Period Sci Fi

Come To The Dark Side

In the world of Speculative Writing there is the Past, the Present, and the Future. In the realm of the Past there is Steampunk, and there is everything else, what is commonly known as 'Period Sci Fi'. Steampunk is known for its light approach to genre fiction, while 'Period Sci Fi' treats the subject matter seriously, what we may refer to as the 'Dark Side' of the genre.

In broad terms, Period Sci Fi is any story taking place prior to 1900 AD. (Realistically, prior to 1950, when the tech revolution which came out of World War 2 really started to bite.) Part of this is the flavor of the times. H G Wells and Jules Verne are, strictly speaking, period sci fi although they are badly dated today. I recall a short story, dated the 1920s, I read when I was in my teens (can't recall the title now) in which a USN battleship is fitted with a wonder weapon - an infra-red optical rangefinder - which allows it to sweep the seas. Yeah, I thought it was exciting at the time even though it was one long tech infodump.

You must be careful not to confuse 'Classic' (Wells / Verne) with 'Period'. It is entirely possible to write current stories in the 'Classic' style (and I suppose a market exists for such) just as one can write pre-1900 stories in 'modern' style. As a practical matter, you should familiarize yourself with both styles in order to be well-rounded in the genre.

The subject matter is somewhat limited in Period Sci Fi since many subjects involve technologies which didn't exist back then, and still don't today. Moreover, one must be careful not to backslide into Steampunk in an effort to improvise. This applies not only to the tech, but to the characters. Since 'invention' was very much a private matter back then, the risk of creating an 'eccentric genius' is always there.

One way around this limitation is to structure your story as a Time Travel tale, with your POV being on the 'downwind' end of the event. Other McGuffins include the 'found alien artifact' or the 'mysterious notebook' (an 'eccentric genius' in abstentia). The point is you should consider coming up with a reasonable excuse or alternative to explain your plot device as being the first step in your writing.

Period Sci Fi has a definite and useful place in the genre pantheon since it is a refreshing change of pace from the modern / futuristic / alternate reality themes so common in the literature. It can be tricky to write in some respects (you need a clear grasp of the history and available tech of your time period) but it can be as rewarding as any genre.

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