When choosing to write fiction, the author is first presented with one fork in the story-crafting process as regards setting: whether to write the story in the world of the real or to construct an alternate universe. If writing the story in the world of the real, they must decide which time frame to place it in: either the past, present, or future.
If the author chooses to put the story in the past, they have a number of options; but the basic choice comes down to whether or not to stick within the confines of possibility or not. To do so means creative restriction: the author must stick to established facts, characters, and events, while offering a plausible “inside story.” A choice not to results in a few thematic variations like the “untold story” in which a completely implausible thread is woven into history, or a plot which rewrites it completely.
Now let’s look at how those two options influence the culture in which it is read: a blatantly false story will probably not convince anyone that it actually happened, but it may become intertwined with the viewer’s memories of the history of the actual event (recent studies in neuroscience show that the brain does not actually recall memories, but instead recalls the memory of the last time that memory was remembered – thus leading to the “corruption” of memories after multiple recollections) On the other hand, a plausible “inside story” does not perpetuate any untrue facts, but it may conflict with later facts which are discovered about the events in the story.
None of this is intended to say that stories set in the past are “wrong;” they are merely inefficient tools for distributing the ideas of the author, and can introduce memory corruption errors in the human brain.
The second option for the writer is to construct the story in the present. This again leads to the choice of whether or not to adhere to basic possibility. If so, the author must use real people, organizations, and places. They can write about things that will obviously never happen, but that’s the liberty of fiction. Or the author can construct their own reality, in which the story is set in the near-future or with certain details about reality altered.
What then is the effect of this on the society that consumes a story set in the present? The memory corruption errors from before present themselves if real people are altered, as those characters already exist within the reader’s mind. If new characters are created, the story is then an “alternate universe story” in which generally the same events have occurred, but only deviated fairly recently from the reader’s four-dimensional trajectory. These stories do not rewrite any existing facts, minimizing corruption errors, and while in the technical “present,” really belong more in the next category.
The third option is to set the story in the future. This genre deals with possible foretellings of the present universe. Returning to the question of whether or not to stick within possibility: if the author chooses not to, the story simply becomes Fantasy and is no longer a work set in the real. If the author chooses to stick to possibility – they then must make themselves an expert on the present, as well as the science of logic. They must be able to predict future trends accurately. This genre is called Science Fiction.
Now what is the effect of future fiction on the public? The first genre is just Fantasy, and is read purely for entertainment. In addition, it cannot be confused with the real as it only makes references to what the reader has experienced in their most accurate representation. It does not distort the memory. The second genre is different, however and it has nothing to do with memory.
Reading Science Fiction means that the author’s assumptions about current events are exposed. However, the scrutinizing eyes of the Science Fiction readers have collectively many more books and news articles than the writer could have possibly read. Therefore, the art of the Science Fiction writer becomes to literally prophesy. They must read assumptions into reality in order to compensate for their lack of individual observational power. Taking the result of these assumptions, they can construct a plausible narrative set at some time in the future.
But as the uncertainty principle implies: the observation of something alters it. If a groundbreaking work of science fiction is released, it will necessarily affect the environment in which it appears. The millions who experience the work will be inspired by visions of the future and then go to work and create the future, thus possibly rendering the author’s vision inaccurate. However, the best Science Fiction is that which completely “writes itself out” of history, by so seamlessly inspiring the culture as to literally create itself.
But the true beauty of Science Fiction is this: the best science fiction will eventually just be ‘fiction,’ and the truly crowning jewel of science fiction will not even be “Fiction” in the future – it will just be what happened.