A few weeks ago I came across Investing in Futures, “a project which helps you imagine future worlds (wild, impractical, idyllic, and utopian) and what it would be like to live in them.” As a writer, I immediately latched onto the idea and became a backer.
Then they sent out a digital copy for playtesting. And, of course, I eagerly played.
So here’s my thoughts and findings. Will you, too, invest in futures?
Investing in Futures is a deck of cards in different categories, with each category describing part of the world you’re about to create. Naturally, I began by not reading the directions (well, I skimmed them, saw it was written for groups, and ignored the rest, thereby missing important details–such as how many categories to pick from).
The playtest used a PDF file of the cards (meant to be printed and cut out), but instead I used a random number generator to pick a detail from each category and then I eliminated ones that didn’t fit together (media was “word of mouth,” but communication was “no one speaks,” which clearly makes no sense). It was quite interesting that as I went along, adding new details to this invented world, the details seemed to fit together and build upon themselves, generating connections that I probably would not have imagined on my own (for example, “no curative treatments” in the healthcare category was followed by “no animal products” in the food supply category, prompting the idea that animal byproducts have become health hazards, and then “everyone uses shared kitchens” matched nicely with “no private property,” explaining why kitchens would be shared).
The directions included prompts for what to do after picking your details, the first step being a list of question to choose from and answer. This, especially, is where the worldbuilding becomes most prominent: now you’re not just objectively describing your invented future, but in fact bringing it to life.
For context, here are the details my process generated:
leisure country and work country, half time spent in each
no curative treatments
no animal products
everyone uses shared kitchens
no private property
all products are made end-to-end (no assembly line)
news: word of mouth
education: game theory
What kinds of infrastructure do you need?
The climate is dominated by recurring supercell storms, which has prompted the construction of large domes within which people live. Domes are collected via a network of tunnels and passageways, with domes designated as either leisure domes or work domes. Adults alternate between the two over weekly periods. Workers have three primary trades: farming large greenhouses that contribute to the food supply, food production in shared kitchens to feed the population, and manufacturing, in which workers develop fine goods from start to finish (there are no assembly lines, as workers change each week, so maintenance on lines would become inconsistent). There is limited networking between domes, so most news travels via word of mouth. Leisure activities include sports, literature, and performance, to name a few. Further, since there are no curative treatments, domes are equipped with epidemic lockdown protocols that can close off entire domes should any illnesses break out. In these cases, unless the disease passes naturally, the inhabitants of the domes often succumb to death either as a result of the illness or as a result of starvation from an insufficient food supply.
Do you move or trade goods? Is there currency?
There is no private property in the domes. All people are allotted a portion of prepared food and unprepared food for private consumption. Energy is generated by winds caused by frequent storms, and as such, energy is freely distributed among the domes. Unfortunately, battery cell life is poor, so wind energy cannot easily be stored, leading to frequent black and brown outs if storm patterns become irregular. Workers are compensated with a set amount of credits, determined by skill level, and these credits can be exchanged for manufactured products and leisure activities and supplies.
The next step involves building the individual details of your world. There are prompts to tell stories of people’s daily lives and prompts to create artifacts, with the intention that collaborate groups will literally create physical artifacts from their futures.
Instead, working as a writer on a budget, I wrote some flash fiction.
Papers drawn from the public archives: the Watchmaker
I’ve lost count of the number of watches I’ve made. Every day I rise at dawn to resume my place at the work bench. A carrier brings forth the buckets of gears and gadgets, hour hands and minute hands and second hands, the clear faces with their dull glimmer in the workshop light, the dusty tools we draw forth after arranging all our pieces in a neat little row all ready for assembling. Hours pass, the seconds pass, ticking away one by one, ticking as the watches start ticking, bits of metal clicking clicking clicking against themselves as a handful of craftsmen keep our hands full of ticking ticking ticking timepieces and my hand starts to spasm from the task of holding onto these tweezers all day, perfectly positioning the parts into a whole, screws into the holes, and one hand after another until my hands drop the tools at sundown, too tired to hold them any longer, and I make my way back to my bedroom, the stiff cot I sleep upon in the workshop. Even when I close my eyes I feel the seconds slipping by, taste the fetid breath of every face watching mine, and see the hands of every moment reaching out to finally steal me from my peace.
