When you decide to write a story set in the near future, or speculating about things that might happen, you’re running the risk of looking like a jackass. Nobody expects a science fiction story to predict the actual future — not if they know anything about science fiction, anyway. But given how slowly publishing can move and how fast the world changes, your story can look outdated before it even sees print.
I ran into this a bunch of times with my novel All the Birds in the Sky. Because this novel took so long to write, and then had another two years between getting a book deal and actually getting published, there was tons of stuff in there that I had a queasy feeling would be just completely wrong by the time this book saw the light of day. All the stuff that felt kind of edgy and “finger-on-the-pulse” was the stuff that seemed most likely to be past its sell-by date when the book hit stores.
There was a ton of stuff, but here are a few things that stick in my mind. Spoilers ahead!
The biggest thing is the whole second half of the book, involving the Caddies, which are like the next generation of tablets and other handheld computers. I wanted to get deeper into the ways that technology changes our lives, and all the ways we depend on tech. How our gadgets actually reinvent who we are, as people.
But two things made me nervous: First of all, Spike Jonze put out his acclaimed movie Her, which captured a lot of the things I was trying to say with the Caddies — and even though I already had a decent draft of All the Birds in the Sky finished when Her came out, I worried people would say I had ripped off Spike Jonze. (In fact, the book took so long to come out, nobody was even thinking about Her by then.)
And secondly, I worried more and more that by the time All the Birds in the Sky hit the shelves, our gadgets would already have evolved. We might have Caddies, or something like them. Social media and our devices might actually be helping us connect in much better, more enriching ways. And it’s true that Google is better at figuring out what you’re looking for than it was a few years ago — but connecting with other humans is actually harder than ever.
Also, I was really proud of the two-second time machine that Laurence builds early on in the novel. It’s a device on your wrist that lets you travel forward in time just two seconds. And then, when I was already super far along in revising the book, the series finale of Futurama aired, featuring a somewhat similar device. I was freaking out. Again, the slowness of traditional publishing actually saved me, because the Futurama episode was old by the time my book came out.
And finally — spoiler alert — there’s a devastating superstorm that hits the East Coast pretty late in All the Birds in the Sky. When I first wrote that section, I was terrified that people would think this event was alarmist and far-fetched. Like, I was totally stretching the bounds of possibility. And then Sandy happened, and the East Coast really was hard hit. All of a sudden, instead of worrying that people would think my scenario was too implausible, I became terrified that they would think I had ripped off a real-life disaster and just changed it slightly.
In the end, I think I got off lightly. All the major stuff that I was worried would seem dated in the book — the stuff about technology, and culture, and science, and rockets — still seemed to resonate with people by the time the book hit the stands. But I still felt like I was throwing the dice: Betting that my imaginary future might actually be something that could come true, but also that it wouldn’t arrive TOO soon.