How to write a novel set more than 125 years in the future.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock and Autonomous book cover.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that science fiction is about the present, not the future. And yet when I started to write my first novel, Autonomous, I spent a lot of time agonizing over how to construct a plausible 22nd century for my characters to inhabit. I was never under any illusion that I was engaging in prophesy, but I wanted readers to feel like this was a future that could realistically emerge from current technologies and social problems.

The book is set about 125 years in the future, and there hasn’t been some giant apocalypse that resets history. I didn’t want my future to make a mockery of how history really works.

So the first thing I did—just to get some perspective—was think about how many ideas and trends from 125 years ago are still relevant today. I was surprised how much hadn’t changed: We’re still arguing over evolution; we still ride in trains and take photographs; we still have radical youth rebellions focused on free love, weird technology, and vegetarianism. A lot of little things are the same, too, like the fact that people in the mid-19th century were reading the Atlantic magazine and camping out in Yosemite. Basically I wanted people in my 2144 to be just as alien (or not) as my great-great-grandparents’ generation is to me.

As I wrote early chapters, I decided that people would still be obsessed with Googling for weird sex information on the internet, and of course they would still smoke weed. Companies would still be suing people over intellectual property crimes, and we’d have even more ridiculously overbroad patent laws. I also wanted to capture the randomness of what survives in the future, so I had some characters visit Vancouver’s Aberdeen Centre….

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