Science and technology are a defining element of science fiction. Getting them right is critical to the credibility of the story and having readers or viewers willingly suspend their disbelief.
As I noted in the first part of this series of posts, the author is the Creator of the storyworld and is free to make up the science and technology that exists within that world. That, however, can be a tough job.
When I look at the science and technology of a fictional storyworld, I bring to the task my perspective as a futurist who has been doing technology forecasting and assessment for the past couple of decades. There are a number of concepts, tools, and techniques that can be adapted from the field of futures studies to assist writers who are worldbuilding and find they are struggling with the creation of science and technology.
A broad framework that can be used early in the process of worldbuilding is looking at areas in which science and technology are applied. Humans (and perhaps most sentient beings) have nine broad areas where science and technology are applied:
- Mastery of distance — transportation, telecommunications, and other technologies used to move physical objects (i.e. people, goods, etc.) or information from one place to another
- Master of energy — technologies for the production/generation, conversion, storage, transmission, etc. of various forms of energy
- Extension of human (or other) senses — technologies used to allow humans (or others) to see, hear, feel, smell, etc. things that are beyond the normal range of human senses
- Mechanization of physical activities — technologies that increase the efficiency and effectiveness of human or animal physical activity or replace it with mechanical systems
- Mechanization of intellectual activities — technologies that increase the efficiency and effectiveness of human cognitive and other mental processes or replace them completely
- Control of the physical properties of materials — technologies that change the physical or chemical nature of materials
- Control of the environment — technologies that change the natural environment
- Control of human and other life — technologies that impact the physical or mental behaviors of living organisms
- Growth of knowledge — technologies that increase the efficiency and effectiveness of discovering, acquiring, verifying, storing, and distributing new knowledge
New technologies that impact even one of these areas can have a significant influence on human (or other) society. The ability to control fire (mastery of energy), for example, made it possible to generate heat and light for dwellings, to cook food, melt metals (control of physical properties of materials), and many other things. Significant advances in any one of these application areas can spark radical change in the social, economic, and other systems within a storyworld.
New technologies can fall into one or more of these categories and often will have an impact on technologies that fall into other categories. For example, the understanding thermodynamics (growth of knowledge) led to the development of steam engines that converted thermal energy to mechanical energy (master of energy), which led to trains that could haul larger loads than horses (mechanization of physical activities) faster and across greater distances (mastery of distance).
When used in worldbuilding, these technology application areas can provide a framework around which to build more detailed real or fictional technologies. Looking at how a changing technology can have a ripple-effect on other application areas is also useful when worldbuilding.
Some questions to ask yourself when involved in a worldbuilding exercise are:
- What are considered state-of-the-art technologies in each of these application areas in your storyworld? For example, the planet-busting Death Star is a key energy weapon in Star Wars.
- Has a technology in one application area come to dominate technologies in all of the other areas? Steampunk fiction, for example, works from the premise of Victorian Age steam technology dominating many areas of those storyworlds.
- How would key technologies in each of these application areas effect the story you want to tell? For example, how does instantaneous transport from one place to another effect the characters’ actions in your story?
- What happens when you take away a key technology in one or more of these application areas?
- Are there other application areas that come to mind? Do these application areas apply to the non-human characters in your story? Are there other application areas that apply to your characters (human and otherwise)?
I’ll talk more about applying technology forecasting and assessment concepts, tools, and techniques to worldbuilding in upcoming posts. In the meantime, you can take a look at my e-book Technology & the Future: Managing Change and Innovation in the 21st Century if you want more insights into how and why technology changes and the broader social, economic, and political impacts of technological change.