Just slightly ahead of our time

(No, this isn’t a Panasonic promo.) Lots of science fiction deals with distant times and places. Intrepid prospectors in the Asteroid Belt. Interstellar epics. Galactic empires. Trips to the remote past or future.

I write those types of SF—but also stories set in the almost-here-and-now. Near-future stories exercise my mind about up-and-coming technology. They’re the most real-seeming to many readers and, IMO, the literary SF that most appeals to a general audience. They evoke interest in science and technology among some readers more than will far-out, never-in-their-lifetime tales.

So what’s the difference—or is there one?—between techno-thrillers and near-future SF?

The distinguishing characteristic of the techno-thriller is technical detail. Like hard SF, the technical detail must be rooted in plausible science. And like Mundane SF, techno-thrillers generally take place on or near Earth, in the near future.

Who writes techno-thrillers? Wikipedia suggests Clancy, Coonts, Crichton, Dale Brown, Dan Brown, and Preston & Childs, to name a few. Would their books seem out of place in the SF section of your favorite bookstore? (Or are they filed there to begin with?)

A funny thing about near-future stories: the future catches up to them. If the author is unlucky, the future catches up faster than the book can get out the door. I’ve had to rewrite stories and books more than once when tech went a slightly different way than I expected. And the techno-thriller author can get everything right about future tech and the future will still pass him by. Like my half-written Cold war novel.

I like to think readers appreciate a well-drawn near-future as well as a well-drawn far-future.

At some point, however, the near-future tale becomes an alternate-history tale. Sometimes authors get to keep building on the future that wasn’t. Hey, it worked for Tom Clancy.

Bottom line, techno-thrillers seem to me like a subset of hard SF. What do y’all think?


Edward M. Lerner worked in high tech for thirty years, as everything from engineer to senior vice president. He writes near-future techno-thrillers, most recently Fools’ Experiments and Small Miracles, and far-future space epics like the Fleet of Worlds series with colleague Larry Niven. Ed blogs regularly at SF and Nonsense.

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