Friday, May 4, 2012

Open Friday: "Outdated" Science Fiction

Does the fact that a science fiction book, movie, or game produced in the past uses science that's been superseded affect your enjoyment of it? I know when I was a teenager, I went through a phase where I started to reject a lot of older SF because I considered it "outdated." That's why, for example, I largely abandoned Traveller for a time in favor of the newfangled Traveller: 2300 -- it was more "up to date." Nowadays, I revel in older conceptions of science fiction and often find them much more enjoyable than whatever's trendy these days. And, in my darker moments, I look forward to the day, several decades hence, when everyone looks back at all the transhumanist sci-fi of the early 21st century and deems it just as ludicrous as Barsoom or space pirates with slide rules.


  1. I think "outdating" the SF in a game may move it into the realm of fantasy instead of speculation, and in some ways, this makes it more easy to embrace. Suddenly, it's not about the wonderment of "what if?" (which demands not only an ability to project cleverly and rationally, but also a pretty thorough understanding of your jumping off points), but rather about the wonderment of "if only!" (which demands pretty much only a canny analysis of human behaviour and social conventions, and a reasonably thorough understanding of genre conventions).

    I personally am much more comfortable with the latter skill set than the former, which I think solidly explains my attraction to games and narratives that are SF of the kind that "sees the year 2000 from the point of view of 1950!"

    My last set of Traveller adventures (and I would love to return to them again) were explicitly nostalgic and refused to project beyond the tech presented in the basic Classic rulebooks. There were no silicon chips; computers worked on tubes; ship computers had human sized jerry-tube access; etc, etc, etc. I really liked the feel of it, and I would do it again in a heartbeat (although I might use a ruleset that was slightly easier to assimilate, such as Thousand Suns, hemhem, or Stars Without Number).

    As a side point, it's primarily for this reason that I detest mixing "cyber rules"  into my SF rulebooks in the way that's done. I don't like polluting my themes with machinery that's predicated on conventions and technology that "doesn't fit". (Stars Without Number is not guiltless in this regard.)

  2. I just started a classic Traveller game with my face to face group, and everyone makes cracks  needing TL 11 to have an Ipad.  Personally, I have a fondness for pre Star Wars sci fi and don't have an issue viewing the tech through 1970's eyes.

  3. Doesn't effect my enjoyment of it, just becomes a form of alternate history. 

  4. Baffles me, actually. Am I supposed to like Asimov less because the characters use weapons called "nuclear blasts?" 

  5. Also GURPS Lensmen used alternate history to good effect. The book flat states that in the historical background of lensmen the transistor wasn't invented and used the same way in our timeline.

  6. I suppose it depends on whether you're interested in story or science.
    For me outdated science is irrelevant to my enjoyment of an SF story. One of my favorite SF books is 'Out of the Silent Planet' by CS Lewis. It is set on Mars with canals - even though Lewis was well aware that belief had been disproved years before. The pseudo-scientific setting just suited the story he wanted to tell - which, like the Narnia books, was primarily concerned with Christian theology.
    I guess it depends on your tastes. To really learn about science I'd rather read Feynman than fiction.

  7. "... I look forward to the day, several decades hence, when everyone looks
    back at all the transhumanist sci-fi of the early 21st century and deems
    it just as ludicrous as Barsoom or space pirates with slide rules."

    There's an excellent point underlying that, and one so rarely made I think few people grasp it - that individually and collectively we are fallible, and very often actually are mistaken; we may be so at this very moment, at this supposed cutting edge of history. In fact, we may be more fallible today than ever.

  8. The only Traveller tech thingy that every really stuck in my throat was the sheer SIZE computers had to be to do anything useful.  To add 2+2 I swear you needed a computer the size of ENIAC.  I had worked the summer of 1980 in the computer plant my father owned, and had a pretty good idea that sizes were going down - drastically.  :)

    - Ark

  9. I get a kick outa reading authors like Philip K Dick, with their flying cars and video phones. Asimov, who was supposed to be such a genius and futurist, pretty much got everything wrong. Not one of them predicted that little strings of text would be the most popular form of communication in the 21st century.  It will be fun to see what the current generation of futurist get wrong.

  10. Anachronism in an RPG setting is easy to ignore or handwave away. My group played Classic Traveller years ago and I put a form of computer which I called a "PADi" on the equipment list because I felt a datapad like in Star Trek would be more an easy way to explain how the TAS members could get data feeds as soon as they entered a new system. A few months later the iPad was announced, it wasn't a bold prediction because after the iPhone it seemed like the next logical step.

