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