At one time I loved reading science fiction stories set anywhere in space and time, which would be all the squares on the chart below. At 70, my focus has narrowed to what I show in shades of green. The darker, the more interested I am in reading fiction or science fiction set in that space-time. I don’t hate stories set further afield, but I’m just not that into them anymore either.

One assumption deals with age. When I was young I was dazzled by any possibility. Galactic empires set in the far future had such a tremendous sense of wonder that I thought colonizing the galaxy was humanity’s reason for existing. I was also blown away by Olaf Stapledon’s stories of post-humans, and figured that was our destiny too.

Of course, I began my science fiction habit with a gateway drug of Heinlein’s juveniles, first with adventures about boys going to the Moon and Mars, then with stories that ranged over the solar system, and finally with tales that ventured into interstellar travel. I also embraced stories robots, time travel, alternate history, the multiverse, and other dimensions. I really wanted to believe we could go anywhere.

One of my all-time favorite SF stories, “The Star Pit” is set on the galaxy’s rim and is about the few special people who can travel to Andromeda and the impact their freedom had on the characters who couldn’t. As a kid, that story mirrored the frustration I felt not being able to leave Earth.

I still love “The Star Pit” but for nostalgic reasons. I still reread all my favorite SF stories set in any of the space-time locations above, but when it comes to reading new SF stories I prefer stories set in the near future set, especially on the Earth, but no further than the Moon, or Mars. To a lesser degree, I enjoy science fiction about machines exploring the asteroids and the outer system, or about SETI contact with nearby stars.

Why has aging narrowed my fictional horizons? When I was young I believed anything was possible. Now that I’m 70 I doubt humans will ever travel beyond the Moon and Mars. I believe intelligent machines will live out our big science fictional dreams. The more I’ve learned about the hostility of space on our biology, the more I’ve doubted people will live beyond Earth. As I’ve grown more practical and become less of a dreamer, I find it terribly hard to picture people actually wanting to live anywhere but Earth. I believe Elon Musk will get us to Mars, but we’ll discover we won’t like living there. Thus it’s become harder to enjoy stories set in far-ranging places of space and time.

But that’s me. What about you?

Where do you like your science fiction stories set? Has growing older affected the science fiction you love to read?

James Wallace Harris, 3/22/22

18 thoughts on “What is Your Preferred Space-Time Setting for Science Fiction?

  1. I’m roughly your contemporary. Grew up on Heinlein’s juveniles. Also, Andre Norton, IMO a seriously under-rated author. Now, I hardly ever read SF. William Gibson of course. I think it’s a matter of plausibility. My ‘Sense of Wonder’ has atrophied. I prefer SF (and all literature) to be physically and socially plausible. And I have much higher standards of plausibility than I did at thirteen. So, I’m pretty much on the same place in the chart as you are. I’d like to recommend Daniel Suarez, who meets my criteria. https://daniel-suarez.com/

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  2. I’ve been thinking about the opposite lately: SF of the cosmologically distant future.

    Almost all SF takes place within our galaxy. Despite all the hype about SF being anywhere in space and time. Alot of it takes place within the solar system. Most all of it takes place from the immediate future to “thousands of year” hence.

    I don’t know if I have a favorite setting in space/time for it.

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    1. I see your point, William, but even SF taking place within our galaxy but outside the solar system, and no more than thousands of years hence, is distant enough in time and space for me–enough to arouse my sense of wonder.

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      1. Mostly agree on this. I’m always reminded of that quote in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

        “Space,” it says, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space. Listen…”

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  3. I have read newer, good science fiction — there’s a lot more out there than I’d realized. But I do gravitate to science fiction writers of the 40s and 50s. More accurately, stories and novels from back then. I prefer the Isaac Asimov who wrote for Astounding and Galaxy in the 50s, more so than the Asimov who wrote in the 70s. For me, I’m not sure that has to do with getting older. At 64, I enjoy modern, alternative music more than geezer rock. And when it comes to other literary genres, I’ll choose the most up-to-date techno thriller. Perhaps that’s the attitude I should take with my sci fi reading choices. Appreciate the Golden Age stuff and what immediately followed, but go beyond this horizon.
    There I go again.

