Sometimes ideas are lurking around in the most unexpected places. Planners in business, marketing and government use what they call scenarios to try to predict the future. They usually start with the present day and try to extrapolate what the future will be like if certain changes happen. Historians sometimes create counter factual or alternate histories to try to come up with ideas of what might have happened had things happened differently. Writers who tell science fiction, time travel fiction or alternate history stories know both these ideas under other names.
Planners have created techniques to help them to try to predict the future instead of writing sprawling scenarios. One such technique is STEEPV, its acronym coming from the six areas it looks at as it tries to predict the future:
They decide how far they are going to move time forward from the present day. For each of these areas they describe changes from the present day and then describe the results of the change. They may repeat the process with further iterations, each moving the time forward and changing from the previous timeframes.
Adding the Unknown
STEEPV is a tried and tested way of working and with a thirty-year pedigree. It works well in its own field and some of its results read like science fiction. However it is not perfect if your writing includes what might be seen as less hard science and more fantasy elements. Magic, monsters, gods, religions with manifestations, psychics and super powers don’t really fit well into STEEPV’s framework (in fact just about anything that would make Richard Dawkins hot under the collar). Sometimes, following Clarke’s often quoted third law “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, these could be put under Technology or Ecology but this isn’t an ideal solution.
My solution is to add an extra category, Mythical. This is a catch all for all the phenomena with an otherworldly, inexplicable quality that won’t sit well in the other areas.
To use STEEPVM as a writer there are a number of timeframe issues you need to think about. The first one is the starting point you’re working from. If your writing science fiction your most likely starting point is today or possibly an existing fictional time. For alternate history you need to pick the point at which history diverges and decide why. For time travel it is the point at which the travellers change the future.
The next important issue with time is the step forward you’re going to use. If your writing a day after tomorrow type story then a small step with a very few changes is the obvious choice. Maybe your just moving events forward a hundred years so four steps at twenty-five year intervals will work. If on the other hand your going forward several millennia you may want to make a giant leap forward and cover the big span in one big step or take it forward from today to a point at which something important happened and then leap forward from there to the situation of your setting.
A Closer Look at the 7 Dimensions
This area covers a variety of topics including changes in attitude, population change and fashion. Changes in attitude cross over with Values later. It may be that society hypocritically expects values to be one thing at this level but acts differently at the personal level that the Values heading represents. Some topics to consider under this heading include religion, human rights, the treatment of animals, responsibilities of ownership and forms of slavery, servitude and employment in widespread use.
Philip K. Dick expands on several social problems of growing interest during the 1960s to create the setting for A Scanner Darkly.
Technology is a favourite of hard science fiction what if type scenarios where a single new technology alters the world. This may seem like a bit of a cliché but it has happened over and over again in reality so its no surpries writer’s love it so much. In the last two hundred years we have seen the introduction of electricity, the railways, flight, the Internet, moving pictures, penicillin and many other world changing pieces of technology.
It might be more mundane covering simple, everyday changes like the introduction of integrated personal computers. It might be less mundane like the introduction and widespread use of the old SF trope flying cars. It might be an advance that only applies in one field like new weapons for the military or a cryogenic stretcher for medicine. In a post apocalyptic setting it may be those technologies lost or abandoned instead of the great leap forwards.
Isaac Asimov’s Robot stories are among a vast selection of science fiction in which technology change is or has been a key driver in changing the world.
Not a favourite of fiction writers and yet it has the ability to shape the world. Soviet style communism may have failed but it did change the world for a large part of the twentieth century. At a more mundane level economic systems change with time. Barter gave way to coins made of precious metals which in turn were replaced with non precious metals and paper money now electronic money is becoming more and more prevalent. The basis for wealth changes to what if instead of gold or land or tulip bulbs the basis for currency was ideas or anti-matter? Economic factors have often been seen as the causes of wars, conflicts and espionage. It covers topics including exchange rates, trading, money and business.
Thomas More’s Utopia, Heinlein’s The Man who Sold the Moon and the moneyless Federation society of Star Trek all illustrate the use of economics in shaping a fictional world.
The playing field of disaster stories, the ecology and environment looks at changes to ecosystems, climate change, extinctions, evolution and the interconnectivity of many factors. Supernatural and mythical creatures place and effects in an ecosystem may appear here.
The ecological changes of Arrakis are a key part of Frank Herbert’s Dune series.
Like economics changing political systems is rarely the stuff of science fiction but its popular with counterfactual historians. Political changes can include changing styles of government, election, values in government, the use of power, the balance of state with citizen and many more juicy questions. Topics to consider include international, country and regional positions; laws and standards; law enforcement; political acceptability; and lobbying.
While his stories often feature include a lot of hard technology, hard science Robert A Heinlein also explored political changes. His novella “If this goes on” explores a future theocratic American society, ruled by the latest in a series of Prophets.
Values covers a wide and varied set of concepts many of which cross over with politics and social headings. It covers changing attitudes, social mores, organisational cultures (do officials accept bribes or are other favours expected), how valued are teams and personal values. You may want to consider religions, corporate responsibility, ethics, taboos and that modern press favourite the work / life balance.
The Star Trek universe is one in which events have shifted the values of earth’s inhabitants to a more Utopian way of living.
Mystical is my addition to the system to include all those things that are inexplicable in the STEEPV system. It includes psychic powers, magic, monsters and super powers all fall into the mystical category. Religions may appear in this category if gods are active or have direct influence on the setting.
George Andrew Romero’s works in the zombie apocalypses genre are one example of the impact of a mystical change on a setting.
This is a simple work sheet to help work using the STEEPVM technique.
So here is a worked example of using the STEEPVM method for developing alternate and future histories. Not a great deal of mystical in this one but hopefully it shows how the technique can be used.
Add factors wherever they seem to fit in best. If they might fit into multiple categories put it in them all.
In some situations you may want to carry out separate STEEPVM for different regions or organisations that are parts of the same setting.
Rearrange the headings to suit your needs on the worksheet. If the key change is technological list this first to make it easy to see how it affects other topics.