When Science Fiction Lies

Here we are, the beginning of 2010. According to Arthur C. Clarke, this is the "year we make contact." But don't hold your breath. After all, according to his 2001: A Space Odyssey, we should have had a colony on the moon and sentient computers a decade ago. Such is the danger of setting science fiction stories in the "not-too-distant future." The future has a nasty habit of eventually becoming the present and then the past.

Astronaut Buck Rodgers (according to the 1979 television show that ran into the early 80s) should have been launched into space in 1987 where he should now be frozen due to a life-support system malfunction -- he should be out there right now, floating aimlessly, until he's discovered in the 25th Century. According to Star Trek, Earth should have had its Eugenics Wars in the 1990s. According to Space: 1999, a catastrophic explosion on the moon in September almost 11 years ago should have knocked Luna out of its orbit around Earth, hurling it into the dark void of distant outer space. And according to the first Terminator movie, Skynet should have become self-aware and started a nuclear war on August 29, 1997. (Okay, Terminator 2 changed all that, but you get my point.)

I love science fiction. I understand that near-future stories are much more relatable than tales set millennia from now. But I get annoyed when science fiction writers give us the exact year of their speculative fiction. Can't they just be vague about it? Can't they just say "five years from now" or "twenty years from now" or even just "tomorrow"? That way, whenever we're reading the story or watching the movie, the time would be relative to when we're watching instead of a specific point in history that can become dated.

Of course, the beauty of science fiction is that it allows geeks like me to explain those indiscrepancies with theories of alternate timelines, parallel universes, etc. Still, it would be much easier if they just avoided giving us an exact near-future date in the first place.


MediumRob said…
Yes time will quickly overtake things. 'UFO' was set in 1980 and looked as futuristic as 'Space: 1999'. Then there was Orwell's 1984 (which was at least just a reverse of 1948, when the book was written), and the 70s TV show '1990'. None of that happened.

But even if you do set things at a time far off in the future, time still catches up with you. The Martian Chronicles were set initially in 1999 and written from 1947 onwards, yet time has already passed them by.

I'm sure Star Cops - made in 1987 and set 40 years in the future in 2027 - will soon be upon us and we'll all be wondering why there isn't a Soviet Union or a Ronald Reagan space station as predicted, or why computer viruses are supposed to seem like such a novelty.

If you remember 'Max Headroom', that probably had the most elegant solution: it was set 20 minutes in the future:


Immediately you know it's not literally 20 minutes in the future, but is just allegorical. No problems.
Nick said…
George Orwell's 1984 handled it brilliantly because he specifically states that he THINKS it's 1984, but it really could be any year. In a society where the totalitarian government and Big Brother control everything and alter history at their whim, even the very year you're in becomes a big question mark. That's a great example of how a speculative fiction writer can keep the "near future" date vague while providing specifics for the story.

Max Headroom, by the way, was great!
Anonymous said…
You know, that kind of annoyed me in the Flashforward book. It wasn't so much that it was set in the near future, which is our present, but that he tried to write about stupid cultural fads, like colored jeans being fashionable and only old people clinging to blue jeans. I wish he had left things like that alone since it immediately pulls you out of the story, far more than the fantastical stuff that is the crux of the story.