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Can Science Fiction age well?
Ray Bradbury died last year. Being as I never read anything by this science fiction giant, I felt obligated to find something of his work and read it. I found an old short story collection in my basement (I never throw anything out) and read his short story “The Love Affair.” I found it interesting. However Bradbury describes the planet Mars as having breathable air, canals with water, and Martians. Given that we now know that Mars doesn't have breathable air, canals with water, or Martians, I felt that the story hadn't aged well. I will search for something else by Bradbury.
I found a similar experience last year. While browsing in the movie section of a local library, I found a VHS version of the 1969 Sci-Fi movie “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun.” This movie was a wonderful childhood memory of mine and I promptly borrowed it from the library to see if the old movie still had the same magic. The story is set in the near future when the U.S. sends a space ship to explore a newly discovered mysterious planet on the far side of the sun. The movie was pretty good, but lacked the old magic. The unrealistic descriptions of space travel and the outdated cold war-like relations with Russia were distracting. The 1969 movie simply hadn't aged well.
It got me thinking. How can one write science fiction that ages well? I think the first thing to consider is the time setting of the story. If you write about the far future, you have less risk of bad aging. If one writes a story about the near future, you run the risk of your predictions not coming true. In 1968, Arthur C Clarke wrote the brilliant novel, “2001 A Space Odyssey.” The story had a plot that included a commerical airline flights to a huge orbiting space station, a permanent moon base and a massive manned spacecraft on a mission to a moon of Jupiter. When the year 2001 finally rolled into the present, it seemed to me that some of the luster of this story's modern vision of the future became tarnished. In 2001, we had no huge space station or moon base or manned mission to Jupiter.
Another way of aging well is to stay somewhat realistic and firmly grounded in good science. That way you will be an accurate predictor of the future. A good example of this would be Jules Verne. In 1870, Jules Verne described advanced submarine technology in “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” At the time, the concept seemed fantastic. However in the present, it has become a accurate predictor of our submarines.
The most popular Sci-Fi television show of all time is probably Star Trek. The show has led to numerous movies. William Shatner even made an appearance as Captain Kirk at this year's Oscars ceremony. It is interesting to note that some of the science on the show is now commonplace. The communicators that were so prevalent on the show resemble today's cell phones. Star Trek had computers that talked and today we have that technology. Also, the Star Trek computers had small computer memory devices that were similar to today's thumb drives or floppy disks. It should be mentioned that the Star Trek science is far from perfect. Star Trek always visited planets that have breathable air and earth-like gravity. Given that none of the planets and moons in our solar system can sustain human life, it would appear that such earth-like planets are rare.
After thinking about it, I think the very best way to create a story that ages well is to have a great idea to center your story around. For example, the AE Van Vogt 1944 short story “Far Centaurus” involves a space ship of traveling to Alpha Centuri. As such a journey takes longer than a human life, the ship was a sleeper ship with the astronauts in hibernation. When they finally arrive at Alpha Centuri, they discover that the human race has discovered light speed and beat them to the Alpha Centuri system. Since they were completely obsolete in this new modern time, they slingshot around a star and go back in time to return to where they came from. That 1944 idea makes you think doesn't it?
Another example of a great idea is HG Wells timeless novel “The Time Machine,” which was written way in 1895. Well's vision of a 802,701 AD future world in which the peaceful child-like Eloi live on the surface and the violent, cannibalistic Morlocks live underground still fascinates and frightens readers today. This story has been into a movie several times.
Unfortunately having a great idea to write is easier said than done. Ay, there's the rub! If great ideas were easier to come by, we'd all be millionaire novelists with lucrative movie deals. I'd write more on the aging of Science Fiction, but I have to push myself away from the keyboard and sit down and concentrate and attempt to get a great million dollar idea.
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