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Notes from 2015 LTUE panels

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright February 2015


In February 2015 I had the opportunity to talk on several panels at the Life, The Universe, and Everything Writers Symposium (LTUE) held in Provo, Utah. What follows are notes on what I talked about in those various panels.

The panels were:

o Space travel without Warp Drive
o Keeping it fresh: Creating new ideas
o Reading the tea leaves: Attempting to predict the future of technology in your writing
o Hard Science in fiction
o What can you do with robots?
o Putting technology ramifications into your world building
o Writing about technology

Space travel without Warp Drive

Zachary Hill, Roger White, Michael Stephenson, Mikki Kells, Dallin S. Durfee (m)


Interstellar space travel is not easy to accomplish. This is why we haven't done it yet, and aren't likely to begin doing it for many decades yet to come. Even when we do start doing it, the journeys will take a long time.

But man! We sure would like to do it!

This harsh reality of great desire but no great way in sight to do it has provided fertile ground for space travel fiction and pseudo science writers to come up with lots of imaginary solutions -- the most famous these days being Warp Drive.

The goal of this essay is to look at the real constraints and some real possibilities for accomplishing interstellar travel.

The harsh reality: Distance

Stars are far away, all of them. They are far from us, they are far from each other. As an example, light takes four years to travel to Alpha Centauri, the star nearest to us, and light speed is the fastest travel speed physics currently permits. So, how to get around this big distance obstacle?

Well, first off, keep in mind that four years of travel time is manageable. The long-distance sailing ships that opened up Europe-to-China trade back in the 1500's took two years to make the journey. Humans can manage years-long journeys.

With that in mind, here are some possibilities that current physics allows for, and some implications of them.

Boost and coast

Boost and coast is the kind of space travel we currently engage in. We have a rocket fire for a short time to "boost" a payload from earth's surface into space. Once there, another rocket of different design will fire for short periods to direct a satellite through the vacuum of space towards a destination. Note that in all boost and coast propulsion systems the rocket is firing for only a short time, for seconds to minutes, and the coasting goes on for a very long time -- months to years to decades.

The advantage of this style of propulsion is that it currently exists, and it uses a small amount of fuel compared to the alternatives. It works well enough that with it we have launched thousands of satellites, sustained a space station orbiting Earth, landed men on The Moon, landed rovers on Mars, and sent one satellite to the edge of the solar system while still communicating with earth.

The disadvantage is the journeys take a long time. Coasting is the slowest way to move from Point A to Point B. Designers for in-solar-system missions take advantage of every trick in the book, such as timing when the journey takes place so planetary alignments are favorable and using gravity slinging. But even with these tricks the journey is always a slow one.

The implication of using boost and coast for interstellar travel is that the crew of the ship must manage enduring millennia of sitting on their thumbs. This implies advanced cryosleep for humans and android types, and complete shutdown for robot types. It also implies that any benefits those on earth will receive from the journey will be enjoyed by our successor species.

Constant acceleration

Next up on the propulsion list is the constant acceleration propulsion system. The key to this style is to let the propulsion system keep working for the entire journey. The propulsion system fires towards the destination for the first half of the journey, then flips around and fires away from it for the second half so that the ship comes to a halt when it arrives.

Even if the acceleration is small, just a fraction of one G, this keeping the system firing cuts travel time dramatically. Journeys around the planetary part of the solar system drop from months or years to days or weeks. And the tricks used for boost and coast journeys are no longer as valuable, so departure and arrival times are much more flexible.

The big disadvantage of constant acceleration is how much fuel it takes. When the fuel has to come with the ship, the fuel must get pushed as well, which doubles the disadvantage. Note that not having to carry fuel is one of the big advantages of both sailing ships on oceans (wind power), and in-solar-system space ship propulsion systems that take advantage of solar power in some form or laser power that is beamed at the ship from a stationary source.

Constant acceleration is feasible today, and long duration thrusting systems are being designed even as we speak. We should see more of them being implemented over the next decade. Their disadvantage compared to boost and coast is cost -- the journeys will cost a lot more.

Because cost is such a big factor, the key to actually implementing more constant acceleration usage is economic rather than technical. We need more compelling economic reasons to develop these. The most consistent compelling reason for transportation progress across human cultures is making money at doing so. In space travel this means coming up with the equivalent of the "spice trade" that powered the expansion of the long distance sailing fleets of the 1500's. We need to see the development of in-space transporting activities that are generating huge profits.

