Building the Future

NOTE: This post originally appeared on Novel Travelist on 27 Jan 2014. Sadly, Novel Travelist is going away. I’m reposting here so the information will live on after that site disappears.

With Google, Flickr, YouTube and all the rest, you can get a pretty good idea of what other places look like now, and what they used to look like. But there’s one thing you can’t get yet: what places will look like in the future. Or can you?

South, my latest thriller, is set in Southern California and the American Southwest in 2032. In my version of the future, the local, state and Federal governments have been starved of money; what little government spending survives is entirely devoted to the military and police. The elimination of most regulations, taxes and the social safety net have brought back the pre-Progressive Era, pre-New Deal America of 1890, except with the Internet and drones. In this new Gilded Age, the wealthy live extremely well, while the other 90%+ of the population are poor and hopeless. (If any of this sounds familiar, that’s exactly the point.)

So what does this look like, exactly?

Two of my own decisions complicated the world-building process.

  • First, the story is set only twenty years from now. You can get away with almost anything if you project out fifty or a hundred years in the future (such as J.D. Robb’s …In Death series, or William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy). But twenty years? That’s practically tomorrow. So whatever I did had to use the people who are alive today, and technology that (at the most extreme) exists in the labs today.
  • It’s been said that the future comes slowly to the poor. My main protagonist, Luis, and his family are poor. He spends most of his time in the poor areas (where 90% of the population lives). So he (and we) will be seeing twenty years of devolution, not progress.

Let’s look at one of South’s locations to see how this worked out.

Today’s Santa Ana is the seat of Orange County, California. Over 78% of its 324,000 people are Latino, mostly working-class. The city isn’t rich by any means. Still, it has a vibrant downtown arts district, a bustling Latino commercial area, and all those government jobs…most of which have gone away in South’s scenario.

Santa Ana Arts District plaza
Santa Ana Arts District today


We all know what American urban decay looks like: a blossoming of liquor stores, no new development, empty storefronts, peeling paint, chain-link fences, and so on. Those exist already off the main streets in Santa Ana. However, this is so familiar that I knew I had to push the place’s future poverty to the next level – to the Third World. Since this is all seen in passing as Luis is going about his business, I could add in only the most emblematic features of a future Third World Santa Ana.

  • Street marketStreet markets. When you can’t afford the rent for fixed storefronts, when your grocery stores go bust or move out, you set up a pipe stall and a couple tarps and keep selling. Street markets like these are omnipresent outside the developed world. Right now they’re affectations in the U.S. (the yuppie “farmer’s market”); in South’s world, they’re necessities.


  • Surgical mask varietiesSurgical masks. If you don’t have regulations, you have pollution and constant epidemics. Surgical masks are a common fashion accessory in many parts of the developing world. I saw a lot of them just recently in both Hong Kong and Tokyo – both part of the developed world – and they’re ubiquitous in China.


  • Advertising overloadAdvertising overload. Poor people don’t get to have aesthetic standards for their public areas. It’s hard enough to control billboards and outside advertising now; imagine how hard it is when city and county governments don’t have any money or people. It was interesting to see that even in the ratty parts of Hong Kong, ads covered every square inch of available space. Of course, the state of the art in advertising delivery will keep marching on even (or especially) when people don’t have any money to buy things.

Here’s an excerpt that shows how this goes together on Santa Ana’s 17th Street:

The car drove eastbound on 17th, crashing over potholes and busted pavement, Pitbull rapping on the oldies feed. The pipe-stall-and-tarp jumbles of street markets in the parking lots of failed strip malls added back some of the color lost from the faded signs and bleached paint. Vidboards flashed splashy moving ads for booze and cigarettes and guns. Gray smoke and smog hid the hills in the distance. Luis was glad for the car’s A/C so he didn’t have to smell the place.

Another excerpt, with ICE Special Agent McGinley driving Luis down Fourth Street toward downtown Santa Ana:

“Well, I just found out this morning, but I ain’t first on their mailing list, if you know what I mean.” He stopped to let a mixed group of Latino women and kids—faces half-covered by grubby surgical masks—cross the road on their way to a street market set up in front of a dead gas station. “Let me tell you how this works…”

Other indicators of change:

  • Tire rental outletBusiness mix. Modern-day slums attract certain types of businesses: liquor stores, pawn shops, payday loan outlets, bodegas, dive bars, the worst possible fast food. What kinds of similarly exploitative businesses might be common in South’s world? Tire rentals (it’s already happening). Slate (tablet PC) rentals. Overpriced Internet cafes. Storefront clinics run by unlicensed doctors.


  • Tuk-tuksTuk-tuks and pedicabs. Mass transit is just a memory in Orange County by 2032, but cars are expensive to own and operate. How do people get around? The same way they do in the developing world: tuk-tuks, pedicabs, and microbuses. They’re cheap, easy to maintain, and don’t take a lot of skill to operate.



McGinley and Luis continue their drive into downtown:

Luis tried to find a way to sit that didn’t hurt and kept his face turned away from McGinley. He watched the busy sidewalk as the car nosed through the tuk-tuks and pedicabs jamming Fourth Street in Santa Ana’s Latino business district. “Someone else already made a play for her. Not the FBI.”


[McGinley] threaded through the northbound traffic on Main, heading away from downtown and La Paloma into patchy low-rise commercial buildings and a blight of vidboards, pawn shops, tire- and slate-rental stores and payday lenders. The gold late-afternoon light didn’t make the area any more attractive. “Do you know a Jorge Casillas?”

It wasn’t hard to find precedents for the world of 2032 in South; what was hard was resisting the temptation to overdescribe it. Because we’re so familiar with this type of cityscape – we see it on the news every night, or in our own blighted neighborhoods – readers need only a little prompting to fill in the details themselves. The excerpts I’ve included are South’s most extensive descriptions of the Santa Ana of 2032, yet readers have commented on the realism of the settings.

If you know the politics and economics of your future world, you can find an example of how they turned out somewhere on Earth, and there’ll be pictures on Google. Once again, the interwebs come to a writer’s rescue.

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