Thursday, December 19, 2013

Out of This World: Driving Lessons

Recently, I read a new YA science fiction novel I really enjoyed. In addition to having great characters and action, the book impressed me with what I’ll call its macro world-building: it was set in a future where lightspeed travel, terraforming, and offworld colonization are taking place on a large scale, and to my mind it convincingly portrayed that future.

But in its micro world-building, there was one little detail that kind of bugged me: people still drove their own cars.

Now, granted, these were high-tech, Star Wars-type cars: they flew, they swooped, they had shields and guns, they were more like spacecraft than automobiles. But their primary function was to move individuals and nuclear families from place to place--work, school, home--and they were operated by private citizens without specialized training. Manually.

To me, that struck a false note in the world-building. Because the reality is, we’re going to be riding around in robotic cars long before we’re colonizing other worlds.

Fully automated, robotic cars might have seemed like a pipe dream a few years ago, but they’re real, they’re here, and they’re going to be on the road before you know it. (Even an article titled “Driverless Cars Are Further Away Than You Think” estimates they may be commercially available in less than a decade.) And though I’m not generally a huge fan of autonomous technology, in this case, I see the rise of the robocar as a very good thing.

The World Health Organization estimates that 1.24 million traffic-related deaths occurred worldwide in 2010. In the U.S. alone, 32,788 people lost their lives on the road that year (and that was a really good year, a historic low in fact, way down from the more than 43,000 people who died in 2005). Much as we might like to blame those numbers on crappy cars and bad roads, a recent study from Florida determined that human beings were at fault in 94% of the fatal crashes. These numbers square with those of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

This shouldn’t surprise us. For most of our evolutionary history, we human beings were able to move only at the pace and with the mass of our own bodies. Put us behind the wheel of a two-ton behemoth capable of exceeding 100 mph, and we do all kinds of stupid things. We speed. We tailgate. We rubberneck. We drive under the influence. We drive while texting. We misjudge velocity and distance. We crash red lights and stop signs. We let our moods affect our driving. We don’t wear seatbelts. We get nightblind and lightblind. We have heart attacks and strokes. We age.

In short, as drivers, we stink.

Robotic cars won’t always function perfectly, of course. And it’s hard for those of us past a certain age to imagine ceding that degree of control, much less our vaunted “freedom to drive,” to a machine. But it’s going to happen. And when it does, a lot fewer people are going to die or get seriously injured in car accidents.

The point of this discussion is not to rant against human drivers. It’s to point out that, when writing science fiction, micro matters. The little things count. While it’s impossible to create an entirely consistent world (and probably undesirable as well, for anachronisms and other asynchronous material can add flavor to the story), it’s important to envision not just the major outlines of the world you’re building but the fine details. Reading up on the latest technology helps, of course. Just as important, though, is asking yourself as a writer why, how, and whether the world is (or should be) as you’ve presented it. Think not only about the society or world as a whole, but about what people wear, eat, drink, do, dream, and, yes, drive. To the extent that you can, don’t assume anything.

Though of course, being human, don’t be surprised if you make a few mistakes along the way.


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  2. Awesome advice, Josh! This is exactly what I'm dealing with at the moment regarding my WIP. I'm trying to figure out how showering works in a sealed space station with no access to the outside world and to what degree genetic engineering would have affected my world. I love working out the details. And some of them--my virtual simulation training program, for example--are proving to be extremely plot-relevant.

    By the way, the article you linked to, 7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding, is also very helpful! Thanks!

    1. Happy to be helpful, Jimena! I've got a science fiction WIP at the moment that's full of holes--I wrote it during NaNo--but during revision, I've got to make sure to tighten, clarify, and make it as logical and consistent as can be.

  3. It’s easy to forget about the little details when worldbuilding, but they’re so often the thing that immerses you in the world. Great tip, thanks Josh.

    Also, can I ask what the book was? I’m on the look out for YA sci-fi to add to my spring to-read pile (not that it needs any more books, hehe…) and love the sound of this.


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