Helena’s world is our world. Helena’s story is set here, on earth. She’s shifted in time, although the exact date is deliberately never mentioned – for people whose lives are stretching out into the hundreds of years what’s a decade or two?
Yet to build the future isn’t easy. For sure you can create all kinds of futures – retro futures, post-apocalyptic futures, even sterile futures. I wanted to avoid a stylised view, I wanted to create a future that felt credible, even plausible. That’s a different kind of challenge.
My goal in this form of world building was to avoid a sense of setting my story among science fiction trappings in order to give myself tools to get out of poor plotting. I will never reverse the polarity. Another element I wanted my world to have, because of the subject matter, was a sense that the people were real, that their problems aren’t ones technology can solve.
In my mind this added up to creating a world in which the technology didn’t resemble magic and formed a backdrop rather than the object of the story itself. To build that world I set about pulling together a huge file on current cutting edge science and thinking about where it could go. I put items together under a number of headings – drugs, biology, physics, computing, energy, cosmology, economics, commodities. Each of those subjects was then broken down further. For example, in physics I split out a number of areas I thought were going to be transformative including nanotechnology, fusion, metamaterials, and quantum gravity. For biology I concluded that genetic therapies, organ printing, tailored medicines and other such personally focussed developments would be transformative.
From each of these I then looked at what it would take for them to be a reality. It helps that I have a couple of degrees in the hard sciences and spent some of my life as a researcher – I hope it gives me an insight into just how scientific knowledge is generated.
All of the above is before I sat down to think about how the science would be translated into the technologies you’ll find in Helena’s world.
The technologies didn’t emerge simply from the science – they never do. Tech, just as with science itself, proceeds from the space within society in which it operates. Take one bitter example – we are running out of effective antibiotics. Not because there aren’t any more out there but because the world in which we live has created no incentives for researchers to develop new ones. Science is as much a politically and economically live activity as anything else – regardless of what some of the more naïve doyens of the community would tell you about it being dispassionate and objective.
Hence, in order to create the tech, I had to write the future history of our world, to make it plausible. I wanted us to still be here, so there was no nuclear armageddon or any other world shattering events. Any view of the future carves out possibilities that would render it unrecognisable.
The key developments in Helena’s world were thus ones in which politics, economics and science interacted. In her story there are hints at wars waged with nanoscale weapons, poison designed to target only certain groups and other such horrors. Except the reality is that in any arms race that doesn’t destroy the participants they typically end up in a stalemate where their weapons are effectively countered. I considered her time as one in which these horrendous innovations would be neutered, obsolete.
All of this builds towards a world in which those who can will make decisions about the rest of us, who decide whether we’re fit to live or die. Such an outlook can develop quickly (you only have to watch the dialogue around refugees at the moment) into something that utterly dehumanises swathes of the population. I don’t believe technology exacerbates that process of dehumanising the other but what it does do is give us the means to act on those feelings rapidly at a scale our grand parents couldn’t have even imagined.
In many ways Helena’s world is perfect – there is enough for everyone, sickness is handled with ease, it is stable. Yet in others I explore in the story, it is far from wonderful and ripe for overturning. For me, to make that story meaningful the world I set it in had to be one we recognised even if it was alien enough to allow me to ask some difficult questions of what we believe while, hopefully, still entertaining the reader.