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9 Scientific Breakthroughs That Killed Science Fiction Subgenres

30 August 2013

From io9:

Science fiction looks to the future — but sometimes the future catches up to you. Sometimes, an idea generates tons of great science fiction stories — until science reveals the truth, and kills it dead. Or technology surpasses it. Here are nine scientific breakthroughs that destroyed science fiction subgenres.

. . . .

1) No Martian Civilization

Just over 100 years ago, many people still believed there might be intelligent life on Mars — with Percival Lowell claiming there were “canals” on Mars that were created by intelligent creatures, based on a mis-translation of the Italian word “canali” in astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s writing. Soon, H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and a ton of other authors were writing about Martian civilizations.

The discovery: We figured out by the late 19th century that the atmosphere of Mars probably couldn’t support life, and the “canals” were debunked roughly a century ago. But it wasn’t until we were sending space probes to Mars and getting really good images of the surface, around1971, that the “Mars invades Earth” and “Mars has civilizations on it” stories just dried up.

Link to the rest at io9 and thanks to Joshua for the tip.


41 Comments to “9 Scientific Breakthroughs That Killed Science Fiction Subgenres”

  1. I now have a terrible urge to write altiverse stories about Martians who have a secret base at the Earth’s core to sustain their polywater mines.

    • To be honest, none of those things listed are a big problem to a competent SF writer. I have Martians as a major subplot in my upcoming Victorian werewolf series, and they’re not hard to explain away adequately. Particularly given it’s set in an alternate universe.

      The biggest issue for me is that real world scientists continue to treat Mars as the ‘next great step’ for spaceflight, when in reality it’s just a rock and there’s no good reason to go there if your goal is to colonize the solar system. I wrote about that on my blog a while back.

      • Personally, I think Venus sounds more promising. Clean the place up a bit, and it’s got potential. Mars is a dry rock too far from the sun.

        • They missed out on the “hot, steamy swamps on Venus” thing, too. Gonna need some good air conditioners there, it’s worse than oven hot and dry.

        • Back in 1976 David Bergamini laid out a way to terraform Venus with current tech…

          …intentionally create a nuclear winter by bombing the heck of the surface to break the greenhouse efect. Seed with acid loving bacteria and algae and wait a couple of centuries. 🙂

          L. Neil Smith went a step further and had Venus (carefully) blown into a second asteroid belt. No need to fight a deep gravity well, plenty of solar energy for mining.

          That said, Mars has possibilities: a few diverted comets should get things rolling.

          Although, judging by the latest news from NASA, we might have a working FTL drive before the Environmental Impact studies on terraforming Venus or Mars are done. 😉

  2. Darn science

  3. Darn it. There goes my story about silicon-based Martians who’ve been building a secret moon base in which to invade Earth and force humans to survive on Soylent Green due to overpopulation.


    Oh well. Back to the drawing board.

  4. The article left out Pellucidar and the Hollow Earth theory. 🙁

    • Good call. I didn’t notice.

      • I think it was sort of implied in that if there was any significant way to get to the Earth’s Core, short of a Magma Submersible, we’d have spotted it from space by now, either by seeing the ENORMOUS FREAKING HOLE WITH NO BOTTOM or with GPR.

        But you’re right, that’s a stretch and they sure didn’t say it outright.

  5. The life of a near-future SF writer in three easy steps.

    1. Think up great story idea with fantastic-yet-plausible premise.
    2. Read about this same scientific breakthrough in next month’s Wired magazine.
    3. Scrap story and start over.

    This happens to me all the time.

    • This is one reason why so many SF writers have taken refuge in the museum that is steampunk. They don’t have to worry about trying to stay ahead of current discoveries. No new scientific discoveries will ever be made in the year 1900 again.

      • That’s quitter talk. Wait until Doctor Evermor gets the Forevertron up and running.

        (If you are not familiar with the Wonder of the World which is the Forevertron: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forevertron )

      • I know I should find a more stable genre to play in. I can’t help it, my heart is in near-future SF. Happily, I’ve been able to stay ahead of the curve long enough to publish a few well-received novels. I hope my luck continues.

        • All you need to do is remember that *all* fiction takes place in alternate universes and run with it.
          Just drop an early hint or two that your timeline isn’t ours and move on. (A quip about Dewey beating Truman or Nixon getting shot in ’63.)

  6. Or you can just ignore all that science-y stuff and write some good old space opera, rayguns, atomic rockets and all.

    • I read a short on the web many years ago about a man who was dying and who started telling impossible stories about fighting aliens around the Moon in the best Flash Gordon tradition. Everybody thought it was dementia… but of course it’s never that simple.

