Most Common Technologies of Sci Fi

Science Fiction is more often than not about the development and exploration of future technologies and how they affect humanity – one of the most common misconceptions is that it is purely about technology, yet often it explores the impact. It is imperative that this science sounds plausible even if we currently do not have the technology or understanding for your particular invention to be realised any time soon.

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Complicated explanations are rarely necessary, after all not all Science Fiction writers have PhDs in astrophysics or engineering (though some do – Asimov and Reynolds both had related STEM qualifications). For the non-expert who has more than a rudimentary understanding of physics – and that applies to most of us I am sure – the writer must give enough detail for the reader to appreciate how that technology works, and at least make it a plausible explanation. No need to bog the reader down in detail, though.

Revelation Space – The Melding Plague

Alastair Reynolds invented a virus that can affect both nanotechnology and human cells for his Revelation Space series. We hear only a small amount of it in the first book (called Revelation Space) but in the second book set in the city most affected by The Melding Plague (Chasm City), we see the harsh realities of it and how critically it has affected the economy and society. The Glitter Band – the vast circling, opulent symbol of financial success, became The Rust Belt.

The Melding Plague seems a preposterous idea (and it probably is) but the concept that Reynolds builds around the disease makes it plausible, how it works and how it transmits, the fact that it does not discriminate between the nanotechnology that people have implanted in themselves or the organic material in which the nanotechnology is implanted.

Bolognium Vs Technobabble

Reynolds leaves just enough information that the reader should feel relatively happy with the context and how it works. Under-explaining can be a problem and leaves the reader feeling frustrated and the writer prone to falling into the trap of technobabble – using meaningless science-y sounding words with very little context. The other danger is trying to explain too much, over-complicating a concept and allowing the reader to pick apart your dodgy science. Strike that balance and you get get your technology, no matter how strange sounding, accepted by your audience.

What Reynolds did when he invented the Melding Plague, is use bolognium. The word is an invention of Larry Niven and is a plot device that portrays an idea that defies everything we have come to understand about the the world around us. The concept is usually nonsense but in the context of the plot, it is believable nonsense because it is connected to something that is completely reasonable (in Reynolds case it is the real world understanding we have of biological viruses and computer viruses).

Learn to identify technobabble and how it is different from bolognium. Wiktionary defines technobabble as Technical or scientific language used in fiction to convey a false impression of meaningful technical or scientific content. Basically it is using long and complicated sounding words without explanation for what the concept means. Star Trek was guilty of this quite a lot. It is bad writing and when used with the deus ex machina cliche, the reader should feel very cheated.

Science Fiction Lore

Here is a selection of technologies that have become part of science fiction lore. They are accepted as part of future developments, perhaps even as inevitable but are they just bolognium that we accept because they have become essential plot devices?

  • Hyperspace/Warp drives: A way of compressing space around an object to make it move much faster than a conventional engine could make it travel
  • Wormhole technology: The ability to open up an extra dimension through which an object can pass. Often compared to “space folding” or cutting through an object rather than going over it
  • FTL drives: A way of permitting an object to travel faster than light, using quantum mechanics to reduce weight or slow down time
  • Dyson Spheres: Not so common in sci-fi these days, but it is a hypothetical structure that can surround a star, harnessing its energy. People can live on the surface or somewhere inside the superstructure
  • Teleportation: The method used in Star Trek and other scifi of beaming matter from place to place through technological means. Scientists at CERN have been working on this and there have been reports of successful teleportation, moving particles
  • Stasis: The ability to create a field around something where time is frozen thereby extending its life indefinitely. In Red Dwarf, Dave Lister is frozen for over 3 millions years to allow the background radiation to reduce to safe levels
  • Energy shields: Using Star Wars as a guide, there are usually two types of shield. A Particle shield protects against damage from debris – space rocks, meteorites and so on. An energy shield protects against laser shots and missiles. Some sci fi makes no distinction between shield types
  • Artificial Intelligence: Robots with a degree of sentience and critical thinking that could be on a par with humans,  making them indistinguishable. Asimov wrote about AI quite a lot
  • Cyborg/technological implants: The ability to upgrade humans with technology, into our blood stream, our brain or any other part of our bodies. Typically, stories featuring this look at the consequences of blurring the lines between organic life and mechanical technology

Can you think of any more? What are your favourites and least favourites?

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4 thoughts on “Most Common Technologies of Sci Fi

  1. Couple of points based on my experience as a physicist and sci-fi writer:
    1) Hyperspace is not a synonym for warp drive. Hyperspace is a extradimensional space that has differing physical laws to our world. You enter hyperspace, travel through it and then return to real space.
    2) You have conflated Technobabble with hand-waving (and both with Treknobabble) in my opinion. Technobabble is just using technical jargon – the explanation of cloning in Jurassic Park is accurate technobabble, apart from DNA not being preserved in amber, for example. Handwaving is writing technobabble that if decoded means nothing, like the Unobtanium in Avatar. Treknobabble is technically slightly different. When writing STTNG the producers employed scientific advisors who wrote that Treknobabble for the screen writers. All Treknobabble is internally consistent and in the most part is accurate scientifically (to the best of 80s/90s physics knowledge). So it is sometimes technobabble and sometimes handwaving. I wrote Treknobabble papers on cloaking devices in the 90s that became not only accepted by fans, but also the canon, as the science was entirely accurate.
    Technobabble is considered bad writing because all exposition is considered bad writing by literary critics, it doesn’t matter if its scientifically accurate or not. Literary critics only seem to enjoy books set in worlds that require no additional explanations, or imagination…

    1. Hyperspace is not a synonym for warp drive. Hyperspace is a extradimensional space that has differing physical laws to our world. You enter hyperspace, travel through it and then return to real space.

      Thanks. That bit always confused me. I came across the hyperspace concept as you just described it in Babylon 5 (if you saw that). They opened jump points in order to enter hyperspace. Then I remembered Star Wars used hyperspace but that seemed and looked more like warp.

      You have conflated Technobabble with hand-waving (and both with Treknobabble) in my opinion.

      How you describe technobabble sounds far closer to what Niven describes as bolognium. The only science fiction writer I have heard disparaging technobabble is David Gerrold who worked on Trek and B5 and others at various times. It was from his book Worlds of Wonder that I got those explanations. Thanks for clarifying though, as ever!

      Literary critics only seem to enjoy books set in worlds that require no additional explanations, or imagination…

      Well, yes. If it’s not about the strained relationship between mother and daughter or between father and son set against the backdrop of the fall of The Berlin Wall / The Spanish Civil War / The Warsaw Uprising / the inaugural Moscow ballet, what use is it? 😀

      1. Bolognium is the handwaving part, it is the made up bit of otherwise good Technobabble. The unobtainium in Avatar that makes mountains float, and the Dilithium crystals in Star Trek that control and regulate matter/anti-matter annihilation in a warp core are both pure Bolognium that allows the rest of it to remain reasonably hard science 🙂

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