Monday, March 2, 2009

On Avoiding Dated-neſs

BEING an opinion into the nature of predictions, science-fictional &c., and the multifarious manners in which their inaccuracies can be mitigated for the ENRICHMENT of suſpenſion of diſbelief.

"It does not pay a prophet to be too specific."
-- L. Sprague de Camp

This post at Robert J. Sawyer's weblog proved to be the kick I needed to finish up this post of my own. Science fiction authors frequently deal with an issue that most other literature doesn't care about; being proven wrong by time. In Sawyer's case, part of the background of his recent novel Rollback was that an alien radio transmission was received from Sigma Draconis, yesterday.

No wonder Firefox won't load the Toronto Star.

Personally, in my own writings, I've tried to live by the advice above and be only as specific as necessary - in particular, specific about things that are not supposed to happen until I'm already dead, by which point my vindication will not matter much to me. Nevertheless, being blindsided is a fact of life, and it's impossible to pinpoint just what offhand reference might prove to date your work. I have to wonder how many stories written in the 1990s included, for example, a 21st century World Trade Center or Metropolitan Toronto.

I dealt with this question myself earlier this weekend, while writing a story still in search of a name. In keeping with George Orwell's suggestions in Politics and the English Language, I try to create fresh metaphors, similes, and whatnot rather than rely on old standbys that have lost whatever force they might have had. So I ended up with this:

"His own [chair] had an unwelcome warmth to it, like a streetcar seat just vacated by someone riding since Long Branch."

The reference is particular enough that I wouldn't expect someone unfamiliar with the Toronto transit system to understand it. The 501 Queen streetcar, my own standard horse for getting to work, is the longest streetcar line in the city, linking Neville Park Loop in the east with Long Branch Loop in western Etobicoke, practically straddling the Mississauga border. It's all one continuous line, which makes it easy for some idiot tooling around on Lake Shore Boulevard to create what amounts to a massive delay once the Red Rockets hit downtown.

Personally, I like this reference. In my mind it helps to establish the character and hints at the setting, though there's one problem that gnawed at me. This story is set in the early 2080s; as recently as 1996, streetcars didn't travel all the way east from Long Branch. I have no assurances that Long Branch will even be seeing streetcars seventy years from now.

So there's a pretty good chance, I figure, that this is a dated reference in making. Maybe, if I'm supremely lucky, some folk in the real 2080s will skim it over and snicker at how off-base I was. None of that matters, really. I chose to keep the reference for one other reason - the "Long" in Long Branch. I tried the sentence using Neville Park, and it just didn't work.

After all, sf isn't so much a prediction of the future as an extension of the present.

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