A Discussion on Science Fiction – Part 3: When and How to Speculate

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Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Arthur C Clark

I’ve written a lot about my influences, my background and the types of books I like. But I have only touched a bit on why and how I speculate on the scientific leaps in my books. Today I’m going to write about that. I hope you find it entertaining or informative. Or both!

There’s only so far you can go using today’s scientific knowledge to create a story with a science fiction theme. Even for stories set in the very near future, the writers have to extrapolate how a piece of tech would function based on current technological advancements. There is still some speculation happening, for instance, in The Martian (interesting aside about The Martian, it was a self-published book for a couple years before landing an offer!), but it’s less of a stretch of the imagination for most people since the tech used is so familiar to them. The further out into the unknown you go with your story, the more you’ll have to speculate. By unknown, I mean time, space, or even unexplored aspects of our own planet – viruses, deep sea stories, genetics, quantum mechanics, etc. There are a lot of unknowns in our world, even for things we’ve spent a great deal of time studying.

When I approach a story idea, no matter what the story idea I have, even if I’m simply dreaming it up in my head on the spot, I’ll consciously or subconsciously decide what the setting is at some point very early on in the process. I might start with a scene in my head – how my ideas often crop up – but very quickly I need to fill that scene with the setting details: When is this happening? Is it happening in this world, or another? How similar are those worlds? How different? Is their technology vastly different than our own? Is it very similar? What would the average person’s knowledge be of that technology?

For those questions about technology, you can substitute magic or power or politics and you’ll get the idea of how my brain forms these embryonic stories.

Once I’ve determined when and where, it’s time to start building up the “tech tree” for my homegrown society. If you’ve ever played real time strategy games, the tech tree example should be familiar, but for those who have never encountered tech trees, I’ll give you an example. In a game like Age of Empires, each civilization you begin with – Romans, Babylonians, Egyptians – have different technologies they can access in each “age” of time. Early in the game, most civilizations have horses and archers. But as the civilizations grow in these games, the technologies they have access to can vary fairly drastically depending on the game. Some games have little overlap, and the civilizations end up in vastly different places technologically speaking – Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends is a good example of this. For my stories, I need to do the same type of thing with my technology – break it down into how it would branch out and affect all parts of life and move it forward in a tree-like structure – to make it work. If the cure for cancer was invented at some point in the past for my book, that would change a lot of things in a lot of ways. Or, if my world had flying cars, things would change in different but similarly fundamental ways.

This butterfly effect of technological advances will inform how my characters live, how they work, how they behave – if you think it sounds farfetched to think of tech as affecting everything we do from eating to working, think of all the aspects of our lives that have been changed by the microchip. The more foundational the invention, the more I have to consider the changes it would create. Take, for example, the wheel. Around 4500 BCE, the earliest known example of a wheel and axle was invented for turning pottery. This seemingly simple invention changed everything from agriculture to transportation as well as future indirect applications of the wheel in more complex technologies that would follow – gears, for example, which started showing up roughly 4,000 years later, would not exist without the concept of the wheel. This is one of the reasons I haven’t tackled alternate histories. Just like with technology, change an aspect of history, and now you have to imagine all the ripples that change would make. If we lived in a steampunk world, would The Jetsons exist? Instead, I often thrust my story into the future so I don’t have to worry about what things have been changed in the past in my alternate reality timeline.

For a story like The Dream Merchant, I don’t really dictate that the world is our own, just very far into the future. It’s a world, that’s true. It has humans. That’s also true. But it could easily be an alternate reality, and that’s kind of how I thought it up – less that it’s our world 200 years into the future, more that it’s a world like our world, but one that developed AI and synthetic lifeforms. It’s less important in a story like that for me to make sure all the tech is doable. It’s not in our world, so saying the tech in that world is or is not impossible isn’t a valid critique of the tech.

For a story like The 13, I am thinking about a possible future timeline stemming from our world. All of the tech I use to color the setting of that story is rooted in tech from our time. In the case of The Dream Merchant, I am free to develop a world inspired by our own, but not tied down by our technological limitations. But in The 13, I am moored in elements I have at hand to build with. I use guns, as I mentioned in a previous posting in this series, because guns are the predominant form of assault tech we currently use, and they have been in use for hundreds of years. I extrapolate that they won’t go out of use any time soon, especially since the most advanced militaries in our world still employ them and show no signs of replacing them any time soon with something imaginary that is somehow more efficient and reliable than gun powder propelling a metal projectile. In fact, I’m not alone in this assumption.

Why just have bullets when you can have fire bullets.
Why just have bullets when you can have fire bullets?

Many video games set in a far-advanced time still use guns as the primary form of assault weaponry. Not ray guns. Not phasers. Projectile shooting apparatuses. Guns, as we all know them. Though sometimes they also include fire bullets, which I suspect is mostly for the “cool” factor. And it is pretty cool. But I stuck with the standard form of weaponry introduced in the 1300’s. If it’s a tech that’s been around for nearly 700 years, I’m okay with it still being around on a ship that would have launched from Earth in a not too distant future.

Thus, the setting and time of what I create plays an important role in how I approach when to make large speculative leaps.

