How Can Anything Be Out Of Date In Science Fiction: an article of probabilities by GF Willmetts.

April 29, 2018 | By | Reply More

OK, let’s repeat the question from the title: How can anything be out of date in Science Fiction? Actually, it’s very easy when it’s based on scientific information. The basic laws, like thermodynamics and evolution, aren’t likely to change. Observed phenomenon is more likely as our instruments become more refined and our computer processing power translates the raw data.

Back in 1968, in ‘Asimov’s Mysteries’, Isaac Asimov confessed that he wrote ‘The Dying Light’ in 1956 based on what was known at the time that Mercury didn’t rotate. Of course, that was later disproven but he felt that the story was too good to just ignore it which undoubtedly pleased his completists who wanted all his Wendell Urth stories.

Even Arthur C Clarke had the same problem with ‘A Fall Of Moondust’ (1961), which would have made a great disaster film had it been made, where a space buggy falls into a crevasse of moondust. Back in the day before the Apollo landings, it was widely believed that the surface of the Moon was inches if not more thick in moondust on account of meteoroid (back then it was also called meteorite) damage and so with any broken up patches or crevasses would be full. This is despite the fact that as the Moon doesn’t have an atmosphere so how can moondust blow anywhere? Current knowledge and visits 40 years ago proved that not to be the case, although the Apollo 11 Moon Module boys were warned to take off immediately if they started to sink into the ground. Considering how moondust statically stuck to their spacesuits, it’s just as well there wasn’t more of it.

Back in the day, this was based on the best scientific information at the time but physical proof is the ultimate truth. As with anything, Science Fiction authors can only use the genuine scientific information available at the time before doing anything too fantastic. If they didn’t, they’d no doubt have gotten flak from the scientific community. The likes of hyperspace, faster-than-light travel and even time machines are seen purely as Science Fiction but with the real undisputable laws of science, unless there is what is called in the trade ‘a bodge’ with a pliable explanation, you don’t play with them.

If anything, SF writers who use known scientific phenomenon and knowledge in stories seem to be a dying breed or at least outnumbered these days. It’s enough to name a star system or planet and give it a breathable atmosphere than work out how changes in gravity and sunlight might vary it from the likes of planet Earth. Even if it does, there are fewer people who are going to stop and check the research, even if it’s on the Internet. As such, you can keep to basic science that is rarely about high school science classes. If you do provide a lot of gen, like Hal Clement and Poul Anderson, then you make sure you present the information in an interesting way.

Science Fiction writers aren’t supposed to be seers. A lot of the time, it’s more a matter of luck that any extrapolation based on current information, whether it’s natural or technological, is accurate. Some things are also deemed less believable. I mean who would believe that one day those who want them would have portable computers or even portable communicators. The latter was only in ‘Star Trek’ and a convenience than a deliberate miniaturisation. The same with the transporter than the expense of landing a scout-craft on a new planet every week. Interestingly, outside of Larry Niven, few authors have played with physical teleportation devices, no doubt to avoid too many comparisons. I suspect the same thought also occurred about communication devices as well. After all, who’s going to have a use for a miniature mobile phone? You want to talk to people wherever you are? Man, as usual, finds a use for anything deemed useful and often find more uses for it than an SF author. It’s always amazing how things propagate but no wonder how things are missed.

It’s also a game of connections. Without the development of computers, we wouldn’t have had the Internet or CPUs being used in all sorts of things. Usually, with SF, any device is used primarily for the needs of the story in question than looking how it came about, let alone where it’s going. This is the principle of the loaded gun, as used in most genres, if it’s there, then it’s expected to be used. You then avoid over-loading the story with useless devices. There is the added problem of not setting up the reality sufficiently enough to see what would be affected by any significant changes that are instigated.

