Writing the Future (in 800 words or less)

I’ve entered the Highlights for Children fiction contest every year for the past few years. I’ve never won, but did sell one of the stories I submitted. This year I’m nearly out of time, so it’s unlikely I’ll be able to enter.

The challenge this year is to write stories set in the future.

I’ve always wanted to write about the future. My first and only (unpublished) grown-up novel, written in the mid-90s as a graduate student, took place… well, in 2005, but that was the future when I wrote about it. I basically wrote about Second Life several years before there was a Second Life. It’s on file at the University of Maine library if you don’t believe me. I’ve also written about robots running amok a couple of times. I’m pretty sure eventually the robots will run amok.

But I’m stuck on the Highlights contest, and here’s why.

There are basically two major themes to writing about the future. One is social devolution, which means the future is bleak and horrid. In this camp you have, oh, Orwell and Bradbury and Atwood and a lot of writers who don’t really think of themselves as science fiction writers. The other major theme of futurism is technological marvels. In this camp you have Isaac Asimov and Gene Rodenberry. Of course there’s also plenty of writers who do both, like William Gibson, and Stanislaw Lem, and myself (when I’ve written futuristic fables).

The first theme, visions of dystopia, is totally wrong for Highlights. They have gentle, upbeat stories, and I don’t see any variation on Oryx and Crake making it into their pages. The second theme, technological innovation, requires lots of exposition and explanation, which is tough when you have an 800-word limit and your audience is about 8 years old. While I can certainly imagine domed cities of survivors in a globally warmed post-nuclear wasteland, I would barely be able to describe it before I ran out of words, and I would lose most of my readers in the process.

I guess my robots will have to wait for another time and place to run amok.

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