Sunday, 24 February 2013

Day Fifty-Five: A Science-Fictional Balancing Act

On Wednesday I mentioned something that’s a little dear to me: the idea of technology balance in Science-Fiction.

This is something that I think every sci-fi author has to confront and make a decision on eventually. The far future is relatively easy to write about because you’re ultimately just deciding about the details. In a story that takes place a thousand or more years into the future, and spans multiple worlds, it seems reasonable to say that humanity has worked out faster than light travel or artificial intelligence or quantum computing. You might have to work a little harder and be a little more theoretical if you want to try and push the actual science of those things, but, ultimately, you’re just picking out technological elements that go well together and are free to be as advanced or as anachronistic as you want.

For something like A Body Up the Well, though, you’ve got to be a little more careful. A reader might be able to accept one major, out-of-left-field technological advancement, but for the most part you’re extrapolating from modern technology and trying to figure out how to implement research articles. In all likelihood, someone who reads the novel you set thirty years into the future is going to be alive to actually see that date, and—while it would be foolish to worry about them holding you accountable for the future you presented not arriving—they are likely to be able to look at the previous thirty years of tech development and say whether or not you’re over-stating your world and its capabilities.

So, you try to balance it out. You try to make it all line up and be cool and futuristic but not too futuristic.

An example: In the post linked above, I mentioned trying to work out the features of a futuristic tablet PC. Now, for the sake of safety, I didn’t change too much. The device is linked into the UN plane’s cabin systems and Kinneman can use it to easily change the level of lighting, the tint on the windows, and the climate. That’s not anything outlandish, of course—you can do that sort of thing to your house or car with the right phone app—but it is kind of new enough that I can reasonably have Kinneman do it with a vehicle that is many orders of magnitude more complex than a car and nobody will bat an eye. It fits, and it seems reasonable, because the tablet is still new enough to us in the present that we’ve yet to see any truly major developments or direction changes for it. We don’t really know where it’s going as a technology, so it’s easier for the reader to accept something that is close to what they know…Even with added little bonuses like a built-in, maneuverable HD projector eye.

That one’s easy. But on the other end of the spectrum? Phones.

I hate trying to figure out new phone designs. I intentionally made Dow’s work phone a piece of decommissioned military tech with a basic and (in the fictional world’s case) old-school reinforced smart-phone design and functionality, because the alternative is having to confront the fact that cellular phones have changed so dramatically in the past thirty years that I can barely even imagine what they could look like after thirty more. I’ve tried to make them smaller and smaller, but after a while you lose the ability to interact with them properly, necessitating something like holographic projection and haptic touch interfacing. Do they get thinner? Do the materials change? Do people wear them? What?

I made extensive notes at one point for a phone that gets worn like a glove, made of this breathable rubber material that you can touch and interact with on all sides with your free hand because the whole surface is a full color soft-screen. You just hold your hand up to your head when you want to use the phone function, and people design elaborate moving screensavers for them that wrap and dance endlessly around their hands at all times. It seems like some ridiculous thing that’s way, way too much, bit is it really? I have no idea. I decided to shelve the idea until I actually had to confront it in the text, and even then I think I’m likely to give the McMurdo inhabitants these very low-tech, old fashioned, and utilitarian things to accommodate the colony’s mentality of function.

So, yeah. This is what I spend my time thinking about. The kind of problems you want to have, right?



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