Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Look of the Future

One of the challenges of writing SF, at any rate for me, is forming a visual image of the setting. What do houses look like? What do people eat? What do they wear? What sort of place does the 23rd century look like, anyway?

SF's cousins among the Romance subgenres, such as historical fiction or even fantasy, do not have this problem. Hist-fic in particular has it easy - your setting looks just like whatever historical milieu you chose for the story. Before Carla or Gabriele come after me with long pointy implements, I'll hasten to add that I mean conceptually easy; there is that little matter of research.

I haven't a clue of what "Anglo-Saxons"* and their world looked like. I vaguely picture, say, a 7th c. king as an English country squire dressed up like a Viking, and his palace as resembling a very well-found barn - not very specific, and probably not very accurate. As for Rome, everyone knows what HollyRome looks like, which has not much to do with what real Rome looked like. (And real Rome, and Romans, in Constantine's day probably didn't look all that much like they did in Caesar's day. Certainly the army by that time looked hardly at all like our familiar image of legionaries.) Still you can research it, which is a big, big help.

Fantasy has it almost as easy, though theoretically it shouldn't. We know how fantasy worlds look: more or less like the Middle Ages looked, for the most part, with whatever detailed flavoring fits the tone. Traditional fantasy almost always evokes some part of the past, directly or indirectly. Urban fantasy takes place in a skewed present, so it looks just like the world around us ... just a bit skewed.

Science fiction does not have these advantages, since it usually has to evoke the future, not the past. And the future has been grossly deficient in providing us with research materials.

Pause to answer the person in the back row asking why it even matters. Sci-fi movies and TV shows actually have to show us their future worlds; written SF does not. But before you can write it you have to make it up, which for me means visualizing it more or less as if it were a movie - for which I have to be the set and costume designer, as well as director and of course screenwriter.

We used to know what the future looked like. Cities loosely resembled Manhattan, but with els and elevated freeways weaving around each other at 50th floor level. People dressed badly, in antiseptic and unisex outfits, except for the heroine, whose antiseptic unisex outfit was remarkably skimpy, and the villain, who wore a flowing cape over his. The urban planning derives from Metropolis (1927); I am not quite sure where the costume style originated.

This style lasted long enough to influence original Trek, and it is still the quick thumbnail way to convey "this is the future" to an audience. It is pretty boring, though (except for the cool rapid transit lines), and it gradually wore out its welcome. It was further challenged by a counterstyle that also has deep roots, but only came to the fore with Star Wars - doing what fantasy had been doing all along, stealing from the Middle Ages.

As a visual strategy, this has some definite advantages. Whatever the Middle Ages were, they were not antiseptic; a medievalesque world will not be mistaken for a hospital. Long dresses with lowcut bodices look great, even more of an advantage. For some SF worlds, such as Dune, the style also fits well with the overall flavor of the work. Still there is a certain plausibility strain about a future in which the SCA apparently took over and the whole 37th century looks like one big Pennsic War.

In recent times, different approaches to the visual future have appeared. Babylon 5 dressed its humans not that much differently than we dress today, with only the sorts of detailing changes that happen decade by decade. Firefly drew its inspiration mainly from the Old West - except for Inara, who didn't dress at all like Miss Kitty's girls upstairs at the Long Branch, favoring instead rather timeless retro-sexy dresses (which needless to say worked nicely).

For settings in the next few centuries, this approach makes a great deal of sense. There have only been two really major changes in Western clothing in the last 500 years or so - men switched from tights (trunk-hose) to trousers in the 17th century, and women started wearing shorter dresses or pants in the 20th. Everything else has been pretty minor and transitory - essentially whatever the fashion industry could come up with to make last year's styles passé, so you'll have to shop for this year's.

Cities have changed enormously, of course - most of all becoming vastly larger. In the late 19th century, steel and concrete allowed them to go up, giving us both Manhattan and Metropolis; in the 20th century the trolley car and then the automobile allowed them to spread out, giving us Los Angeles. But a drive through any California exurb will show that our domestic architecture is mostly pilferage from the past - the McMansion at the corner is pseudo-Spanish, the next one pseudo-Tudor, and so on. "Futuristic" houses - the kind that looked like steel and concrete bubbles - never caught on, and are too dead now to even be retro styles. (Spherical rooms are just not convenient.)

I know nothing of interior decorating, as my wife will readily attest, but my impression is that, like clothing, it mostly goes through arbitrary style changes - cluttered with bric-a-brac one decade, spare and clean next decade.

By this line of reasoning, the future is at heart just another decade, so far as its appearance and flavor go. It may be in this century, just a few decades away, or it may be dozens of decades from now, but will think of itself as the present. In 2430 the one thing you won't want to look like is 2420.

