I’m currently reading H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which is one of the great classics of science fiction. It was first written in 1898, when our scientific advancements weren’t anywhere near what they are today. It’s interesting to see how the scientific knowledge at the time influenced certain . . . inaccuracies in the text.
At the beginning of the book, Wells describes the launching of the attack ships from Mars, visible from Earth as small eruptions of light from the surface of Mars. During this section, Wells describes what seems to be the assumptions about Mars at the time:
The planet Mars, I scarcely need to remind the reader, revolves about the sun at a mean distance of 140,000,000 miles, and the light and heat it receives from the sun is barely half of that received by this world. It must be, if the nebular hypothesis has any truth, older than our world; and long before this earth ceased to be molten, life upon its surface must have begun its course. The fact that it is scarcely one-seventh of the volume of the earth must have accelerated its cooling to the temperature at which life could begin. It has air and water and all that is necessary for the support of animated existence.
…Its physical condition is still largely a mystery, but we know now that even in its equatorial region the midday temperature barely approaches that of our coldest winter. Its air is much more attenuated than ours, its oceans have shrunk until they cover but a third of its surface, and as its slow seasons change huge snow caps gather and melt about either pole and periodically inundate its temperate zones.
He goes on to theorize that the motivation of the Martians’ attack is because they see our fertile green and blue planet as having all the natural resources that Mars lacks.
We can easily fact-check some of this information against what we currently know, considering we have robots on mars right now. Mars is about 142 million miles from the sun, so Wells had that just about right. Mars is about 15.1% the volume of Earth, close enough to the 1/7 Wells states. But when he says “the midday temperature barely approaches that of our coldest winter,” that doesn’t even come close to describing Mars’ average surface temperature of -81 degrees F.
The biggest inaccuracy, however, is when he says that “It has air and water and all that is necessary for the support of animated existence.” Mars has an atmosphere that is mostly carbon dioxide, and so far we haven’t found any water there. There’s some evidence to indicate there might be water on Mars, but there’s certainly no oceans like Wells described.
Wells was no doubt letting his imagination fill in some details, while getting others from the limited scientific information available at the time. Pretty much all sci fi does this. It’s likely that in four hundred years, we’ll look back at Star Trek as being just as inaccurate to the realities of interstellar travel and exploration. It can also be seen in movies that take place in the “near future,” such as how Back to the Future II took us from 1989 (the year it came out) to 2015 (this year). There’s lots of analysis out there of what Back to the Future got wrong and what it got right. Of course, the filmmakers are on the record saying they designed the future to be a joke, not even trying to get it accurate. Still, they hit the mark on quite a few areas.
When it comes down to it, this is one of the risks you take with any speculative fiction. Books, movies, and TV shows get plenty of stuff wrong all the time (The Mythbusters make a living off exposing many of those inaccuracies). And when it comes down to it, no one should expect a writer to get everything 100% right. You do the best you can, you tell an entertaining story, and you hope that the reader can suspend their disbelief enough that they don’t get pulled out of the story. For the most part, I’m able to stay in this story. And when something is jarring to me, I pause and think, That’s just because it was written in 1898.
Though one thing I’ll give Wells credit for is that he has a very authentic voice. He writes this story as if it actually happened to him, and he even addresses the reader at a few points. He also makes references to what “other survivors” have written about the attacks and then goes on to explain why they’re wrong because they didn’t see what he saw firsthand. It makes for some pretty fascinating storytelling.