Interstellar travel and relativity

When constant acceleration is used for interstellar travel, relativity effects get strong. Within six months to a year after starting their journeys these ships will reach 90% of light speed, when viewed from the planetary frame of reference. This frame of reference issue is important because it will now be quite different between the ship and the planets. There will be a planetary frame of reference and a ship frame of reference.

This reaching near light speed means that from the planetary frame of reference, the ship will have done most of its accelerating in that first year of the journey, and it will do most of its decelerating in the final year when it comes to a halt at the destination. All it will be doing for the middle part of the journey is traveling at near light speed.

From the ship frame of reference the journey is going to feel a lot more Newtonian. The first half of the journey the ship will go faster, faster, faster, then turn around and the second half go slower, slower, slower. From the ship point of view there won't be a speed limit.

Here is a chart that shows this difference between what ship observers and planetary observers see in terms of ship speed.

Starcraft speeds as seen by ship and planetary observiers


Here is a table that shows some actual journey times. The 1G, 2G and so on are the journey times experienced by those on the ship. The Planet time is the journey time experienced by those watching from both the departure and destination planet.


Destination 1G 2G 5G 10G Planet time
Alpha Centauri 4 2.8 1.8 1.3 5
Sirius 7 5 3 2.2 13
Galactic Core 340 244 155 110 30,000


What this shows is that while journeys remain very long when observed from the planetary reference frame, the ship's inhabitants will experience a much shorter journey. From the ship frame of reference these journeys are short enough that they may be endurable. The important thing to note here is that the planetary people and the ship people are having very different experiences. For further reading on this, check out my essay on constant acceleration.

The implication of this is that those experiencing a journey on the ship are going to be isolated from those experiencing the journey on the planets. The ship travelers are going to have self-sufficient communities. This further implies large ships so a culture can be sustained. Preserving techniques such as advanced cryosleep may be used, but where journey times are years long, not centuries long, they are optional.

Another interesting aspect of constant acceleration is what an arriving interstellar craft looks like to a planetary observer in the destination system. Because of its relativistic speed and the fact that it is spewing hot exhaust towards the destination planet, it will first appear as some sort of "gamma ray star" to the planetary astronomers -- strange, indeed! I write about this in my short story The First Starship, not yet published.

Boost and coast and constant acceleration are fairly familiar ways of moving from one star system to another. Next, lets talk about a completely different way of exploring a distant star system.

"Radio Wave Explorer"

One of the fastest and cheapest ways to explore a strange new world -- one that has an existing civilization -- is to use radio/light waves instead of a physical ship. Use the radio waves to send the DNA code of an explorer, and have the aliens grow the explorer on their world. This way of exploring dodges all of the big issues that come with trying to move a ship.

The radio waves should carry not just the DNA code, but also describe an earth-like setting for this explorer to grow up in. This way the explorer knows about trees, dogs, cats, houses, and all those other things an earthly child grows up with. Then when the explorer grows up, he or she will have an earthly frame of reference from which to view this strange new world, and report back their experiences to Earth. (My version of this is the story "Mommy, Why Am I Here?" in Tips for Tailoring Spacetime Fabric Vol. 1)

The advantage of this kind of exploring is that it is fast, and nothing material has to move in either direction. The challenge is building transmitters and receivers on both worlds that are powerful enough to reach each other and pass information at a high bandwidth. As SETI experiments over the last few decades have shown, this is not easy to do.

Because it is fast and cheap, this can also become the basis for the first forms of space commerce. This kind of commerce is based on moving information rather than material goods. But keep and mind what fast and cheap means in this context. Here is an example of trading with Alpha Centauri.


eight years later, "Hello."

"Want to trade?"

eight years later, "Yeah."


You get the idea.



Keeping it fresh: Creating new ideas

Tom Carr, Chas Hathaway, Christopher Loke, Roger White, Clint Johnson (m)


One of the exciting ways to create new ideas for stories is to take a science or technology concept and think about its ramifications -- as in, think about how it changes how we live. If ramifications are at the heart of your story, it will come out with interesting and unique twists. These twists will be exciting to both you, the writer, and readers who like visions of something new in their science fiction -- these will not be franchise reboots!

