get away with anything as long as the world has that strangeness to it that keeps reminding you you’re not in Kansas anymore.
I frankly haven’t read any alternate timeline books, BUT I love me some Marvel series, and they’re all set in an alternate, contemporary yet SF world. My favorite Marvel series has got to be Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Jessica Jones is a close second.
And who could ever forget this gem:
Whatever your preference, it’s worth to keep a keen eye out for the implications of choosing a particular time period. It can be a great tool to make your storyworld more believable. 😉