    Anachronism is literature is sometimes harder to ignore. "Dr.Bloodmoney" by Philip K. Dick has quite a few descriptions of the future (the 1980s) which just seem silly today, like 18-lane highways and colonization of Mars.

  11. Recently, reading H. Beam Piper's excellent "Four Day Planet," I came across a section where an engineer pulled out a slide rule and a pad of paper and got to work charting a course. I laughed, and continued on. Didn't phase me in the slightest - especially considering I was born well AFTER engineers stopped using slide rules.

    No, the thing that stopped me dead in my tracks was when I got to the end of the book and realized that the unnamed hospital nurse was the first female character that was both A) Doing something other than cooking and B) Had a line of dialogue. I had to take a moment and think about it, then get back to reading.

  12. I love the space pirate with slide rule pic, and, the fact is that even to me, it makes sense that deep space travel might very well include slide rules, and an oversight when an author doesn't include normal contingency equipment, especially on an isolated self-contained vessel.

    One of my favorite science-fiction books is Perelandra, and none of the speculation is relevant anymore - it was even fairly weak at the time of publication! Barsoom is even more different for me - Burroughs had the sense to give the planet its native name, and those stories are pure planetary fantasy.

    Even outdated "hard" science fiction, like the Foundation books retain their qualities. Some completely lose their zip - I really think Helliconia Spring almost demands that you buy into the now niche but once popular (in sci-fi circles, at least) Gaia Theory for it to work.

    I don't know why this is. Someday, I'd like to take a list of the books I read 10-25 years ago, re-read, see which ones stand up, and figure out why. My hunch is that it has very little with whether their predictions or science at the time was accurate.

  13. Hard science fiction, what I read by preference, rarely gets  superseded.  Greg Egan, Stanislaw Lem, Hal Clement, Greg Bear to a  lesser extent--they all age well. Few people want to read with pen, paper, slide rule, calculator, or computer at hand to check the author's mathematics.

    Soft science fiction covers a wide range, from the outright fantasies of Octavia E. Butler's Xenogenesis to the transhumanist space opera vogue of last decade from Stross and from Reynolds. The less science matters to the story, the less stale the story goes with time. Herbert's Dune holds up well despite an explicit Luddite plot
    device because of its allegory about the interaction of religion, family life, magic children, ecology, and politics. Wolfe's Book of the New Sun also holds up well imitates Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, and technology in those books by design looks magical. Readers could throw up many books as objections to this claim. Most of the works cited have the label science fiction only because of their position on book store shelves.

    It takes a pointless discussion of invented minutiae to spoil a book for me. Smith's Lensmen and Williamson's Humanoids come to mind. I honestly do not care about imaginary physics of unobtanium or baloneyium budgets or gleepsite's tensile strength or performance curves of free drives or rhododynamics or any other such nonsense. If I want to have a physics problem wrapped up in fiction, it had better use actual (or at least plausible) physics--preferably with a citation in Arxiv! Anything else turns into
    a problem based on fictious premises. We have a whole genre devoted to such: mystery novels.

  14. It doesn't diminish my enjoyment.  In fact, there's a certain romanticism to some works of outdated science fiction (Burroughs, Brackett, Moore).

  15. I find it kind of charming, to be honest. There's something that really draws me back to the original series of Star Trek that has to do with how outdated its concept of the future is. In the technology, but also in its plots and in its odd combination of traditional ideals of square-jawed masculine heroism with a progressive (if rudimentary) vision of racial and sexual equality.

    There's a very appealing earnestness in that show that I don't generally find in more modern science fiction.

  16. As someone who builds what I call "parallel universe technology" (analogue modular synthesizers -- an old technology that's experiencing a modern renaissance right now -- like something else, maybe?) for a living, this is something I'm always thinking about.  Science-fiction MUST be examined as a cultural artifact that is indicative of the time in which it was written.   I can't stand games and movie remakes that attempt to update the technology to some sort of "more realistic" modern speculative equivalent.  Shadowrun is a great example of this... I'm too young to have played the first edition, but all the more recent editions rub me the wrong way... it needs the technical speculations, flavor and attitude of the 1980's anachronisms to work.  Wires plugged into the brain, music-video-rocker fashion, trideo tapes.  I am currently running Classic Traveller by the book for my gaming group... all the starship lounges have orange wallpaper and plastic chairs.  The ship's programs are stored on giant magnetic tape reels.  Does this detract from taking it seriously as "science fiction" -- no way!!  We wouldn't have it any other way.