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    1. I like modern literature, music, and movies, and I do read some modern SF, but I prefer what was published in the 1950s. Some of that first appeared in magazines in the 1940s.

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  4. Many thanks for this piece, Jim, and to the others for all your comments. At my age (58), I also feel it’s unlikely (and not even necessarily desirable) that we’ll venture far beyond the moon and Mars. Nevertheless, I love “cosmic” science fiction involving time travel and space travel, including space travel to distant galaxies, etc. A few years ago, I was blown away by Poul Anderson’s story “Flight to Forever,” and I’ve always loved Isaac Asimov’s story “The Last Question.” By the way, who wrote “The Star Pit”? I’ll see if I can find it.

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      1. Many thanks–I’ll look for “The Star Pit.” I’ve only read a few of Anderson’s stories and shorter novels, and enjoyed most of them, but not, I’m afraid, Tau Zero. It’s the sort of cosmic story, involving time dilation, etc., I would ordinarily enjoy, but I was repelled by the protagonist–a macho alpha male who beats everyone into line. I also found some of the scientific and technical details difficult–a problem I sometimes have with hard SF. I’m never sure to what extent any of it is actually plausible and genuinely extrapolative, or simply hand-waving and rubber science–the same problem I had with Lester del Rey’s “Nerves.”

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        1. The runaway relativistic starship is hand-waving for this reason: any collision between it and any gas/dust/objects in space would vaporize it. A sand grain colliding with a ship at 90% speed of light has the energy of an atomic bomb.

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        2. Many thanks, William! I wouldn’t have minded the hand-waving as such–for me even hard SF doesn’t always have to be completely accurate–except that the sheer amount of scientific or technological jargon, accurate or not, sometimes gets in the way of the story.

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  5. James, Doug, and Carl — thank you for the suggestions. I plan on checking them all out, and I’m looking forward to it.
    I wonder what, if anything, will inspire future generations to go exploring. So many of those who worked on the early space program owe their careers to the science fiction they read as kids. That’s a pretty powerful endorsement.
    I gotta tell you, James, that although I agree with you about the stagnation of human exploration in outer space, I find it a little sad. I believe when we lose the desire to explore, to actually set foot on other worlds, we’ll have lost something much bigger. Mallory’s “because it’s there” might sound boastful and naive in today’s environment, but that statement embodies something noble and fine, something inherently and uniquely human. I hope we never lose, as British author John Wyndham put it, the outward urge.

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    1. I understand your feelings, Russ, but maybe we as a species can apply our exploratory urges to solving all our many problems here on earth, although this isn’t in itself an argument against space travel. In any case, even though as you say, “many of those who worked on the early space program owe their careers to the science fiction they read as kids,” I feel that space travel in SF and in real life belong to two different realms. I love the theme of space travel in SF, but I’m ambivalent about it (for various reasons) in real life. I also like the different ways it’s handled in SF, from the celebration of space travel in Clarke and Heinlein to the completely different (but also fascinating) approach in J.G. Ballard’s stories in his collection Memories of the Space Age.

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      1. Good points, Carl. And I agree that SF space travel, especially in the optimistic 50s, has certainly differed from reality.
        The only J.G. Ballard works I’ve read were a couple of his “disaster” novels. You’ve given me another one to check out!

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    2. Russ, I believe we’ll want to explore, but we’ll hit limitations that will keep us from going very far into space. Science fiction has always inspired us but it’s also been overly optimistic for what we could do. As a kid the romance of science fiction made me want to go to Mars, but the reality is rocks and cold and I would hate living there. People hated being confined at home by the pandemic, but living in space would be far more confining. It’s not practical to spend much time outside on the Moon, Mars, or orbital habitats. The best place to put people on the Moon and Mars would be underground. All those neat paintings of structures on the surface of those places aren’t realistic because of radiation and extreme temperatures.

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  6. I’m pretty much a dystopian future fan . But have you read CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy? I liked the first book , the second was a bit difficult to read and I didn’t really try hard to finish the third one . His book The Great Divorce is kinda religious sci-fi .

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