It's unusual for me to do two deep, thinking, writerly posts back-to-back here (I'm more random than that), but I want to follow up Monday's thinky-thoughts on urban fantasy with some on a more general speculative fiction topic. Like a lot of sci-fi readers, I occasionally read books that are set within the next 50 to 100 years. I've read a couple recently, and read reviews of some others, and I've some thoughts to share about reader reactions. Specifically, the reaction that, "she's doing the world-building wrong because my present is this way" or "because we've already reached that stage".
There seems to be a tendency to assume that any recent development in reality should be reflected in the world-building of near-future stories. If we perfect household robots in 2011, though only the wealthy have them, then a book that posits household robots for the wealthy in 2060 is going to get flak for getting there too late. If two nations have gone to war, or if we've made another advance in cloning, or if we've cured a major disease, and there are novels that assume otherwise or place those events later in the timeline, they're going to get criticism. If there's a fictional world where social media only takes off in 2025… you get the idea.
Now, I know I default to "present" when I encounter things like wheeled cars, coffee shops, laptops, and three-piece suits in fiction, and that I only reset to "near-future" if I'm given cues like moon bases, augmented reality, and human cloning. (I suspect I'm not alone in that, that it's a standard human trait to pick "now" over "later" with stories, but not being telepathic, I can't speak for anyone but myself.) So I understand how mismatches between fiction and reality can jar people out of the story, and I understand the desire to want them to line up as much as possible.
I also know that readers who aren't aware of how publishing works (most of them) are probably more likely to not understand why there's a mismatch. After all, it only takes six months to write a novel, and only a few more after that to get the book into stores, right? Authors have no excuse for getting their facts wrong, because they're editing the book up to two weeks before publication.
Um, no. It doesn't work that way. Sure, maybe it only takes six months to write a novel, even with the multiple drafts needed to polish the thing. But then you've got to find a publisher (possibly find an agent, too), which takes time, and then the publisher will want the book edited some more, at which point you're looking at at least a year and a half between initial concept and initial print run. It's likely longer because the publisher will want to pick the right season to release the book in, and spring is better for your book than fall, which is when the novel was as finished as it was going to be.
So, roughly two years, minimum. That's a lot of time for reality to change. Two years ago, I'd have scoffed at the idea of jet packs and flying cars being real before I was 30, and now they're hella expensive, but they're here. And as I've learned with my WIP, writers can't keep changing their story and their world to keep up with reality, because even minor changes can snowball and change plot points*. At some point you just have to give up on absolute accuracy and run with what you've got.
What this all means is that near-future science fiction is going to be several years out of date before it hits bookshelves. Of course it's not going to take what happened three months ago into account. It can't. We shouldn't be criticizing authors for this, and we shouldn't be assuming this somehow makes them lazy or sloppy. If we readers can't wrap our heads around, "we didn't have X when the book was written, so we forgive the author for missing it" (and we should be able to, it's not hard), then we should go with the slightly lesser, possibly more palatable statement, "when I'm reading this, I'm going to assume something happened Y years ago that made X happen at a different time." The impact the world-building mismatch has on our enjoyment of the book should be minimal.
*especially true after the book's bought by the publisher. It's apparently very uncool to keep making major changes after that.