  17. I've seen this statement (or at least ones espousing sentiments) too many times to count. But I've only once read a good rebuttal (which may even have been elsewhere in the comments on Grognardia): the poster in question said he worked at a financial institution (in the UK, IIRC) where the computing needs of himself and his peers required computers that took up multiple large server racks. He said he knew (or at least knew of) physicists whose computing needs far exceeded those used in said financial institutions, so their computer systems were even larger. Given the potential processing requirements for a computer to run a starship's life support, communications, data services, etc., AND to contain and  compute all of the variables involved in a hyperspace jump (and correct them on the fly) it's perfectly conceivable that the computers on a Traveller starship would have more in common (size-wise) with the mainframes of old than with the mobile devices of today. FWIW.

  18. Not at all!! I love watching/playing the old movies and games. I have enough "realism" in my life. Games help me get away from it all!

  19. There was an article in Dragon #51 back in 1981 that tried to defend the size of Traveller computers. The shrinking of computers in the early 80s took just about everyone by surprise. Out of date technology doesn't bother me nearly as much as out of date concepts. For example, the Foundation books are based on a completely wrong concept of the "dark ages" after the fall of the roman empire.  That kind of stuff drives me crazy.

  20. I wonder if the Computer Size "intent" in Traveller is meant to recall good old HAL from 2001.  Advanced components with lots of redundancy and human size/space access for repair and diagnostics?  Just not as intelligent or free willed at lower Tech Levels?

  21. Another justification I have seen is that the specification for Computer models embodies not only the actual "CPU" but also all of the control runs - wiring, sensor runs etc.

  22. All fiction requires a willing suspension of disbelief. This is no less true of mystery or true crime or realist fiction than it is of science fiction. If the story or setting is compelling, it will survive deviations from "reality" (which nobody really understands anyways).

  23. The Gernsback Continuum is apparently a story contrasting the silliness of 50s science fiction with the cutting-edge realism of cyberpunk, which of course is now charmingly retro itself.

  24. Traveller is great not just because it's old, but because the people who wrote it were really damned talented. There is not enough emphasis on the people behind these games. When I was a kid i could care less who wrote it but today I am as interested in the authors as the games themselves. Frank Chadwick I believe is the greatest game designer in history. He was able to create classic hits in multiple genres, any one of which would make him a great writer but combined he becomes the greatest. 

  25. If the story is good, then the "dated-ness" of the tech isn't bothersome at all. "Uller Uprising" is a great H. Beam Piper story, even with the presence of slide rules. ;-)

  26. When I was 11 in 1987, my first encounter with written science fiction was Asimov's I Robot and the Caves of Steel series. The technology of both was seriously dated even then. In the same vein, I saw The Forbidden Planet on the big screen when I was 8. It was forever burned into my memory--clunky robots and psychoanalytic plot twists and all. (When I saw it on the big screen again for the first time since my childhood in 2002 it was even better than I remember it being, which is saying a lot!) The dated technology of these works only added to my sense of childhood mystery. Contemporary technology is familiar and boring, projecting it into the future is always in danger of being flat and antiseptic. Add the extra layer of distance--not just the future but the past's view on the future--and the whole thing hums.

  27. If I remember it correctly, the characters in the Foundation series had actually miniaturized personal nuclear reactors...

  28. It's interesting to me that "retro-futurism" is all the rage right now. I suppose that the most visible sort is what people alternately name "Victorian Science Fiction" or "Steampunk", but so many other sorts are popular as well (most using the "-punk" suffix for no discernible reason): Rocketpunk, Dieselpunk, whatever. All of these variations share exactly what you describe here, a fondness for "outdated" futures.

  29. As much as I love transhuman / singularity sf (stross, reynolds, egan, etc) I'm also a huge fan of old school planetary romances and space operas. I see no need to choose one above the other, these different subgenres are all delicious dishes on the smorgasbord of science fiction.

  30.  In my case, it's a form of nostalgia for the type of science fiction (books and movies) I grew up with as a kid. Hence I have a "Future History" setting sketched out that assumes the tropes of 50s science fiction were real (flying saucers, Hitler's brain, &c.) and goes from there.

    If only I had the time to run it. :/

  31. OMG - "The Pirates of... ERSATZ"!
    You can't find titles like these novadays...

  32. Strangely enough, I remember playing Space: 1889 and Cloudships & Gunboats when they first came out in '88/'89.  Interesting how that genre has come back into vogue 25-odd years later.