Some examples

Here are some examples:

Avatar Cruise Ships

I found the movie Avatar inspiring. (except for the story -- that was so, so familiar) The movie inspired me to think of more ways to use the avatar concept. One that I came up with, and put in my book Child Champs, was having avatars populate a cruise ship. Customers can leave their bodies at home and inhabit an avatar on a cruise ship. The benefits of this are:

o quick entry and exit from the experience

o easy to change the body's capabilities -- want to experience some fancy techniques on a diving board, no problem

o easy to change from one look to another, and the fun of experimenting with the changes

o there don't need to be any people on the ship -- none at all -- which means the cost of this experience can be low

All-in-all a neatly different socializing experience, and one that can be fun to write about.

Cyber Muses

Today's computers entertain and educate people. One extension of this can be computers designed specifically to inspire a person to do great things. This is taking the truism "Behind every great man there's a good woman." and replacing the woman with a custom-designed computer entity -- what I am now calling a cyber muse.

There can be many kinds of inspirations, so there can be many kinds of cyber muse designs. Cyber muses can bring all sorts of differences to how people live, and interesting stories about those differences.

Driverless cars as taxis

The driverless car is coming shortly. But will it be treated the same way current cars are? Not likely. If you don't have to learn to drive a car, and learn how to park it, and maintain it... why pay much attention to it? If you are not paying attention to it, not beaming with pride and saying, "I own that one!", then the driverless car will instead be treated like a taxi -- call it, ride in it, forget about it as it drives away. The role of the car in our lives will change dramatically.

While the ramifications of this are wide ranging, one cute one that has already happened is that Fast and Furious-style movies are the cowboy western movies of today. They occupy the same cultural niche. Those westerns of the 1940's and 50's (the Roy Rogers and Gene Autry ones) celebrated a man and his horse, the Fast and Furious movies celebrate a man and his car.

The foundations for fresh ideas

The important foundation for fresh ideas is a wide range of knowledge and experience. When you have these your brain will put together interesting patterns, and these become the insights that lead to ramifications.

Here is an example based on personal experience.

I was a tourist on a day trip in Korea. I visited a tourist attraction that was off the beaten path. I went into the souvenir shop and got a can of Coke. It was on a shelf, not in a cooler of any sort. I noticed that the cans of Coke on the shelf were all upside down. I thought, "How strange." I bought mine and left, and I now had an interesting tale about Coke cans to tell when I got home.

When you experience something like this... Congratulations! You have won half the battle for discovering ramifications. You have discovered something strange in a culture. The other half is discovering why this strange custom is being done?

In my case, I won the second half of the battle by asking around: At the time I was working as an English teacher in Korea, and after I observed this pattern I asked my class about it. It turned out this was done widely, and done for a practical reason: this kept the top of the can from getting covered with dust -- it kept it clean.

The moral: a culture's strange customs are often done for practical reasons, but those reasons will take some research to discover. But when you do, you have discovered the ramification of an interesting practice.

Learning history as well as science helps. History helps identify patterns. And as an added benefit, these historical patterns can provide the large framework within which your story happens.

One thing to watch out for as you learn: become aware of urban legends and editorial opinions being presented as facts. These legends and opinions reflect from-the-heart thinking -- these are things that the tellers of these tales really want to be true. But these are not harsh reality, they are not correctly describing what really happens. It is fine to learn them, they help in understanding human thinking, but keep this kind of learning in a separate category from your hard science and hard history learning.


Reading the tea leaves: Attempting to predict the future of technology in your writing

Robert J Defendi, Toni Weisskopf, Roger White, Stephen Miller (m)


Predicting the future of technology is the really fun part of science fiction writing. It isn't easy, but it is deeply rewarding. Here are some observations about how technology evolves in the real world, and how to think about the really fun part: the ramifications.

How a new technology evolves

When something new is invented the first question is always, "OK... what is it good for?" The most common first answer is, "It can replace [X], and do it faster, better and cheaper." This is what I call the "commodity use" for an invention. This is the use that convinces managers and investors, "OK, I'll put money behind that. Make it happen."

But, if the invention is worth its salt in story telling, this isn't the exciting use. The exciting use comes sometime later when early adapters do some experimenting with this new invention. As they do they discover the surprising uses, the uses where people say, "You can do that with it, too? Neat! ...And I'll buy a dozen more." Then the invention makes history and becomes legendary. This is what I call the "surprise use".