April 29, 3840. Mother finally came back from the agri-dome today. The heady smell of dirt and maybe even that rancid stench of fertilizer cling to her clothes, but my, how I breathe it in and can’t get enough! The weeks without her are long, and though it’s meant to be my leisure time, running after Ladell and Teer takes all the strength out of me. How grateful I am for the cooks who prepare the food every day! After I finally got Ladell to start her homework and Teer to settle down for a nap, I picked up one of the old books mother always read to me when I was Ladell’s age. To think there was a time when families had to cook their own food. I can’t imagine where they would’ve found the time. If I had to cook not once, but three times a day, well, I doubt any of us would have lived through the starvation. Anyways. I was talking about mother. That rich aroma! Byron, at the cafeteria, tells me how he plays around with perfumes in his free time, trying to capture every scent he can. If only he could visit on the days mother returned, if only he take one strong whiff of that earthen air, then surely he could recreate it and I could carry that bit of mother of my wrists every day. It would be like heaven, it would almost be like she’s always with me, and when I’m running after Teer, when I’m yelling at Ladell, I could want nothing more than her.
Patent #894cda-43p. Carnivorous roach catch. The rising occurrence of infestation across the domes, especially in and around food storage facilities previously protected against less invasive species, has prompted a local university doctoral student to engineer a bio-synthetic plant similar to the classic flytrap capable of luring the carnivorous roaches to its bulbous flowerings, which ooze with an almost incandescent sap naturally containing a remarkably high concentration of neurotoxic pesticides. The dew-like collections are produced so rapidly that they puddle and fall like drool off the lips of a sleeping child. This affinity for drainage often results in bits of the sticky substance being gathered from the ground surrounding the bio-synthete. A positive outcome is that the toxin is often carried back to the colony’s queen, but as the pools of poison deter carnivorous roaches from actually reaching the trap, the plant itself is often starved and dies within a matter of days of reaching maturity. Additional research is currently underway to refine the salivary tendencies in order to create a more sustainable solution. Further patents may be necessary.
I love world-building, but I’ve usually done this organically, collecting ideas as they come to me without trying to push it before that initial burst of inspiration, so I wasn’t sure how I’d like using a deck to get the idea going. I entered eager but anxious, and as I randomly picked the first few ideas, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But then as I kept going, with these seeds planted, attempting to synthesize the ideas into an orchard got my creative juices flowing without any effort. The cards built upon each other, and my ideas continued to multiply. The prompts included with the playtest asked simple questions, and as I answered them, this randomly-generated world began to take shape and come to life. With each new challenge (such as “describe a day in the life of…” or “create an artifact”), the images in my mind came into clearer focus and the spirit of this world began to inhabit the body that previous questions had formed. Now that the process is complete, I’d feel comfortable–in fact, excited–to set a story in this world. Whether I do or don’t is besides the point: as a writing exercise, as an endeavor to test my world-building skills and hone my characterization, I felt this activity was a sure success.
The Good Parts
Once I get the physical deck, generating prompts by shuffling and throwing cards down will be even more exciting than using a number generator and a spreadsheet. The ideas are just concrete enough to start something, but still vague enough not to confine the process. And finally, the prompts included helped me overcome the perpetual feeling of “what do I do next?” that comes with world-building (which, at its face, can be a daunting task, but which Investing in Futures helps to break down into manageable, enjoyable chunks).
Room for Growth
As a writer, I know I’m not using Investing in Futures in the same sense it’s been designed for, but also a writer, this means using this tool will most notably help me craft science-fiction and/or marginally realistic settings for my stories. While some things could potentially be interpreted in a fantasy setting, many of the options I’d want to see in a fantasy deck (for example, feudal society, or travel by mythical beast) are utterly absent. An “Investing in Pasts” deck could make an interesting companion to Investing in Futures, but again, as writers are not the sole intended audience, it’s unlikely the creators would see fit to add this expansion.
Overall, if you’re a fan of storytelling and world-building, no matter your medium, Investing in Futures is an engaging and exciting tool to help you hone your skills.