  33. I like to immerse myself in whatever world the author created. If it's internally consistent I don't have a problem. I have a harder time of it with "hard scifi" that gets into nuts and bolts and trajectories and genetics, and if the science is handwaved I can totally ignore it.

    The hard part I guess is when someone on screen says something specific and sciency, or computery, and it immediately jars against what I happen to know. It's the difference between "Captain! The nuclear reactor is overloading!" versus "Captain! The nuclear reactor has too many electrons in it and we're almost out of brass cooling rods!" and I'm left all lolwut.

    For example, I love the early Shadowrun 80s aesthetic with the punk, biker gangs, Asian influence, green circuit boards, no wireless networks, plug your computer into your head for TRON fighting. Same with the early Traveller aesthetic which I associate with HAL, Alien, and Foundation.

    It's kind of like enjoying D&D even though it's based on an age of disease and poverty IRL but with D&D magic should be a burgeoning paradise, and we end up somewhere in the middle with a mythologized Dark Ages.

  34. I recently watched Forbidden Planet again for the fifth or sixth time - saw it first when I was 12. I still don't see anything that backward or retro about it. After all, Firefly was so futuristic that they rode horses and fired six-shooters.

    Because history does not progress, but rhymes, I don't have the modernist/post-modernist problem of seeing props as anachronisms. I saw a thoroughly current young man with a pocket watch today.

    This is also why I don't like steampunk as science fiction because it has more to do with alternate history than anything futuristic.
    I do like steampunk settings set in the future, but the ones that purport to be "retro" science fiction, set in the past, feel like a category error - they are more appropriately noted as homages.

    In other words, if steampunk is something that inspires nostalgia instead of something I can look forward to, for me, it falls into a category as different from science fiction as romance is. I still dread, after all, 1984 even though, technologically and even politically/economically (Huxley's Brave New World is better in that regard), it isn't even close. There's nothing I look forward to (in either fear or hope) after reading The Difference Engine, League of Extraordinary, The Glass Books, or the Infernal Devices.

    It is an entirely different genre.

    Whoops. Sorry for the random tangent. I've never seen that happen on the internet before.

  35.  I know! It's like:

    "Avast, ye scurvy dogs! Prepare to be boarded, measured and found wanting by our shoddy pirate clones! We'll have the blueprints back to you in about a week. But we won't promise you any accuracy!"

  36.  Excellent point.  The fact that Hari Seldon's sort of obviously impossible approach to psychohistory is what inspired Paul Krugman, of all people, to study economics, shows that bad history has real consequences. I still like the Foundation books (a lot, if only for the Mule), but even when I read them for the first time, I knew that it wasn't the projection of technology that is the Achilles heel of science fiction, but bad history.

  37. Energy is an incredibly complex problem to face in space or on the ocean's floor. Even a nuclear imperial star cruiser ought to have these non-energy dependent supplies on board:

    Some sort of universal astrolabe
    Fluid-driven computer/difference engine
    Compass and protractor
    Eyeglasses and magnifiers
    bow and arrows
    compass (not for direction, for finding magnetic mineral sources)
    handcrank flashlights
    sharpening stones/knives
    sewing kit

  38. I read for story first, so the science being "correct" doesn't mean a thing to me one way or the other.  I also enjoy learning about history and even if the science is now "wrong", that doesn't mean there's nothing to be learned from the story. That many people once believed outer space could be composed of ether is interesting to me, for instance.

  39. Space Pirates have slide rules?  Awesome ... ;)

    I never worry about this kind of thing.  So what if things didn't turn out like sci-fi writers of the past wrote about.  They probably didn't think it would happen either, but it fit the needs of their story so they wrote it that way.  There's also the problem of writing beyond what your audience can understand or except within the confines of Suspension of Disbelief.  Murray Leinster's readers knew what a slide rule was and what it did and sometimes that's more important than "getting it right".  Besides as Back to the Future 2 teaches us the chances a writer (screen or novel) is going to correctly guess what the future is going to be like is pretty much zero.  On a side note, Metropolis and Bladerunner are still my favorite futures ... and neither of them get it "right".

    1. Michael, you beat me to the punch (really my almost identical comment below). If only I wasn't thumb-typing on this tablet, I'd have been quicker on the Reply!

  40. I find what the authors "got wrong" almost as interesting as what they got right. In most cases, though, they weren't trying to make predictions about all those little details. H. Beam Piper probably didn't think or care much about whether spacefarers would or wouldn't use sliderules. The point of his tale lay elsewhere. Personally, I get a big kick out of those technological artifacts. They remind me of my wasted innocence.

