The rate of obsolescence in SF

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Although I’ve not been selling SF stories for that long, compared to a veteran like Ben Bova, I have to admit that a couple of my stories that were published in the early 1990s have already become out of date. This was mainly because of the rate of social change, rather than advances in science. Because I’m a high diversity writer, I made some predictions about gay marriage back in 1992 that only took 23 years to become reality. For anyone interested in reading it, the story is “GP Venture,” which can be found in Competitive Fauna, currently available as a e-book on Amazon. The story does also predict in vitro gestation that hasn’t come to pass yet, as well as increasing infertility due to environmental and climate damage.

As Bova suggests, this kind of success is vindication for a science fiction writer. If you can correctly predict the future, then you’ve written not only a good science fiction story, but you’ve also correctly read the social, economic and cultural trends that lead to your scenario actually coming to pass.

Does the “hardness” of SF change over time?

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The TVTropes article also points out that “hardness” in science fiction is always subject to change. Science continues to advance, and often stories that are written on the best science available at the time turn out to be only fantasy. On the other hand, news headlines today could make something written as fantastical, futuristic SF suddenly reality. This was also pointed out by Vivienne Raper in her article. The rate of change in science and technology is one of the things that discourages SF writers from attempting to grapple with even the near future. You could be in the midst of writing a hard SF novel when your science suddenly becomes obsolete. On the other hand, you could be in the midst when suddenly you find you’re writing non-fiction. Cyborg roaches? No problem.

TVTropes points out that, because of these changes, the hardness rating of SF can easily change over time. However, they suggest that the rating should be based on science during the time period in which the work was written. In other words, Jules Verne wrote hard SF, even though we know he was off a little bit in what he predicted.

Is hard SF dealing with obsolete topics?

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A while back I mentioned that anyone interested in writing hard SF should do a bit of research before starting out. This is because the increasing rate of change in technology is one of the things causing the previously discussed “conceptual block.” In the old days, one Renaissance guy like Leonardo da Vinci or Isaac Newton could keep up with most of what science there was in the world. Now there’s no way to do that. Instead, you may think you’re writing science fiction when science and technology have already passed you by.

Vivienne Raper has written a great article on this posted here. She runs down a list of advances you probably thought were still SF (leaving out a few massive advances in medicine that we should be looking at), and then makes the most telling comment: These advances make the standard SF novel obsolete. The hard truth is that a lot of standard, “traditional” SF is based on World War II technology, when the Nazis were working on ray guns, robotic artillery and orbital mirrors to focus sunlight onto the Earth.

So, if you want to be an effective SF writer, then a bit of self-education is in order. This isn’t insurmountable. The Internet is out there.

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