Here is an example: When Thomas Edison's group developed the first sound recorder, the commodity use they came up with was business-oriented. "It will allow managers to dictate to their secretaries without them being there, and it will let people dictate wills so their heirs and attorneys know what they really meant." This was the use that got the invention started. Edison and the inventors knew it could record music, and did so for demonstrations, but they didn't foresee a lot of demand for this application. Then... surprise... many more customers showed up saying, "You can record music? Neat! I want to do that with mine." Music recording was the surprise use of the technology, and this is what it became famous for.

Another example is writing: Writing was first developed at the dawn of the Agricultural Age as a memory aid. With it people could memorize things more reliably and for longer than simple human memory could. The commodity use for it was accounting -- keeping track of who had paid how much in taxes and what price had been paid for a bride. The surprise uses that have come up since then are astounding.

The ramifications

The ramification of inventing sound recording was the growth of a huge music making industry. It grew in both size and diversity. Likewise, the ramifications of expanding what writing has been used for have shaped the destinies of all of humanity. This is the difference technology makes.

But how to predict that difference, how to forecast ramifications? This takes some serious thinking, and the skill at seeing patterns. Here are some examples of my current efforts at this. These are some ramifications I see coming as cyber takes over Big Business, something I predict happening in about forty years:

o The Total Entitlement State -- One of the straightforward ramifications of cyber taking over big business is the successful creation of what I call the Total Entitlement State (TES). In TES's (different cultures will implement TES in different ways) the basic necessities of life are provided by the government. What will be provided and the hoop-jumping necessary to get the provisions will vary from culture to culture, but the net effect is the same: no one will have to work to have basic food, shelter and health care. How will this change how we humans live? In so many ways! And writing about these ways is a fertile source of story telling.

o The Cyber Gods are angry -- As the TES emerges so will "cyber gods". These are the intelligent cyber entities that pay attention to humans and control the infrastructure that makes goods and services for humanity. (Keep in mind another ramification: That soon after this Big Business controlling cyber culture emerges, most of the cyber entities won't deal with humanity, and they will have other pressing issues on their minds that are totally incomprehensible to humans.) The ramification of the cyber gods is that humans will finally have for-real, tangible beings that they can communicate with who can change their destinies. One of the neat ramifications I thought of relating to this is having cyber controlled economic booms and recessions. This is a world were if a cyber god really does get angry... Poof! Welcome to economic downturn time!

o News Broadcasting "Why bother with facts?" -- In the TES environment very few humans are going to be dealing with big business. This means they won't be learning much about the harsh realities of making manufacturing and service systems work. This means that business news of the 2010's sort will be irrelevant. Instead, what will be news in the TES cultures will stroke instinctive thinking. It will be about sports, entertainment, gossip, food, and things people get scared about -- "It bleeds, it leads"-type stuff.


These are some examples of ramifications. This kind of thinking doesn't come easily. It takes patience, and building a wide knowledge base by both reading a lot and experiencing many different kinds of activities and cultures. The key queston is, "Why is this happening the way it is?" What emerges from the wide knowledge base, and the patience, is seeing patterns. These patterns become the "Ah-hah!"s that are the foundations of stories with interesting science-based predictions in them.


Hard Science in fiction

Toni Weisskopf, Robert J Defendi, L. E. Modesitt Jr., Roger White, Brad R. Torgersen (m)


Hard science gets interesting to write about when the implications of it get important to the story. Another way of putting this is: When does hard science make a difference in how we live? When it does, this is the foundation for an interesting story.

Changing our lives is the first foundation, but there is a bit more needed: Beyond just changing our lives, how much emotional impact does the change have? Some changes are not newsworthy, which likely means they are not story worthy, either. And if they are too complex, they get hard to write about too.

An example of hard to write about is the urbanizing of China. China crossed the 50 percent urban milestone in 2012. This has huge implications for the fate of humanity because of what it says about population growth, but it is hard to make a story centered on this. (it is not the center, but it is part of the premise in my book Child Champs)

Here are some examples that are high-profile, emotional, and therefore easy to write about.


o Effective birth control and the sexual revolution -- Effective birth control devices emerged in the 1960's and 70's. These opened fascinating possibilities for a sexual revolution. And they did not come in isolation. This was the Time of the Generation Gap in the US, when Baby Boomers were coming of age and disrupting all sorts of social conventions. This opened up all sorts of fertile story telling possibilities.

