A Writer’s Guide to Creating SciFi Technology – Part 1
An interesting question on how to create the science and technology for science fiction stories pops up regularly on one of the online groups I am part of. A lot of writers seem to be unsure just how to approach science and technology. Their uncertainty is understandable — when your story hinges on the credibility not just of your characters but the technology that surrounds them, getting it right is important.
That doesn’t mean the science and technology needs to be real. After all, we are talking about fiction here (although we could have a whole other debate about how real fiction is). In science fiction, the science and technology needs to be real, credible, and plausible within the world in which our characters exist. The more incredible the story, the more credible the science and technology needs to be.
The starting point for looking at scifi is looking at the storyworld from which the story emerges. (See my post on storyworlds and the elements within them for more details on that.) A lot goes into worldbuilding, so we’ll look at just the science and technology aspects of that in this post.
Let’s assume you are a scifi writer with an idea — maybe just a vague idea — and not much else. At some point early in the research and writing process, you need to figure out a theme for your story. I’ll use an example based on the concept of the Singularity. The technology for uploading the human mind and/or human consciousness does not yet exist and it may never exist, although Ray Kurzweil and others make an interesting case for why we could see the Singularity sometime around the mid-21st century.
Rarely does a story emerge fully developed from the writer’s mind. More often, we have a kernel from which our story may grow. We may have a lot of those seeds, some of which never grow, others that germinate and then wither, and a few that go on to thrive and become fully grown organisms.
Over the years as a writer (primarily non-fiction) I’ve had hundreds, perhaps thousands of these kernels pop into my head. Maybe I’ll make a note in my journal. Maybe the kernel will rattle around inside my head for a while before fading away. Once in a while that kernel may start to germinate. The vague, tentative shape of a story may start to emerge. There are more notes, more ideas rattling around inside my head, and over time the story either grows or withers. I may start to create the characters, settings, and other elements of the story, gradually filling in details. At this point they are an undifferentiated set of story elements.
Let’s assume the kernel of our story about uploading human consciousness continues to grow. At some point, we have to figure out what this nascent story is really all about. We need to develop the story concept, dramatic question, and controlling idea.
Alex McDowell, the production designer on Minority Report and a host of other films, calls these the “What If and Why Not” stage of story development. In an article that Alex and I co-authored, he explains this approach to worldbuilding in more detail.
So at this point we’ve decided that our story is going to be about what happens to the human soul when a consciousness/mind is uploaded into a machine. Now we need to take a close look at the technology that is really necessary for our story. If we are talking about uploading minds and the effect on the human soul, we don’t need to get into the technology of faster-than-light space travel, for example. If we do decide to look at space travel too, then it needs to be in support of our story concept, dramatic question, and controlling idea. If it changes these, well, so be it. There’s nothing that says you need to stick with the original material (except maybe a contract with a publisher or film producer, should you be so lucky).
In our example, we originally thought our uploaded mind would be earthbound. However, a faster-than-light spaceship with an uploaded human mind and soul catches our interest. Suddenly we have a whole new story. Alas, that will have to go into the ideas file for a while as we continue on with our initial story concept.
The judicious pruning of material is an essential part of writing and how broadly or narrowly we look at the science and technology of our storyworld will shape the story we tell.
In our story of uploading human consciousness, we may need to look at these technologies:
- photonics — technologies related to the use of light in computer and similar applications.
- artificial intelligence (AI) — a branch of information technology that focuses on the creation of machines or machine-like devices that are able to preceive their environment, learning and evolving as their cognitive functions grow.
- robotics — technologies related to automated machines and theirsensory feedback, information processing, and motion control capabilities.
- biomechanics — technologies related to the structure and function of biological systems.
The integration of these and other sciences and technologies (i.e. psychology, medicine, etc.) may form the basis for the science and technology of our story and the storyworld we have created. One of the hazards we need to be aware of as we get into this is how deeply do we want to go. Do we want to just say in our story that a mind-transfer machine exists and go on from there, or do we dig more deeply into the technology of such a machine? Again, the writer needs to determine this.
The question of “hard” versus “soft” science fiction has provoked debate/argument among science fiction and speculative fiction fans. As writers, we need to be aware of the debate and decide early on how hard or soft we want to go. Mohs scale of science fiction hardness is an interesting way of looking at the hard/soft scifi spectrum and can be a useful guide for writers.
If we decide to go “soft” scifi for our story of the uploaded mind, it will probably quite different from a “hard” take on the same subject. We want to spend more time looking at the dramatic question of “What happens to the human soul if human consciousness is uploaded to a machine?” We want to go soft on the science so we can explore this particular question in detail.
Reaching this point requires the writer to make a number of critically important decisions. As we continue to develop our story, many more decisions to be made. Each decision we make should be guided by the principle of consistency within the storyworld. As the Creator of your storyworld, you can make up whatever rules you like. J.K Rowling’s rules in the Hogwarts world of Harry Potter are very different from the rules in the Star Wars world of Luke Skywalker. That is okay. Where things can get a little too weird for my taste is if we mix a little Harry Potter with a bit of Luke Skywalker…say a wand versus lightsaber duel.
As the Creator, you need to make the rules and stick to them. If you need to add some new rules later on, make sure they are consistent with and can logically be explained by the rules that already exist within your world.
Over the past couple of decades I’ve worked extensively as a professional futurist specializing in technology forecasting and assessment (i.e. looking at what technologies might be coming and how they could impact us). There are a number of techniques that I’ve used that can be adapted to writing about science and technology in science fiction. I’ll talk about those in upcoming posts.