Science fiction is supposedly a genre dedicated to predicting and exploring the future. However, as any fan of the genre knows, most science fiction is more about the present day than about the future. Sometimes, this is an intentional thing on the part of the author in order to comment about current society. However, there are plenty of unintentional examples of this where a sci-fi author has failed to predict some large or small social change which happens between the time they wrote the story and the time when the story is set.
I’m sure you can think of your own examples of this, and it’s certainly more common in films and TV than in fiction. For example, a few major examples can be seen in Ridley Scott’s excellent “Blade Runner”. Leaving aside the fact that this film is only set in 2019 (and we can only replicate some simple organs using stem cells these days, let alone replicate entire humans within the next six years) – one of the most surprising things for modern viewers is the complete absence of mobile phones in the film.
Yes, when Deckard drunkenly decides to call Rachel, he doesn’t use a mobile phone – he uses a “futuristic” payphone which can make video calls. In 1982, this was probably very futuristic, but now that we have devices more than twenty times smaller than a payphone which can make video calls, it seems hilariously dated.
Not to mention that, despite the fact that it actually predicted at least a few technological advancements, even “Star Trek” suffers from this from time to time. For example, although the futuristic PADDs which the characters in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” use may well have inspired modern tablet computers, they generally appear to be a lot less advanced than modern tablet computers are.
So, yes, this can even happen to great sci-fi stories. It’s the inevitable result of trying to predict an inherently uncertain future. Although there’s no certain way to write a sci-fi story which will still seem fresh and futuristic in a couple of decades, there are a few common mistakes that can be easily avoided.
1) Distant and near future technology: If you’re setting your sci-fi story in the distant future, then you can take a lot more creative liberties. After all, hundreds or thousands of years in the future, it’s very unlikely that anyone will still be reading your story, let alone checking it for accuracy. Even so, be careful about basing the technology in your story on current technology (since this will probably be the equivalent of medieval or prehistoric technology that far into the future).
In some ways, it can be best to use almost fantastical technology in stories set in the distant future (eg: faster than light travel, teleportation etc….) since people can invent a lot of things in a single century, let alone in a millennium or three. A good test when coming up with very futuristic technology is to think of things which would be considered impossible by modern standards. After all, to someone in 1913 or in 1013, most of our current technology would probably be considered impossible or fantastical.
If you’re setting your story in the near future (eg: within the next couple of decades at least), then don’t change too much. As fast as technology moves, it doesn’t move as fast as some sci-fi novelists have predicted. If you’re going to add technology to your story, then it can be an idea to come up with smaller, vastly more powerful and more complex versions of current technology.
Even then, it might be an idea to downplay the technology in your story or leave it slightly vague, since current technology can quickly become obsolete over the space of a single decade, let alone two or three.
For example, if you wanted to back up your data in the first half of the 1990s, you’d probably use a floppy disk. These days, you’d either use a USB stick (which would have been totally unimaginable even fifteen years ago) or you’d use cloud computing. Who knows what people will be using for backups in ten years’ time? My money is on cloud computing, but there’s no real way to tell.
Plus, in stories set in both the near and distant future, make sure to think about the social impact any new forms of technology will have. Most of the social changes caused by new technology can be fairly subtle and mundane (eg: people consulting Wikipedia rather than opening an old-fashioned encyclopaedia when they need to find out about something) but some changes can be fairly radical. For example, think about how different the world was before and after the invention of the World Wide Web, the internal combustion engine or the printing press etc…
2) Historical events: These are next to impossible to predict properly. For example, some older sci-fi stories were automatically rendered laughably dated after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A more sombre example is that any sci-fi story or movie which was set in New York and was created before 9/11 (eg: “Escape From New York”) can look obviously dated to modern audiences.
Plus, the social, military and/or political changes which followed 9/11 (many of which would have been widely seen as unthinkably dystopic even twenty years earlier etc…) couldn’t have been predicted by that many authors who were writing before 2001.
There is no real way to account for major historical changes which occur after you’ve finished your sci-fi story. About the best way to guard against this kind of thing is to set your story either on another planet or in the very distant future.
3) Ye olde timelessness: Some sci-fi authors and directors try to do this as a way to make their stories appear “timeless” and it’s ridiculously contrived. I am, of course, talking about sci-fi stories where most of the major cultural works in the distant future are things which are already seen as ancient these days. Yes, using public domain stuff doesn’t cause copyright issues – but the idea that most people hundreds of years into the future will be enjoying stories which are already seen as dusty and old is absolutely laughable.
The fact is, at any point in time, there will be lowest-common-denominator “mainstream” entertainment ( eg: gladiatorial combat, public executions, cheesy action movies, music halls/vaudeville, celebrity talent shows etc….) , there will be a lot of old stuff (which relatively few people read or watch) and there will probably be lots of interesting non-mainstream media (eg: indie films or indie holo-recordings or whatever video format people use in the future) too. Almost all of this stuff will have been created at some point in the future and will probably have nothing to do with current culture and media.
So, if you’re going to have your characters read a story or watch a movie or play a game, then make it up yourself. Invent a fake title, fake actors, fake consoles etc… it’s the only way to stop your story from sounding ridiculously anachronistic.
After all, with the exception of religious texts, how many things written thousands of years ago do large numbers of people these days read on a regular basis?
4) Culture: Culture changes. That’s a fact. If you’re setting your story at any point in the distant future, then you can’t base it on the current culture in wherever you live. You might just about get away with it if your story is set ten years in the future, but any more than that and things start getting a bit more complicated.
Social norms and taboos can change drastically within decades, let alone centuries. Fashions can change even more quickly. New words come into existence and old words gradually fade into disuse (eg: the English that I’m using in this article would be very different to, say, the English that people used in the 17th century). Slang changes even more quickly (and writing good futuristic slang is notoriously difficult to do). Common attitudes can change significantly within decades.
So, what’s a writer to do? Well, looking at history, society (in many parts of the world) gradually seems to be becoming more liberal, knowledgeable, informal and open-minded. Yes, there might be the occasional temporary setback and different countries change at different paces but, in general, society gradually tends to improve over time. So, if you’re setting your story between a couple of decades and a couple of centuries in the future, then this is worth bearing in mind.
Before anyone thinks that I’m being unrealistically utopic, I should also point out that war, poverty, greed, exploitation, injustices, cruelty etc… have obviously been pretty constant things throughout most of human history and they seem unlikely to go away any time in the near future (or even the distant future either).
However, if you’re setting your story on another planet and/or in the ridiculously distant future, then you have a lot more creative freedom when it comes to what kind of culture your characters will live in.
5) Understand history: As you’ve probably guessed from all of the previous points on this list, the best way to avoid making your sci-fi stories sound dated is to have at least a general understanding of history. We can’t predict the future with any degree of certainty, but we can look for patterns and trends in the past. Whilst history doesn’t always repeat itself, it tends to do this fairly often.
But, I’m not just talking about world history here, I’m talking about the history of the science fiction genre too. After all, how are you going to know what kind of mistakes to avoid if you don’t see any examples of them in older sci-fi stories?
Anyway, I hope that this article was useful 🙂