Technology. It's the sci-fi writer's best friend, and biggest cheat. We use it in so many ways, as settings, plot devices, a convenience and eye/brain-candy. But who can guess what will actually be available when that future time actually comes around?
After Tuesday's blog, Leah Petersen and I were discussing about the difficulties of writers predicting technology far enough into the future to fit a story's setting. She mentioned that though her story is set 350 years in the future, most of her tech feels like something we could have in the next 20 years. This got me to thinking about some of the factors that affect tech development.
One of the biggest factors I see is the problem of stagnation. Sometimes a technological innovation will undergo a period of dormancy while waiting for component technologies to mature, or for a new break-thru to push the boundaries of what's possible. Airliners were built out of aluminum as far back as the 1930s, and it's only within the last decade that the carbon-fiber skinned 787 is changing that. It offers more strength for less weight. Carbon fiber isn't new, it's been used for years in Formula 1 racing cars and in certain parts for airliners, but it's only recently that the technology has matured enough to attempt it's use in an airliner the size of the 787.
And, sometimes what's possible isn't always practical or realistic for other reasons. Look at aviation again. We went from the Wright Brothers first flight, a 120 foot long journey at not much faster than a running pace, to the Concorde, an ocean spanning Mach 2 airliner, in a little over 70 years. However, Concorde ended up being too expensive and impractical, only carrying between 92 and 128 passengers at a time, while a 747 of the same period could typically carry up to 452 passengers in a little over twice the flight time.
The oil crisis of the 70s effectively killed off the supersonic airliner from wider-spread use. Jet fuel prices are tied almost directly to the price of oil. $2 a barrel for oil? Sure let's build supersonic airplanes. When the price jumped to $10 a barrel? Fuel's too expensive now, we have to charge customers ticket prices they won't want to pay. (This sound familiar to anyone with a gas tank in their car over the last few years?)
That's something that we writers should always take into consideration when designing tech (or trying to) for our stories: is it practical for the characters daily lives? Is it something that a character can do without, or is it something extremely vital for survival?
Ultimately, it comes down to doing research, the writer's discretion, and what feels right. No two writers are the same, and neither well they share a specific sense of what's right.
How do you handle technology in your sci-fi stories?