If we go back hundred years and then some in time, we would enter a world we’d recognize but would hardly be able to properly function in. Your own nation would have drastically different culture, ideologies and ways of doing things, and other cultures would be that much more alien as the global cross-pollination would still be curbed by the lack of fast connections. Though we can intellectually say that things were like this or that people thought like that based on books and documentation from that era, otherwise we can barely relate to them. We can’t interact with the past. The same applies to the future as well, but even more so. The present is steel in a forge, constantly being heated to its proper temperature. Human actions are the hammer blows that shape the metal into its proper form, but only after quenching and polishing, we can see what are the results. We might have a plan or intentions, but sometimes those don’t serve us. Other times we’re played like a fiddle by some unseen hand directing us towards something peculiar, like how the recent military coup in Burma, also called Myanmar, took place. Some people see and know what’s going to happen, while the rest have to wait and see until it’s presented to us. By that time, the showcase is over. Future generations will look back to this era the same way we see the past through coloured lenses and read the words of the victor.
If we extend the time span, we’re are being removed from pretty much everything we know. The man of now, be it in the 1800s or present, always considers themselves to be at the cutting edge of science and progress, that this is the best spot. Fifty years from now there will be people thinking the same way and wondering how backwards we were at the change of the millennium. Science probably has taken steps we barely have an inkling about currently, with social and cultural structures have seen a change. Future historians can make educated guesses where all this is going, but that’s all it is. Ask a future historian five years ago if the world would experience a massive scare in form of a global pandemic, and none of them has anything like that. Some of them probably would have guessed that an incoming depression would hit, but that was supposed to be around 2018. They weren’t quite right on the time, or for what reasons.
The concepts we have in our everyday life are magic. We can say we understand how, for example, Wi-Fi works with the signals and how they’re coded and encoded, but only in terms of This things exists. Very few truly understand what’s happening when wireless communication happens, or why. We can easily say that Wireless Fidelity is radio signals, and then expand that radio waves are a form of electromagnetic waves. This means it’s a wave with both electronic and magnetic component to it, meaning the signals are like light rays, except their wavelength is different. This is just going into what a radio signal is, and not even touching how information relies on through it. As a side note, it would be possible to “see” Wi-Fi waves if an organ or a device would have evolved or designed to see at that wavelength.
The Atomic Era and after saw a huge slew of science fiction making wild assumptions about the year 2000, which very few have come to pass. I’m still waiting for my atomic reactor powered flying cars. We have robots doing our jobs, but not in the manner of humaniform robots or androids, but rather as dedicated machines with specific types of arms and hands. General artificial intelligence was assumed to have been assembled already, but turns out making a sentient computer is harder than it seems like. Then again, in strict terms, the AI doesn’t even need to be sentient. It just has to appear to be so. However, we can’t fault science fiction writers for using the science they had in their present. You can’t use or invent what you don’t know is possible or could be done. Star Trek‘s communicators were a natural evolution of radio and wired phones. Nowadays, you can call anyone anywhere on the Earth, and probably on the orbit too, with your phone in your pocket. While teleportation has been deemed impossible, tests have shown otherwise. It’s just a matter of the scale of things and whether or not it would be feasible in the future, but progress has ways to make us surprised. After all, it was thought the world could only have three computers due to their massive size, but now that same phone you can call Frank is millions of times more capable in every aspect than those room-sized computers. Even the best guess based on the information they had then wasn’t exactly on the mark.
It helps if you’re a scientist of sorts when writing science fiction. You’d be in a better position to use that knowledge of how things work to take a few steps forwards. After all, once the reader picks up your book, you are in a silent agreement that this is fiction, and certain parts will be in the realm of impossibility. Even then, too many times the ideas people have supposed to be too fantastical have turned out to be possible. Then, of course, there’s the reverse or the Jurassic Park Effect. Michael Crichton did extensive research for the book, and for a short period in the 1980s, it was based on solid science and knowledge. Even the name of the Velociraptor was largely accurate for a whole year or two, before the species’ status, name and size were updated with further research. We also now know that dinosaurs had feathers of sorts, and have been able to determine some pigments from fossil remains. A few years back, a Texan scientist surmised that T-Rex probably didn’t even roar, but used similar closed-mouth communication we see in alligators and birds. So rather than a lion roar, it most likely had something akin to a deep, ground-shaking subsonic rumble. The whole issue of extracting DNA from amber sadly was also bunked when DNA’s half-life was confirmed, meaning even in the best condition a dinosaur’s DNA would have broken up in 6,8 million years. We’re a few millions of years too late to the party. Science fact of yesterday is science fiction of today.
Nevertheless, we can only base our ideas and guesses what is out there. Very few of us is making any progress on the scientific front, and even those who keep tabs on the latest news and research papers probably can’t even guess what’s the next technological revolution. Science fiction writers overall can’t really use what isn’t there. I keep using the Lensman series and some of the earlier Asimov’s works as examples where there are no computers. The way computers were in the 1950s and earlier don’t even begin to count in ways modern people understand what a computer is. Nevertheless, writers like Asimov and Clarke understood science to make use of it in an entertaining manner as well as discuss themes and concepts through their work. Larry Niven’s Ringworld novels are an example of an author going back to the work and making a sequel just to discuss how such a superstructure as Niven’s Ring could be possible. It points out how it can be made possible, but as it usually is with SF, not whether or not it is possible with our current understanding of materials and certain physics.
I’m sure you’re tired of me kicking this dead horse. However, the more I hear some unnamed contemporary SF writers aiming to write what follows “real science” while arguing that you shouldn’t elaborate, or even discuss, what isn’t possible seems cheating. Certainly, Star Trek Voyager made technobabble a sin in the eyes of hardcore SF fans. However, this is where that whole aforementioned point of having some kind of degree of science, or a deeper understanding of how things work steps in. Bad technobabble throws words in that sound scientific without any meaning. Good technobabble on the other hand does manage to make use of current concepts and take it a step further by asking the question What if… Then again, the highly technical speech itself sounds like technobabble, so the layman and general audience mostly put it as the tone of the work. It’s background noise, something that’s akin to the background music that’s making the beats. In the end, it doesn’t matter if the science or the depiction of vessels or beams is realistic and accurate as long as it serves the story. There’s no drama if we can’t see the lasers shot, or if a crew member is thrown back when using a phaser. While some viewers will complain that Star Trek and similar works are unrealistic how they depict their science and mechanics, the layman often retorts that how that’s a given; it’s television, none of it is real.
It is disingenuous to call any work of SF, like Star Trek, a work of fantasy based on its elements not being possible, at least in terms of the current understanding of how things work. The whole What If… plays an important role in one of Asimov’s best works, Gold. Asimov was dared to write a story with plutonium-186 isotope as the theme, which doesn’t and can’t exist. Yet Asimov took the base and built a story set in another universe with a different set of laws of physics that allowed such thing to exist. Discussing such topics and themes is a hallmark of science fiction as a genre.
All this wondering makes me want a hard science fact story that uses 1600s science as its basis.