Maybe. What should the future look like?

* I put "Anglo-Saxons" in quotes because most of them had no clue that that's what they were supposed to be - they simply called themselves English.


Doug said...

Battlestar Galactica steals it's style from the present to the point of being ludicrous. Some people think it feels more realistic, but to me it just underlines how far the show is going to try to make things look like our world. What really is the function of a necktie and why would it evolve identically in two completely different milieus?

And that's the real trick; what does the style of dress, or of architecture, tell you about who these people are. Now in a strictly realistic sense people personalities may no reflect their clothes, but as a storytelling device you can create impressions about a society by how the style is described. Conversely, the way different narrators describe things can also be a way of saying something about those narrators' perceptions.

Of course most fashion has no real purpose apart from fashion. If skintight Lycra long underwear is decided as the proper thing to wear then we tend to suffer through it, practicality be damned. Of course there will be other groups with their own fashion choices, the young in particular. Not everyone has to dress alike, particularly is several colonies have different social origins. The SCA may not have taken over the solar system, but if your main character happens to be from one of the colonies that they had an influence on there's no foul. Then it's just everyone else who is badly dressed.

To a certain degree clothing choices can be affected by functionality. Conventionally skirts and spacesuits do not mix well. If clothes are worn underneath the suit then they had better be designed to fit under it. Conversely, if spacesuits are designed on the order of a Mechanical Counter Pressure Suit, it might not be possible to wear clothes underneath it. Then it follows that shipboard attire should be something quick and easy to get in and out of. Something like a toga or traditional scottish kilt (the big blanket that winds around your body, not the little modern ones) could provide a garment that could be modified to carry pockets, pouches, and/or loops to hang tools on. Ladders may be an issue, less for reasons of climbing than for modesty taboos. On second thought let's not go there.

Military outfits are defined by both tradition and utility. What a given military's tradions are therefore says a lot about what things will look like. Right now many SF writers do model their uniforms on either modern earth uniforms or ones from the last couple of centuries. If a given force has no continuity with any military from the Earth of our period their style could be radically different, potentially as a means of differentiating themselves from more conventional groups.

BDUs are still affected by tradition, but mostly they have to be easy to move in, made of fairly tough fabric, and have pockets. Colouring will vary depending on purpose and where a uniform is worn. Within that framework again tradition is going to play a big factor in what things look like.

When I try to write at least some of my characters wind up fairlyu far distant from the traditional model. My protagonist in one of my stories, Lachlan, Wears his hair long but ties it back into a club at the base of his neck (like late 18th century soldiers) so it will fit under his suit helmet. His preferred style of dress tends towards tunics and hose, rather than shirt and trousers, and a very impressive set of boots. I'm working on trying to imagine how some of the wrestling moves from late medieval and early rennaissance fighting manuals could be adapted to freefall conditions, and I'm still working on the aesthetic of his home colony. I'm thinking that the life support sections and the habitation seections aren't firmly separated, that there are garden plots and vines and even some animals roaming the habitable sections of his home colony. Most space habitats would look pretty sterile by comparison. Even just some elemeents from the cities of the 19th century, where poor families would keep pigs until the middle class decided they wanted to take away all sustenance except wage labour, could add something to the ambience. Of course the question arises could an audience believe a home colony like that in the future. The fact that Lachlan still works in sword practice as part of his martial training for fun, without all that much practical benefit, doesn't make him any more acceptable as a character from a few centuries down the road. He travels on a spacecraft, works as a life support technician, and handles a flechette gun should combat threaten, but he still seems like he should be riding out of a Cavelier Lyric in service to King Charles I. Or at least he looks like that when he wears his hair loose.

The folks from Luna and Mars think he looks like a savage. What he thought about their clothes and architecture should not be repeated in polite company.

Doug said...

Minor Correction: Lachlan doesn't literally dress like a cavalier, but fashions on his home colony do tend towards the pre-industrial. The Cavalier Lyric seemed to be a good eway to express that. Plus I'd already mentioned Space Puritans in a previous post on this blog, and we have to stop those Accursed roundheads!

Kedamono said...

One SF writer who got it right was H. Beam Piper. When he described cities, he described them without roads or streets. Just terraces and sky bridges. Why no roads? Contragravity was the reason. When you have cheap contragravity vehicles, why worry about roads and streets?

When it comes to fashions, SF tropes seem to revolve around three types: Quasi-roman tunics (Star Wars), Jumpsuits, Modern Day with changes. Oh sure, you see some variation, but for the most part, its one of those three.

What will future fashion look like? Lord knows. Just because you work in space, doesn't mean you have to wear blue jumpsuits.

