Science Fiction’s Anachronisms of the Future

Space retains its mystery as long as humans have yet to conquer it.
Space retains its mystery, which makes for excellent space-based science fiction… for now.

When I’m looking for a new nerdy obsession, I typically gravitate towards science fiction more than fantasy. It’s a very slight bias, because I love both… but when I’m immersed in a science fiction world, I feel a certain awe for what humans could potentially accomplish. I also hold science fiction authors in great esteem, because science fiction requires all the creativity and intelligence it takes to write fantasy — and then it requires scientific knowledge on top of all that. After all, part of the appeal of (most) sci-fi is the futuristic technology.

So what happens when you read science fiction that doesn’t come true? Watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine recently, the two-part episode called “Past Tense” has the crew of the Defiant visiting San Francisco circa 2024. The social commentary is incredibly interesting; during this time, the city has a “Sanctuary District” that houses the homeless. As you can probably imagine, this supposedly altruistic scheme has failed to create an idyllic place for people who are essentially treated as society’s outcasts; their freedom is taken away, and life inside this ghetto is hardly superior to what life might be like out on the streets.

The problem with the episode is the technology. Terminals are bulky — not the flat-screens we know today. At one point, Dax visits the office of a wealthy, famous entrepreneur and uses his computer, which turns out to be one of those bulky white desktop computers commonly seen in… well, the 1990’s, when DS9 was on the air.

These types of things crop up all over the Star Trek universe, as well as many other sci-fi worlds, but they feel more comfortable when they’re part of a distant, fictional future that has its own rules. It’s not so bad to see someone use a ridiculous walkie-talkie device if it’s on a spacecraft that’s using cloaking technology. Somehow, the mind-blowing technology balances out the technology that just sort of fizzles, and it all works together to feel authentic. However, seeing these characters jump back to a time that’s so close to our own puts all of the anachronisms into glaring focus.

This doesn’t ruin my enjoyment of science fiction. I don’t hold these sorts of “future anachronisms” against world-builders or writers. How can anyone be expected to predict exactly what technology will look like in the future, and exactly when it will look like that? And sometimes the date doesn’t even matter, such as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. So what if we don’t have a moon base yet? The film loses almost none of its ability to inspire awe on the part of the viewer, even if the date 2001 no longer screams “space age!”

Jake scribbles his journalistic writings on a data pad. (In another DS9 episode, he uses pen and paper.)

But there’s no denying that it’s a jarring experience to see a futuristic world depicted in such an old-fashioned way. On the positive side, in a lot of sci-fi from the 20th century we see handheld data pads, video chatting, and remote communication devices that are arguably a step up from the cell phone. However, there’s also a distinct lack of personal computers and internet, because they’re examples of the technological advances that are so revolutionary and hit with such lightning speed, nobody could predict how much they would change how we go about our daily lives.

This is what terrifies me about writing science fiction of my own. I don’t want to create a world and completely miss a game-changer like social networking. Similarly, I don’t want to be overly optimistic and assume that we’re going to unlock faster-than-light travel within a couple of decades.

In today’s ever-changing world of fads and innovations, it seems the safest science fiction to tackle is space opera. In the 21st century, we’re space opera junkies. The further we are from developing a type of technology in the real world, the safer we are in imagining it for a fictional world. Sometimes that even translates to awe and anticipation for what the universe’s future really holds.

Ashley

5 Comments Add yours

  1. tobecooper says:

    Many science fiction writers just read the science journals to check out the latest inventions and prognosis for the future. But I don’t believe science fiction should set any boundaries for itself. Go as crazy or as moderate as you want :)

    Also, I enjoy seeing anachronisms in sci-fi. In my opinion they add flavor, and I imagine everything as alternative universes anyway. There is an interesting game being developed right now called Routine which takes place on a space station on a Moon in the 80s (linky: http://routinegame.com/). And I really like the concept of delving into the past and adding future to it – retro-upgrading sci-fi.

    1. Yeah, I also like to think of sci-worlds worlds as parallel universes or taking place on an alternative timeline. The most jarring anachronisms are those written decades ago that would have been taking place right now, I think. With all the unrealized prophecies in the decades-old fiction, the alternative timeline idea doesn’t hold up well! However, occasionally I come across a work of fiction that’s SUPPOSED to take place on an alternative timeline, so it works… like the XCOM games. Routine looks really good, thanks for linking the trailer. It also sets you up for an alternative timeline, and I looove the idea of sci-fi taking place in the past.

      It’s interesting you say the anachronisms can add flavor. That’s a good point, and sometimes they can work well to establish the mood of a world, too. There’s also the sort of “tacky” sci-fi that includes robot maids and things like that, which we may or may not see in real life… but I have a soft spot for that kind of retro sci-fi. =)

  2. Sam Leung says:

    I do find it jarring as well when I see anachronisms in sci-fi sometimes, especially when it’s supposed to be set near present time and there are certain things blatantly missing, like the internet. However, that feeling usually passes pretty quickly as I think I’ve been conditioned from watching old sci-fi shows and reading old sci-fi books that have tons of anachronisms in them as it’s kind of an unavoidable part of the genre. Also, even with most modern sci-fi, they contain a lot inventions or tech that seem pretty unlikely even for the future from a scientific standpoint – there plenty of those in all major sci-fi novels/games/movies like Mass Effect or Star Wars. Coming from a family of scientists I do tend to get a lot of ‘you do know that’s not possible, right?’ I think fans are particularly forgiving of the sci-fi genre, because they’re interested in the creator’s overall vision of the future and get excited by the possibility of tech we may never see, rather than expecting to see what WILL happen. I find a lot of quite old sci-fi to still be very interesting and relevant even if the writer was clearly off-the-mark, because many of the concepts are still relevant today. I think sci-fi is more difficult to write than most fiction, but I wouldn’t be put off by things like accuracy! I’m sure any sci-fi novel you wrote would be awesome. :)

    1. Thanks! =) That’s true, it’s about the writer’s overall vision, and personally I love sinking into the “mood” of a sci-fi world. Mass Effect feels a little different than Star Trek, which feels a little different than Dune, etc. The futuristic technology — even the anachronisms, I suppose — can add to that tone.

      I hadn’t thought about sci-fi showing us tech we may never really see, and that being exciting. That’s a really good point! Also, I love watching shows, etc., that try to work out whether sci-fi advances are possible in the real world or not. Sometimes it’s fun just to explore the science behind the ideas, even if they’re not quite feasible.

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