    I was and am a big fan of Space:1889, but I don't have much use for steampunk. S:1889 is Victorian sci-fi romance: quite different from steampunk, which borrows the physical trappings of VSF but little of its outlook. It's more like Batman in top hats than First Men in the Moon.

  41. I think "outdated" science fiction has its charme, with it's interesting view of the future, and possible applications of then new technologies.  I for one find it ironic how movies and TV episodes made up to 40 years ago (specifically WarGames, 2001 and the Star Trek episode "Nomad") can present better "Evil AI" stories then our modern-day culture Oo

    And you want ludicrous? How about the old Flash Gordon serial, in which nuclear reactors worked pretty much exactly like a coal furnace?!

  42.  Yup (I've been reading those books lately), and I think the miniature reactors were used to power their personal force-fields, too. I love Asimov

  43. I still have my original copies of those (and a copy of Temple of the Beastmen that I found at a used book store for cheap about 10 years ago). It's a personal favorite setting, and I like the game system(s) too.

  44. You should write it up and post it to your blog. Or something.

  45.  In fact, I did:  :)

  46.  Add to that list and all your problems are solved.

    Hand grenades

  47. Geoffrey McKinneyMay 4, 2012 at 7:48 PM

    I think it was G. K. Chesterton who poked fun at the idea that the future will be just like the present, only more so.

  48. Steven ThiviergeMay 4, 2012 at 9:35 PM

    I love it. John Wick even wrote a game about this very topic. Check out Yesterday's Tomorrows

  49. I actually enjoy those tidbits. The most memorable to me was the incredible automatic typewriter that appears at some point in the foundation series. Yes, mankind has been traversing the stars for thousands of years, but has just invented voice to text.

  50. Doesn't bother me at all. As someone else said, bad history is more harmful than bad guesses about the future. My father worked at an R&D think-tank, and  he likes to tell a story about copiers. The institute (years before he got there) did a lot of development on the original Xerox photocopier. Near the end of the final report, there was a prediction that the institute itself would never need more than 2 of them.

  51. I was a long-time subscriber to the Traveller Mailing List.  One of the frequent posters there referred to Traveller as steampunk (in 1998, no less), with it's take up a whole room computers, lack of cybernetics, and even some of the trappings of 1980's Sci Fi, let alone newer stuff.  Mongoose, to their credit has changed that.

    As for Transhuman SciFi, I find it a laughable subgenre now.  As a member of a family with a long history of mental illness to lesser and greater degrees depending on the family member, I'm well aware of what a fragile instrument the human psyche is.  The belief that human beings are going to move their consciousness from one human body to another, and arrive in the new one even remotely sane stretches the bounds of credibility to the breaking point.  The thought of putting that same consciousness into the body of a cyborg, robot, or uplifted animal's body (as transhuman scifi occasionally does) is too ridiculous to be taken seriously at all.

  52.  Hmm.  The GM in me is trying to figure out the stats for a slide rule as an improvised weapon.  Does that make me seem less sane?

  53. That's not really indicative of his writings though, and I would note, even in this, at the end of the novel, a woman is the replacement for the narrator as the lead (well, only) reporter for the newspaper.

    I think it's because the novel is mostly about the SF equivalent of fishermen or whalers, which is rough physical work that women generally don't do, even today.

    With that said, if you read The Cosmic Computer, there is a woman technician (and love interest). She doesn't get a lot of screen time, but protagonist makes a remark about her reminding him of women he knew on Earth, as opposed to his home planet, which was something of a backwater.

    So it's perhaps deliberate, his theory (and probably a correct one) that gender roles of women would move more to traditional ones on frontier or rougher planets

  54. I actually don't think things have changed as much as we think.

    Thanks to the copyright laws being what they are, I've read a lot of stuff from before 1923 since getting a kindle. People still more or less talk (and act) like they did now as in 1920 or so.

    So in the case of H. Beam Piper's stuff, his completely missing the boat on computers doesn't really affect the story all that much. Only when the plot revolves around computers does it become really noticeable. (Though one thing that puzzled me about him, he had robots that were smart and understood human speech, but computers couldn't? And that's in the same novel, Cosmic Computer)

    In a way, Piper was like REH, writing historical stories only in the guise of SF instead of fantasy (like Conan). Since a lot of his stuff was on real events, it feels real.

    But for the gimmicky sort of SF, it just doesn't hold up as well.