As for architecture we have both Metropolis and Blade Runner for one example, though the latter is a more of a cyberpunk version of the former, to the whistle clean streets of Star Trek. With the coming decrease in oil production and the eventual tightening of the energy belt in many places, will we see more energy efficient styles of building construction, like say old Tuscany farmhouses and their three foot thick walls?

Rick said...

Doug - I've heard the same thing about Battlestar Galactica, one reason I've never watched it. Why did they choose to remake a show that had the single dumbest line in Hollywood SF? - a competition with a lot of strong contenders, but this one wins: "Range 30 microns and closing."

I hear lots of people saying it's really quite a good show, but I'm just not motivated.

And that's the real trick; what does the style of dress, or of architecture, tell you about who these people are.

Bingo. This applies at the individual level in all fiction, but particularly in SF it applies at the social level as well. The arbitrariness of fashion is precisely why it can do this in most cases. (The exceptions are mostly environmental; if people are wearing parkas you know they're in arctic conditions, but that is all it tells you about them.

Interesting suggestion on how loose wraparound clothing might make sense aboard ship, if people toss it off to suit up instead of expecting it to fit under the suit.

People on some colony worlds might well take to wearing styles evoking some retro period.

Kedamono - yeah, if you have convenient antigrav, there's no reason for more than walkways at ground level, maybe bike paths.

You're right about the three basic SF fashion modes - I said medievalesque, but that and pseudo-Roman are sort of sub-variations on one theme. (If it's white it's Roman; if it's bright colors and brocade, it's medieval.)

A return to architecture built for the climate seems like a good idea on many levels!

Doug said...

I suppose that the real problem is getting people to buy your conception of the future. The neo-medieval style tends to get associated with Space Opera and Space Fantasy, the jumpsuits tends to be associated with older works of Science Fiction. (plus they're really ugly) Right now it seems like the tendancy is towards heroes who either dress much like the populations of today. This is particularly true for military uniforms. Why everyone wants their soldiers and spacers to dress like their modern equivalents I don't know.

Kedamono said...


Yeah, why not have your soldiers dress like modern day Greek Evzones do? (These guys are not wimps, it is an elite force.

Just imagine if the American Army decided that the dress uniform would be based on the first uniforms worn by the Colonial Army during the revolutionary war? (The current Army dress uniform sucks in my opinion. Except for generals. They can have custom made dress uniforms that have style.)

Carla said...

You can research historical periods, but only to the extent that evidence survives. A surprising amount of mundane details seem not to be known - eg there's still academic disagreement about whether the sunken-floored small buildings (Grubenhauser) that turn up in archaelogical excavation on Saxon sites in England and Germany are 'huts' for living in or workshops/storerooms, and whether they had a floor suspended above the hollow or whether you stepped down into the hollow. On the other hand, you get some startling details, like knowing that the man buried in the Sutton Hoo ship burial liked fine yellow cloaks and wore a size 6 shoe. At least with the 23rd century nobody can tell you you're wrong!

My guess is that people from any setting that isn't the reader's own, whether it be 10th century Norsemen, 2nd century Romans, contemporary Chinese or 23rd century city-dwellers, look just as the reader wants them to look. Films in particular have a huge influence, to the extent that a writer who diverges from HollyRome is risking getting their book wall-banged by readers who think HollyRome = Rome.

Rick said...

Kedamono - no one laughed at the Evzones who had to deal with them.

Carla - the mundane things are the ones on one at the time would have thought twice to comment on.

Hollywood does indeed have a huge impact, and even more on the future, where there are no reference points to contrast it to.

Jim Baerg said...

One comment about clothing if the Skintight Spacesuit works. I suspect one would want a fairly tough set of overalls worn over the spacesuit to help prevent tears in the spacesuit. If the skintight suit is reasonably comfortable, like a set of long underwear, people might leave it on for long periods even while within breathable air & only take off the helmet while inside. Set up your spacestation bar scene accordingly.

As for space habitat architecture I think the one big greenhouse look is rather likely to be the most practical for providing closed cycle life support in minimum space. A modification of this idea is having 2 or 3 levels of residential/office/industry space on the bottom/outside of the cylindrical space habitat & above/inside of that & exposed to sunlight is one big rooftop garden for providing food & oxygen.

Canageek said...

One thing that Firefly got right is the little details. Cloths look like things people could actually wear comfortably, they sometimes look dirty and worn, they have accessories, and there are little details on the cloths, pockets and loops and such. So many stories only have them wear one outfit, or have it something that doesn't LOOK like cloths, even if it is a totally normal garment.

Jim Baerg said...

I was rereading some of your early posts like this one,& thought that this essay is rather relevant to the issue of "The Look of the Future"