Even so, a device is a device, the name might change but the function remains the same. The one thing that can’t be anticipated is the size, power and range. Create something too fantastic and the reader might not believe it. Even in Science Fiction! There’s only so many fantastic things you can do in a Science Fiction story before you can over-whelm the reader and question if that’s possible. That might sound incredible given the complexities of a lot of SF plots but the basics don’t change too much. People react the same way no matter their time and place. Major science changes and elements are explained fairly early on and then moved on to the main plot and brought back when needed. If anything, whether most readers realise it or not, the writer is the magician or con man as to where you direct attention then the details that are less important to propel the story. You let the reader fill in any other details they need.

It only when it comes to TV and films where contemporary references can date anything if attention is drawn to it. This applies to any genre. It’s fairly easy to date any show by the age of the computer or mobile phone, assuming they have them. Even if a director decided to have a mobile phone, he or she probably wouldn’t have because it would look too ‘Trekky’. That’s outside or wanting to do something different to anyone else. Even so, even using contemporary tradenames like ‘Pan-Am’ can quickly date if the company doesn’t exist anymore but that would apply to any of several major airlines that no longer exist since 1968 and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. At the time, who really cared about a minor detail, it just indicated that there was a commercial spacecraft that didn’t come from NASA. The main lesson over the years is to be cautious with trademarks and such. It also saves lawsuits should a big corporation object. From films, the only one that I can remember doing so in a future setting is from ‘Alien: Resurrection’ (1997) and blink and you’ll miss the Walmart reference. Travels into the past are different, you’d be worried if you didn’t see reference to things that set a time period.

Something that is never considered is the problems of our taking our current technology to other planets. The current mobile phones depend on geo-tracking satellites in orbit around a planet to function. All well and good for an uninhabited planet but I suspect native sentients might object unless they shared the technology, still depending on whether they had the right kind of ionosphere to bounce signals off. Based off of that, it would be easily justified why mobile phone technology might not be available across the cosmos in earlier Science Fiction stories.

People will always accept the criteria of any reality providing you don’t draw attention to any inadequacies. Even if they’re there, the characters might not know any difference or, if they do, a throwaway line to indicate to the reader that it hasn’t been forgotten covers the deficit.

Most devices already exist, just the form changes. Look at transport and weapons as easy examples. I doubt if anyone would stop a story to explain a combustion engine or a hyper-advance engine in the future. All right, John Campbell Jr. did but he had a fascination for such things and as SF was still new he could get away with it. If anything, as other SF authors from the period didn’t, he might inadvertently have spared us from such writing in the future (sic).

Of course, the other extreme has also been opened up and probably the biggest common mistake associated with space travel is events across the cosmos happen at the same time and you can get them shortly after discovering them which is clearly against the laws of relativity. If it was possible, then that also makes time travel viable. Even with faster-than-light travel, the decelerations alone would prevent the hero arriving many generations after an incident. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible and I’m going to have to think about that. Even so, this disregard happens all the time in SF in any media. It’s like spaceships making noises in space, they don’t but some conventions tend to stick…mostly because so few of us have ever been in space to know the difference.

When it comes to new devices, most Science Fiction is based on advancing the current state of a reality. Rarely if any do you see a device evolving or supplanted by something superior, mostly because that isn’t the plot of the story. Unfortunately, it does present an image of SF that the future is somewhat static and unmoving at a particular instance of time. One only has to look at our own society in the past twenty years and how quickly the Internet and mobile phones have evolved, the latter more so with the current lithium batteries that have gotten smaller and hold a longer charge. Assuming we survive until the next century, would we even recognise what our future will present today? The current fastest developments are happening with the genome projects and bioengineering is already familiar from Science Fiction. That would also mean that several centuries down the line that we would not even recognise such a future let alone imagine it. If writers would struggle with such futures, how can we expect a reader to? Hence, so much of our imagined futures has some resemblance to our present.

Does that mean humans won’t change in the future? Certainly the number of cyborgs and super-human protagonists have dipped over the years. That might be attributed to looking a little Star Warsy. After all, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker are cyborgs, even if they aren’t described as such. So, too, has ‘Star Trek’ got an entire species of Borgs running through its multiple series. Granted that cyborgs can come in various guises, it would appear no one wants any sort of comparison.

