Don’t put dates on your science fiction

The other day on Facebook someone posted some screenshots from Back to the Future II with the caption “Marty McFly just showed up in a Delorian.”

Marty McFly future

…or not

Shortly thereafter, another poster pointed out that the screenshot was doctored, and that the actual date of McFly’s arrival in his own future is still a couple of years away: October 21, 2015.

Which doesn’t alter the fact that the movie is dated, both literally and figuratively.

The website 11 Points has a couple of articles about the movie:

Dated science fiction is nothing new. I’m sure George Orwell, writing in in 1940s, thought 1984 was impossibly far away.

That’s the year I graduated from high school.

Arthur Clarke very cleverly predicted we would have an orbiting space station by 2001. But it’s not wheel-shaped, doesn’t have artificial gravity, and isn’t used as a way station for moon trips.

All of these are examples of why dates in science fiction are a bad idea.

In his novel Contact, Carl Sagan gets it right. There’s no date in that book. It could happen tomorrow. In the movie version, however, Robert Zemeckis unfortunately nailed a potentially timeless story down to a specific time by casting Bill Clinton as the president of the United States.

Pardon me while I go off on a rant: In the book, the president of the U.S. is a woman. Lines that in the book belong to the president are, in the movie, given to Angela Basset, who plays the White House chief of staff. So Zemeckis (who also directed the Back to the Future movies) passed up the opportunity to cast a black woman as president of the U.S. in favor of Bill Clinton. Booo.

Where was I…Oh, yes, dates.

Now, there’s not a lot you could do about Back to the Future II, because if teen Marty leaves the 1980s and arrives in a future where he’s in his 40s, there’s a limited number of future years in which that story could take place. But Orwell and Clark…they should have left the numbers off.

Had Orwell and Clarke omitted the numbers from their books, as Sagan did, those stories could still be read today as taking place in the future, just like Contact. Unless, of course, Robert Zemeckis had gotten his hands on them.


About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

19 comments on “Don’t put dates on your science fiction

  1. Normally I’d agree with you; well, I do agree with you for the most part. That’s why “stardate” worked so well as a concept and why “long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away” also worked.

    But Back To The Future wasn’t hard science fiction; it used a science-fiction device to tell a sort of parable within the constructs of two very iconic time periods. Both the 1950s and 1980s were hugely identifiable, extremely nostalgic and very resonant to large portions of the culture. Without those dates the movie would lose much of the flavour that made it so wonderful.

  2. I don’t think I ever saw the sequel to Back to the Future. The first movie was pretty good, though. I loved it for the originality of the plot.

    When does a movie with a science fiction plot device step over the line from science fiction, to contemporary spec fic or historical spec fic, and where you would re-categorize these movies now, given the genre options that are available now that weren’t back then?

    • I’m not sure there are any lines. It’s all very wibbly-wobbly, to quote another time traveler.

      When Katherine points out that BTTF isn’t hard SF, it’s because the mechanism of time travel is totally fantastical—not grounded in real science. I mean, you could have easily have had the time travel device be a blue police box or (as in Somewhere in Time) just wishing really hard…You could still have the same story without the Delorean. It just wouldn’t look as cool. Unless it were a police box…

      The best definition I know of for “Science Fiction” came from Stanley Schmidt of _Analog_, who said in SF, “…some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse.”

      “Speculative” is a much more fluid descriptor, which is one of the reasons I like it. But it also makes it harder to fit things into slots. But then again, some things, like Back to the Future, defy slotification anyway. I mean, it’s a comedy, it’s sort of science fiction because it’s time travel, it’s a family drama…and then when you get to part 3 there are steampunk elements. 😀

  3. There’s a time (pun intended) to put dates in, but yeah, for the most part, putting specific dates in ruins it for the generations to come. I like the way the X-Men movie started, saying “Sometime in the not too distant future.” That one is somewhat dated since Magneto was around during the WWII era, but it is still able to be enjoyed by future generations because it’s not overly-specific.

  4. Dates in science fiction stories don’t bother me. First, science fiction isn’t about predicting the future; it’s about ideas. Second, I keep a sort of timeline of when various movies/tv shows happen in relation to each other, just for fun; having a set date helps. So what if it didn’t happen, at least in our reality? Third, I, as well as others, think it’s rather fun to see how past generations viewed their future/our present–it’s for that reason that I recently enjoyed reading Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Fourth, in regards to Back to the Future, I think Zemekis and the writers were intentionally going for over-the-top silliness with their version of the “future”.

  5. I don’t know. I see the point, and as a writer I avoid dates in my sci-fi.

    But as a reader, I enjoy being on the other side of a date in a science fiction story (it being 2012, over a decade after Clarke’s 2001) and pondering the significance of the gap between what the author thought that year would look like and what it actually looks like.

    Without the date, it’s just “yet another sci fi story that hasn’t come true yet”. With a date, I feel more kinship with the author. More of a sense where the story belongs in the flow of history.

    • I tend to agree with this assessment. In fact I’ll go a step further and say categorically that dating in a story, novel or film of any genre has NEVER ruined or even adversely affected my appreciation of said work of fiction. Why? Because:

      1. People like me are figuratively the living embodiment of the present participle. (It’s an ENFP thing – also an ENTP thing – see the theory behind the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.)

