A Couple of Rules for Developing Tech in Science Fiction Stories

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’.


10 thoughts on “A Couple of Rules for Developing Tech in Science Fiction Stories

  1. I would imagine it is far easier these days to invent a new technology than it would have been when Clarke was writing. We can either take much-used methods (hypersleep, nanotech, FTL travel) and use them as an “off the peg” product or we can look at current technologies and try to gauge what they might be like in 10 or 20 or even 100 years. Arguably, with the technology explosion we’ve seen in the last twenty years we don’t need to stray too far from where we currently are and it will be plausible without needing a great degree of research.

  2. You’ve really put your finger on an important point here. Very often I see SF stories in which a significant piece of technology has been introduced into society (say, teleportation) but it’s had no effect on that society. Such a technology would enable new lifestyles, politics, art and utterly change the world we live in. Also, as you point out, the technologies leading up to such a technology, would also change the world we lived in.

    I’ve seen stories set in a world that looks much like today, except they have FTL starships. FTL technology would change the society we lived in, and the other technologies we would have to develop first would also have their effects, and the writer must do some work to con(vince) the reader that they are looking at a society advanced enough to produce an FTL starship.

    The most obvious place where this was done right was among the cyberpunk crowd back in the 80s.


  3. Thank you Procasin8tor and Colum for your interesting comments….

    If you put both comments together, you get to the very interesting point of saying that there are a lot of possibilities as to where the future tech will be and with the impact on humans, there are lots of ways in which we people can develop.

    The question I would ask is which way do we want to go and how do we go about identifying the right tech to develop to help us along our ideal path?

    This is not an easy question to answer, but it should be one the leaders of our societies should be looking at, don’t you think?

    1. The question I would ask is which way do we want to go and how do we go about identifying the right tech to develop to help us along our ideal path?

      Sorry for the delay, I have been giving this some thought. I think when it comes to including tech, we need to think primarily about the struggle between technology driven by functionality and technology driven by profit margins.

      In a post-apocalyptic world or one where there has been a major (yet not complete) societal collapse, we may lean more toward functionality. In a future where there is abundance, we may think of corporations deciding that “technology A” is something we cannot live without, even if we clearly can.

      Something to think about any way.

      1. Hm… you make some very good points of necessity forcing technology development down one path, whilst when people are at leisure, it’s left to those who have the most influence to choose which technologies to take forward… at least this is the way I’m understanding your comment… which in a sense means that there is more uncertainty about which way technology is going to develop when there is a surfeit of wealth and luxury.
        The interesting question then becomes is what type of technologies develop are likely to be developed in the times of plenty? My guess would be those that gain the most public kudos…
        Why oh why do I think I really ought to write a thesis about science in science fiction and its relationship with the real technology development?

      2. Yes, that’s precisely what I was saying.

        I have futurism on the brain right now after getting into Arcfinity. It has really opened my mind to indeas I’d not considered before.

      3. Glad I got your comment interpreted right… Arcfinity is certainly interesting, looking at various aspects of what could happen int he near future. I haven’t entered their short story competitions yet, as their themes to date haven’t inspired me to write… it goes like that sometimes… or put it another way, their 20-year in the future time frame would suggest that they are looking for the results of extrapolations of what is in the lab today, rather than disruptive technologies that could break through and make known and used technologies redundant. I’m more interested in the latter, if I can identify them.

  4. I’m in complete agreement with the plausibility concept. I’m currently working on a historical / science fiction novel that uses existing materials and technology to connect with a neural optical ability inherent in the main character.

    1. Wow! Good luck with your story, bearing in mind that a ‘normal’ human eye has 5 million light sensors in the retina, which squeezes along 1.25 million optic nerve channels to the ‘processing’ part if the human brain. Just a few facts I picked up along the way…

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