If you think that is far-fetched, after ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, very few spaceships had vocal malfunctioning computers on board. With ‘Alien’ (1979), Ridley Scott didn’t give MU-TH-UR a voice, other than the recorded one at the end, and probably why Jim Cameron didn’t give Skynet a voice in ‘The Terminator’ (1984) as would draw comparison to the HAL 9000. Oddly, by 1985, with ‘2010: The Year We made Contact’, the studios were less worried, although the Leonov didn’t have any AI computers but there still haven’t been many vocal stationary AI computers. It’s often comparison that stops such things becoming widespread although you do have to wonder how long before the likes of Contana and Siri (other brands are available) become characters in their own right in fiction, although SF has been there several times before.

You would think teleportation would be more common but other than ‘Star Trek’, the only other show I can remember is being used in was ‘Blake’s 7’ but with its poor graphics budget, it was seen as a poor comparison and no one has wanted to attempt it since. Stargates are a different proposition as they use wormholes to travel great distances.

There haven’t been many defining technological moments in Science Fiction. The main ones have been mostly in how to get across the cosmos. The choice defining ones are the USS Enterprise in the TV series ‘Star Trek’ (1965-69) using distortion warp speeds. However from the Discovery in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968) to Bowman being sucked through the stargate in EVA Pod and accelerated faster-than-light speeds. The spaceships of the ‘Star Wars’ films owe their navigation across star systems more to Asimov than anyone. It isn’t until ‘Babylon 5’ (1994-98) that jump gates were depicted away from paper fiction were employed or even stargates sans spacecraft in the film ‘Stargate’ (1994) and subsequent TV series. Saying that, as pointed out from ‘2001’, it wasn’t the first stargate and was even used sans spaceships in Uncanny X-Men # 105 when Phoenix reactivated one. Notice the pattern, if something works and used enough then it get embedded in the collective imagination, even if it doesn’t necessarily get picked up in other films and series. Come to think of it, defining means of space travel or beating the speed-of-light is just done and not dwelled on. It’s become an accepted convention. There is nothing more that can be said about it.

If that applies to a standard SF trope, then it applies to the likes of teleportation and even ESP/psionics. The group mind thinks there can’t be anything new in that direction. In many respects, they are probably right. Even my own take on such things like psionics is more a matter of covering a direction not covered than re-creating the wheel.

There really isn’t anything out there that can surprise either the film-goer, TV-watcher or reader, hence there is more emphasis on character. If anything, there is less of a need to explain any of the SF tropes. It’s very worrying that science and technology is taking a back seat in SF. Authors are afraid to see where the technology is going or that their second guesses are reality by the time their book comes out and they got it wrong.

That doesn’t mean that there can’t be anything new, just not in the currently accepted tropes that we take for granted. They’ve become so much common background that even a non-SF fan can describe what they are. Then again, as I’ve pointed out in the past, a lot of SF concepts have entered our reality and become acceptable. No one has come up with any idea as to what comes next. All that will change is size, power and range.

Look at how the search for extra-terrestrial life has stepped up in recent decades. With the knowledge that there are planets orbiting other stars, looking for life has become more acceptable, even if we’re not quite sure what will happen in a first contact situation. Think about all the times that’s happened in SF and little in the way of real protocols in real life. Even so, Man has always had a need to confirm that he isn’t alone in the universe, even if we’re never likely to meet them. It would be worrying to confirm extra-terrestrial life and not be bothered by Armageddon because we know life would be going on elsewhere. Now that would be a Science Fiction story.

It isn’t so much that things can’t get out-of-date in Science Fiction, it’s just that there now seems to be a vacuum as to where things are going in the immediate future. Maybe doing that will test what is to come and see whether we like it or not. Excuse me, a moment, just got to take a call from Skynet. I have a few nanoseconds to spare.




© GF Willmetts

April 2018

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Category: Scifi

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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