      It was a good story, I can’t find it again. The crux of the story involved his daughter finding out what was really going on.

      Anyway, it provided a really superb example of how to do that sort of thing and still tie it to “the real world.”

      I have a series of very silly “science opera” short stories that I write about a Mad Scientist and his Hapless Assistant. They are set in “our world,” but the Mad Scientist (who’s not really mad, just kind of irritable) believes that the laws of physics are more like guidelines. Being a Mad Scientist, he’s completely correct.

      “You can’t break the laws of physics!”

      “No, you shouldn’t break the laws of physics.”

      • LOL! I love it!

      • id like to read both of those marc

        • Ditto.
          The “irritable” scientist quip reminds me about the blurb for Thorne Smith’s THE NIGHT LIFE OF THE GOODS about the protagonist being a “maddening” scientist. (His lab explosions annoy his freeloading relatives.)

      • The author is Sarah A. Hoyt and the story is “Wait Until The War Is Over”. If my guess is correct, her story, “Waiting for Juliette” is set in the same universe. (I’m not sure about if there are others, but I’m sure she’d tell you if you asked.)

  7. A pretty poor and lame article if you ask me:

    1) No Martian Civilization: So what ? A simple time shift and away you go.
    2) There’s no Ninth Planet (so no Tenth Planet): So ? It’s shielded. Away you go.
    3) We Put People on the Moon: So ? Dark side ? Underground ? it’s called imagination!
    4) Computer Memory is Cheap and Plentiful: Impacted on a tiny handful of stories.
    5) Silicon-Based Life is Probably Impossible: How lame is that one! “probably” ??
    6) We’re no longer as scared of overpopulation: Yes we are. It’s just a shift of scale.
    7) We can’t live on “food pills”: Nonsense. According to ‘current’ science.
    8) There’s no such thing as “polywater”: Again … a minor irrelevant topic.
    9) We’ve got satellite views of Earth now: Hard to believe but far far from impossible if structured right.

    Why this attracted PG’s attention I will never know.

    • “Why this attracted PG’s attention I will never know.”

      Not to write as PG or anything, but he may have like the possible entertainment from the minds of his commenters. I know I did.


    • I credit ADHD, Howard.

    • I used to love io9, but like most of the Gawker sites, it seems to just be…crummy anymore. This is maybe the 5th article I’ve read in a row about sci-fi and writing in the last few months, and each one makes me more annoyed than the previous.

      I need a new science/sci-fi blog to peruse daily. Any suggestions?

    • I loved this article, I thought it was great fun! 😀

      Thanks for posting it, PG!

  8. Indeed, lame. S.M.Stirling did two great SF books with populated Mars and Venus.

  9. Michael E. Walston

    look, folks. mars used to have water and there was indeed a civilization there. and there are still some survivors in underground caverns there.

    plus, there’s a big huge tract of land in northern siberia where the climate is pretty balmy due to a concentration of hot springs and steam geysers. you can see it on satellite pics if you look closely enough. they even have dinosaurs and shit.

    the old soviet regime allowed some survivors of martian flying saucer crashes to settle there in exchange for the technology that allowed them to launch the first sputnik.

    i know all this because my current girlfriend is actually a descendant of those martian refugees who hitchhiked across tibet and eventually made her way to japan, where she caught a freighter to california, which is where i met her after responding to her personal ad on craigslist.

    i love her, and i don’t believe she’d lie to me.

  10. Like Howard said above: “5) Silicon-Based Life is Probably Impossible: How lame is that one! “probably” ??”

    Does this author not understand science fiction? Does s/he not understand how deep a science fiction writer will go to make the impossible a possibility? I am surprised by this article. I see where the author(s) were coming from but the content demonstrates a lack of understanding. “Science Truth” says ‘this ain’t so’ but then science truth said there was no life in the deep ocean no so long ago. Science fiction evolves and adapts and is often the forerunner of science truth. Even when science catches up and ‘disproves’ a fictional universe, there are alternate ones to explore. Just dig deeper.

  11. Fun article, very enjoyable.

    Not the least of which is how seriously the science folks are taking this. I know this might really piss them off, and certainly no offense is meant, but I find it rather…..cute. 😀

    I liked the last one on the list the best – about how nothing can hide because we now have pictures of the Earth.

    But, I have to say….I wonder about Texas. Have we really thoroughly given Texas the lookover? I suspect they could be hiding something in Texas.

  12. Science fiction stories based on time anomalies simply do not work because time travel is illogical in the extreme

    • What does logic have to do with anything?

      Most of General Relativity is illogical in the extreme…possible because it permits time travel. See also Tipler’s work on rotating masses and closed time-like curves.

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