When science fiction has an expiration date

Philip K. Dick (here in a drawing by Peter
Welsch) predicted the invention of the mobile
There is a certain kind of science fiction that tends to have an expiration. These are usually those stories set in a more or less near future as part of our real timeline. It does not happen if the events take place in a galaxy far, far away, if we imagine that the aliens arrive today, or if we invent a time machine that takes us into the past. But if we try to create a story with a more or less precise time denotation in the future, no doubt in twenty years, but also ten, many of the things that we have described will be antiquated, anachronistic, because, as we try to imagine what happens, to do so we have to rely on what we know and do not have the means to know exactly how the technology will evolve.

It is clear that this does not at all diminish the artistic and entertainment value of certain books (as well as movies or TV series, even if they suffer more of this issue because of the visual element that leaves little to the imagination) created thirty or fifty years ago, because what makes them beautiful is independent from the details of the setting itself. It's no coincidence that cinema constantly draws on the so-called classic science fiction to create films that are all except anachronistic. You take the story, which is what really matters, and present it based on today's standards of perception of the future. And it works, actually it works great.
What remains, however, is the fact that while re-watching some old films or re-reading certain books you tend to smile in learning about colonies on Mars in the 90s of the twentieth century or computers using punched cards in 2000 or people looking for a phone booth in the next century.
Sometimes this anachronism is due to an excessive optimism about goals reachable by mankind in the near future, in other cases, it is due to the inability to see in your head a reality which is really other than that in which you live.
Who writes this type of fiction must sooner or later come to terms with this problem, because it may be that what we imagine today would be denied in a few years by what really happens (or does not happen).
There is also a phenomenon that is opposite to the above-mentioned one or that is partially mixed to it. There are authors from the past who, for a magical intuition, described technology or situations that are very close to what we see today.

In the famous novel "Ubik" by Philip K. Dick, published in 1969, but set at the end of the last century, characterized by a plot that could be applied to any historical period (because independent of science fiction itself), along with improbable technologies, there is the appearance of an object that we know very well, but that would have been invented many years after the publication of the book: a mobile phone.

But what you notice even more today is an extreme version of this phenomenon. Instead of seeing science fiction drawing from science to create the background or the engine of stories, it happens that science inspires from the imagination of authors, including those from the past, to create objects that seem to come straight from the big screen or the pages of a book.
Now we have spectacles with augmented reality, smart TV that responds to your gestures, your window becomes an enormous transparent screen (touch screen, of course), just to name a few. All (very useful?) objects that seem to want to project us into the near future, a thousand times seen in the movies or books, as if that future were something already decided, which we are destined to reach.
But how many of these (kind of frivolous) inventions will survive the passage of time? And what if, instead of becoming part of our everyday life, as in exciting science fiction stories read by those who have invented them, they would prove to be in a few years no less anachronistic than a thousand other inventions described in those same stories?

This article is originally available in Italian on Kipple Blog.


  1. "Perhaps the crispest definition is that science fiction is a literature of 'what if?' What if we could travel in time? What if we were living on other planets? What if we made contact with alien races? And so on. The starting point is that the writer supposes things are different from how we know them to be."

    That's a definition of science fiction by Christopher Evans, which I like very much. I think that as long as a science fiction story is focused on an interesting 'what if', the technological inventions that describes become less important. And that may bring to a story that lasts longer in time.

    What about firemen that burn books ? Wow. That is more interesting than any technological stuff they equipped with. And it lasts.

    1. Yes, you are right, but sometimes when you read an old sci-fi book with anachronistic stuff it sounds so weird that it can affect the suspension of disbelief. Sometimes it makes me laugh, even if the story was not supposed to be funny! :D

  2. I think it's extremely difficult to write good sci-fi books. Because you have to imagine a world that doesn't exist, and at the same time it has be credible.

    The credibility of the story is not in itself based on the description of phenomenal machines/gadgets, but probably on how the events unfold, how the characters interact with each other and how they react in those circumstances.

    Still, because the setting is often 'imagined' and doesn't yet exist, the writer has a hell of a job trying to make the reader feel involved. And I have great respect for those writers who manage to do just this :-)

    1. Thanks, Martina!
      Anyway I have to admit that I feel more comfortable in writing about a world imagined by me and with rules set by me. It's easier to me to follow my own rules than others' which I may not know or understand very well. I mean, I just need my fantasy and some science background. ;)