The Doomsday Book is a 1992 novel by Connie Willis that won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, the two highest honors in science fiction. This summer, two decades after publication, I began reading it and didn’t get too far. The reason points to one of the predicaments of science fiction in 2014.
The Doomsday Book is a time travel story, one of the staples of science fiction. Part of the book is set in the late 21st century, when time travel is commonplace. Part is set in the 13th century, to which one of the characters from the ‘present’ is sent.
The predicament facing readers of The Doomsday Book is that the characters who are in the late 21st century are still using land-line phones. No one has cell phones. Even though time machines have been invented, cell phones have not. And I found it virtually impossible to read those portions of the book without being bothered by that. (There is also no internet, but its absence does not feel as problematic).
Early on in the story, the difficulty that some characters have getting in touch with others is an issue that drives the plot. So the absence of cell phones in the late 21st century is not just a bothersome little detail, a bit of ugly window-dressing about which readers can look the other way. Rather, its absence makes reading those chapters frustrating.
I don’t fault Connie Willis (though others have, pointing out that she should have known; that early cell phone technology was already around by 1992), and I intend to return to the book. I do, though, think that the pace of technological growth in our real lives shortens the shelf-life of science fiction.
As a teenager in the 1970s, I often read classic science fiction that had been written twenty years earlier. And for the most part, the works held up because technology hadn’t changed very much. Yes, we’d gone to the moon. But real life, ordinary life, in the 1970s was not drastically different from the 50s. Real life in 2014, however, is drastically different than 1992. The pace will only quicken and any contemporary writer trying to imagine the world beyond our present day has a far greater chance of falling short.