I always develop most of a novel’s setting before I start writing it, and allow the writing process to flesh out a few cool details along the way. As I’m currently hip-deep in my next novel, currently known by the project name of Sarcology, I’ve written most of those fine details, and find myself working in an environment that I can picture in my mind as if I’ve actually just returned from visiting there. So I thought I would spell out a few details, to prepare you for the world of my upcoming novel.
In the United States of the mid-twenty-first century, Atlanta (the story’s base) has become the financial and cultural center of the East Coast formerly occupied by New York City… partially because it has striven to take that place for decades, and partially because the iconic East Coast mecca had finally reached its practical limits, and has begun to lose the battle against bloat, decay, environmental punishment (from climate change and sea level rise) and the influence-deconcentration of the digital age.
(Ironically, the recent damage done to the New York City area by Hurricane Sandy highlights and foreshadows this trend, as it demonstrated NYC’s lack of preparedness for the more extreme weather and sea level rise that is becoming more common worldwide. But lest you see it as a coincidence that NYC’s troubles are reminiscent of the background of my story… I’d suggest that there is nothing coincidental about it.)
In this story, the pressures of privacy and safety have created an increase in the amount of security systems used nationwide, especially public and private surveillance systems, biometric ID systems and citizen databases. Biometrics, often used in conjunction with coded ID cards, have effectively replaced physical keys for access to almost every locked space or equipment. Naturally, for every increase in security came a demand, by some, for increased privacy; so, the nation is now a crazy quilt of very security-heavy areas, and areas that avoid or can switch off security systems to give users their privacy, and people tailor their activities around either security or anonymity.
It’s anybody’s guess how security will develop in the U.S., but I believe that all it will take is the right incentives, i.e., the right threats close enough to the right people, to push the nation as a whole over to seeking better protection for its individuals. That’s the way most security systems develop, when the majority demands protection over the concerns of the minority. Despite Ben Franklin’s assertions that those who surrender some freedoms in the name of security deserve neither freedom nor security, individuals under a perceived threat are more likely to agree to new, more restricting technologies for protection. Surveillance and biometric ID technology are easy guesses for the security tech of the future… we could see even more methods become commonplace in the future.
Automation plays a much greater role in the world; but as opposed to R2D2-like robo-maids flitting about every household, ala Michael Crichton’s Runaway, automation has been largely applied to major commercial and industrial uses, and of course, to war. The average person is most exposed to automation through the automobile, which now drives itself (no one manually drives a car near a major city), and through the more intelligent appliances and public systems surrounding them. Robotic drones of every type are also common, especially in security systems and delivery.
(Personally, I’d like to see America’s cars start driving themselves, and immediately bring an end to the largest single killer of Americans in this country. Speaking of giving up freedom for security…)
Personal electronics have, of course, become more ubiquitous and refined. Few people do not own a Personal Secretary, or persec, their own data storage and processor and personal organizer—the future version of today’s smartphone. Persecs themselves are usually worn on the ear, and can be voice-controlled; but users often opt to wearing wirelessly connected devices like wrist control devices, combining control surfaces and viewscreens to make interaction and communication easier. Larger persecs are still used in business environments, depending on the need and tasks performed. Persecs interact with any digital equipment owned by the user, as well as the control systems in cars, door locks, semi-public spaces (like the storage areas of your apartment building) and biometric ID systems.
The story revolves heavily around the Semi-Autonomous Robot, or SAR, generally (but not always) a humanoid mechanism used to take the place of humans in hazardous situations. Sars are often used in law enforcement and in ground warfare in place of human police and soldiers, especially in very dangerous areas. Sars can act independently, but can also be directed by a human operator remotely.
A new version of sar, the Slaved Semi-Autonomous Robot or S-SAR, offers a human operator a more immersive control system, wherein he can more easily control the actual movements of the robot, rather than simply providing gross direction to a sar… the S-sar is more like wearing a robot suit. And in the story, an S-sar being developed in one company becomes the target of corporate espionage by an unknown, taking the form of blackmailing one of the researchers to obtain its secrets.
The secrets largely involve the sophisticated composites used to create the S-sar, composites that take advantage of what may be the next wonder material of the age: Carbon. As scientists find new atomic structures for carbon, they are discovering more things they can do, from providing containers for other elements, to adding strength, flexibility, insulation, conductivity, carbon sequestration and a host of other features, often many at once. These structures, collectively known as Buckminster Fullerenes, may single-handedly revolutionalize the chemical and materials industries… as soon as we figure out how to manufacture them in bulk.
All this, of course, is background to the real story, which involves the ever-eroding line between humans and their robotic creations, and specifically how that impacts a very sexy and romantic couple, partners in a detective agency that get called in to stop the story’s blackmailer. Suffice to say that as the story develops, that line erodes even further, and the couple’s relationship will never be the same. Hopefully, your viewpoint will likewise never be the same.