Which taught me something about writing near-future fiction - history will always catch up with you. If you're lucky it'll do it before you've published the story, and you get a chance to update it. If you're unlucky you publish the story and people can poke fun at you for being so short-sighted.
Those of you who've read `The Push' know it's about a bunch of very rich young people who go into business hauling colonists and freight around the galaxy. It's set quite a distance in the future - a century, two hundred years, maybe more - and I thought I was safe from future shock. The biggest chance I took, I thought, was a mention of loop quantum gravity, a theory that may or may not yet be disproved, but what the hell. I don't understand it. There probably aren't more than a dozen people in the world who fully understand what it's about.
But I did remember years ago hearing that astronomers had identified what they believed to be a disc of gas and dust and rubble surrounding the star beta Pictoris, a proto-solar system. So I had the characters hauling a load of miners out to beta Pic and one of the characters saying to another, "You know, there'd have been planets there if we hadn't come along." The implication being that the work of the miners had interfered (somehow, I don't know how) with the formation of a solar system from the rubble halo.
This evening, knowing how much my mind has been blown by the recent news of astronomers directly imaging exoplanets, Thog emailed me with the news that they've found a new one.
It's orbiting beta Pictoris.
So there's already a planet of at least Jovian size in the beta Pic system, and there may be more. So my throwaway line about the effect my characters had on the development of planets is redundant.
Now, this doesn't really amount to a hill of beans. I haven't sold `The Push' yet. I can rewrite the line. I can relocate the rubble halo to another star and hope nobody discovers it a) doesn't have a rubble halo and b) has planets. I can cut the line - it's a little gag and nobody will miss it. But I think, in a small way, it demonstrates one of the pitfalls of writing science fiction.
We're writers, not clairvoyants. The stuff we put in our stories is based on the latest scientific information and the best speculation we can get our hands on, and we do our very best with it. And it can all blow away on the winds of a single new discovery.
This probably matters more to writers like Vernor Vinge, whose Rainbows End I enjoyed enormously last year, and Charlie Stross, whose Halting State I'm rereading at the moment. Both deal with near-future projections of the impact of information technology on society. If they've got it right, the books become visionary. If they've got it wrong, they just look like quaint dead-ends. Writing science fiction that close to present time is a risky high-wire act. Personally, I think the societies Stross and Vinge imagine are already here, they're just waiting for the technology to catch up on them. That's what makes the books so good, and what makes them such good writers.
And, to an extent, I sometimes think fiction shapes the future. I know a lot of young people went to work for Nasa because their imaginations were fired by watching Star Trek when they were kids.
And a couple of months ago I reread Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, and was reminded that this novel which was published in 1992 features a computer program called `Earth,' which ties into satellite data and gives the user an aerial view of anywhere in the world. Sounds familiar? I have it on my laptop - it's called Google Earth. It hasn't got the realtime features of Stephenson's `Earth,' but the capability is there, and who knows what the future will bring?
Myself, I thought namechecking the beta Pictoris rubble halo made me fireproof for at least a century, and by that time I'd be dead and I wouldn't care whether there were planets in the system or not. I never imagined that - only a year after I finished the story - I'd be able to look at the picture of a little dot of light far far away across the night and know it was a world outside our solar system. Who'd have thought it?