One of the hardest things about writing sci-fi (IMHO) is handling the technology. All too often the real world will catch up to science fiction levels in just years rather than centuries. I may write about such things as invisibility fields or nanotechnology when all the while they may be just around the corner. Just do a google search for either of those, and the tech in the pages of a sci-fi novel may not seem so far off.
Even though we don’t have flying cars (yet), I am continually surprised at the things that modern scientific research discovers every day. I mean, in the next few years, we might actually have found the Higgs-Boson particle or developed hand-held energy weapons, personally cloned organs, powered exoskeletons and life-extending treatments and/or drugs – all things that previously existed only in theory and imagination.
So what’s a lowly sci-fi writer to do to make sure that actual technology doesn’t exceed the set pieces that he creates? It might be a peek behind the curtain, but I’ll share with you one of the techniques I use on a pretty regular basis.
Let me give you an example of when this was not used. In the novelization of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, we get a few scenes that do not appear in the movie. Consequently, we get to know some of the scientists aboard space station Regula 1. As it turns out two of the scientists are game designers, and they have just completed work on their latest video game, Boojum Hunt. It was supposedly the largest video game ever (by 23rd century standards) in terms of how much computer memory it occupied. It was so large that the computer mainframe of the space station only barely contained it.
Any guesses how at much space it took up? 60 Megabytes. Megabytes with an ‘M.’ Yeah, it’s safe to say that modern technology blew that one completely out of the water. At the time of the novel’s release, 60MB might have seemed unthinkably enormous, but nowadays not so much.
Consider this, though − what if the novel had just said that the game was the “largest video game ever created,” and left it at that? Chances are someone reading it today would scale their expectations up to whatever the norm is currently. The same goes for someone reading it twenty years from now.
That’s scalability. It’s presenting a concept without the parameters that will eventually invalidate it. That way, it scales up to whatever the reader expects it to be. Certainly Boojum Hunt’s claim would have held up without that troublesome measurement to sink it. So, this idea can be applied to practically any claim we put on sci-fi set-piece technology. Saying, “A warship of the highest magnitude,” tells you everything you need to know in only a few words in the same way that saying, “She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen,” can describe a character. It’s a bit of ‘smoke and mirrors’ to handle it that way, and you do wind up speaking in superlatives quite a bit, but it works.
So what happens when you need to put some sort of real-world perspectives on your tech? Well, you can do that. Hard science fiction does it all the time, but they run the risk of being shown up by the onward march of human ingenuity and understanding. For the sake of argument, let’s say that you have to put something down for one of your gadgets.
Here’s what I would do: I would figure out the modern measurement equivalent and then either quintuple or sextuple the order of magnitude. I ran into a situation like this in The Backwards Mask when I had to give an indication of how large a particular hard drive was aboard the Hornet. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes as Boojum Hunt, so I first thought of how large the ‘Canary Drive’ was in 21st century terms. I’m used to thinking of gigabytes (109 bits) in the here and now, so I then kicked it up to yottabytes (1024 bits). BTW, a single yottabyte equals a quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) gigabytes.
As astronomical as that number may seem, there may come a day when devices store hundreds of yottabytes of information, and it’s no big deal anymore. They might look at my description of the Canary Drive and laugh to themselves at my short-sightedness. Well, I think I’ve bought myself a few decades before that happens. If folks are still reading my book in 30 to 40 years, I still call that a win.
So, what’s the upshot of all this? I consider scalability an important tool in my writer’s toolbox. You can use it to bring technology up to the reader’s level of understanding (truly state-of-the-art) so it doesn’t get overrun by actual science quite as easily. Of course no science fiction is bulletproof, but scalability at least allows it wear to Kevlar.