Why science fiction dates so horribly, sometimes

One of my pet irritations with some science fiction is the way authors often succumb to the ‘recency effect’ when inserting the ‘science’ part into their stories.

The Sun’s corona. Public domain, CC0 license, via http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=170723&picture=corona

What usually happens is that a recent discovery, looming large and appearing to transform understanding, becomes a raison d’etre or story pivot – except, not long afterwards, that discovery is either discredited or put in proper place. That dates the story instantly.

The best science fiction doesn’t fall for that one; and for good reason. Ultimately, the science is part of the setting – but what counts is story, character and, often underlying commentary. Ultimately, science fiction isn’t about the future. It’s about us, now, and the best sci-fi stories are really social commentary on current trend.

When that’s done right, the story becomes timeless – because the author has nailed the fundaments of human nature, which don’t change even though social custom, fashion and society does.

That’s why Shakespeare is still popular today, and why classic sci-fi speaks to us. Take Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust. This was written nearly a decade before the moon landings, which incorporated a theory of the day about the effect of vacuum and intense sunlight on moon rocks.

Eventually, the idea went, all or part of the lunar surface would be broken down into super-fine dust – and maybe it could accumulate into crater bottoms, creating ‘seas’ of dust. The concept was based on straight-forward principles associated with the way rock breaks down under repeated heating and cooling. This is one of the mechanisms that form sand and the basis of some soils on Earth; and on the Moon, which lacks atmosphere, the temperature extremes are huge. At the turn of the 1960s, when Clarke wrote the novel, the idea was widely accepted – so much so, indeed, that a good deal of work was done by NASA during the Apollo programme to find out how dusty the Moon’s surface was – and how to stop the Lunar Module from plopping into it and sinking.

Buzz Aldrin and the LM, 20 July 1969. Photo: NASA

That was one of the purposes of the Surveyor probes that landed on the Moon in the mid-1960s, ahead of the manned landings. And it turned out that, in fact, the Moon’s surface is covered in dirt – largely produced by this principle, but nowhere near as fine as was feared, or as deep. Indeed, the particles were far rougher than anybody imagined because of a lack of atmospheric weathering. You can actually see where the LM descent engine has blown the thin layer of surface dirt away in some of the Apollo-era photos from the lunar surface – it didn’t do it much because the net pressure from the motor wasn’t high.

So the central premise of Clarke’s novel was disproved within five years of his novel coming out. Did that matter? Not at all.

What Clarke wrote was a human story about how people react when trapped in a life-or-death situation, hoping to be rescued. The scenario he used was a ‘sub-smash’ – where a submarine crew have to stay alive long enough to escape their sunken vessel – except in this case the trapped people were not trained sailors, but tourists. What counted were the human reactions; how do you stop panic spreading? How do you occupy people who are stuck together with nothing in common, where rescue may not come?

Along the way Clarke explored an awful lot about the human condition, it was completely timeless – and when backed by classic Clarke hard science when it came to the engineering solutions needed to rescue the survivors, easily transcended the fact that just a few years later the Moon was found not to be all that dusty. As, I think, Clarke suspected in any case; his scenario explicitly suggested that only certain areas had the problem.

What this does is give his novel a strength that renders it timeless. Like Shakespeare. And yes, I just compared Clarke to Shakespeare. And why not? They were both great English writers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018


8 thoughts on “Why science fiction dates so horribly, sometimes

  1. It tend to disagree with people who claim that SF dates “horribly” — if one views SF as primarily concerned with technology speculation (which, is of course, speculation) than that is a superficial way of engaging with a complicated literary form…. Of course, you do suggest that Clarke’s novel isn’t simply about technology (I disagree that the book itself is worth the read but I agree with your final general sentiment).


    1. Thank you! I’ve been re- re-perusing my Clarke collection of late – I have most of his stuff and re-read them all about 10 years ago, when he died, as a kind of tribute to his work. I’d forgotten how prescient he was about the internet and its social impact!

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      1. You’re welcome! That’s really good to know- I have Clarke on my list (one of the many, many authors I need to get on and read) but I really like your sentiments here about the timelessness of good literature and the way the predictive elements of its social commentary, and like I said, it was a brilliant post!

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  2. The classic example of your premise might be what I personally regard as the first modern science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The “science” was thin to virtually nonexistent (perhaps the first example of “handwavium”?) but the story still stands as a classic.

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    1. Yes, absolutely – I think they knew even then the idea was fairly much hand-waved, but as you say, the story has stood the test of time in so many ways. Did you ever read Brian Aldiss’ riff on it – ‘Frankenstein Unbound’?

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