Charles Stross has got a lovely post on how difficult it would be explaining some mundane bit of our present technological lifestyle to someone from just thirty years ago -- how do you explain gold farming to someone who's never seen the Internet? Although I found myself explaining gold farming to non-gamers last week, and it's hardly easier now ...
Couple that with Cory's essay on futurism here, and the theme of sci-fi really being about the present comes home. That is, it's almost impossible to write about the future in any effective/meaningful way.
I faced that challenge, and had it beat me like a red-headed step-child, when I took a swing at adapting Foundation a few years ago.
(You hear those two sounds? The first was about half the science fiction fans on the planet fainting at the prospect of one of the writers of Transformers adapting Isaac Asimovs' Holy Trilogy. The other was the sound of the remaining science fiction fans lighting torches)
I was partnered with Shekhar Kapur -- who has a blog now, of all things. Huh. This seemed like a pretty spiffy idea. He was just off Elizabeth, and the canny executive's thinking was that the future, to a great degree, is a costume drama in the opposite direction. That is, there'd be lots of things that need explaining, totally different political and social situations the audience must understand instantly, and quite a lot different wardrobes and thingamabobs the audience should find fascinating rather than ridiculous.
The line between Blackadder II and Elizabeth is finer than you think.
Shekhar was a very fine person to work with. Obsessively introspective, dedicated to exploring the inner lives of his characters in a way that frankly befuddled most Western film humans we encountered. Foundation is a big, deep bastard, and while Asimov's work has the patina of the 50's on it (atomic priests! space houswives!) at its core it's about free will. If someone could predict the future with mathematical certainty, is that a blessing or a curse? Is belief in a mathematically predetermined future effectively faith? I was fascinated by that concept, and wound up creating a fairly complex thematic web between:
-- the Foundation, representing order, but decaying
-- the Mule. Pure chaos, the virtue of free will but nominally evil
-- and Bayta. No longer the space housewife, but torn between these two competing ideologies.
Ironically, the big emotions and ideas laid themselves out easily. Benefits of adapting within the genre, I guess. But one of my big problems was that I actually knew something about science. That kept screwing up my script.
I didn't know about the Singularity at that point, of course. But I damn well knew that a couple thousand years in the future, we'd be doing things differently. I kept putting little things into the script I thought would be normal bits of future tech that we as an audience would find interesting. Gesture-linked atmospheric nanites that would then resolve into the object you'd just shorthanded with the twitch of a finger. Translucent, reconfigurable energy force weapons (I've used those a bit in Blue Beetle's constantly reconfiguring armor). Galactic maps hidden in the genetic code of Foundation Agents. Not to mention the Visi-Sonar.
The problem was, as I layered on the things I found sci-fi cool, the script became denser and denser for non-sci fi readers who were expecting big goddam spaceships. Not that I didn't have big goddam spaceships, and a chase through multiple hyperjumps right after she shot her way THROUGH YES I SAID THROUGH A MASSIVE BATTLE CRUISER --
At the same time, Shekhar and I went down the rabbit hole a bit with the themes of the movie. The nature of good and evil, action and inaction, predestination and free will -- the speeches we crafted were occasionally achingly lovely (He's a bit of a poet, that Shekhar). But where one would accept such speechifying from an Elizabethan character because we have, as a culture been conditioned to accept such things from Shakespeare-y folk, coming from techno-priests it seemed to grate.
We just couldn't seem to break away from the script-writing process. For the execs, they needed cleaner, simpler -- no, never dumber, I liked these folk. The lead exec was one of the smartest I've ever worked for in Hollywood. But the studio needed a mainstream movie. It had to be the future, but this bizarre, borderline incomprehensible future was ... not it.
For Shekhar, it was his natural tendency for perfection.
For me, it was Foundation. This is Asimov. We have to get this right.
All in all, everybody loved every draft, it was the beginning of a new trilogy ... and it went away into the vaults as inertia took over and we all drifted off to other projects.
When I recently moved, I reread some of the drafts. There's one in there, an early one, that's I'm pretty proud of. The themes are dramatically presented and resonant. I finally got my female action-scientist hero. And our Mule was, to be blunt, fucking brilliant.
The rest of the drafts, written over the next two years, are incrementally more ... laden. With notes, with ideas, with speeches, with ambition. We juggled the presentation of the timeline with maybe six odd versions ... the scripts eventually descend into foggy symbolism. We fell into the honey trap of Asimov's genius.
Turns out when you pit a living will and against a dead hand, the dead hand does indeed win.