When Science Goes Stale

Last night, my husband and I watched Jurassic Park.  To make you all feel as old as I do, Jurassic Park came out eighteen years ago, in 1993.  I probably haven’t watched it in a decade, but I remember being really impressed with it (I even had the soundtrack).  DNA!  Dinosaurs!  Gene sequencing!

Turns out, it comes across really dated now.  The advances in Paleontology in the past decade have been immense – now we suspect most if not all dinosaurs had feathers, and, in some cases, we even know what color they were.  Even ignoring that, which admittedly people may not be up on if they are not as big of a dinosaur freak as I am (I had to explain to two people in the last week that there was no such thing as a brontosaurus – it was an apatosaurus put together wrong), they’re using CRT televisions.  Lex gets excited about a CD-ROM.  The “UNIX” that Jurassic Park runs on looks nothing like any UNIX I’ve ever used.

I started this post with the intention of talking about science fiction and how what can seem strange and cutting edge can be old news or just plain wrong in a matter of years – I don’t know if you’ve ever read Verne or Wells, they are brilliant, but oh, the science at times – but I realized it’s not just science fiction where this is a potential problem.  I read a mystery lately where I honestly wondered why the main character didn’t just look something up on the internet before I realized that it was because there was no internet, not really, in 1994 when the book was published.

What’s an author to do?  If you’re writing contemporary or science fiction, you don’t know how the world’s going to go, and it makes no sense to second-guess everything you write, from the internet to cell phones to air travel (I’m still hoping for reliable teleportation in the next few years).  I’ve seen this go a couple of different ways: 1) set the story in the near past (i.e. the last twenty years) where things are close enough to today to be  relate-able and the technology state is known, or 2) say Hell with it and go about your business as usual.

It is a bit aggravating when something you wrote four years ago has gone out of date technologically, however.

As a reader, does it pull you out of the narrative when the science and technology don’t mesh with how you know things to be now?  As a writer, what’s your approach when dealing with technology that is here today but may be gone tomorrow or may never come to be?

6 responses to this post.

  1. It was IRIX, SGI’s flavor of Unix. And evidently, you could interface with that OS graphically as the movie showed, not that any of my friends at SGI did. 🙂

    My drawer’ed novel that will never see the light of day has this problem. Set in the late 90s, when I started it, it doesn’t have texting or ipods, or widespread internet use, or 9/11. The mystery would be solved a lot more easily if the MC could use wikipedia/twitter/facebook/even myspace(shudder). Hell, it even has film being developed, which rarely happens in this era of digital cameras. But I need the scenes in the dark room.


    As a reader, as long as it is clear to me up front that the setting is in the near past, I’m OK with it. But if I’m all, “Why doesn’t he just email her?” or “Just look it up on google!” and THEN figure out the setting pre-dates those things, well, now I’m just annoyed it wasn’t made clear sooner.

    Obviously, historical fiction is pretty obvious, but if the book *could* be taking place today and isn’t, I need to know ASAP to reset my expectations.

    As for books set in the near future, I just let it slide. If actual events contradict it, I tell myself the book is set in an alternate future. As I see the crazy things in my unpublished SF novel actually happen, I’m both pleased and annoyed. Pleased I got it right, annoyed it happened BEFORE the book was out there.

    Ah well.


  2. Posted by scribbles on 2011/06/02 at 10:31 PM

    As a reader, I don’t quite have a problem with time/setting being different with what I know. Like Ian, as long it’s clear to me–I think it has to do with managing expectations.

    There’s only one series that I felt betrayed me in time/setting. It was written in the early 90s, so the Internet and mobile phone weren’t commonplace. Then came some other books, then something happened to the author, and she went on a 10 year hiatus. She recently came back and was asked to continue that very first series.

    All in all, nearly two decades (zomg) had passed between the last book and this new book. And what does she do? …She writes the current book as if only a few days (DAYS) had passed for the characters — but they were in the now. In essence, these characters time-traveled from the early 90s to the late 2000s. (The previous book had diary entries that were very specifically dated, too, so we know that the events ended in 1992.) There are now mobile phones. Internet. Video phone calls. >_<

    This point drove me batshit crazy. (Other things have gone really wrong with this series/author, too, which makes me mourn since I really loved this author's work as a preteen.)


    • Posted by scribbles on 2011/06/02 at 10:32 PM

      Uh, mobile phone = cell phone. I forget that sometimes our terminology is not the same.


    • That IS unforgivable. You don’t do a time shift like that to your readers (unless you’re a diabolical genius planning to explain why they time shifted a book or two later – then you’re cool and awesome and I so need to do this!).


    • I’ve seen that a couple of times, too. Drives me bonkers. (Though, Ian, if you can pull it off I will be in awe. 😉 )


  3. For some reason your post made me think of the animated Inspector Gadget series and how clunky Penny’s dear computerized book looks now.


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