      2. For people like me, dates and related historical data are but footnotes anyway. This is a corollary to 1.

      3. In the end, fiction — especially speculative fiction – tells us and others more about ourselves, our milieus and our hopes and fears than they do about any period they seek to portray. And that for me is the really salient point.

      Your critiques are themselves perfect illustrations of 3. They tell me nothing that makes me think less or more of the original stories, films, etc. They do tell me a great deal about yourself, your milieu, and your hopes and fears. The same would be true of my own reactions, which aren’t apathetic to the issues the fiction brings up — just different.


    • 4. For people like me, and of other types of perceiving and deciding no doubt, 1984 and 2001 (for example) are perfect examples of “alternate histories”. In fact one may argue (how far would be an interesting topic) that all fiction as we know it is alternate history – part of the set of what I call “the infinite possibilities of potential reality” (a key concept in the logical framework of my own fictional Metacosmic Tree, by the way). 😀

      5. Maybe I just suspend disbelief more easily than other people. I live in my own little world anyway – but not to worry, everybody knows me there. 😉

      • Love these comments, John.

        Fun to think about how personality traits/types play into enjoyment of stories. Not only whether or not we enjoy a story, but what elements trigger our enjoyment and in what ways.

        • Thank you. On the other end. editor Jeff Gerke of Marcher Lord Press has recommended the use of the Myers-Briggs type system as an aid in constructing characters, especially if one is a plot-driven author. And if one has a good knowledge of the theory behind the summary typology, it can get rich indeed as a tool.

          In Alain Harper’s Metacosmos (do an exact-phrase Web search for “Tales of the Undying Singer” if you’re interested), an understanding of the human psyche as rooted in this theory is an essential part of every educated person’s training, and especially of Starbards and Blademasters such as Alain is. Often he will infer – very quickly after the trained ENFP’s ability – what another person’s type is and what that implies about his or her cognitive processes, social style and temperament. Such knowledge can be very useful in the situations in which he finds himself.

          But to your point, yes, our personality (nature) and also our experience (nurture) greatly affect how we deal with the fiction we read and write. The danger – one thing Alain points out, sometimes rather ferociously, to some he deals with – is the human tendency to think our purely personal point of view is somehow universally applicable. Many a budding critic – before he or she bursts into full weed 😉 – has this fault, before their minds are broadened sufficiently.

          An astonishing number of “quotable quotes” in the real world are merely personal POVs assumed to have universal applicability. Thus Alain tells one of my co-author’s main (and best-written) characters, “Next to lack of knowledge of the Lord of the Realms [the true Creator God], people like *you* who think their point of view is the only right one are the greatest plague upon those born of women.” Alain unlearned that fault a long time ago – he knows what his POV is and states it but he doesn’t assume it works equally well for everyone at all times.

  6. Dates in stories usually only amuse me, rather than annoy me. What does annoy me is pop-culture references that are dated a year after the book releases. Ted Dekker really bugged me in Saint and Sinner with his references to popular Christian songs that nobody listens to anymore.

    Alternately, I picked up a juvie fiction by Isaac Asimov (didn’t know he wrote those), and the dated pop culture stuff was hilarious in a way he never intended. Also it’s horribly racist, which again is really amusing.

    • Yeah, and that can happen in any genre. That’s one of the reasons the characters in my contemporary novel listen to classical music. Handel will never go out of style. 😉

    • What I said about other things above applies here. But something else does too. You may not be aware of just how anti-racist Asimov was (he was a Jew himself, which helped). In THE EARLY ASIMOV, VOL. 1 and 2, he explains why he had the scenarios he did. Yes, his characters were often very racist (or more exactly, specist). This wasn’t a sign of his approval, but rather quite the reverse. Some of his stories make no bones about what he thought of racism/specism within the frameworks of the stories themselves. It’s quite obvious.

      No, he couldn’t totally escape the framework of his own times and so I notice a certain self-inconsistency in his treatment of racism. Being one of the NTs as he was temperamentally – perhaps INTP – he reminds me of my INTP co-author who plays with stereotypical characters like pieces on a chessboard. The rules of his chessboard say “prejudice based on stereotypes is wrong”. The pieces themselves originate from prejudicial stereotypes – from archetypes. There is the contradiction and there is where Asimov falls short too.

      My ENFP protagonist in our stories, Alain Harper, isn’t fooled by that kind of reasoning and often takes pains to point it out to my co-author’s villains and even protagonists, if indirectly (which makes it interesting for both of us in constructing drama). He has other potential blind spots, as my co-author’s characters often try to exploit.

  7. Near-future fiction gets old quick when you give dates and make predictions. You can’t help the fact that time passes, but you can minimize the effect by not giving precise dates.

  8. There was a parody on the Jetsons once where they show up saying, “We’re from the future. 2003!!” The person they’re talking to looks at a calendar and it’s 2005. =)

    Kessie’s comment is something that concerns me about my own novel. Granted, the things referenced are still known in geek culture. But when I give the main character’s age, these things seem too old for her to know. (I can squeak by for a bit in pointing out she had 2 older brothers, but that only goes so far.)
    Also hoping it’s just a detail I notice that not too many people will point out. 😉

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