While writing reviews of science-fiction novels, I naturally notice certain trends in what I like and dislike about sci-fi books. Beyond that, I’ve discovered that there are some reoccurring types of “mistakes.” These aren’t just subgenres or archetypes I dislike, but unintentional errors that strike me as just plain poor writing.
I’m not particularly keen on “rules” for artistic expressions (they always beg to be broken in creative ways), but I’d like to open some discussion on suggestions for the genre. Sort of “Sci-fi Do’s and Don’ts.”
To start off, I’d like to stamp a big “DON’T” onto the idea of writing about the future through a narrow and overly-specific lens of one’s own time. This goes beyond scientific or technical limitations like Ray Bradbury and C.S. Lewis describing the canals on Mars.
For example: Why would any author think that the slang in their own period would exist 500 years or even 10 years into the future? Painfully dating too much sci-fi literature are words and phrases like “You dig?”, “Gee whiz”, “Foxy”, “Groovy” and worse. You still see it happening today in literature (“Cool”) that will be dated within a decade. It is fine in books set in the very near future or when there is a specific reason (a regressed community, a future society with a craze or fetish for a “classic” era of the past, a linguistic theme, etc). An excellent solution is the development of an original fictional slang. “Clockwork Orange” does this to great effect but less extreme examples or common.
Similarly, fashions change. I think authors should consider that everything from clothing to architecture changes significantly with time and that they should not expect their contemporary taste to be an eternal constant. Bad examples of this include the way spaceships conceived in the 1950’s are modeled explicitly on 50’s cars, complete with fenders, fins and ultra-sleek designs. These visions of future ships fail to take into account either functionality (For instance, spaceships that never enter atmosphere and aren’t worried about radar don’t need to be aerodynamic or sleek. Army camouflage designs would be unlikely, while pure black paint would be considerably more effective for stealth. Stationary guns and view-screens that are locked into place facing “forward” doesn’t make sense for a ship in 3D space where direction is arbitrary) or changing taste (Extraneous fins are not likely to stay in style. Egg chairs are not space efficient or particularly comfortable. Space outfits do not look good with flaring collars nor do they need them in the absence of wind.).
I get frustrated when characters in far-flung futuristic worlds just happens to be listening to the same music the author enjoys from his or her own time. This is possible but pretty unlikely. We tend to fall into the trap of thinking the music/TV/fashion/etc of our own time is the best, most enduring or never-to-be-rivaled “Golden Era”.
This is perhaps the most common “narrow lens” problem in futuristic literature. References, descriptors, quotes and metaphors from our present or recent past would probably not be used in great quantity in the distant future (and especially not in an alternative or alien civilization). It destroys the illusion of a vivid reality for the reader, a reality where the book is just one cross-section of fully functional independent universe. This doesn’t apply to books narrated for an audience explicitly in the present day (H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” as one example) but it applies doubly for first-person narrations by futuristic characters and omniscient third-person glimpses in the thoughts of such characters. A solution, in my opinion, is to make a statistically proportional number of fictional references to made-up people, organizations, places and events. You can always footnote them or add a glossary to explain them in detailed terms. This provides a chance to flesh out the context of the history leading up to the novel and culture of the contemporary happenings.
Other qualities tend to lose their sheen with time as well, and the author might want to keep that in mind. Shock value especially fades quickly. Imagine what your novel will be like if the topic you consider controversial and shocking becomes commonplace in the real world? Or a cliché in literature? Will your novel still be as powerful? Will it still have merit as a story, a work of art or social critique? It’s something to think about.