  55. I'd love to see a resurgence of that old school type of scifi. I was working on a short story recently and was aiming for that vibe. When I read science fiction, I don't really care that much if the science is accurate, just as the story is fun to read.

  56.  I think at one point 'radium' and 'atomic' were commonly used to give a 'futuristic' feel without the authors or readers really knowing what they did.

  57. Another funny thing is that if you look at the original artwork of Space: 1889 it seems like they really wished they were doing Indiana Jones instead.

  58. Is anyone here involved with Star Wars fandom? If so, can they answer whether Star Wars fans try to justify or rewrite its 50s-like science, or just roll with it?

  59. If I ever wrote science fiction I think I'd deliberately use outdated technology (so I suppose it wouldn't really be SF).

    Firstly, cutting-edge modernism tends to date more quickly than anything else (cyberpunk).

    Secondly, there's sure to be someone who says "Wait, how are they lost? Wouldn't the onboard computer have GPS?" This Cracked article has some good examples. So I'd rather it made sense that these things didn't exist.

  60. I love out of date scifi.  I never understood the abandonment of it.  Heck, the odd aesthetic it has by modern standards helped inspire steampunk

  61. Reverance PavaneMay 5, 2012 at 5:39 AM

    If the science fiction is specifically based on some specific theory, invention or mechanism, then the story can get dated quite fast, especially once the idea is disproved.   However most good (and especially good old) SF is about people not mechanisms.  For example I still love the fiction of Eric Frank Russell, even if his rocket ships are powered by feeding a specific gauge of radioactive wire into the engines.  That's just the Macguffin used to push the actual story about a man and a bird exploring a really strange place.  [I heavily recommend his short fiction to anyone that hasn't tried it.]

    [Interestingly. I think short stories date a lot less quickly than longer works of fiction, mainly because a short story has to be succinct and to the point and therefore is focused more on the story and less on peripheral matters that may pluck the readers suspenders of disbelief.  For example Arthur C Clarkes short fiction is still highly enjoyable and as applicable today as yesterday  (try Superiority if you doubt me).]

    Realism in SF is a strange thing; consistency is far more important.  Make one change, and have everything flow from that change.  But some paradigm shifts are impossible to extrapolate across.  For example, one of my favourite episodes of the old 1950 Buck Rogers serial  when their rocket ship is hit and Buck and Wilma are forced to bail out. Wilma grabs the ant-grav chutes (two silver boxes roughly the size of a pack of cigerettes), whilst Buck grabs the huge locker-sized radio in both hands.  Because the writers knew the audience knew how big a radio had to be, whereas antigrav chutes were magic.  Transistors had yet to cross the writer's horizon and they had no idea what it would do to the size of electronics.

    Since we are already breaking reality anyway (say, by introducing FTL travel), then it doesn't take much more of an effort of mind to accept that the inertialess drive works as the author says it does, rather than as it should if it were truly inertialess.  [For example, in "reality" removing something's inertia  would make a perfect defence, since even lasers would just push the object out of their way.]

    Actually it is the society that dates far more readily than the technology, and that's not really noticeable in a lot of SF (it really isn't old enough to have seriously dated in this way).  Even the SF of the late 1800s is still frequently enjoyed.

    So I'm keeping my H Beam Piper, Eric Frank Russell, CL Moore, EE Doc Smith, and the rest.

  62.  Radium, atomic, quantum, inversing the deflector polarity...pretty much, yes.

    P.S. I'm reading the Barsoom stories right now: radium guns, radium pumps, ... ;-) 

  63. Add:


  64. Nowadays, I revel in older conceptions of science fiction and often find them much more enjoyable than whatever's trendy these days.

    I don't think this has anything to do with things being 'trendy,' unless you count liberalization as trendy.

    When you extrapolate current technology, properly speaking you ought to do the same with culture (culture is tech-driven, tech is cult-situated, etc.). It's very taxing to maintain fidelity to actual tech/culture in their massive complexity -- and there's ego-danger there.

    Extrapolating from older technology (here's looking at you, 'steampunk' wankers) means a little more implicit freedom to work with older cultural norms -- since you're trying to evoke the 'feel' of past tech, you end up relying partly on the feel of old culture(s). Which serves nostalgic ends, incidentally, but also (the bigger deal) serves conservative ones more broadly.

    In other words, especially for non-technologists, the appeal of old tech is partly the appeal of old fashion. Not exactly a pretty impulse.

  65. No, that strangely makes sense to me ...

    ... it was the Space Pirate, in the Library, with the Slide Rule.

