At SWF this year, a young man in the audience of a speculative fiction panel asked, 'How do you keep ahead of the science?' or something to that effect. I presume that in his own writings, he is concerned that he may create something, a technology presumably, that then, later in his life, would look silly and naive. This is a pretty common sentiment, and most writers attempting science fiction will have to think about it. I am taking this moment to compose a more thorough answer than the one I had time for on the day.
1. Science schmience. The most common answer for this conundrum is that this isn't the most important aspect of writing a sci-fi book. If science fiction is the literature of ideas, then the gadgetry is sometimes just be set dressing. Furthermore, I would argue, the techonology itself is not the key. It is what the technology represents. Is it a new faster more efficient form of communication? Is it a new brain-to-machine interface? Does it make humans different than before? What is the result of this development? What questions does the new technology pose for society? What possibilities? What dangers?
The purpose is not to invent technology that will come to pass, IRL, but to incorporate ideas for technology which resonate in the world you've created.
2. Avoid specifics. Don't say how big someone's hard drive is. Ever. Even if you apply Moore's Law, the size of the number will sound made up and silly. If the size of the hard drive is important to the story, consider looking for a bigger story.
3. Endeavour to keep up with what is currently happening. I can't claim to be succeeding at "keeping up" with the science – who could? I am so far behind on my New Scientist pile, it's nearly old science. But there are many websites that explore what you like to explore. All the big institutions such as museums and universities have an RSS you can patch into your queue. I particularly like the MIT Tech blog because it covers all scales of science, from the ground-breaking developments of graphene to the wide-angle ramifications of industrial processes. Also Ars Technica and i09 have broadly defined boundaries and good curation. I too do a bit of reporting on my Facebook page if I come across something that tickles me.
4. Think ahead. Sure, pay attention to the science that is happening now, but think about how old our cutting edge will be where your story is set. Let's not forget that some of our parents didn't have televisions, and our children won't. Technology comes and goes. Have fun in fictioning your science. Also, read science histories. It can take lifetimes for some ideas to come to pass, even if it all seems so fast now. Read about the lives of the scientists who made famous breakthroughs. Science doesn't happen overnight and I often find reading old sci-fi and old science writing inspirational.
5. Don't worry too much because science gets it wrong too. That is the nature of science. And therefore it's the nature of sci-fi too.
If none of that helps, you can do what I did: lay waste to the world as we know it so you can start over. Kill billions, dissolve governments, nations and value systems. Enter into a period that fifty years afterwards, the people refer to it the "second dark ages". Then unleash an all powerful telepathic boy and see what happens.
The Hunt for Pierre Jnr
June 2013 | HarperCollins Voyager