And surprisingly, the story possibilities are still around now, 50 years later. The questions surrounding how to treat sex still swirl and lots of people are still interested. And the swirling has spread in surprising ways: the controversies about stem cell research have their roots in the unresolved issues of sex and abortion rights.

o Climate Change and how to deal with it -- Climate change fires "End of the World" instincts. This makes it both a hot science issue, and a hot issue to write stories about. The political side is the question of is it real or not, but the interesting story telling is about the ramifications and how to deal with it -- many solutions are possible, and they carry different social implications -- as in, these different solutions will change how we live in different ways.

o Nuclear power and walking away from a technology -- It is not inevitable that a science or technology is embraced, and this rejection can be the basis for a good story as well. The Ming Chinese chose not to embrace long-distance ship trading, and demonstrated this by trashing a large fleet they had already built and sent once to India. In our day nuclear energy is a still-born industry compared with what it could be. In these kinds of stories what doesn't change becomes the foundation. Another way this can be presented is as a decline caused by the comfort that comes with turning away disruptive change, of embracing NIBYism. A real world example of this is the decline of US Midwest inner cities over the last sixty years -- Detroit being the high profile example.


In sum, there are lots of ways that hard science can be at the foundation of a story. What science does is lays the foundation for how people's lives are changed by embracing, or not embracing, a science concept.


What can you do with robots?

Roger White, Karen Webb, James C. Duckett (m)


First, a definition of robots. Robots are machines that are controlled by cyber "brains" of one sort or another. Yes, this is pretty general. They can range in size from huge to small, and the range of tasks they can perform is equally large. I include smart wearables in the definition of robots. Ironically, one of the hardest things for them to do is become the "robot personal assistants" that are so common in science fiction movies, but even the first forms of these are now starting to show up in real life.

To do a bit of line drawing, an avatar is a machine controlled by a human brain -- there can be a lot of robotics assisting that human brain, but the human brain is making the real-time choices in an avatar, so it is not a robot... unless the human is taking a break and not in control.

What can you do with them?

My prediction is that over the next forty years robots are going to become ubiquitous in large scale manufacturing and service activities -- "Big Business" as we know it today will be handled almost completely by robots (cyber as I call them). Some other examples, that I talk about in the Creating New Ideas section, are cyber muses and driverless cars. Yet another feature will be ubiquitous surveillance in many forms.

Lets talk a bit about the ramifications of these robotic styles:

o Robots doing Big Business -- This is simply automation getting more pervasive. The big question, and challenge, is what will humans be doing for "gainful employment" as the robots take over more and more of this Industrial Age-style work? This is a big challenge to figure out. It is also an important one because the feeling of working is so closely linked to the feeling of being enfranchised -- the feeling of belonging to a community. How can you get a moral superiority thrill out of shouting "GET A JOB!" at a roadside panhandler, when there are no jobs for humans because robots are doing all the heavy lifting?

o Robots doing surveillance -- This pervasive surveillance will happen because it is so beneficial in reducing waste, repair costs and accidents. Here is an interesting ramification: Consider health wearables. If you are monitoring a person real time, you can know when "fight or fight" physiology kicks in. Lets say the wearables on a school child report he or she is suddenly getting scared -- fight or flight has kicked in. The school monitoring system can send some one, or some robot, to the rescue. In the same vein, if a person is getting ready to do the bullying, their physiology can also set off alarms. Neat uses! ...If you don't worry too much about privacy. But that is the tradeoff -- there will be a lot of benefit that comes with intensive smart monitoring, but when do "Big Brother Is Watching"-abuses override the benefits?

o Robot cities -- Humans are going to get more and more urbanized, and they will cluster in fewer and fewer cities. The rest of the earth will be left to the robots. What will those places be like? Unlike humans, the robots are not going to mind disruptive change. Where humans spend a lot of time and attention on NIMBY (not in my backyard), property values, preserving history, and creating "Hobbiton" (my term for a neighborhood layout that is "Oh, so cute!"), robots will spend a lot of time and effort on making their cities more efficient and productive. If it takes tearing up a city block to make the road network or an airport work better, so be it. This means robot cities -- and farms and mines -- will change constantly and dramatically, and they will be utilitarian, not ostentatious. Moving from a human city to a robot city will be an easy to see change.

