The Short Version of this Question:

Today, some people like to read speculative fiction for relaxation or inspiration. Very likely, in a future that is science fiction to us, the same kind of person would read the future equivalent of science fiction. But when I read a science fiction novel, where a character takes out a book and starts to read space opera, that always breaks my suspension of disbelief, because it reminds me of what I am doing: reading fiction, and throws me out of the fiction and back into my present reality.

So how can I have a future nerd read science fiction without having him read science fiction?

To answer that question, it might be necessary to understand what the plausible future of narrative media is. You can therefore answer my above question with or without taking into account my ruminations below.

The Long Version of this Question:

In the future, people will still want to relax and entertain themselves with some escapist narrative fiction.

There was a time in the past, when all fiction was orally narrated or acted out on a stage. Then writing was invented and stories were written down and read. Later movies were made and comics, then tv, home video, and, later, handheld devices began to allow viewers to enjoy film outside of movie theatres, ebooks have added a lightweight variant to the printed book, and finally computer games and virtual reality have allowed to users to leave their passive seat and become active and influence the progression of the narrative.

Some science fiction novels still show people reading physical books, others portray societies entranced in front of television screens, and so on. But what is a realistic view on the future of narrative media? Is there a trend away from purely verbal to predominantly visual media? From passive consumption to active participation? Is the future of narrative media something like plugging yourself into your private virtual world in the evening after work, sort of like the human batteries in The Matrix, only recreational?

I'm always a bit unhappy about how this common aspect of life is done in Science Fiction, so I want to try and find a consensus about what is the most plausible future of narrative fiction, given the history of media, current technological trends, and human psychology.


For the purpose of this question, "future" is taken to mean the time that most space opera is set in: close enough to us that human evolution hasn't yet become apparent, but far enough away that humanity has spread through the galaxy, so in numbers, a couple of hundred years in the future.


closed as primarily opinion-based by Mołot, Separatrix, James, Hohmannfan, Aify Sep 28 '16 at 18:31

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ If you don't want your character to read Sci-Fi in a Sci-Fi story, then why would you want to write it in? Just use another plot device to provide your allegorical angle. $\endgroup$ – Snow Sep 28 '16 at 13:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Pete You may not share my opinion, but I think that the choice of reading matter corresponds with personality. Not everyone likes to read romance, and there is something that many people who read it have in common. In fiction, characters are not realistic, but exemplary: they stand in for personality types, that is, their character is what a certain group have in common. So when I write a story with the stereotypical scifi reader, I cannot let them play ping pong instead. $\endgroup$ – user8976 Sep 28 '16 at 13:25
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    $\begingroup$ @what they can play space ping pong. $\endgroup$ – Skye Sep 28 '16 at 13:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Pete Here is a pop "science" account (probably made up by the authors) to illustrate what I mean: bustle.com/articles/… Here is research: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2010.00662.x/… (I don't know if this is paywalled for you; you should be able to read at least the abstract) $\endgroup$ – user8976 Sep 28 '16 at 13:30
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe have them read technical manuals for some future-tech? $\endgroup$ – ktyldev Sep 28 '16 at 13:33

In my experience most sci-fi characters, when they read at all, read "history" or "late 20th century fantasy/sci-fi", anything that allows an in-universe reason for the character to make references that the actual reader will understand.

I suspect most future folks will engage in some sort of interactive VR or have the equivalent of a print book downloaded into their head. Actually sitting down with a book, especially a printed paper book, seems very quaint in a future sci-fi setting, IMHO.

If humanity is starting to spread throughout the galaxy, then I suspect travelogues will be the most popular form of entertainment, much like they were in the 19th century when Europeans were colonizing everything. Semi-fantastical narratives about lost cities in Africa, exotic Polynesian island girls, rugged mountain men, etc. If there is a dead civilization out there, scattered amongst the stars, then descriptions of the artifacts and archeological excavations could also be very popular.

If you DO have a character reading what is, to them, future sci-fi, it ought to drive the plot (i.e. they are reading first contact sci-fi and then they have an actual first contact scenario, so the sci-fi reading provides info relevant to the story) or give the character depth (i.e. they are terrified of AIs, but love reading robot apocalypse fiction).

The easy answer is that future sci-fi will still resemble most current sci-fi (basically take a historical era from earth and add laser guns & FTL travel!). They can still write about tech that hasn't been invented in your world, like teleportation or easy FTL, to provide a motivation for a character to research something. Even in a space opera universe things like digital consciousness, singularity events, and alien contact may not have occurred, so would be prime sci-fi topics.

