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Speculative and science fiction writing. The advantages of writing in the near future

February 16, 2015

A great deal of speculative and science fiction writing is set in the far flung future, or in alternative worlds that bear little similarity to what we know and recognise today. Although this can make for a very enthralling read, what happens if the story is set in the near future in a world that is all too familiar?

Three new books place their storylines in a world that many of us could live to see.

Cannonbridge

Cannonbridge by Jonathan Barnes alternates between 2016 and the Victorian era, beginning at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, where Cannonbridge meets the coterie of Lord Byron. It is a time and place that will have great symbolic significance towards the end of the book.

Two hundred years later, in lecturer Toby Judd’s world, Matthew Cannonbridge is considered a literary giant of the nineteenth century, but Toby Judd is not so sure. When he publicly airs his doubts about the veracity of the great man’s works and begins to investigate him, Toby suddenly finds himself in a whole world of trouble.

The idea is a very interesting one and the increasingly difficult (and life-threatening) predicaments that hapless hero Toby lurches from and to really keeps the reader wondering what is going to happen next. There is certainly the growing discomfort that something is about to go horribly wrong as Toby unravels the mystery that is Matthew Cannonbridge.

Time is firmly at the core of the story as the events of Toby’s present affect the past, which in turn affects the future; a device that adds to the reader’s sense of ‘look behind you’.

Something coming through

In Something Coming Through by Paul McAuley the aliens are on Earth and appear to want to help or do they, and what is their real agenda? The new worlds gifted to the humans contain ancient artefacts that are a highly sought after commodity. But many appear to contain ‘ghosts’ that have a noticeable effect on people who are near them, resulting in ‘breakouts’ of strange behaviour. It is while investigating one of these ‘breakouts’ that Chloe Millar’s life really begins to take a strange, roller coaster turn.

Meanwhile on Mangala, one of the new worlds the humans have colonised, Vic Gayle is investigating a homicide that is the result of a gang war over a remote excavation site.

Something Coming Through  is an interesting title in itself, leaving the reader wondering whether the outcome will be sinister and apocalyptic or something that has a profound and positive ending. This version of Earth has already succumbed to something feasible, a nuclear explosion in the centre of London.

The book plays with the familiar and the other worldly, creating a sense of comfort using the older characters particularly to make familiar cultural references, while weaving in the unsettling effects of alien close encounters. The fact that one set of characters are conducting what appears to be a standard crime investigation, with all the trappings of the world they came from (guns, cars, coffee, burgers) on an alien planet and the others are travelling on a climate affected Earth in recognisable places is nicely disconcerting.

What do humans do when presented with intergalactic travel and pristine planets on which to create a new Eden? Make sure their favourite fast food restaurants are there to serve the lucky immigrants who proceed to carry on just as they did on the world they left. Meanwhile the aliens who have gifted the human race with advanced technology are treated with suspicion. Whereas the humans in books about far flung futures appear to have transcended many of the worst aspects of human nature and reached for the stars, this book begs the question of how much are we really capable of changing and is the human race, as a whole, worthy of being given such wondrous gifts?

Time in Something Coming Through is played with as the events on Earth foreshadow the investigation occurring on Mangala, the planet gifted by the aliens. This creates an interesting reading experience by accentuating the whodunit and why aspects of the crime investigation and notching up the tension as the two timelines begin to converge.

Nexus

Nexus by Ramez Naam is about an experimental drug capable of linking human minds together. It has mixed reactions with the human population. Developers like Kaden Lane a PhD candidate in neuroscience wants to see where he can take it, while others, like the government, want to get rid of it entirely. When Kaden is caught illegally developing Nexus he suddenly becomes plunged into the life and death world of international espionage and playing for very high stakes.

Nexus provides some very credible extrapolations off what is currently possible with technology and intelligently weaves these technical details in with a very human story of betrayal, trust and the value of friendship.

Setting the story in 2040 allows enough historical time for the technology to be feasibly developed. Nexus 5 is a type of programmable nanotechnology drug into which software can be loaded and developed. As a plot device it is used to great effect, not only in very dynamic and credible action sequences where the protagonists use it in life-threatening situations, but also to demonstrate both the benefits and terrible cost it might have on the human population and that it needs to be used wisely. But the book also injects humour while making a point. A test of some seduction software that goes hilariously wrong and the hero trying to get to grips with ‘Bruce Lee’ a programme that enables the user to become an expert fighter clearly demonstrates the difficulties in the development and successful interface of new technology with human biology. The sheer inventiveness and determination of the human mind is also evident in some of the more technical sections of the story.

Nexus uses the notation of regular date and time checks to make the narrative feel as if it is ticking away like a bomb and the plot very much rattles along like a freight train towards an explosive and thoughtful conclusion. The dénouement of the whole plot leaves an intriguing conundrum as to the ethics of developing biotechnology.

Though different, all the books provide a storyline that is part investigatory, part thriller, while presenting different degrees of dystopias that might at first not be evident, but become more apparent as time moves on. Stating the timing and location of the events creates a type of parallel, abbreviated narrative lending a subtle, imperative undercurrent to the plot.

That they are also set in a future that should be attainable by their current readers creates quite an eerie feel to the read because there is a sense of possibility.

The method of story delivery is a powerful way of pushing the narrative along while asking the reader to consider their own behaviour and emotions if confronted with a variety of situations where their normal lives are increasingly thrown out of kilter by developing events and they become the recipients of the type of knowledge capable of shifting the balance of power.

Time it seems can have a profound effect on the reading experience.

All the books were provided courtesy of the publishers through NetGalley.

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