What will humans be doing?

Fortunately, humans are inventive. As robots take over more and more of the big business-style jobs, humans will come up with other activities can they can feel are work. Here are some examples:

Artisanal work -- If a product or service gains mystical qualities because it is human-crafted, and other humans consider those qualities valuable, a person has a job being an artisan. We are seeing this style of thinking today in a lot of food offerings and craft work.

Entertainment -- Entertainment relies a lot on instinctive thinking and this is something humans understand well. Entertainment will stay a boom industry for humans.

Disaster Recovery -- Disaster recovery requires a lot of dealing with novelty and extemporizing, and these are kinds of thinking where humans will continue to do better than robots for a long time. Plus, in times of distress humans like comforting, and being comforted by, other humans.

And there will be surprising ramifications. Here is one:

Top 40 Jobs -- One surprising ramification of widespread automation is the emergence of Top 40 Jobs. "Do what you are passionate about doing." is a modern exhortation that increasing automation makes feasible. Passion is instinctive thinking. Curiously, this devotion to passion means a limited choice range will emerge. My inspiration for seeing this ramification was the evolution of Top 40 music on radio. In the 1950's, thanks to phonographs and record players, radio stations could play thousands of different songs, but they found the listeners wanted just a few songs played over and over. This same pattern will happen to jobs as robots take over big business. (I write more on this here.)


Putting technology ramifications into your world building

L. E. Modesitt Jr., Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, Roger White, Dan Willis (m)


There are two broad paths to world building: building a world that is familiar or building a world that is unfamiliar but interesting and internally consistent.

When the world is a familiar one internal consistency is not important. It is not important because the audience knows most of what is coming, so small surprise deviations are not upsetting. A currently popular example of this "familiar" framework is the movie Frozen. If you look closely at the story... Wow! A young girl is confined to years of growing up in her room because she has an accident with a magic power? Ouch! And that is just one of many. But the story is based on the familiar fairy tale format, so the audience is not upset by this inconsistency. Another term for this kind of inconsistency is "poetic licence". A sci-fi movie example of "serial inconsistency" is Prometheus -- it is filled with inconsistencies from beginning to end. Its saving grace -- the familiar part -- is that it is part of the Alien franchise, but in my opinion the poetic licence works poorly here.

If a story is about a novel concept -- something the audience is unfamiliar with -- poetic licence won't work at all. The audience ends up doing a lot of head scratching trying to figure out what the story is about. So, if the story is novel, the setting must be much more internally consistent.

This is important to putting technology ramifications into a story because technology always makes a difference in how the story is going to come out. New technology is always novel, not familiar. (The familiar version is Space Opera.)

Thinking of consistency and ramifications

Thinking about ramifications is about making your story internally consistent -- "If [X] happens, shouldn't [Y] follow?"-type thinking. Some movies where internal consistency is well handled are Moon, Limitless, Her and The Cabin in the Woods. In these, the ramifications of the technology are well thought out. Moon is about the ramifications of using clones to man isolated space bases, Limitless is about the ramifications of a mind-enhancing pill, Her is about the ramifications of self-aware computer systems running smart phones, and Cabin in the Woods is about the ramifications of slasher horror stories happening for a good reason -- to appease angry gods.

The fun part, the exciting part, of structuring a story with good internal consistency is that it goes places familiar stories don't.

The hard part is taking the time to work out the ramifications. This takes time. Here is a simple example that shows the surprise that comes with being internally consistent, and working out ramifications.

Think of chewing gum.

o First off, it is a food, so it is something you put in your mouth.

o But, like bananas, you don't eat all of it, some part is thrown away.

o Unlike bananas, the throw away part is small, squishy and sticky.

The ramification: Unlike bananas you can dispose of chewing gum in a novel way -- by sticking it to the bottom of a table or lunch counter. The "story ending" for chewing gum is different than it is for "familiar" bananas.

This is an example of exploring for the ramifications of a technology, and the surprise twist that will be revealed in your story if it is internally consistent.

Once again, thinking of the ramifications takes time. Be patient, but keep thinking. This is much like identifying interesting patterns in science and history. It helps to have a wide knowledge base. It also helps if you have a group of friends that you can talk with that like exploring ramifications. (These aren't easy people to find, so be thankful when you do.)