  • $\begingroup$ Very good. Your answer gave me part of my solution: just don't call it science fiction. Rather, describe the content of what the fictional character reads. That way the content of the reading can be shown to relate to the characters world (in the way you describe it). Also, the term "science fiction" is only about 80 years old, and it is likely that a new term will be found as the genre evolves and changes. The other part is not having them read, though I'm not so sure about that. $\endgroup$ – user8976 Sep 28 '16 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ On a different note, I find it irritating when people in the 25th century read "late 20th century" fiction. Why would they go back so far to find good reading matter?!? The majority of readers today do not read books older than a few years, and that someone actually reads a contemporary of H. G. Wells is rare. And that is only 100 years! Farther back, and language and cultural codes become almost unintelligible to the lay person. Everything else I agree with. $\endgroup$ – user8976 Sep 28 '16 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ @what From my reading, when an author gives a character knowledge of some historical (from their POV) era it is so the author can make all sorts of quips and references to said historical time period. "Ready Player One" is probably the most egregious sinner in this regard. On a side note, it is pretty common for military folks to have a "common core" of historical knowledge, so future soldiers referencing Napoleon, Grant, or Schwarzkopf wouldn't be unusual. But if they quote someone (from our POV) who hasn't existed yet, then the quote needs further explanation. $\endgroup$ – Jason K Sep 28 '16 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ Agreed. Future SciFi fans will (probably) know (of) Arthur C. Clarke. But avoiding that reference will make immersion for my readers easier. $\endgroup$ – user8976 Sep 28 '16 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ No no no, from his POV it is science fiction! Just as people made up Marsians on Mars when the "canals" on Mars became visible but Mars was yet outside the reach of our exploration, people then make up science fiction about the places that they have discovered but not yet wholly seen. John's aliens from my example are a bit like the Marsians of Ray Bradbury: the last of their species, being driven out of literature by robot rovers taking samples on Mars and taking photos of the empty desert, or in his case, by the terraforming companies setting up plants to produce oxygen. $\endgroup$ – user8976 Sep 28 '16 at 14:53

Reading stimulates a different part of the brain than other media. And, actually, books can accomplish things that movies and TV can't. Inner motives, a rich history--all that stuff is difficult to accomplish in short form.

Reading, in general, can instruct in ways that a video can't, because we all learn differently.

You say:

There was a time in the past, when all fiction was orally narrated or acted out on a stage. Then writing was invented and stories were written down and read.

I'm a bit of a student of theatre, so I do know a bit about the history of the medium. Plays didn't come before writing did--they actually grew out of Bible stories to illustrate moral tales. Strangely enough, at least in Europe, it was the churches who put on the first plays. There was an oral tradition prior to the widespread access to books. Yes, we talked before we wrote and I know that's your main point.

The root of your question seems to be a belief that books are going away. They aren't, because the written word is still an efficient way to pass information along in forms both fictional and otherwise.

Movies aren't better, they're just different and they do different things than books do. They last longer. I can pick up a book and put it down again in a way that doesn't feel right with a movie. I can do it anywhere, even if there isn't power. I can feel a sense of intimacy reading a book that I can't get from any video game or movie.

Now, I doubt that VR will be advanced enough, given the timeline, to engage all the senses the way a good piece of writing can.

Finally, all the mediums you mention do not require imagination. Everything is simply presented. When you read, you have to engage in a way that movies simply do not satisfy. VR puts you in a story, sure, but fiction makes you actually picture that story yourself, actually imagine it. That's why people read. You can argue that not having to imagine it is a more immersive experience, but I argue that the actual process of imagining fulfills a human desire. VR can be as real as real life, but I don't want that, certainly, when I read.

If you want to completely destroy reading as a medium, certainly you can have your protagonist do the latest Issac Asimov VR or something. I don't know why it's such a stretch to have reading (even if it's a kindle type thing) alongside of other mediums in your world. We do, and I can't see that changing in a couple of hundred years.

EDIT: Also we are still reading Shakespeare--and it's been a hot minute since that dude wrote. Make references to past fiction, but then talk about re-boot/reimaginings of the same works, as well as new authors no one has ever heard of because it's the future.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes! Reading is to movies as hiking is to using an aerial tramway. You use your own muscles, and that is satisfying and invigorating. $\endgroup$ – user8976 Sep 28 '16 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ Aren't you a bit dismissive of pre-christian theater here? I mean, in Europe, there were plays in Greece-roman culture. $\endgroup$ – AndrejaKo Sep 28 '16 at 19:01
  • $\begingroup$ @AndrejaKo There were, but that died out for quite a while before the Christian dramas took the stage. Theatrical production grew more out of that in an unbroken line than it did the old greek plays. And even the Greek stuff came out of honoring the Gods. Religion played quite a part in theatre. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Sep 28 '16 at 21:51
  • $\begingroup$ @ErinThursby: Your commentary linking historical church morality plays to the written word makes me think that those morality plays were the TV of those times; allowing easier accessibility of the stories to the non-literate/non-reading population of that time. $\endgroup$ – Mark Ripley Sep 29 '16 at 7:24
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkRipley For sure. Literacy in Medieval times was, while not as dire as it is painted, certainly not at a high point in European history. It wasn't just a matter of entertaining/informing the non-literate, though--it was that there weren't really that many books. Books were rare and expensive and the printing press wasn't yet widespread. China had their first in the end of the 9th century but Europe lagged behind considerably. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Sep 29 '16 at 13:28

