Don’t worry, we still have one now. The sun isn’t going to blow up, a disease isn’t going to wipe us out… but that isn’t what I’m talking about. In a weird kind of way the future in our collective cultural mindset used to be a place, not just a time. And it was a place which had clear, definable differences from the present. We might not have known exactly what it was going to be like, but we knew it would be different and we knew that there was a path we could follow to get there. We even had phrases for it: ever hear someone talk about “building a bridge to the future”? Nowadays, that seems as quaint as talking about having a footpath to 5pm.
When I’m watching or reading or playing something set in the future, I want that setting to have the same sense of possibility that it did before. And I want it to be used.
Let me explain a bit. The things that are most important to me in a story are people, believe it or not. Plot and storyline are also important, of course, but what I really want are well-realised characters. I’m interested in characters who can cry, laugh, hope, make mistakes, and try again… characters who are a lot like real people, in other words. Apart from anything else it makes it easier to identify with them and their motivations, and I don’t think I’m alone in realising this. Flaws and plausibility are closely connected, in other words.
So what does this have to do with the future? Well, stories – even sci-fi stories – are about characters, not technology. People want to read about a brave-but-morally-conflicted pilot, not a Mk.19 Autonomous Warhead Delivery Subsystem (although as I write this, I realise that there is sure to be an anime along these lines. Doubtless one in which the AWDS has the shape of a well-developed woman for no readily explainable reason, and a variety of improper yet thrilling relationship issues with other characters.)
Where was I? Oh yes, stories are about characters. And the best-realised characters are flawed. Things get damaged if you use them. People make mistakes, get lazy, forget to clean up… and all of that has an effect on the environment they’re in. In other words, the future they live in looks distinctly second-hand.
This isn’t an opinion that is universally shared, mind you. Once upon a time everyone thought that the future would be clean! Sleek! Efficient! Occupied by square-jawed white men in snug uniforms, who stared steely-eyed at the camera! And there’s still a strong body of opinion to the effect that if you want to portray the far future, that’s what you need to do. I don’t want to be too critical of this, because it’s a stylistic choice as much as anything. But I think it misses the point that I was making above. Anywhere which has people living in it – actual real ones, not the stereotypes it’s so easy to stop with – will not look like a well-kept model. Neither will the people who live there.
As I said, I’m not the only one who’s realised this. The term “used future” dates back to 1977, when George Lucas told his set designer that he wanted the Millenium Falcon to look like a ship from 2001: A Space Odyssey that had aged 200 years. It looked like it had been in service for a long time – that it had its own stories, and was more than just a way of doing the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. All of this provided a location which told audiences volumes about the setting – and the characters within it. In a way, the ship was verging on becoming a character itself.
And in 1979, Alien set the benchmark for this. The starship Nostromo took the hard-used and worn aesthetic from Star Wars and then applied a thorough coating of industrial grime. This applies to the crew as well. They’re not astronauts or heroes, they’re basically truck drivers in space, and thus totally unprepared for what they end up having to deal with. This makes it a lot easier for us to identify with them and engage with the story.
If you’ve read some of the things I’ve written elsewhere, you’ll know why this is such a big deal for me. Sure, characterisation is number one, followed closely by plot and story. But what helps me suspend my disbelief and get immersed in a story is the level to which it’s internally self-consistent. And sometimes, it’s the smallest things which can help with this. Seeing the dents and scrapes left by people who have bigger worries than keeping things pristine supports the illusion that this is a real place, inhabited by real people. I want to see things that show they have a life outside what the plot mandates. Maybe their armour is commendably hacked and battered, proving that it’s been doing its job. Or the reactor that supplies power to the ship got replaced with a smaller one some time ago, so you can’t run everything at once. Cabin 3 is always a little colder than the rest of the ship. Someone leaves their toy dinosaurs on the pilots console… you get the idea.
And there’s only one way I want things to be shiny.