Shelf Life: When SF Becomes Dated

If I use the word “classic” to refer to children’s books, most readers know I mean a book that has had staying power–that has lasted on the shelves and in the hearts of the reading public long past it’s original publication hey day.  There’s speculation on whether or not Harry Potter will achieve such a status or eventually lose ground and relevancy to the reading public.  The word ‘classic’ is a term very rarely applied to science fiction.  Oh, there are a few.  But even these few rarely garner the sort of love and attention like fantasy classics Alice in Wonderland,  The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan.

The reason for that, in my not always humble opinion, lies in the very nature of science fiction.  It’s a genre of the future, of the “what if”?   The author in question stands at a certain fixed place in time and looks out and forward(or occasionally backward and sideways) and imagines what things might be like.  But the further we go from that fixed place in time, the more the future changes.  Sooner or later many of these books will be overtaken by time itself.    In the 1970s, a book set in 2005 would seem far in the future–and writers may have optimistically imagined flying cars, interstellar travel and colonies on the moon.  Clearly, 2005 has come and gone without any of those things being realized.  So . . . how does this affect the book in question?

Hey, Jetson Family! Where’s my flying car already?

Some books are set so far in the future that it doesn’t particularly matter.  Though the inside of the spaceships and the tech may resemble a Classic Trek episode rather than the newest reboot of the Star Trek universe, it doesn’t really ruin the plot or the reading.  If we’re looking at the world 200 years from now, it’s only fair to think it will be wildly different from today.  Likewise, books that are set on other planets in space and involve alien civilizations won’t particularly be affected by the passage of years on Earth.

Books similar to Isaac  Asimov’s Norby adventures are set in a far and fabulous future.  Other than some particular dating of the text used or politically correct, these adventures should remain accessible to today’s audiences despite their publication decades earlier. Our main character, Jeff Wells goes to Space Academy school. Norby is his robot–but Norby is a lot more than anyone bargained for, full of alien technology secrets and actual emotions.  These lighthearted adventures may have gone out of print for the most part, but I’d like to see them return.  There’s no reason a new generation of fans couldn’t fall in love with this imperfect robot and his boy.

Dystopian adventures usually enjoy a longer shelf life because they depict a fallen society, one that hasn’t happened yet, but might.  Some examples of these kinds of books for middle grade readers include Lois Lowery’s Newbery winner, The Giver (1993),  the alien ruled  earth of  John Christopher’s Tripods Trilogy (1967), And Monica Hughes’ computer controlled society in   Devil On My Back (1984) . While the publication dates of all of these are more than 20 years past,  all of them still explore relevant social issues  and contain stories that a reader in 2013 can identify with.  Not all dystopian stories stand the test of time.  There are quite a few post-apocalyptic style dystopian tales  that are dependent on the idea of a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union.  With the Soviets so clearly gone from the picture, it erases part of the relevancy of the story for generations that did not grow up in those decades.

This trilogy has been regularly reprinted, it should still be fairly easy to find this on library and bookstore shelves.

Where shelf life really hits is the near future stories.  Stories that take place in the “current” time period of publication but feature aliens or futuristic devices, or stories taking place just a few years or decades into the future.  Let’s face it, the technological progression of society continues at a remarkably fast pace.  When my mother was a child, her family got a television when she was about 8 years old.  When I was a child, you had to turn the dial on the TV to change the channel.  Phones had cords.  Nobody had heard of the Internet, except perhaps the military.    So it stands to reason that all the old stories of inventions and brilliant scientists with their discoveries that were so high tech and exciting at the time the books were written have become extremely dated.  Danny Dunn’s scientific adventures look markedly outdated and many of the inventions are no longer science fiction.  Similar to the issue with the earliest incarnation of Tom Swift books as I mention in A Swift Proposal these books are fascinating to look at as an intellectual exercise of how science fiction is able to imagine real future tech, but have become obsolete as actual science fiction for the modern audience.  Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine(1958) and Danny Dunn and the Automatic House(1965) both by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin are two examples of how outdated these books have become.  When you’re reading a book set slightly in the future and they don’t even have anything near as cool as a smart phone or an MP3 player.

Because when we talk about mini computer, that just means one that only takes up half a room . . .

Similarly, books set in near future where the plot hinges on an alien using a NASA space shuttle to get back to space, or even an alien who uses a Speak and Spell for making a convoluted device to phone home are going to be less accessible to modern audiences.  I was considering this in terms of some of my favorite alien stories from the 70s and 80s and while I still loved to read these tales, I don’t know that they would work for new audiences.    And yes, I think that includes E.T.

Given how much E.T. could do with a Speak and Spell, I wonder what he could have accomplished with an Ipad?

This limited shelf life just simply isn’t the same with fantasy. It takes much more than the passage of years for fantasy books to become irrelevant and inaccessible to their audiences.  Heck, we’re still reading fairy tales hundreds of years later.  But Science Fiction?  Other than the intellectual interest of fans who want to revisit the history of Science Fiction stories of yesteryear or study the evolution of SF, much of it gets dusty. It’s not the only reason for so much of science fiction falling into obscurity, but it is one of the reasons.

Occasionally people have been tempted to tamper with older works to update them and ‘upgrade’ them.  This is shaky ground at best and can cause a loss of integrity at worst.  Rewriting old stories doesn’t necessarily improve their ability to reach new audiences, and it can obscure the roots and origins of the story itself.

I’m of the opinion the the solution lies in having more science fiction books and more writers willing to create them.  More publishers willing to put them on the market. There will never be a time when we do not need visionary writers taking a look at the future from their perspective and time and place.  Let’s hope that there will always be books to fill that need.

Please share your own thoughts!

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on April 28, 2013, in General Posts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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