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When the future is out of date

I like science fiction. But lately, I’ve read a whole bunch of SF that feels, well, dated.

The books were older, granted, but each author was highly regarded so I looked forward to engaging reads. And in the opening few pages, I was engaged (these were good writers, you understand). But then, as I read about the colonization of Mars in the second half of the 21st century, I was told that white Americans and Russians had done all the space exploration to date. In another story, a female leader of the 22nd century asked her male companion whether “women drivers” made him nervous. And in a third volume, worse still, the author described a late 22nd century English bureaucracy run by Chinese immigrants because, you know, they’re so canny. (I am not making this up—I couldn’t finish the book.)

This was the future I was reading about. And in each case, wham, the author dragged me back to the past—and not a nice one, either. I did try to reimmerse myself, but once my ears had been attuned, every new anachronism pulled me further away from the story. By the time I finished the book, I was thinking, meh, this is supposed to be good?

Which made me wonder: does science fiction age faster than other kind of fiction?

The present is changing fast. The future is changing faster. The far future envisioned by a present-day author will be overtaken (at least in part) by new technology within the next ten years. But that kind of dating doesn’t usually bother me. As long as the book is well written, I’m willing to suspend disbelief and place the story in an alternate future where, say, hand held communicators are still brand new one hundred years from now. What bothers me is an envisioned future where social mores are stuck at the date of publication.

What makes science fiction fascinating to me—what makes all fiction fascinating to me—is the author’s view of human nature. These are stories about people, even when the people are in the form of alien beings with eight limbs. You plop someone down in 18th century Scotland, or in early 1900s Lahore, India, or on a ship traveling for years between planets, and what I’m interested in is how these humans (in whatever form they’re given) react to their circumstances. The danger in science fiction is to confuse current social mores with human nature.

That’s where other fiction has it easier—you don’t usually have to make such a fine point between what is fundamental to humans and what society imposes because the story takes place at a specific point of time, either in the past or the present. The social mores are given (or researched). Science fiction has the added task of creating plausible social mores. And because our social mores are associated with values (“It’s polite to shake hands in the U.S.” “Picking your nose in public is gross.”), and they change over time (in the 1950s, it was considered polite for women to wear gloves and a hat when in public), to have a story set in a time ahead of me with values that are already dated, jars. Add to that technological anachronisms, and the story starts feeling its age, very, very quickly.

This is not to say that other fiction doesn’t get dated, too. Of course it does. But it’s easier to forgive outdated mores if they are true to their era than if they occur in the future. A story where it’s considered shocking for an American woman to drive a car might be okay if placed in the early 20th century, but it’d be absurd set in the late 21st.

Maybe this is why other kinds of fantastical fiction dates more slowly. I can deal with outdated mores in a world that is not meant to have come from mine. The future is trickier. Which is another reason why I like good science fiction—it takes a really good writer to do it well.

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