Speculative Fiction Tropes: Used Future




Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on the Used Future motif.

One of the most appealing aspects of science fiction is that a great deal of it attempts to give us a glimpse into the future. Writers become prognosticators, describing the shape of things to come in such detail that we can practically see it ourselves. Often the visions they convey (especially earlier works) depict shiny, sterile vistas in which everything looks brand new and well-maintained.

But is this realistic? When's the last time every car you passed on the road sparkled with a fresh wash? What about that construction site you drove past? Did the equipment look sleek and new, or did it show years of use? How about the appliances in your office? Your home?

Realistically, the future will probably look a lot like the present. For every silken spacecraft you come across, every glistening hover-car, there's likely going to be an old, beaten junker or two. Certain features of any place occupied by a sufficient amount of "real" people are going to look used and worn after a while. Luckily, some writers and directors have made this realization, willingly embracing it for the aesthetic character it can bring a story's setting. One look at a grimy, dust-covered future tells you a great deal about that setting's people and culture, and this can be a valuable worldbuilding tool.

While the trope is much older in literature, its popularity in film is comparatively recent, beginning in the '70s with movies like Dark Star and Silent Running. Perhaps the most famous use of the trope in film is Star Wars, where George Lucas used it to convey the difference between the vast and powerful Empire and the plucky, shoestring rebels that opposed them.

Inspired by Lucas was Ridley Scott, who would go on to utilize the motif masterfully in both Alien and Blade Runner, two acclaimed science fiction works that would become iconic in their own rights.

In the novel I was working on last year before switching my focus to shorter works, I used a motif similar to the Star Wars used future device. I gave looks into two separate tiers of a future society. One of them had access to seemingly unlimited resources and went to great lengths to maintain a perfect facade that extended to every facet of their culture, including the sleek look of their ships and equipment. The other was stark and utilitarian, making do with whatever they could get their hands on, the cheaper the better. One of the central characters is raised as a part of the former culture, only to be forced into the latter through events outside of his control.

I enjoy sci-fi that depicts a used future, especially in film, where its aesthetic value can really be felt. They often hark back to classic works of film noir, becoming ingrained in what has become the cyberpunk sub-genre. These kinds of movies really grab a hold of me, sometimes more so than their literary counterparts. There's just something alluring about those dark, smokey cityscapes and rundown pieces of technology, no matter how bleak a future they seem to predict. Sometimes it's just easier to reconcile a rusty tomorrow with the frequently chaotic state of the world today.

Recommended Reading:
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Foundation series by Isaac Asimov

Recommended Viewing:
Blade Runner
Brazil
Outland

Recommended Gaming:
Deus Ex
Portal
Gears of War

Comments

  1. Those perfect clean futures aren't believable at all, despite looking pretty and flattering our sense of order. Humans won't suddenly become careful with their possessions unless mass-brainwashed, so a "used future" is a lot more plausible.
    You can also use it to improve your characterization, since a protagonist who can improvise with whatever's at hand is much more interesting than a white-shirt who's being handed everything on a hoovering silver plate.

    You've said it perfectly J.W., a "rusty tomorrow" fits much better on the track humanity is on.

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    1. Thanks, Vero! As alluring as that pristine future may be, you're right. The simple truth is that most of us don't even know how half of the stuff we use every day works, much less care enough to keep it stainless and perfect.

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  2. Oh and you cannot forget that most beautiful of space junk sailors - Sereniity!!!!

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    1. I always leave something out! Serenity is a great example.

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    2. Great post. I love proposing what may or may not come to be. This post also reminds me of Demolition Man (1993). I know it wasn't meant to be a comedy, but that whole "murder-death-kill" thing had me laughing every time!

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    3. *giggles* J.W., I hope you leave stuff out more often, I like it when you get frustrated!

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    4. Randi: Comedy or not, Demolition Man is full of laughs. I still get a kick out of it! Some sci-fi fans don't like super-cheesy movies like that, but I can't get enough of them.

      Vero: Laugh it up, you! *shakes fist*

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  3. Not strictly "used future" but certainly sci-fi (and by its very nature "future"), Doctor Who employs this with the Doctor's TARDIS. It's stolen, it's an antiquated model, and he is constantly patching and enhancing it. Companions note how beautiful other spacecraft look in comparison. But it's the Doctor's and it does the job. More than that, it's a character in itself.

    I am also wary of visions of the future that look too clean and too much unlike today. Great article. :)

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    1. Dr. Who is yet another series I'd love to get into one of these days but haven't yet. What I've seen of it is pretty fabulous.

      Thanks for reading, Colin!

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  4. This is an awesome post! I totally agree with you. A future conception should be an extension of the present, which is never squeaky clean and utopian, but muddied up and nuanced. I write YA speculative fiction. My latest novel is Fireseed One. Pop on over to my blog if you like! (Catherine Stine's Idea City)

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    1. Thanks, Catherine! I'll definitely be along to check your blog out.

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  5. In a nutshell - trailer trash will still be around in the future!
    Firefly did a good job at showing a future that wasn't clean and running smooth.

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    1. Firefly was great at that. It's a real shame it didn't last longer! Thanks for the comment, Alex.

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  6. Oh, man. I'm tired. I read your title as "Used Furniture" and thought "Where the heck is he heading with THAT?"

    Too funny.

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    1. Haha, that's great! I'm not sure where I'd go with that. I suppose it would have to be SPACE FURNITURE.

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  7. ^Firefly was awesome! Best show evah!

    Great post, and thanks for sharing :)

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    1. I agree! I still watch it from time to time, though it just makes me wish they'd been able to take it further.

      Thanks for reading, A.M.!

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  8. Thank you for these series of tropes. I am not well read in the science fiction genre, yet find myself interested in writing the genre. I didn't realize there existed so many tropes in the science fiction genre. This is a good resource.

    I like the idea of a gritty future, especially since I live in a city where nothing is ever clean.

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    1. I'm glad you're enjoying it, magic mint! I'm thinking about continuing the tropes series after A to Z is done as a monthly feature. It's been great fun.

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Thanks for reading!