A lot of science fiction is based on the assumptions made about how technology develops. Yet, it is surprising how little we understand of the start of the process that brings science and technology into our world. For instance the Romans could have had an effective steam engine had they put together the appropriate pieces of technology they had (i.e. developed Hero’s steam engine a little further).
It has been generally accepted that new inventions usually come about by serendipity, when someone notices something by accident. The famous science fiction case of course being (in 1945) Arthur C Clarke’s geosynchronous orbiting satellites being used for communications.
So apart from taking the current science fiction ideas (like phasers) on board in your science fiction story how do you develop such technology for your story?
I could be cheeky and say with great difficulty. That wouldn’t get any of us anywhere. But we have to understand timing of technology development. The history of rocket development comes in useful here. When work started on trying to develop space flight, there were two major streams of interest. The disposable rocket and the re-entry vehicle. Well, we’ve sent men to the moon with the disposable rocket, but are only really starting to use the re-entry vehicle now. Why did this happen?
In the normal course of events, the re-entry vehicle would have been the preferred option and pursued more vigorously. But politics intervened and they had to get into space fast. Because it had to be fast, the easiest technology development had to be used. That meant the rocket. We’ve had the space rocket since the late 1950s and a whole industry has developed around it, so much so that it has hindered the development of the re-entry vehicle because it has taken scientists away from working on it.
So we can see that predicting future technology depends on the needs of the moment and has consequences further down the technology development line. This is why getting the predictions right is almost impossible, especially of estimating which type of technology will sit alongside which at the same time e.g. automatic housemaids, alongside automatic ski-boards that will ensure the safety to skiers wanting to go down the black slopes, alongside precision global climate control.
The science fiction has an infinite number of alternative universes to choose from, based on the choices of technology alone, and that’s only considering the current science fiction technologies alone.
But what if the science fiction writer has one of those ‘blip’ moments and actually (like Arthur Clarke above) invents something? Where do they put it in the science fiction canon? After all their invention has to sit alongside other technologies…
Well, I guess the writer has an idea of which technologies are likely to sit alongside each other. You can’t put the automatic housemaid in mediaeval times, because people will have used the control components for something else, like making the flour grinding or water pumping mills operate automatically. So we are looking at the applicability of technology components here… their uses have to spread through the rest of the population and applied to other sensible (or maybe not so sensible) uses.
Are there any other caveats to the use of your invented technology?
Well it has to be ‘buildable’ in your world. If you need stainless steel for your technology, then you need the wherewithal to make it, including the knowledge, mining and refining capabilities for chromium, the main element that makes steel into stainless steel. Now ‘buildable’ doesn’t mean you have to explain how it is built. It just means it has to be credible that it can be built… who was it that said the USS Enterprise would take so much to build it? But there again, the people had access to resources around many star systems.
So to summarise the two rules….
1) Any component technologies you have in your invention have to spread to other applications in your universe.
2) The technology has to be put in a universe where it can be ‘built’.