The first thing I thought as I perused my sister Laurie’s draft of her novel Inconstant Moon was that it was unfortunately in present tense. ‘Why is this unfortunate?’ you might ask, and I would tell you that I immediately thought that she would make many mistakes and slip into past tense.
But I kept reading the draft and never found a slip up. I was expecting a slip up because years earlier I had made my first and only attempt to write a story in present tense. I failed. In only a novelette length of story, I slipped into past tense and back into present tense many times. I discovered from this exercise that I am firmly mired in using past tense. It’s how I naturally think and I have the overwhelming examples of almost every novel I’ve read to thank for this. I can intuit the proper phrasing in past tense, something I find hard to do in present tense.
And I wanted very much to succeed at writing present tense. If I could do it properly, I would be ambitious and try something out in future tense, something I’ve never seen before although it is possible in English.
I want to write future tense for the simple reason that I write science fiction almost exclusively. And the vast majority of my work takes place in, you guessed it, the future. I feel incapable of ever meeting this goal after my poor attempt at simpler present tense. So it was a surprise that my sister was not only capable of present tense, she wrote it well. If you wish to see her suspense novel, Inconstant Moon, she is serializing it under a Creative Commons Licence here.
So, today, I am left wondering why almost all of science fiction is written in past tense. It is incredibly ironic.
I’m reminded of the phrase “future history” that many science fiction authors use when discussing their work. I think it is an attempt at verisimilitude that future stories say they are rooted in history. The appearance of being real is achieved by using the ‘fact of the history’.
Or, in past tense, being real is achieved by the ‘fact of the past’. This is my excuse today. If I never write a story in future tense, I can just say “It’s all for the verisimilitude.” It’s nice to have a rationalization for your faults.