As she waited for her grandson to settle in his crib and fall asleep, Sonia tried to find any trace of her father in the little boy's features. But she saw nothing that couldn't be dismissed as wishful thinking. Her father's hair had been a sandy brown; Henry's was blond. With a pang, she remembered Dad's face, the natural contours blurred by the scars and sores of post-Transition war, hunger and plague. Henry was plump and perfect, lolling contentedly in a peaceful house, lulled by the gentle creak of the waterwheel outside.
The idea for this story came to me when I noticed how common it is for people to spend time researching their family history. I wondered why they do it, and what they expect to find. Today, there is limited information available about our ancestors. You might find church records, marriage certificates, maybe even a few letters and journals... but it's not much. It occurred to me that this situation is changing. Nowadays, people generate much more data: emails, blogs, digital photos, computers full of files. This trend will surely continue and accelerate. Future historians will face the difficulty of too much information, rather than too little.
When there is more information available, the question of what to seek becomes more significant. Today, you have to be satisfied with whatever you can dig up about your ancestors, and perhaps the satisfaction lies mainly in the success of finding something, anything. But in the future, if you have a genuine expectation of being able to find a lot of material, then you can't avoid the issue of deciding what to look for. What do you hope to find? Why are you looking? I decided to write a story that explored these areas.
The story needed to be set some way into the future, at a point when not only has a large amount of data been created, but the originators of that data have also died. After all, researching family history is more challenging if it involves delving into ancient records, rather than simply talking to Great-Aunt Florence about old times.
I therefore had to decide the nature of my fictional future. We can be fairly sure that the future won't be the same as today; the two main possibilities are that the future will be more advanced than the present, or that conditions will have decayed in some way. For story purposes, the former option seemed problematic in that historical research might become too easy: after decades of advances in search technology (together with the possible development of artificial intelligence), investigating your family history might be as simple as formulating a request, then receiving the relevant information straight away. On the other hand, if conditions become worse in some respects — after a disaster, for instance — then obtaining historical data might pose rather more of a challenge. Since stories usually need characters to overcome obstacles of various kinds, I decided upon the latter option.
Consequently, the story takes place in a "post-Transition" world, after the end of the Oil Age. It's effectively a post-apocalypse setting, but in writing the story I tried not to dwell too much upon the disaster itself or the immediate aftermath — territory which has been comprehensively covered by other writers. Instead I assumed that civilisation had recovered to the point where many people lived a reasonably comfortable existence, and had time to spare for leisurely activities such as researching their family history.
What did those people find when they retrieved archives from the pre-Transition world? They found today's society, of course, together with a few of my extrapolations of present-day trends. For inspiration, I simply looked at the Internet and asked myself what our descendants might think of it, particularly if they knew that our society was heading for a catastrophe.
An obvious aspect of today's Internet, and one which is especially evident in the realm of blogs and so-called social networking, is the staggering banality of most of the content. You don't have to look very far to find examples of dullness, arrogance, and empty-headed triviality. Such material is a rich target for satire, and I indulged myself in poking a little fun at tedious self-obsessed bloggers. This was the part of the story that I most enjoyed writing. My main difficulty lay in exercising sufficient self-restraint to keep the satirical sections short, so that they didn't overwhelm the rest of the story. There were many deserving targets that I simply couldn't squeeze in: Twitter, forum trolls, the sheer nastiness and stupidity of so much online discourse....
Satire does not itself constitute a story — it's merely an ingredient. I had to come up with the other ingredients: plot, character, motivation, and so forth. I made my protagonist a middle-aged woman, because that's the core demographic for family-history research. I decided that her father had died recently, but her mother had died long ago, in the "Transition". This provided my character's motivation: she wanted to discover more about her mother. And it linked neatly with the post-apocalyptic setting, which itself coloured the protagonist's perspective as she delved into the past.
I mentioned banality as a target for satire, but that's just one way of viewing it. Banality can also be seen (particularly from a post-Transition perspective) as something enviable, because it represents a certain kind of luxury. People who indulge in blogging and other online froth are people with the privilege of living in a society that possesses the wealth, the infrastructure and the freedom to enable such activities. The fact that so much of their blogging consists of whining about their problems is an irony that irresistibly leads back to the satirical angle.
If you are reading these words on the Internet, you are living in the golden era that this story calls "the doomed utopia of the Oil Age". Enjoy it. Take a moment to appreciate everything that you take for granted: your privileged position as a member of an advanced society with vast wealth, technology and freedom.
Then go back to your whining and your trolling.