In writing Steampunk, which can be referred to as historical sci-fi, we have the advantage of living about a hundred years into the future of the time period our books are set in. Though we have to research science, mechanics, and history for our stories, we have leeway in knowing more about the future than our characters, since we actually live in it. I think that’s so cool. Also, it’s always good to know more than your characters. Sci-fi writers however, often find the science in their stories pre-empted by new discoveries. That was the subject of a panel I attended last weekend at Comicpalooza. Larry Niven, author of the award winning Ringworld series, who’s been writing for over fifty years, and Timothy Zahn, best known for his Star War novels, who’s been writing for over thirty years, made up the panel on Future Tense, Present Tense.
About the same time Larry Niven began writing, Nasa started sending up probes. Due to discoveries made by the probes, Niven had to make adjustments to the science in his stories. He was working on books set on Mars at the time, and based on new information from the probes, he had to keep changing Mars, which he found annoying, especially since it was a series.
Nasa has done more to mess up science fiction writers’ stories than any other government agency. Saturn use to be the only planet with rings, now they all have rings. Then there’s Pluto. The little planet that wasn’t. All the stories which mentioned it have been discredited since it’s no longer a planet.
Larry Niven said, “The problem with anticipating is you can anticipate, but the universe will take everything in a different direction. Predicting the near future is a dangerous game.” Speaking of predictions, Timothy Zahn’s favorite theory on the Mayan’s is they were counting down to the re-release of the hobbit. Makes sense to me.
Larry Niven commented on people thinking sci-fi writers are ahead of the scientist. “They’re not ahead of them at all, they’re following them, looking right over their shoulder. The writers are basically trying to write stories more interesting than the scientists’ articles. Sometimes they get something the scientists don’t and sometimes it’s just not there, like the canals on Mars.”
When a fan asked Niven about his thoughts on Space X’s recent success with the Dragon capsule, he was delighted it reached the space station and added, “Maybe we will get cheaper space ships. It’s obvious we need space travel, it’s the reasons for it that keep changing. We use to want rocket ships to go to the moon, now we need them to stop the next asteroid impact.”
Timothy Zahn noted the current emphasis in science on gene splicing and nanotech fusion. He feels the challenge in writing sci-fi stories about them is that a lot of times physics is simple in concept but not in execution.
Niven feels the moral of the story is know more than your characters. Timothy Zahn pointed out even after some of Niven’s stories were invalidated by new scientific discoveries, they still were reprinted several times. Zahn feels authors need to write the story well enough so it will stand up even if the science in it doesn’t.
If you think of those 19th century authors who inspired Steampunk, such as H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, the stories are as wonderful now as when they were first written even though the science in them is obsolete. Though I read the book forty years ago, I still sometimes think of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and the telepathic Martian woman who fell in love with an earthman because when she was with him he thought only of her. I’m even happier books like that were written now that I know there are no Martians, because I still got to know some through the imagination and talented writing of sci-fi authors.
What I love about sci-fi is that fanciful glimpse into a future where no matter what comes against us, we humans find a way to overcome it. In Steampunk we’re able to go back to a time, simpler in many ways, but riddled with extreme injustice to children, women, minorities, immigrants, and the poor, and we’re able to make it better. Our stories remind the readers that society has learned some things and improved. I don’t care too much about how far we advance scientifically, if society can become fairer, kinder, more peaceful, I’ll be happy with that. Present tense, past tense, I just hope the common sense reflected in sci-fi writers’ heroes will take hold on society. Then mankind really will have a bright future.