We are living in interesting times; in fact, they're so interesting that it is not currently possible to write near-future SF.
I don't believe this is an over-generalization. It takes time — weeks at a minimum, more usually months — for even a short story to work its way from your desktop to a magazine or a website. Novels are far worse, for book publishers run a production cycle that expects a novel to take roughly a year from acceptance to publication; if you then front-load it with the time it took the author to write the thing in the first place, and yet more time for their agent to haggle over the initial book proposal with their editor, it can take three years for a writer's idea to find its way onto the bookshelves.
Pity the authors responsible for the rash of cold war novels that came out in 1990-91 — novels in which a strong USSR typically reasserted its rivalry with a weak and fractured west by invading through the Fulda gap/building a Dr Evil grade super-weapon/hijacking a space shuttle/otherwise engaging in ideological chest-beating of a kind that had become forever impossible months before these obsolete futures landed on the bookstore shelves.
It wasn't their fault; these books had been commissioned years earlier, in the 1980s, in the backwash of late period Reaganism, the Evil Empire, and the futurist fantasies of Star Wars and ballistic missile defense (which I will note still haven't delivered much more than the ability to plink at short-range theatre missiles like the long-obsolescent Scud-B). None of them were paying attention to the real picture. As Yegor Gaidar explains it, the collapse of the USSR was down to a series of catastrophic grain harvests and the decision by Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani to open the stop-cocks on the Saudi oil wells. Hamstrung by heavy military spending and unrealistic foreign policy commitments, the USSR needed foreign exchange in order to buy grain and food to feed its people: it had become overly reliant on oil and gas exports, the "Spanish curse" of being resource-rich but poor in the means of production and over-extended abroad. The system badly needed reform, but as Gaidar put it:
Unable to realize any of the above solutions, the Soviet leadership decided to adopt a policy of effectively disregarding the problem in hopes that it would somehow wither away. Instead of implementing actual reforms, the Soviet Union started to borrow money from abroad while its international credit rating was still strong. It borrowed heavily from 1985 to 1988, but in 1989 the Soviet economy stalled completely.
Does this remind you of anyone? (If not: substitute "American" for "Soviet" and move the goal posts forward a decade or two ...)
The US government is currently hemorrhaging over 600Bn a year on military and security spending, against a domestic budget around the $350Bn mark. It's uniquely credit-worthy because of the dollar's status as a de facto planetary reserve currency, and because when you get down to it, the USA is still one of the most productive nations, with around 25-30% of planetary GDP and only 5% of planetary population.
But the US government has been spending money faster than its economy could earn it, while the hollowing-out of its financial infrastructure continued, and we're now seeing the biggest financial crisis since 1929. Even in August, about 9% of all mortgages in the USA were in arrears or in default, and that's before the latest round of ARM resets. It's the collapse of a gigantic credit bubble, and it's hard to see where the US government is going to turn for the money it needs to keep those overseas military commitments going.
As John Gray put it in The Guardian
Outside the US, most people have long accepted that the development of new economies that goes with globalisation will undermine America's central position in the world. They imagined that this would be a change in America's comparative standing, taking place incrementally over several decades or generations. Today, that looks an increasingly unrealistic assumption.
I suspect he's been reading Kennedy too (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers
— WikiPedia digest, for the impatient
). Normally empires decline slowly; it took nearly half a century for the British empire to descend from planetary hegemony to the edge of bankruptcy in 1945, for example. The USSR took a decade from the first serious worries about its balance of trade to the final abortive Putsch and Gorbachev's resignation. But the US Empire has developed a uniquely unstable financial system over the past two or three decades, and we may be witnessing a catastrophic collapse. (I hope not; this sort of event is deeply uncomfortable and unpleasant to live through, even when it doesn't
coincide with major environmental crises, a power vacuum, and a disciplined cadre of apocalypse-obsessed religious fanatics waiting in the wings to seize power if they can.)
But anyway: that's a depressing prospect to contemplate (not least because, as an SF writer, I earn more than 50% of my income in US dollars: I really don't want to see a dollar collapse!). So let me retreat hastily back to the praxis of Science Fiction.
In 2005-06, I wrote a novel titled "Halting State". It's set circa 2017-18, in a future independent Scotland, and I knew going into the project that it would look horribly quaint only five or six years after publication. I'm no longer sure about the independent Scotland (paradoxically, largely because of the way the Scottish National Party — currently the Scottish government — is running things), but I'm having a quiet gloat over the Amazon.com reviewers who marked the book down for having the temerity to suggest that in 2017-18, the United States wouldn't be the sole planetary hegemonic power, but would be having major headaches rebuilding itself after an economic/infrastructure crisis. However, next year I'm supposed to write something approximating a sequel to "Halting State", set circa 2022-23, and right now I'm just glad that I don't have to start writing for another six months.
Put yourself in the shoes of an SF author trying to construct an accurate (or at least believable) scenario for the USA in 2019. Imagine you are constructing your future-USA in 2006, then again in 2007, and finally now, with talk of $700Bn bailouts and nationalization of banks in the background. Each of those projections is going to come out looking different. Back in 2006 the sub-prime crisis wasn't even on the horizon but the big scandal was FEMA's response (or lack thereof) to Hurricane Katrina. In 2007, the sub-prime ARM bubble began to burst and the markets were beginning to turn bearish. (Oh, and it looked as if the 2008 presidential election would probably be down to a fight between Hilary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.) Now, in late 2008 the fiscal sky is falling; things may not end as badly as they did for the USSR, but it's definitely an epochal, historic crisis.
Now extend the thought-experiment back to 1996 and 1986. Your future-USA in the 1986 scenario almost certainly faced a strong USSR in 2019, because the idea that a 70 year old Adversary could fall apart in a matter of months, like a paper tiger left out in a rain storm, simply boggles the mind. It's preposterous; it doesn't fit with our outlook on the way history works. (And besides, we SF writers are lazy and we find it convenient to rely on clichés — for example, good guys in white hats facing off against bad guys in black hats. Which is silly — in their own head, nobody is a bad guy — but it makes life easy for lazy writers.) The future-USA you dreamed up in 1996 probably had the internet (it had been around in 1986, in embryonic form, the stomping ground of academics and computer industry specialists, but few SF writers had even heard of it, much less used it) and no cold war; it would in many ways be more accurate than the future-USA predicted in 1986. But would it have a monumental fiscal collapse, on the same scale as 1929? Would it have Taikonauts space-walking overhead while the chairman of the Federal Reserve is on his knees? Would it have more mobile phones than people, a revenant remilitarized Russia, and global warming?
There's a graph I'd love to plot, but I don't have the tools for. The X-axis would plot years since, say, 1950. The Y-axis would be a scatter plot with error bars showing the deviation from observed outcomes of a series of rolling ten-year projections modeling the near future. Think of it as a meta-analysis of the accuracy of projections spanning a fixed period, to determine whether the future is becoming easier or harder to get right. I'm pretty sure that the error bars grow over time, so that the closer to our present you get, the wider the deviation from the projected future would be. Right now the error bars are gigantic. I am currently guardedly optimistic that the USA will still exist as a political entity in 2023, and that the EU (possibly under a different name; certainly with a different political infrastructure) will do so as well. But in planning the background for that novel set in 2023, I can't rely on the simple assumption that the USA and the EU still exist. We're living through interesting times; I just hope (purely selfishly, wearing my SF author cap, you understand) the earthquake is over bar the aftershocks by next March, or I'm going to have to go back to my editor and suggest she markets the new novel as fantasy.