Oct 29 2009 4:50pm

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.

Trey Palmer
1. Pilgrim
I think you may be onto something. More like the intersection of hard SF and military SF.
Edward M. Lerner
2. EdwardMLerner
Picturing poor, hard SF beneath the treads of a main battle tank.

Alexander Jablokov
3. Alexander Jablokov
I'd say the difference comes from the technothriller's ability to prevent societal change. In an SF novel, a technological change propogates everywhere, affecting the culture as a whole. In a technothriller, it only affects the actual individuals involved in the plot. It does not change anything about the world, and, in fact, often vanishes at the end of the book.
Try this heuristic, and see if it works!
Alexander Jablokov
4. wkwillis
I don't think asteroid mining is that far out. Nautilus is already working on mining sulfide deposits on the bottom of the ocean and has spent rather large sums of money working out the problems.
Better/Cheaper nanotube production technology makes cost to orbit per pound comparable to cost to Australia per pound. Not expensive if you are looking for platinum group metals or Mantle Sample diamond ore from the Moon forming event.
p l
5. p-l
I think Alexander is right. The classic, (cliché?) techno-thriller plot has the heroes racing against time to stuff some technological genie back into its bottle and thereby avert armageddon. In other words, there's a perilous technological development--a new super-weapon invented or just an old super-weapon stolen by Russians/Arabs/whoever--from which the world needs to be protected. Kind of boring, IMO. Possibly anti-science? I haven't read widely enough in the genre to really say.
Edward M. Lerner
6. EdwardMLerner
Alexander, p-l: interesting. The line you would draw between SF and techno-thriller is whether the underlying technology succeeds in changing the overall society.

Military techno-thrillers fit that view nicely: the shiny new tech is limited to a military domain. Other techno-thrillers (medical thrillers, for example) don't lend themselves to localizing the new tech.

How fictional new tech permeates a fictional near-future varies across a spectrum; it's not a binary choice between localized and universal. Techno-thrillers may indeed tend toward one end of that spectrum and hard SF toward the other, but I think the two overlap.
Rick Rutherford
7. rutherfordr
Another distinction is that in techno-thrillers, the new technology is a tool to be used by the heroes and/or villains, for good and/or evil, while in science-fiction, the new technology is part of the scenery, part of the culture, or even part of the cast of characters.

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