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[GUEST POST] Edward M. Lerner on The Near Future Is a Dangerous Place (for Writers, Too)

Edward M. Lerner worked in high tech for thirty years, as everything from engineer to senior vice president, for much of that time writing science fiction as a hobby. Since 2004 he has written full-time, and his books run the gamut from near-future technothrillers, like Energized, to traditional SF, like his InterstellarNet series, to, with Larry Niven, the grand space-opera Fleet of Worlds series of Ringworld companion novels. Ed’s short fiction has appeared in anthologies, three collections, and many of the usual SF magazines. He also writes nonfiction, most notably his long-running “the science behind the fiction” article series in Analog. He blogs about science, fiction, and science fiction at SF and Nonsense.

The Near Future Is a Dangerous Place (for Writers, Too)

by Edward M. Lerner

SF readers have a highly developed ability to suspend disbelief. Long after Mars was revealed to be an arid, all but airless world, we continue to enjoy John Carter’s adventures on Barsoom. We take in stride-as long as the story is otherwise absorbing-that SF classics written throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s made precious few mentions of computers, much less of anything like the Internet. We look past the dated social assumptions and gender roles that authors projected onto their imagined futures. We smile at finding typewriters brought to colonies set on other worlds, then continue our reading. No matter the absence of evidence that the universe allows travel through time or at FTL speeds, that parallel worlds exist, or that computer programs have the potential to become self-aware, we welcome these premises in the interest of a good story.

I wish I could remember who first observed that even the most scientifically based SF becomes, in time, alternate history. For authors, if we’re lucky, the transition happens long after we’ve completed the book or story.

Reality undoing stories happens to the best of us. Larry Niven’s first published story, “The Coldest Place,” relies upon the planet Mercury being tidally locked to the Sun (i.e., the planet having permanent day and night sides). Mercury’s tidal lock was common knowledge for years-until a Doppler radar study revealed otherwise just before the story saw print. Tom Clancy’s Cold War technothriller The Hunt for Red October, in the few years it needed to transition from print to the big screen, required an opening-credits disclaimer.

Near-future fiction like technothrillers is especially at risk of being overcome by pesky new facts, as I discovered early in my writing career. My second novel (my first at that time sold but not yet in print) was half complete when the predictable near future … wasn’t.

The Cold War coming to an abrupt and peaceful end was A Good Thing-with the minor complication of radically imploding the market for new Cold War novels. Into the metaphorical authorial trunk went the partial manuscript of my Cold War technothriller, and surely I wasn’t alone. Of course, the very happy turn in world events far outweighed my small inconvenience.

Then it was on to novel three.

Stories require conflict. For the new project, the conflict I chose involved an Islamic terrorist. I completed this manuscript just in time for the Oslo Accord. Peace didn’t break out between Israelis and Palestinians, but for several years expectations were high enough to make Arab terrorist storylines difficult to sell.

(Countdown to Armageddon did finally make it to print and electrons, I’m happy to say. Did that sale require the Middle East to go, yet again, to pieces? We’ll never know.)

Many years and novels after consigning that incomplete Cold War manuscript to its metaphorical trunk, I undertook another near-future technothriller. Energized, a novel of energy crisis and alternate energy sources, was released in 2012. Its back story begins with an energy-supply disruption in the Middle East. In 2012, amid the Arab Spring, Middle East turmoil wasn’t controversial. But Energized also involved Russian mischief to exploit their own abundant, exportable oil and gas supplies…

Cue (some) reviewer cracks about stock Cold War characters.

This year Russia occupied and annexed Crimea. This year, Russia meddles in-many have said, invades-eastern Ukraine. Why has the West done little in the face of Russia’s actions? At least in part because major European powers worry that Russia might deny them oil and gas imports. And President Obama declares (trying to convince whom?) that the West isn’t in a new Cold War with Russia.

As it happens, Energized is due (on September 30th, to be precise) for its mass-market paperback re-release. For this reissue, geopolitical underpinnings of the novel that truly are “ripped from the headlines” may work in the book’s favor.

All things considered, I’d rather that Russian aggression and Middle East chaos were vanquished to alternate histories.

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