  66. gunpowder guns are for losers ;)

  67. I guess that's were terms like "cyberspace" are born from.

  68. I've never really had a problem with outdated science. When I played Traveller, I can recall one of my buddies asking our GM at the time about the paradox of huge computers, and how that wasn't realistic. His response was something along the lines of, "I just assume that at some point in the future, they discovered that with computers getting smaller and smaller, allowing for more and more memory and computational power, that's when the problems with rogue AIs started, so the larger computers are a buffer to a future of rogue AIs running amok". I like that.

    As for games like Cyberpunk 2020, I just find myself contanly redating the timeline in my head, and tweaking the hostoric events, to make it fit. One of the things I would like to see is Mike Pondsmith rereleasing CP2020 (or redoing the campaign setting for CP2020) to update it to take into account modern events, to see how it would change the setting. The reason I stopped being interested in CP3rdEd (or whatever the hell they called that disaster that came out after Cybergeneration was called) was setting became too "out there" for me. Even CyberGen started to lose me. I loved CP2020 because it was so much closer to the real world, with a veneer of unreality laid over it.

  69.  They were called "atomic blasts" in Foundation and "blasters" in the later books, starting with the second, I believe.

  70. I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the Cold War chic of the recent Battlestar Galactica reboot. I think that worked very well self consciously retro styled future.

  71. Happily, outdated technology has never interfered with my ability to enjoy older science fiction.  Any imagined technology may or may not become outdated, but all of it is still fodder for speculation.

  72. Back in the 80's, I wrote up rules and a few scenarios for a similar type of RPG.  I called it (as generically as possible) "Space Patrol"--and it was designed mostly to replicate things like Commander Cody, etc.  

    I remember some of the quirkiest how female characters had mandated low combat scores and a "panic table" to see if they would scream or faint in the face of danger, male characters had to choose from careers separated into "hero", "comic relief"  and "expendable technical support" and classic cigar shaped spacecraft were powered by "atomic lunchboxes".  And the rules assumed that all characters would die at the end of every scenario, saving the Earth, but would be available for the next scenario without explanation.

    The first scenario was based on the actual b-movie I saw when I first wrote the game (the name escapes me) but a space rocket is returning to earth with a green fungus attached to the hull and soon crew members are turning into angry, possessed-by-space-fungus, plant-man monsters.     

    Playtested it a few times and it worked as a nice beer & pretzel game to give a long running D&D campaign a break.

    Wish I knew where the hand-typed rules were now.  Probably in a cardboard box somewhere with my notes on a Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes campaign I ran back then...

  73. As science progresses, it changes. We move from fewer, bigger discoveries towards more, smaller discoveries. (Well, I don’t think that quite expresses it right, but that’s the best I’m coming up with at the moment.) So, science-fiction—if we’re talking about fiction that concerns actual science rather than some broader and looser category—is going to change along with it. You simply can’t tell the same stories against today’s scientific background that you could against, e.g., the scientific background of the 1950s. So, I think it makes a lot of sense that “retro-futurism” has been cropping up regularly since science-fiction began.

    Another thing for me is that I find some “modern” science-fiction tropes even less plausible than some of the older ones that many people discount today.

  74. I agree on that last point. It's interesting to me that so many people run down "cyberpunk", for instance, when we seem to be living in a world that resembles "cyberpunk" very closely. Sure, we don't have brain-computer interfaces, but we are actually very close to something like that (they've managed to get a monkey to control a robot arm over the internet using something similar). We have mechanical limbs. The world is, arguably, under the excessive domination of large corporate interests. And so on. Meanwhile, the things that pass for transhumanist futures seem… unlikely at best.

  75. I think sci-fi does get outdated, in a way that fantasy doesn't. And the reason for this is simple: sci-fi is always about the present, whereas fantasy tends to aspire to myth which, by definition, is timeless.

  76. I think what I dislike is when a given sci-fi novel or game has equipment that does not even meet *current* technology, or does not seem to reflect an understanding of current tech.

    Example 1: In Star Trek, it has been indicated that photon torps are superior to nukes, yet while they are destructive, I fail to see how a small starship can survive a direct hit from something supposedly more powerful than a more "primitive" device that can vapourize cities...

    Example 2: in the game Universe, and in other games as well, many of the "far future" weapons lack the capabilities of then current technology. For example, the rifles they had, and even many laser type weapons, appear far inferior to even a Great War vintage Browning Automatic Rifle, let alone some more exotic modern designs.