The Holodeck and the Matrix

The Star Trek Holodeck deals with this aspect quite excellently. Not only does the Holodeck provide a very valuable tool for the crew to train, to explore/investigate and to prepare for new environments. But it also provides leisure, where characters gladly consume fiction by either inventing personas and inserting them into stories, or by taking the place of some of pre-existing personas in earlier works of fiction.

The Matrix, without "evil" machine overlords using humans as resources, would be another such example of how to engage in fiction. We do not see that in the movies because everything is focused on the struggle against the machines. But we do see that people use the matrix as a virtual office (Zion's traffic control). Barring such conflict and assuming that a matrix-like technology becomes available, we can be sure that people will use this for leisure and to engage in fiction as well.

In fact, it would not surprise me in the least if one of the first things people will play out (apart from erotic fantasies, obviously) is The Matrix trilogy, as homage to the fiction that spawned the concept.

The only thing missing from these these depitions, and that people engage in today already, is the ability to change your entire persona. The holodeck/matrix avatars tend to remain their physical appearance, whereas I would expect that people will replace these too if/when the technology becomes available.

EDIT: And — of course — these things will not only allow people to partake, but also to watch... a sort of "spectator mode". This will be for those that for the moment want to consume and not participate.

  • $\begingroup$ Good idea! But don't you think that some people will sometimes prefer to not immerse themselves completely? Even today, some people prefer to use their own imagination to visualize characters and places and don't like it when movies prescribe those aspects to them. But then of course the Matrix-like future narrative machines will take a "viewer's" own imagination directly from their minds and adapt the virtal world to their desires. Still, given the strong tendency of many people today to remain in control of technology (such as social media abstinence), alternative media will probably exist. $\endgroup$ – user8976 Sep 28 '16 at 14:23
  • $\begingroup$ @what You are free to make up whatever you want. Old tech does remain, it is usually just complemented/enhanced by new tech. To broaden the question: culture and its various expressions endure, even when we are given new tools to create and partake of it. There is still opera, theater, painting, radio... these things have only been complemented, not supplanted. $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Sep 28 '16 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ But oral literature has all but died out. So some forms are, well, maybe not lost, but they become so rare that no one really masters them any longer. $\endgroup$ – user8976 Sep 28 '16 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ @what Has it? I challenge you to back up that claim. :) $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Sep 28 '16 at 14:32
  • $\begingroup$ Well, comments aren't for extended discussion and such, but where I live there are no professional tale tellers any longer, no epics (that deserve the name) recited in the evenings or at festivals. There are poetry slams, but those are subculture events and not the mainstream phenomena that a poet declaiming an ode to his king was a thousand years ago. $\endgroup$ – user8976 Sep 28 '16 at 14:35

There's two distinct themes in your question: The medium and the message.

By medium I mean things like theater, movie, oral tales, books, songs, games, opera ...
No form of storytelling ever really goes away. Nowadays many people mostly watch TV (maybe) but still many people will find their inspiration in theator or poetry slams or - gosh! - written books. So in the future you will have a few more media - maybe disitnct types of VR games, with styles that are as different from each other as modern TV series (long arcs), movies and old school TV series (self contained episodes) and visually/artistically cove the range from xkcd to Hayao Miyazaki and beyond, with a detour via modern performance art. Every yxtory can be told in any medium, just not equally well.

Written text is very flexible and lets the reader make their experience at their own pace and within their own imagination. OTOH, if a character mostly plays highly abstract or immersive games, it tells us soemthing about them, too. In Iain M Banks Culture-verse, the minds - super intelligent AI with excentric personalities that have something they call the land of infinite fun - basically a very complex simulation space that let's one simulate entire universes. What does it tell us about these Minds that they simulate universes for fun?

Message is the type of story that is beeing read (or danced or ...). SF is many things, one of these is a sort of techno-optimist exploration of a likely future. Another is an analysis of the present or past, using futuristic tropes.
What role SF plays in an allready SFnal setting tells us a lot about that setting: When the singularity is nigh, no exploration of the future makes real sense. When the setting features no eschatological religion, apocalyptic SF will be sparse. When the setting is a dystopian dicatorship, Ursula K. Le Guin's books may be banned. When your setting has reached the peak imaginable technology, there will be no difference between SF and techno thrillers.