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I'm writing a fiction book as close to hard sci-fi as I can (aside from some handwaving of one major story element to actually get the plot going), and I'm working on sorting out the timeline. I've established it's going to be a few centuries following a catalytic incident with the above-mentioned handwaving, and in my planning stages I intend to figure out exactly how many years it's been since then.

That part of the timeline (from the incident to the current plot) will be slowly revealed to the reader throughout the book, but it will also be clear that the reference date is not our time. I'd like to be able to work out exactly how far in the future the reference incident is from now, but I'm currently caught on whether this is helpful or hindering information to tell the reader.

As a reader I've always appreciated concrete dates and timelines, and the more they're referenced throughout the story to make it clear where we are, the better. But at the same time, you sometimes get situations where the predictions just don't match up once the present day catches up (see Back to the Future, Blade Runner, etc.).

Doing some research myself, I see conflicting information online about whether it is best to set a futuristic sci-fi novel at a specific point in time or to leave it ambiguous.

Essentially I'm wondering if there is a definitive standard for choosing one way or another, and how my target audience might figure into that.

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  • @EDL How do you know OP meant cataclysmic and not catalytic? "Catalytic incident" is an oft-used phrase.
    – Ben
    Apr 4 at 18:47
  • @Ben, I’ve never heard the phrase. It reads odd. I don’t know, but I can guess that autocomplete gave them the wrong word. They’ll be prompted to accept the edit. If they meant what they typed, then they’ll roll back the edit. No big deal. No harm done.
    – EDL
    Apr 4 at 19:02
  • 1
    Yes, can confirm catalytic was intentional (though I will concede that both are equally appropriate). That said, I prefer the intent of the former, so yes I will revert the edit. Thank you for the suggested correction though. :) Apr 4 at 19:08
  • I'm confused, are you pondering between the catalytic event is in the year 2086 versus it is at some point in the future or are you pondering between the catalytic event is exactly 386 years before the setting of your story versus the catalytic event is several centuries before the setting of your story?
    – quarague
    Apr 5 at 12:23
  • How significant is the event? If it's significant enough, and if what you're interested in is the exact timeline of your story's events as opposed to their relation to real life, setting your story in the year, say, 386 AYBU (After Yellowstone Blew Up) can just dodge the entire issue. Apr 5 at 13:46

4 Answers 4

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When and why might it be meaningful to specify the exact future date?

  1. If the date is based on scientific calculations and your novel explains these.

  2. When you want to give the reader a rough idea of when in the future something takes place so they can put what you describe in relation to their own time.

    The latter might be especially relevant if your novel has a message that you want to have an effect on your readers. For example, Kim Stanley Robinson has set his novel The Ministry of the Future in the year 2025 because he wants to make us aware of the consequences that climate change will have for us and our children. Setting his novel in an unspecified future would leave many readers with the impression that what Robinson showed was either just fantasy or far enough away not to be relevant to ourselves.

When and why might it be good to leave the exact future date unspecified or choose a date very far into the future?

  1. If what you describe is timeless and the message has no chronological aspect to it.

    For example, if your novel illustrates general principles such as how a better society might work, that will be true no matter when it happens. Giving the realization of such an idea a date too close to our own time might make readers doubt it's feasability and disregard it, because they might be unable to imagine how we can achieve it in such a short time span. If you let it exist in an unspecified future, it might serve as an inspiration and make people want to work towards it.

  2. If what you describe is scientifically implausible and a thought experiment.

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I'd leave it ambiguous, for exactly the reason you specified. The future is almost guaranteed to be different from your prediction.

There will be major wars you failed to mentioned, major pandemics, social and technological breakthroughs you failed to anticipate, including failed countries, new countries, etc.

As long as you leave it ambiguous, readers can still suspend their disbelief and engage with the story.

Once you start getting specific, cognitive dissonance sets in for some users; the unbidden thought of "that did not happen." Which can break their immersion in your story. And as that happens repeatedly, they put it down, because they cannot sustain their suspension of disbelief.

It's bad enough your technology may become laughably dated. (Like Star Trek "communicators" are supposed to be a century in our future, but pale in comparison to any modern smart phone.)

Don't give the audience a target date.

Studying the history of technological innovation, including Mathematics, it seems the furthest we can predict ahead with any accuracy is about 50 years. That is how long it takes from "discovery" or "invention" of something, like the telephone or car, to become widely known. But the things that will be well-known and widespread 100 years or more in the future will be based on principles, inventions and social developments not even anticipated at this point.

I wouldn't risk putting dates on anything. If you feel it is necessary, I'd make them pretty far out there, more than a century in the future.

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In school I studied American History I (colonization through Civil War) and American History II (Reconstruction through World War II); one explanation I was given for the end date was that events needed to be old enough to be noncontroversial.

So, you can have high school students grumbling about studying irrelevant dusty history like Brexit, the rise and breakup of the Soviet Union, the birth and early impact of the Internet, the rise and decline of labor unions, which will give a nice vague sense of far but not too far future. The trick is to pick events that you know will be important even if you don't know how they end. (We don't know how much of the ice caps we will lose, for example, and we don't (early 2024) know whether Trump will be re-elected in the US.)

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You could use something like "ACE" (after Common Era) and just NOT define where year zero is.

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  • 1
    This is the approach used by the Gundam "Universal Century" timeline. The original Gundam takes place in the year 0079, with (as far as I'm aware) no indication of how that correlates to the real-world calendar system.
    – F1Krazy
    Apr 5 at 12:24
  • Isn't that the same as not specifying a date?
    – Ben
    Apr 5 at 14:24

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