  77. It's sometimes a factor. I've got the Complete Venus Equilateral  here and the second story really killed me; we spend 25 pages trying to contact a spaceship traveling between Mars and Venus, as if that should have been a real problem. It didn't help that the first story boiled down to "hur, hur, bureaucrats are stupid and should be replaced by engineers".

    cagadda : To quote "As pictures of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and of the test structures erected
    at the Nevada Test Site in the 1950's amply demonstrate, the blast and
    shock waves produced by nuclear explosions are the principal means for
    destroying soft targets. Ground shock from a low-altitude, surface, or
    underground burst may be the only way to destroy hardened underground
    structures such as command facilities or missile silos." Given the lack of atmosphere in space, the blast and shock waves of a nuke will probably be minimally effective. Also, 3200 m. range of greatest destruction for a fairly small nuke is just not that far in space. An external hit from a nuke in space on a hardened target like a starship is not trivial, but the Star Trek universe employs enough handwavium that all sorts of super-science alloys and force fields could help it survive and not be at all out of place in the universe.

  78. Yes, but remember I am talking about *direct* hits here, not near misses. And also often against /unshielded/ vessels.  See Star Trek II, Star Trek III, Star Trek VI, and lord knows how many different episodes of the various series. Indeed, see ST:TOS episode "Balance of Terror" and note that a "near miss" from a nuke knocks the Enterprise out of action. And while I do agree about the "handwavium" it still looks like they did not really think it through.

  79. IMO this is the "Wells vs Verne" issue.

    One kind of Science Fiction author sticks to the "Plausible" science of the time, and usually is more popular in it.  But over the years becomes back dated and even silly/cliche.  The "Steampunk" escapist retro stuff now owes much to Verne.

    On the other hand, you have H.G. Wells who while unusually popular in his own time, his "Science Fiction" (or Scientific Romances, whatever) was not considered up to snuff.  He knew less than Verne who curiously also didn't know how to launch people in a bullet without turning them to jelly, but his stories were about humanity and society.  War of the Worlds was about the British empire and all empires that crush weaker societies, spurred on in a fit of rage by the genocide of the Tanzanians.  The Time Machine was a call for man to unify, that if we kept a divided society by class forever it would negate man's true potential.  The island of Dr Moreau was about the control of religion as much as about the misuse of science.

    Lots of movies have been made of Wells work, most butchered of his profound messages.  But one stands out, one he had a hand in.

    "Things to Come" aka "The Shape of Things to Come" - You can watch it via Google/YouTube.

    It's the form of Science Fiction almost extinct, the "Future History" namely that the "Future" comes sooner than the writer expects and it's not that...  And it was not well received in it's day.  It was actually booed out of theaters in 1936, showing another world war, even the White Cliffs of Dover crossed by Aeroplane...  And it's a dark movie, the world enters another world war and mankind is reduced to savagery.  Then a world government of super scientists bring order out of the chaos and create a utopia.  But their constant strive to advance man leads to a backlash that forms an anti-technology cult that seeks to destroy all they've built just as man is preparing to go into space.

    The "Real" world history changed after the prediction of WW2.  But in many ways it was an exaggerated version of the 40s, 50s, 60s onwards.  IMO, that's probably why it got shown on tv and an early video recording enthusiast recorded it, otherwise it'd be a "Lost" film.  I saw it on tv late night in a motel room when my parents were on vacation and it frankly changed me.

    It also probably changed the course of WW2.  The public backlash was strong, including that they showed chemical warfare being used.  Some officials actually talked with Germany over that movie to "Prove him wrong" and got a promise signed by none other than Hitler himself that if they did somehow go to war, neither side would use gas.  Hitler, for all the other bad things said about him had been a soldier and not a cushioned officer.  He'd been hit by mustard gas...twice.  He said "no soldier should ever endure that kind of suffering".  So he kept his promise through the war and didn't gas...well enemy soldiers in combat...And his mad scientists did make Nerve gas and stuff.  Conceivably they could have done an "Unparalleled Invasion" and just had a wave of Blitzkrieg wipe out France and England and Russia and then just invade when it settled.

    The movie itself has been called "Perfectly realized".  While many early science fiction films suffered from the burden of the cost (and limits by technology) of "Special Effects" this movie was made with good knowledge of what could and could not be done.   It could be re-made with today's technology and be no better.  Some aspects drag on a bit, early cinema assumed the audience had patience, but otherwise should be one of the all time great movies.

    Still, even the "Retro" can be fun, and like Wells who knows what the future will really bring.  The stuff that endures does so because it's a good story, and also some of it is a bigger story than just the surface.