Technology is a vital part of science fiction. Even if your story isn’t about a technological change, differences in technology will define the aesthetic of the setting and the possibilities available to the characters.
So how can you go about imagining convincing science fiction technology?
Why Convincing Technology Matters
Before delving too deeply into this, it’s worth considering why convincing technology matters. After all, other genres get away with making up whatever they like, as happens with fantasy and steampunk. Even some science fiction glosses over the details of technology, apparently treating it as unimportant.
One reason to pay attention to technology is your readers. While there are science fiction readers who don’t care about the details of the science, there are also many who do care. They’re passionate about understanding the underlying principles behind the way a future world works. They have a decent grasp on science and technology, which they will use to critique your work.
You can ignore these readers, but you do so at your peril. They often sit near the heart of fandom and can be among the most vocal advocates or critics of a book. Winning them over will provide you with a valuable support base, and if they don’t like your science then you’ll see it in your reviews,
There are other reasons too, beyond pleasing pedantic readers, reasons that will help you with your writing.
The first is that technology brings the world to life. Think about how much laptops, smartphones, and cars define our modern world. In the same way, the right technology can help to make your imaginary world feel real.
Developing a convincing system of technology can provide great inspiration for your storytelling. The way characters travel can inspire chase scenes. The way they communicate can inspire situations where they become cut off. The way they relate to their technology can shed light on how characters view the world and what inspires them.
Even if the outline of your story is already fully rounded, knowing how the technology works will make it easier for you to tell the story. If you know what makes a spaceship works then you’ll know how it could break down and how the crew might try to fix that. Knowing in advance means that you don’t have to stop the flow of writing to work it out.
How to Create Convincing Technology
The process of creating convincing technology starts with understanding modern technology and science, which means research.
Read up on the state of technology in the area you’re concerned with. What’s out there. How it works. How it’s used. Find out about what’s at the cutting edge, where experts in the field think this technology will go next. Look at how it got to this point so that you can understand the way it develops over time.
When doing this, it’s important to look at the underlying principles. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s award-winning Children of Time is grounded in the fundamentals of evolution, not just the principle of information being passed on in the genes, but the way that this shapes changes over time. Though the evolution is exaggerated, the changes it creates in an insect population are convincing because they’re detailed and grounded in science. The result is an evolutionary pattern that is fascinatingly different from our world.
For most technology, you’ll need to consider design as well as science. A car’s design is about more than just the way an engine works and what makes an aerodynamic shape. It’s about how many passengers are included, where to seat the driver, where to place controls, how the vehicle provides feedback to the driver on what it’s doing, and a thousand other factors. The same applies to any piece of technology, from a sword to a smartphone. So think about the design of the technology in your story. What aesthetics have shaped it? What issues of practical use? There are dozens of different ways the same tool could be designed, so look for one that says something about the society it’s used by.
While science fiction technology is mostly grounded in reality, it’s always going to depart from our world in some way - that’s what makes it science fiction rather than science fact. When deciding how to deviate from reality, it’s often good to work from the principle of the one big lie. This is one thing about the science of your setting that you’ve made up, like a form of psychic powers or faster than light travel. Readers will accept one or two big lies better than lots of little ones, as the one big lie and its consequences create a coherent whole.
Work out the implications of your one big lie, including the different technologies that stem from it. Sell it well enough and your readers will believe.
Technology in Context
The way that technology is used is as important as the technology itself. Understanding how your technology fits into the world is vital to making it convincing.
New technology doesn’t start out as accessible to everyone. The Rocketpunk Manifesto blog has provided a simple, handy model for considering how it spreads and becomes more accessible.
First comes the experimental phase, in which the technology is unusual, unreliable, and only in the hands of a select few - think modern spaceflight. Then comes the government/megacorp stage, when the technology is mature and reliable enough to be replicated but costs so much that only huge organizations such as powerful nations can have it, as is currently the case for submarines. This is followed by a stage in which it’s accessible for commercial purposes and private ownership by the super-rich, like owning an airliner. Finally, the technology becomes available to private individuals, becoming ubiquitous, as smartphones have done in the past decade.
Understanding where on the spectrum your technology falls will help in understanding how it fits into the world you’ve created, how easy it is to access, and what challenges characters might face in getting hold of it. It’s also a useful way of setting limits on a technology, if making it ubiquitous would spoil your plot.
Once you’ve worked out the maturity level of the technology, think about who has it and why. What do they use it for? Why do they use this technology rather than something else?
Consider the consequences of the technology. For example, railways and the telegraph transformed western society. They made it possible for people, goods, and messages to travel at previously impossible speeds. The world became more connected, news traveled almost instantly, and the difference in power between nations with and without these technologies expanded hugely.
Technology can shape society in all kinds of ways. The need for precious metals for microelectronics has led to pollution and the mistreatment of miners in poor but resource-rich countries. Those microelectronics have also allowed the internet, making most of human knowledge available at the touch of a button. This has accelerated the pace of technological change, allowed dispersed social movements, fostered relationship between people on different continents…
You get the idea. The consequences of a technology can transform society on every level, and thinking that through makes your technology more real, as well as adding new story possibilities.
Case Study: Spaceships
Spaceship design, as discussed by Dr. Nick Bradbeer in a presentation at Nine Worlds 2017, provides a great example of some of these principles.
Spaceships are currently at the experimental phase of maturity, though recent developments are nudging them into the national / megacorp zone. They’re very hard to make and get hold of, and they’re not entirely reliable.
The principles needed in designing a spaceship are similar to those in designing a ship. You have to take into account the ship’s role, its size, and its layout. The role will define what equipment is needed, such as weapons for a fighting ship or storage for a cargo ship. It will also tell you how many crew members are needed. These parts together define its size, as there needs to be space both for specialist equipment and for crew facilities, including space for sleeping, eating, and recreation, as well as facilities to deal with waste, to create or make up for gravity, for people to do their jobs, etc. The layout is largely defined by finding the most efficient way to put these pieces together, including protecting people from the heat of engines and efficiently connecting different systems.
Design-wise, a spaceship can be pretty much any shape you want. This allows you the freedom to choose an appearance that reflects the setting and culture you’re working with.
The big lie for spaceships is usually a faster-than-light drive. This is needed to connect together different places in an interstellar setting, and is such a common big lie that most readers will just accept it in some form.
So the research for spaceship design is a mixture of ship design and cutting edge space technology, combined with whatever design suits your vision.
Building Better Sci-fi Worlds
Whether you’re writing a vast space opera or a day-after-tomorrow dystopia, convincing technology makes for convincing science fiction. And along the way, it can provide you with the inspiration to make deeper, more interesting stories that engage your audience.