How much do you try and describe future technology in science fiction novels? How much do you have to invent new ‘stuff’? How much technical detail does the reader really want? These must be dilemmas that face all writers of the genre.
The ultimate bit of kit for most science fiction is the space ship. So how do you deal with that? Physically it can be as big as you want , shape is up to you. You can have any colour (usually as long as its black or silver?). But sooner or later you come to the knotty question of the drive. What actually powers this fantastic beast? And ,if you’re thinking in terms of galactic wide travel, that means a faster than light drive (sorry Einstein). There’s the famous Star Trek ‘Warp drive’. There are worm holes in space. The most common used term that I’ve come across is that ships ‘jump’ from one point to another. A simple term that as readers we all seem to accept.
Even for shorter distances and non faster than light travel, the issue of propulsion still throws up issues best avoided. Not least (so I’ve read), that if we were to head to the nearest stars using a currently imaginable propulsion system and get there in a reasonable time, we simply couldn’t carry enough fuel with us. Ben Bova, (with Antony R Lewis) in the book ‘Space Travel: A writers guide to the science of interplanetary and interstellar travel’ when discussing how to deal with the propulsion system, suggests ‘If it’s not important to the stories forward momentum, leave it out.’ Phew!
In my book ‘Project Noah’, which I will be publishing soon, I do come up with a propulsion system. But since inventing it was part of the challenge for the characters I had to at least give it, what for me today, seems a convincing descriptive name. I didn’t go into any detail, how could I? And even if I had sweated over coming up with the minutiae would anyone want to read it?
This brings me another question in describing any potential future technology in detail – does anyone want to read it? I stopped reading one book that spent three pages describing how the electrical system worked on a base. I didn’t want to know. I’m sure it was clever, but so what? I know basically how the electrics in my home work, but I don’t have to. I certainly don’t think about it when I stick a plug in the wall. I used to know the basics of cathode ray tubes in TVs, but I don’t think I could tell you how a LCD screen works. I press the remote and, hey presto, it comes on. So again, I stick to the rule is ‘if it doesn’t push the story forward, leave it out.’ We all accept and use the technology around us without, most of the time, thinking about how it works. Surely that is going to be the same in the future? Whether that’s Warp drives, Jump drives or a machine that creates wonderful coffee out of the chemical constituents (now there’s an idea), people will just use it.
I was going to talk about computers and intelligent machines, but that’ll have to wait for another blog. So next time you’re reading look out for how technology is handled. Let me know if you’ve found great descriptions of a future technology or if you’ve been bored by it.