Technologies rise and fall and sci fi is the one genre above all other where projected new technologies can quickly become anachronistic. Today’s post a day is about just that – obsolescence – except I’m going to briefly discuss one of the biggest problems of writing science fiction. Read any sci fi books from the 1950s and previously and you will cringe at some of the technology that appears there.
The most apparent to the modern fan who still delights at endless re-runs of Red Dwarf, is the notion that 200-300 years from now we will still be using video tapes for data storage. In the 1980s, the internet was still a decade away from having mass appeal and Cloud was something you saw in the sky. A zip drive might have sounded like something you might buy at a BDSM shop and 100GB would have sounded like an amount of hard disk space you might never have filled.
Yet Red Dwarf, for its main focus being on comedy, did have some interesting technological ideas. Androids, cyborgs, genetically engineered life forms, rewriting DNA, hypersleep (stasis), virtual reality video games… none of these things were completely original. But what about constructing ships from light so it could travel to the far reaches of the universe? What about the ability to create solid mass from light? What about bio-engineered computers and virus that can affect them? Might these one day be realised and might they one day too become obsolete, possibly before the 23rd century?
For the “Science Romance” novels of the late 19th century, it was pretty clear that steam technology was here to stay and would pave the way either for continued domination of the British Empire in particular, or the Anglophone world in general. We now know that petroleum would supersede steam in the early 20th century and now, some 100 years later, we are looking towards a post-petroleum world as we realise the affect that fossil fuels are having on our climate.
Obsolescence doesn’t just affect technology though – as national boundaries change, countries descend into civil war and new borders drawn up with peace processes, countries are partitioned, it can cause a momentary jolt to the system to remind yourself that a certain book was written before a certain event (for example before either of the world wars or before the end of Communism). The Arthur C. Clarke novel (and its film) 2001: A Space Odyssey suddenly loses its threat to us as the cold war has now been over for 20 years; this is far more of an issue in the sequel 2010: Odyssey 2. We are immediately stuck between its as a history of the future while still waiting to realise some of the technologies in the book/film.
Even with political world views we tend to see visions of the past projected into the future. John Jacob Astor (who died with the sinking of the Titanic) wrote a sci fi book somewhere towards the end of the 19th century entitled Journeys in Other Worlds (I review it here). In this world, the two global superpowers are USA and the British Empire. Largely the spheres of influence are geographical, with Britain maintaining its power base in what we would today recognise as the Third World. When we look at this map from 1900 it is not difficult to see why – eventual contraction of the Ottoman Empire was presumed on the part of Astor. He did not foresee WWI which would change European and global politics.
Russia does not even enter into the equation in Astor’s book other than it has some sort of vassal status of the British Empire – (I don’t remember the precise details) with the USA dominating the Americas and Pacific basin. The world is also of course one of Free Market Capitalism and this fuels the protagonist’s journeys to Jupiter and Saturn in order to plunder them and provide new resources for the insatiable appetite for human consumption. There has been no substantial Social Liberalism, Marxism or any other major world-view that we might recognise as approaching leftist. This is surprising as Astor would have been aware of the Chartists and the broader working rights movement – a movement that both grew and won many major rights for common folk within his own living memory.
Obsolescence will continue to be a factor for sci fi writers but a book’s value doesn’t go out of the window because of a technology that may now never come to pass (because the technology that it was supposed to have come from is now obsolete itself).