How Will You Tell Your Future History?

Great futuristic fiction demands great future history to make it real. But the balance between showing and telling in a novel can make it hard to provide all that backstory to the reader. The question, of course, besides making it all make sense (or seem to make sense), is how much does a reader need to know?

When it comes to describing the carpets and curtains in a room, the reader should see what the protagonist will notice, then ignore the rest. Seeing through a protagonist's eyes can help the author avoid excessive description, and make for a good read. Meanwhile, of course, many readers will become convinced they know exactly what the fair Maid Marian looks like, without ever being told, only to be disappointed when the movie comes out, but that's a different issue. It's good, surely, to let readers use their imaginations. After all, isn't reading meant to inspire?

But what about those things the protagonist knows, or needs to know, using memory rather than senses - things he or she has learned long ago, or things that are just assumed in the cities of the book? Sometimes the reader needs to know these things too, but how does the author avoid sounding like a teacher in school?
  • One way is to actually send a character to school. As this character learns, the reader is taught. As this character feels bored and looks out the window... please don't make the reader bored as well. 
Author Paul Nemeth uses this technique very effectively in The Vault. Crossing horror with mystery and scifi, his novel is set in an imagined future where a professional dreamer provides entertainment to the masses, and a well-structured society keeps careful tabs on its members. This is the American Northwest after the second Civil War, and there's a vault, dreamed or remembered, that haunts the dreamer while a figure of horror, dreamed or real, invades a young boy's dreams - the boy of that first-chapter classroom. Future history is made very clear as the dreamer goes to school. But this history has to be clear; it's going to be twisted, questioned, denied and changed as the truth is revealed. The Vault hides a very scary truth, and a scary message for today. Enjoy some dark, intense, five-star coffee as you read.
  • Another technique, used very effectively in  Whispers of the Dead (Miraibanashi, Book 1) by James Litherland, is to include surprising details that reveal hidden facts. When a protagonist thinks he's recognizes someone, then complains that all these Causasians just look so alike, the reader learns that the protagonist is not Caucasian and the people he's meeting are, all without being told. If these people are the ones in power, the reader learns something more of how our future history has strayed. 
Whispers is set near Mount Fuji, where a new Tokyo is controlled by the rich and powerful Batsu, while the rest of the land struggles in poverty. The protagonist is rebellious, but holds to a strict code of honor, avoids killing, and has remarkable physical and mental skills. The world he lives in is strangely divided. And his task is to share (surely not steal) information. I'm left with lots of questions about this future history, and an eagerness to read more. Enjoy with some elegant complex four-star coffee.
  • Third person omniscient histories can lead the reader in. Think Star Wars movies, where they're short, sharp, and nicely inclined. But longer histories can be just as enticing, especially if they engage the reader's imagination of the present, or when, as in Robbie Charters' intriguing short stories in The Wrong Time. A master of the art of not-telling, the author uses short phrases such as "the viewing public had been satisfied with 100 percent reality 3D" to tie future and present and intrigue the reader.
  • Then there are personal comments that truly intrigue, such as "the last time I ordered ice cream at Baskin Robbins, I created thirty-one universes," again from The Wrong Time.
The Wrong Time includes a finely imagined collection of short stories, plenty of ads for the author's other writing, and so much to intrigue that I shall probably reread it over again. From fascinating flash Biblical fiction to multiverses, murder and mayhem, it's a great collection to enjoy with some elegantly complex 4-star coffee.

A lot can be told about an imagined future (or past) with a simple phrase. But then a lot is left untold. Perhaps the author's task is to imagine enough to make it all consistent, then leave out enough to keep the reader engaged. But what do you think?


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