L.B.: This ain’t science fiction

Left Behind, pg. 30

The in-flight phone embedded in the back of the seat in front of Buck Williams was not assembled with external modular connections the way most phones were. Buck imagined that Pan Con Airlines would soon be replacing these relics to avoid complaints from computer users. But Buck guessed that inside the phone the connection was standard and that if he could somehow get in there without damaging the phone, he could connect his computer’s modem directly to the line. His own cellular phone was not cooperating at this altitude.

Here we are reminded again that Left Behind was written in 1995. Communications and computer technology were rather different eight years ago from the way they are now. And, one might imagine, eight years from now these technologies will be even more different.

One might imagine — but LaHaye and Jenkins don’t. Aside from Dr. Rosenzweig’s miracle formula, the technological world of L.B. seems to have hit a plateau in 1994. This story may have been written in 1995, but it is not set then. It is set, instead, in that favorite time period of science fiction writers: “the not-too distant future.”

Don’t let that quasi-futuristic setting fool you: L.B. is not a work of science fiction.

I’m not really qualified to offer a definition of “science fiction” (I’ll defer to Patrick and Teresa on that subject), but broadly speaking, sci-fi writers closely observe the world we live in now and extrapolate a future based on possible developments and trajectories from this world. They may also choose to write about alternative worlds — ones where some of the basic premises of our world are altered, thus producing divergent conclusions.

In either case, though, the real subject of their writing is still this world, in the present. Their stories may be set on distant planets, and their protagonists may be aliens or androids, but these exotic scenarios are still meant to explore what it means to be human, here and now.

Left Behind is not science fiction, but rather religious, apocalyptic fiction. As such, it’s interested in an entirely different set of questions.

Apocalyptic fiction as a literary genre is also very different from just plain old apocalypses. That ancient, highly symbolic genre would often discuss the future, but always — like science fiction — in the context of trying to make sense out of the present. Apocalyptic fiction does not attempt to illuminate or make sense of the present. It is wholly uninterested in the world we live in now. (“This world is not my home, I’m just passin’ through.”)

Instead, apocalyptic fiction simply asserts that certain future events will occur — no matter how implausible or impossible these events may seem from our current trajectory, and no matter how unrelated or alien such events may seem when compared to the world in which we are now living.

This may help to explain why the world of Left Behind seems less realistic than even the most fantastical alien creations of the best science fiction writers.

It may also help to explain why, despite the book’s supposedly futuristic setting, a jet-setting reporter like Buck Williams is still using a dial-up Prodigy account to send e-mail.

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  • Patrick Nielsen Hayden

    My only quibble is that I don’t think “the not-too-distant future” is in fact a “favorite time period of science fiction writers.” Quite the contrary, I think most SF writers tend to avoid the immediate future; it’s hard.
    Otherwise, you’re quite right, both about “Left Behind” and about the fact that SF is generally all about the present in which it’s written.
    LB really belongs to the same genre as books like The Two Babylons: “secret histories” that cater to people’s desire to feel like they have some kind of inside track.

  • Scott Cattanach

    Wait until L&J need technology to further the ‘plot’, then it becomes magic that can do anything.

  • Keith

    It already has become magic that can do anything. That secret formula that turns desert into lush farmland might as well come in bean form and have been found in the vacinity of a young man and his talking cow.
    L and J obviously have only the most rudimentary grasp of scientific principles (is that really all that surprising?) and once again, a blind editor. They continuously make novice mistakes in not just their writing style and descriptive ability but they employ cliche after cliche, all to prove a conclusion that they knew in advance.
    The best fiction, speculative ot otherwise is exploratory; the author’s attempt to follow a what if scenerio, in order to see where it takes them. Often writers are surprised by the end of the book to find out that the story they set out to write has evolved. But L and H don’t like evolution or exploring ideas. They just want to hammer home their favorite sermons. Over and over and over…

  • Scott Cattanach

    Communication technology in the LBverse takes off after the antichrist takes over (if you compare the before and after technology levels). Who knew Satan was a geek? :-)

  • JLowe

    I have to wonder if science fiction writers avoid writing about the immediate future because you’re too easily overtaken by events during the writing process.

  • clew

    Who knew Satan was a geek?
    Every BOFH?
    (Bastard Operators from Hell; sysadmins with more power than mercy.)

  • All Slackers Left Behind

    Posted by Captain Blowtorch

  • Ken

    I have to wonder if science fiction writers avoid writing about the immediate future because you’re too easily overtaken by events during the writing process.
    Bingo. One of the hardest things to do in near-future SF is tie a future history into the present. I know. I’ve tried.
    Anyone remember the SF that had the Cold War (and Soviet Union) continuing for centuries, even out among the stars?

  • Videorevue

    Yes, reading this post eight years after it was written makes the original text seem even more laughable. His netbook should have a wireless connection…and if it doesn’t, his iPhone will surely give him any information he would need. 

    In eight MORE years, I wonder how dated this comment will seem… Excellent blog, by the way. Thank you for providing an intelligent and witty counter-argument to the “rapture” nonsense from a Christian perspective. Also, if these books are set in the “not-too-distant future,” what does that mean for Joel and the ‘bots on the SoL? Can robots be raptured?