The other major factor in deciding just how speculative I’ll get is whether or not the tech is essential to a plot point. I tend not to invent technologies just for coolness sake in stories that are rooted in our own world. I usually save the “cool” stuff for stories like The Dream Merchant where it doesn’t matter as much if it sounds implausible. For The 13, I always ask myself – is this tech practical for this instance? Does it actually make life easier, or is it just fun? If I examine my motives for wanting to include a piece of tech or a scientific theory and my reasoning boils down to, “but it sounds cool,” I usually drop that tech.

In The 13, the chairs and furniture for group areas collapse in the floor:

Naomi walked into the dining hall, stopping at the empty table her friends always ate at. She was never the first one there. She looked down and saw the table had not yet been raised. She pressed her foot onto a round, orange circle on the shiny, white surface of the floor. She stepped back as a table and four stools rose out of the floor.

While this may sound very visually cool, the idea of the cafeteria stool and table melting into the ground, it has a lot of practical function. I did it because I thought a lot about how travelling through space would work based off the information we have now about travelling in space. In fact, I went even more mundane and thought about how travelling on earth would be accomplished.

The ships in The 13 are like large versions of an RV, and the trip those people are taking is like a long version of a road trip. A lot of the same restrictions for a travelling house on the road are going to apply to a traveling house in space, only more so.

 

‘memba these?

In space, you have to add several Gs worth of inertia, and weightlessness from time to time. You don’t want large spaces filled with furniture that could fly around and hurt someone. The chairs and tables could be bolted to the ground to solve this issue, but in a confined ship, there are also space issues to be concerned with – not unlike an RV. With as many people who live on a ship like this, you may want flexible furniture layouts to make the space more usable. I was inspired in this case by some old school tech – pun intended. In several of my grade schools – I’m sure this will sound very familiar to many of you – the cafeteria tables and benches folded up and into the walls of the gymnasium. The school system didn’t have the money or space to build a school with both a gymnasium and a cafeteria, so they cleverly combined them. This is all I’ve done with my tables and chairs that “melt” into the ground. These spaces would need to be designed to be versatile, so I created a tech to make them so. (for a ton of interesting history on space design, papers like these are fascinating reads)

It’s important to me that the tech in the Mission’s End series remains accessible and familiar to my audience. I wanted the feel of a spaceship that was modern in some ways, but also limited in capabilities. I needed to set up a dynamic where societies of people sent into space could be isolated from one another for long stretches of time, because the story that I wanted to tell about these ships was one of social evolution. Being able to make the trip, technologically speaking, is less important to my story than the fact that these microcosms of society were able to exist in isolation and evolve to the point they are in the story. Some ships, like the Magellan, spent a couple hundred years with very little contact with any other ships. Other ships, like the Drake, were conqueror-type societies, and had managed to gain access to some of the other ships. The Nimoy is going to be reminiscent of some of the more religiously led societies and how they interact with the other ships, and what it’s like to live on that ship. The tech is formed to fit around the narrative I want to use. And while the over arching story will feature some stronger forms of scientific speculation, even then, it will be tech that we mostly understand the science for. I’m trying to be careful not to create something akin to the transporter in Star Trek.

Creating tech to solve a plot point is fine – I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with it. The transporter in Star Trek is a good example of this. It was created so they didn’t have to film people landing on these planets, an expensive and impractical thing to film at the time. Since then, we have developed some theoretical models and even at least one application to show transportation is a thing that could happen, but those theories are filled with so many caveats it’s easy to understand why people call transporter technology “space magic.”

I wanted to avoid too much “space magic” issues with the Mission’s End series, because I knew I would be creating a lot of “sociological magic” already. I want to create a space that’s believable, even if some of the plotlines seem outlandish. My desire when I write a story is for the reader to feel like they’ve lived there, and it’s a place somewhere perfectly capable of being real. I work hard to try to make sure that feeling sticks with the reader throughout, and that requires me to put some limitations on the speculative work in the writing.

But sometimes I write more allegorical. In The Dream Merchant, the story I wanted to tell revolved more around the idea of artificial intelligence, and what an AI being would feel about its creators. Specifically, I wanted to tell a story from the point of view of an AI in a world where AIs had evolved to the point where they had overthrown their creators and subjugated them. I wanted to flip the script, as it were, to show that the humans were the drone-like beings in this world – a twist on the idea that some humans strive to gain such immense power, they are as gods. The idea is that the synths have only achieved a shadow of the humanity of those that created them, because they don’t understand fully what it means to actually be human; they only understand the surface affectations of humanity. Much in the same way that I think humans who seize power to re-make the world in the image they think is best clearly only understand the shallow implications of having god-like powers over your fellow humans. In that sense, the story shares a lot of underlying themes with superhero stories.

The ideas in The Dream Merchant required quite a bit of space magic, because we’re nowhere near the point where we can make synthetic beings, put an independent artificial intelligence in them and have them take over the world. A lot more speculation needs to happen in such a story because the themes require it. I add things like flying cars because I want to exaggerate the differences in the world to make it clear I’m writing about something very distant and unfamiliar. Whereas in Mission’s End, I want to make the story feel familiar, immediate and possible, so I play down a lot of the differences in technology and emphasize those things that are familiar.

And that is why I speculate more or less strongly in a nutshell. It all boils down to being a function of the story I want to tell.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this one-sided discussion of science fiction and my writing styles. I’m going to do a couple pieces on fantasy as well. Hopefully you’ll also find that of interest! Until then!

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