the trouble with Science Fiction…

The trouble with Science Fiction, especially near-to-medium future SF, is that it frequently seems… dated.

Consider the following two books (both of which I enjoyed tremendously, btw):

Greg Bear’s Eon, written in 1985, features two groups of space explorers: the Americans and Soviet Russians as per pre-Berlin Wall communism. Oops.

Stephen Baxter’s Titan, published in 1998, features the Space Shuttle Columbia. Oops.

Do you think a fantasy book, or even a literary book written in either of those years would feel so out-of-date?

Now if I were either of these two authors, I’d have been bashing my head against the wall after the historic events that screwed up my fiction had taken place. You know, Science Fiction is meant to be futuristic and all that and how dare one little event date my book so much? You do all the work to make your book as realistic as possible, and then real life turns around and provides some dramatic change from an angle you hadn’t considered and renders your work dated.

Of all the time periods writers can write about, the future dates most quickly.

So what do you do? Writing Historic Fiction is one option, but not one I find attractive.

I can’t say I have a clear-cut answer, but:

– I’d try to avoid being too specific about things like politics, countries and companies (although you may try giving the voodoo kiss-of-death to big-name companies everyone loves to hate by featuring them clearly in a novel, and hope that this will ensure they go out of business).
– I’d assume the world will change dramatically, and portray a dramatically changed world-political landscape. The only thing we know is that the world will change, so no change isn’t a believable option. To this end, one of my future worlds has no US, the philosophy being that no empire lasts forever.
– I might just shrug and recognise that my fiction is a product of the year it was written, but realistically, I’d like my fiction to remain fresh for longer than a few years.

Alternatively, many writers of space-based SF excise Earth from their fiction altogether. In those books, Earth was a planet where people once came from, but it is either too far away to matter, it has been destroyed or lost or just doesn’t feature at all in the story.

You have any ideas on how to make realistic SF date-proof?

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11 comments on “the trouble with Science Fiction…

  1. I’m going with the world has changed dramatically, or rather an Australia that has changed dramatically.

    Gives me a chance to suppose some of the sensationalisms bandied about by the (real, present-day) media for example about climate change/global warming etc. and explore ideas for geographical restructuring in the media in the 1930s

  2. Pingback: KevinHatch.com » Science Fiction Errors in Time - Technology & Creativity – Blogging science fiction, writing, new tech, and good design

  3. Hey Patty, I liked your post. I agree the timing/event issues can make a story feel more dated, but I don’t see that as a real problem. Part of what makes good science fiction work is that it is a part of the time in which it’s written. I still read golden age scifi all the time, and it works fine.

    I’ve written an actually blog-reply if you’re interested. It’s now posted here: http://kevinhatch.com/2010/06/science-fiction-errors-in-time/

    • Thanks for that, Kevin.

      I think it’s a lot more likely to bother people who don’t read golden age SF. I don’t read much of it, because of its patronising attitudes towards certain groups, especially women. Most of the New Space Opera tends to be a lot more date-proof, because it’s often left unclear how the world as portrayed in the story relates to today. But that actually weakens the reality value.

  4. “patronising attitudes towards certain groups” wowzers, isn’t that true! I do have the benefit of growing up on the old scifi though, so much of reading it now is more remembering than reading new. And these days I can critique the writing for both story and craft while reading it, so I tend to read it more as classic literature “of another time” etc., just like reading Jules Verne or Shakespeare. I’m sure people in future decades will look back at today’s fiction and see problems we are blind to as well. 🙂

  5. Hi Patty — you’re right, big problem and I can’t think of anything to add to what you’ve written. My favoured approach for Sci-Fi would be that Earth is not in the picture or that it was left long ago (whether as a wasteland or not).

    However, any chance you could direct me to where on Andromeda’s website I can find instructions on how to contribute a story? I can’t find where it says whether electronic or hard copies (I fervently hope the former)should be submitted.

    I thought your advice on pieces that don’t work was dead on too.

  6. I’ve been thinking about the same issue as well.

    Neuromancer is another SF classic that contains mentions of the Soviet Union.

    It’s hard to futureproof your writing.

    I’ve heard the idea mentioned that one of the reasons why SF literature isn’t seen as being so popular any more is that the real world is moving faster than a lot of SF fiction and the fictional ideas just don’t seem as shiny or exciting any more.

    To have shiny or exciting new ideas often involves a lot of complexity (Greg Egan, Charles Stross) which can make the books inaccessible to a lot of general readers.

    • Ideas-based science fiction is only a small part of the broad spectrum of the genre. I actually dispute the notion that SF has to include big ideas. I’d be happy if there was such category as Futuristic Fantasy, and can’t see for the life of me why SF is always called-upon to include new cutting-edge science. It seems that the industry at large wants to call SF anything that’s set in the future or on other planets where the means of getting to them is based on technology. Yet many of these books don’t include big new scientific ideas, don’t even attempt to do so. There is nothing wrong with this (and those books are quite popular).
      I wish people would stop saying that SF isn’t popular. There is one particular type of SF that isn’t as popular as it used to be, but SF as a whole is alive and well.

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