In the previous discussion thread, someone mentioned having a problem with one particular far-future (well, set 400 years hence) SF novel that disrupted their reading of it so badly that they ended up giving up on the book. Interestingly, I had the exact same problem (and ended up bailing 50 pages before the end of a 1100 page novel—there's your sunk cost fallacy in a nutshell). And I think it's worth taking a look at it, because it's one of my own pet shibboleths and I'm bored and I want to take it out for a walk today.
Because I don't want to name and shame the guilty on the front page of my blog I'm putting it below the cut. But, for reference: the 1100 page novel I bailed on was Pandora's Star by Peter Hamilton, and it also put me in mind of most of the novels of Jack McDevitt (but notably his far-future
Priscilla Hutchins Alex Benedict series). There are other authors I could point to, but you can take these as type specimens for the pathology.
These are not bad authors and they don't write terrible books: that's part of what makes the problem so jarring for me. And the nature of the problem? It's that the stories they're telling are set in a far future (hundreds to thousands of years hence), in an interstellar human polity (gifted with interstellar transportation technologies that are notably within the reach of ordinary people). And yet the civilization they portray can best be described as "Essex suburbia goes interstellar" in the case of "Pandora's Star" or, in McDevitt's case, Whitebread Middle American Suburbia to the Stars. The gender politics, religious framework, ideologies, fashions(!) and attitudes of today—specifically, of a type of Anglophone developed-world middle class lifestyle that lots of folks aspire to—has become a universal norm. And nothing else gets much of a look in.
In "Pandora's Star" there is at least the fig-leaf explanation of rejuvenation technology, allowing the wealthy to return themselves to physical youth every few decades (while the poor presumably die, senile and in pain in a gutter—but this is glossed over). One would expect a certain cultural conservativism (if not sclerosis) to set in under such circumstances. McDevitt's work ... I didn't notice him making such excuses, although in mitigation I'll admit his age: he didn't begin writing in earnest until after reaching what most of us would consider to be retirement age, and perhaps this colours his outlook.
You can make an argument for writing SF in this mode in that it allows the lazy reader to ignore the enculturation issue and dive straight into the adventure yarn for which the SFnal trappings are just a brightly-coloured wrapper.
But I still find it really weird to read a far-future SF story that doesn't deliver a massive sense of cultural estrangement, because in the context of our own history, we are aliens.
Imagine yourself abducted by a mad Doctor in a time machine shaped like a blue Police Box (itself an anachronism in today's smartphone-networked world) and dumped on the streets of your home city a century ago, in 1914. Let's suppose the Doctor is friendly enough to give you the free run of a wardrobe so that you are reasonably turned-out for a person of your gender, age, and status in that time and place: and a wallet containing enough cash to live comfortably for a week (to rent a room in a B&B and to eat, and to do a bit of judicious tourism: not enough to invest in a start-up business and disrupt the time stream; meddling is strictly forbidden). How familiar are you going to find things?
The answer is actually "not very". Because ...
You speak a dialect of the local language, it's true. But you have some words or terms that nobody recognizes ("atom bomb"), some words that have changed meaning radically thanks to the spread of technical neologisms ("virtual", "computer") or social change ("queer", "nigger"), and there are other words and slang that you probably don't recognize because they were quaintly dated back when your parents were in diapers ("masher").
The architecture and layout of cities will be vaguely familiar, especially if you're British (our buildings tend to be old and well-maintained). Some things will be mildly disorienting (the lack of street markings, traffic lights, and so on). Some items will be disgusting (horse shit everywhere, and the flies they attract). It may be hard to tell the difference between a shop front and somebody's living room, if you get away from the market stalls. And it may be hard to tell the difference between a contemporary crack house and the typical living conditions of the early 20th century poor, except that the junkies and dealers often have electricity and running water and don't sleep that many to a room. The rich, as always, are different: private yachts, palaces, grand houses, and a degree of insulation from the poor that is familiar today.
If you're British and less than 50 years old you probably don't know how the pre-decimalization currency system works. I mean, you literally don't know how to count the change after making a purchase. Or how to read prices. (It's a non-decimal system with three different levels of currency—big, medium, and small—and differing conversion ratios. Like imperial weights and measures, only crazier.)
Foodstuffs you expect to find are unavailable and exotic (bananas, kiwi fruit, curry), and stuff nobody in their right mind would eat is routinely sold (tripe, kidneys, beef hearts) and eaten. Just don't ask about food hygiene standards.
Don't ask about medicine, either. There are no antibiotics, tuberculosis and other infections kill as high a proportion of the population as cancer does today, and about 30-50% of infants die before the age of 5. People's attitudes to death and birth are alien—lots of babies, lots of baby funerals, lots of adult funerals, people dying at the age of 40 is taken for granted, and everyone has thirty cousins, aunts, and uncles.
Political views agreed on by today's conservatives are seen as dangerously close to socialism: you don't want to know what passes through conservatives' minds in 1914. (Hint: have a happy fun google search.) Social views: ditto. Racism of a kind that would make the Ferguson Police Department blush was normal, and as for gender relations, the freedoms and status in civil society enjoyed by women in 1914 in the UK or the USA were in some respects behind Iran in 2004. It wasn't a good time and place to be female unless you were financially secure or had a very forward-looking male guardian.
... And that's the whistle-stop tour of social change in just one century in the decades leading up to the society that this peculiar mode of SF takes to be the unassuming touchstone of future humanity.
It's worth noting, incidentally, that much of the social change that led up to the current cultural matrix was driven by technological change. Better medicine and family planning techniques gave us the basis for a society in which we don't go to a different infant's funeral every month, in which bananas are cheaper than potatoes, people aren't worn out unto death by fifty, civil rights for people who aren't rich white males are at least recognized as theoretically desirable, and in which you probably aren't dying of tuberculosis. So why do repeatedly we see the depiction of far future societies with cheap interstellar travel in which this hasn't bought about massive social change as a side-effect (other than the trivial example of everyone having a continental sized back yard to mow)?
Seriously, I feel that if I'm writing far-future SF, I've got a duty to at least try and portray a plausible society. And while I'd be the last person to argue that western suburbia is implausible (after all, we've got it), if there's any constant in human society it's change. Which is why I find far future settings that don't give me a hard time implausible, unless there's some overriding reason (such as a cultural critique or some kind of playing-card-tricks-in-the-dark postmodern commentary going on). Far future extrapolation: if you're not doing it to the cultural normals as well as the setting and technology, you're doing it wrong.