Writing about technology

Jared Abram Barneck, Scott R. Parkin, Eric Swedin, Roger White, Brett Peterson (m)


The heart of interest in technology is in what difference it makes to how we live. When writing about technology you are mixing good story elements in with how the technology is changing the story.

The importance of commerce

Pop Quiz:

Question: Thinking about technology in a commercial setting is important. Why?

Answer: Because a technology is not going to grow and become pervasive if many people are not demanding it, and many others are making a profit supplying it.

The current good example of this is space travel. We love writing about it, but how much do we really have? One way to think about this is:

o How many rovers have we sent to Mars? A handful.

o Why haven't we sent a thousand? Because we haven't figured out how to make money doing so.

When I wrote my book The Honeycomb Comet I was taking on the challenge of how to write an interesting story using slower than light speed interstellar travel. One of the early obstacles I faced was answering the question: "Why are these future humans going to bother to go on an expensive, years-long journey?" The answer: "Like their 'Spice Trade' trading ship forefathers of the 1500's, they are going to make a ton of money doing so." The challenge then evolved into, "OK, what are they going to find out yonder that's worth a ton of money?" Answering that shaped the entire book, and inspired the title.

Changing how we live

What is important to a story is how technology changes how we live. Here are some examples:

o A person wants to be in the delivery business. If they are in the delivery business in the US in 1920, what do they need to know? They need to know how to drive a horse-drawn wagon during the day, and how to care for the horses when the delivery day is finished. Fast forward a generation to 1940, and what does a delivery person need to know? They need to know how to drive a truck powered by a motor, and they need to know how to maintain it when the delivery day is done -- night and day different from twenty years earlier. Imagine the 1920's dad giving advice to his son about continuing the family business.

But this is just the beginning of the changes. With trucks you can have more specialization -- one person drives and a different person maintains. You can also carry things much further in a truck, when you add refrigeration... lots of changes. If you're writing about technology, add these changes to your story about a muleskinning, then a truck driving, family.

And this is where knowing more history can come in and help: A big worry in large cities up until the 1920's was "Peak Horse" -- moving food in and manure out was one of the cities' biggest tasks, and the air pollution from the manure drying out and then getting kicked up by horses and wagons put the bellowing soot from factories to shame. Nowadays, who remembers this? In sum, thinking changes, but if you know these patterns you can add them to your stories and they are more real and less fantasy.

o When a society moves into the Industrial Age, it pays for everyone... everyone to get educated about Industrial Age ways of doing things -- factory workers, farmers, noble and common -- everyone. This was first recognized by the Prussians back in the 1700's and quickly seen as a good lesson by the North American colonists, the English, and the French -- in that era all were grappling with how to make industrializing work better in their societies. The outcome was the various systems that evolved where the government pays for K-12 education systems that all children of the community attend.

If you are bringing in to a community a whole new style of getting things done, such as computerized automation, equally wrenching changes are going to be called for. Think about what these changes are, and your characters can be on both sides of the fence about whether and how they should be implemented. An example of this kind of conflict going on right now is in the Middle East: Should the children be learning Western-based science or Koran-based science?

o An example of "getting it" and "missing it" is to compare Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers book with Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers movie based on the book. The book is about power armor and how it changes both warfare and social thinking. The social thinking resembles the French Revolution concept of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The movie discards the power armor entirely -- the soldiers are WWI imitators -- and the social thinking portrayed is Fascist. In my opinion, Verhoeven missed it -- so much so, that I was inspired to write my own version of the power armor story. Out came The Ticket Out, found in my Tips for Tailoring Spacetime Fabric Vol. 1 book.

In sum, technology makes a difference in how we live, and through that, makes a difference in how we think. So one fruitful topic for science fiction stories is highlighting this difference in both living and thinking. Note that this can apply to writing about the past as much as the future. One of my stories, Team Macedonia, in Tips Vol. 2, is about how strange looking time travelers from our era appear to the Macedonians of Alexander the Great's time.



The LTUE panels covered a rich trove of writing topics. I was delighted to have the opportunity to participate. I hope these notes prove equally inspirational to you. And, if you like what you are reading here, look into my Tales of Technofiction books.

--The End--

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