Writing The Future: Essays on Crafting Science Fiction (2023) edited by Dan Coxon and Richard V. Hirst (BOOK REVIEW)
“Whatever our very real future might hold, one thing is certain: so long as there are humans, the fire of the imagination will not go out, and writers will always be drawn to share the visions they have seen in its flames. Whether you’re an avid fan of science fiction or intend to create your own tale of things to come, you only have one question to answer.
What does your version of the future look like?”
Writing The Future: Essays on Crafting Science Fiction (2023) is a wonderful and inspiring collection, the second of Dead Ink’s anthologies about writing genre fiction. Following on from Writing The Uncanny: Essays on Crafting Strange Fiction (2021), editors Dan Coxon and Richard V. Hirst have assembled some of the most exciting current voices in speculative fiction, from Nina Allan and Anne Charnock to Marian Womack and Oliver K. Langmead, to reflect on writing science fiction. As one might expect given the pedigree and range of authors involved, Writing The Future reflects a broad and fascinating outlook on the genre, with essays ranging from appreciations of authors of key science fiction texts, personal reflections on the creative process, and helpful suggestions for how to generate and explore science fiction story ideas. Together, they demonstrate that the field of science fiction is as strong as it’s ever been, thanks to the multiplicity of approaches, aesthetics and perspectives that the genre welcomes. The end result is an essay collection that is essential reading for both enthusiastic readers of science fiction and those hoping to write their own science fiction stories.
Coxon and Hirst set out their stall in the introduction – they see science fiction as a manifestation of humanity’s inherent imagination, our capacity to reflect upon the world and imagine alternative futures. Thus they lead with a definition of science fiction that’s expansive enough to include the genre’s classics but also outliers, experimental texts and literary works not necessarily thought of as science fiction, as long as they somehow engage with a speculative element. Coxon and Hirst, and all the contributing authors, are well versed with science fiction’s literary history but also are excited about the new and challenging directions it might take. This approach is echoed in the list of further reading in the back of the book, a list of 100 novels, from Thomas Moore’s Utopia and Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World through Asimov’s Foundation and Clarke’s Childhood’s End to Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and 50 equally diverse and fascinating short stories. Writing The Future works as a crash course in the evolution of science fiction as well as a reflection on the state of the genre today.
The book is divided into three sections. ‘Imagined Futures’ reflects on different approaches to imagining what the future might be like, ‘The Worst is Yet to Come’ focuses on dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, and considers why this strain of speculative fiction is so popular. And ‘Building Rockets and Landing on Planets’ focuses on the nitty gritty of how to incorporate scientific research and cutting edge ideas into your science fiction writing. These sections are interspersed with essays focusing on particular key creators of science fiction – H. G. Wells, Margaret Atwood and J. G. Ballard – looking at what made their approaches to writing the genre so unique. This gives the book a clear and coherent structure, whilst allowing the various contributors to follow their individual passions. One of the strengths of the book is how this approach allows Writing The Future to follow a rhetorical throughline whilst allowing its contributors as wide a range of approaches as the genre itself.
The individual essays give the reader a rare look under the hood of the writing process of some of our most exciting authors, whilst encouraging creativity and originality in the aspiring writer. The overall quality of each essay is so high that picking favourites is tricky, and the sheer variety means that whatever area of science fiction one is most drawn to, one’s interests are likely to be covered. Some of the essays playfully encourage imagination and experimentation. Oliver K. Langmead’s ‘The Novel of the Future’ asks what forms the novel might develop and mutate into in the future, with Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Rian Hughes’ XX as case studies, and encourages writers to experiment with form. Aliya Whiteley’s ‘A Crash Course in Black Holes’ recounts Whiteley’s failed attempts to write a novel about a talking dog and black holes, and uses this as a jumping off point to describe how one might approach scientific research and integrating it into one’s fiction. In ‘On Alien Aliens’, Toby Lit wrestles with the difficulty of imagining truly alien beings, and explores the challenges of integrating the alien into a narrative.
Others focus more on the how-to approach, with helpful tips for how to approach large genre fiction ideas. James Miller’s ‘How to Imagine the Future When the Future Does Not Exist’ offers a multiplicity of ways to think about the future, encouraging the writer to approach the future through the sociological, climatical and political realities that shape our present. Adam Marek’s ‘Imagining The Future: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?’ offers a step-by-step guide to imagining how future technological developments can be extrapolated from scientific reporting and developed into compelling story ideas.
Some of the essays outline historic and current approaches to writing science fiction, and demonstrate their continued relevance to the field. In ‘Avoiding the Puddle: An Exploration of Dystopian Fiction’, Rachelle Atalla explores the enduring popularity of the dystopian form, and asks what this tells us about how we view society and ourselves. Maura McHugh explores the world of apocalyptic British comics in ‘The Eternal Apocalypse: How British Comic 2000 AD Remains Relevant’, and convincingly argues for its importance as a field of imagination for multiple generations of writers and artists across the world.
The remaining essays deal with science fiction as a genre, and its wider sociological function. T. L. Huchu’s ‘Soothsaying in the Modern Novel’ grapples with the idea that science fiction should predict the future, and concludes that the genre’s job is more to reflect and explore our current anxieties. Una McCormack’s ‘”Right now the building is ours”: Affinities of Science Fiction and Historical Fiction’ persuasively explores the similarities between two genres that might at first glance appear as opposites with intellectual clarity. In ‘”It’s about to get crazy, it’s about to get loud’: Weird Ecopoetics at the End of the World’, Marian Womack explores the vital role the Weird plays in helping us approach the ongoing ecological catastrophes of the Anthropocene.
The three author spotlights focus on key figures in science fiction, through the experiences of some of our most acute critical minds. Anne Charnock’s essay on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a brilliant and incisive exploration of the text’s frightening continued relevance. Adam Roberts provides a detailed exploration of H. G. Wells’ writing career, showing how his changing personal perspective is reflected in the changes in utopian or dystopian tenor in his work. And Nina Allan’s wonderful piece on J. G. Ballard’s disaster novels, which fittingly closes the collection, eloquently argues for their continued radical refraction of science fiction. Ballard is notoriously difficult to write about, yet Allan confidently illuminates his radical use of both language and form.
Writing The Future is both a timely exploration of the state of the genre of science fiction, and a user’s guide to engaging with its tropes and ideas. Coxon and Hirst have done an excellent job of curating and compiling some fantastic writing about the genre, and fans and writers of the genre alike will find much thought-provoking wisdom within its pages.
Writing the Future: Essays on Crafting Science Fiction is out today! You can order your copy on Bookshop.org