This entry is part 2 in the series Putting The SF Into Sci-Fi


In part one, I looked at techniques for extrapolating from the world of today into a future world where technology has changed. These techniques have served me well in both fiction writing and developing sci-fi oriented game settings. In this second part, I will be examining some core technologies that everyone engaged in anything sci-fi needs to make uniquely their own. Finally, next week, Part 3 will study the ways in which the technologies developed in the first part would actually shape the world around the characters, whether they be protagonists in a fictional work or PCs in a roleplaying game.

Originally, both parts 2 and 3 were going to be in the one article, but the more I wrote, the more the topical disconnect seemed too great to be accommodated. It felt like one of the two parts was continually threatening to overshadow the other – so I decided at the last minute that it was better to split them up.

Customizing The Standards

There are certain technologies that are so ubiquitous that one or more will be present in virtually every sci-fi setting. Every author, regardless of the medium for which they are writing, needs to consider these and find some point of uniqueness to their description of the experience. To some extent, the science behind the technology will shape these points of differentiation, but to some extent the author’s creativity needs to come to the fore and the pseudo-science needs to be reshaped to accommodate that uniqueness.

I have eight different core technologies in mind, each of which fits the general description offered above. Not all will be recognizably different, depending on the setting, but I am confident that one would be hard-put to identify any sci-fi setting which did not incorporate at least one of them. The eight are:

  • FTL
  • AI/Computers/The Internet/Virtual Reality
  • Entertainment
  • Medical Tech
  • Communications
  • Local Transport / Teleporters
  • Food Distribution Tech
  • Convenience Tech

While it isn’t strictly necessary to understand how any of these changed technologies might actually work, it helps greatly in the verisimilitude of the setting if you have a clear theory. What is more important is that the experience of using these technologies, where they do exist, is something unique in order to distinguish your version of the ubiquitous technology from everyone else’s. You have the same three choices that I outlined in part one:

  • Copy it from somewhere else and customize
  • Get it from the source materials
  • Do it yourself

and they still have the same strengths and liabilities that were previously discussed.

FTL

If FTL travel is part of your setting’s lexicon, it will be a substantial element in plots set within that setting. It might be worth pointing readers toward a few past articles at this point (the links will open in a new window/tab):

While I’m sharing links, indirectly related and of possible interest is a series I wrote on time-travel:

The first of these examines FTL from all angles, and considers a variety of in-game approaches to the problem, so I won’t go over old ground.

Instead, let’s concentrate on aspects of the subject that I didn’t really go into at the time: What do you see when something enters/exits FTL near you? And what do you experience when you are onboard a ship – during entry to FTL, while in FTL, and when exiting FTL? These five questions define the look-and-feel of FTL in your game. Make these original, and you’re half-way to the goal; what remains is inventing a plausible explanation and examining the repercussions and consequences, in terms of engineering and technology, for the ships that can so travel. Or you might start with a plausible “theory” and look to extrapolate back to a look-and-feel.

For example, let’s say that the speed of light limits only apply to objects with one or more spatial dimensions, and that by “rotating” the existing spatial dimensions occupied by the object into some other dimensions, the FTL limits cease to apply. That’s our basic explanation. So what might the answers be to our five “look and feel” questions?

  • What do you see when something enters FTL nearby? The object appears to fold in on itself like a sheet of paper being folded apon multiple axes in rapid succession, rotating in three dimensions apon a different axis with each fold, until it becomes too small to see.
  • What do you see when something exits FTL nearby? The object appears to unfold from a point like a sheet of paper being unfolded apon multiple axes in rapid succession. rotating in three dimensions apon a different axis with each “unfold”. Direction of travel on exit would be completely random and unpredictable relative to the local surroundings, as would relative speed.
  • What do you experience when entering FTL onboard a ship? Picture a seat in a carnival ride that spins horizontally. Now imagine that seat bouncing up and down at the same time, suspended by a tether of some kind. Now imagine that tether swinging in a great circle from it’s point of anchorage, giving a corkscrewing sensation as you spiral forwards in a straight line. Now picture the tether following a roller-coaster-like track instead of a straight line. The technology would almost certainly be nicknamed “The Corkscrew Drive”. Seasickness and spatial disorientation would build up over a short period of time from nothing to overwhelming.
  • What do you experience while travelling at FTL speeds? Here’s where we can have fun. Topology in the existing physical dimensions probably isn’t anything like the topology of “Corkscrew space”. Physical connections would be preserved, though. Now apply that notion to the topology of the brain… any stimulus could easily “leak” from one neural centre to another. In mild form, this would be the ultimate hallucinogenic “trip”: you would “taste” colors, “smell” sounds, “feel” flavors. Attempting to raise an arm might also twist your head to one side, or open your mouth. In a more extreme form, this would be something akin to an epileptic fit whenever you attempted to perform an action, mandating that everything be automated – but electronics would suffer even more severely. The only solution would be something mechanical, that operated purely by means of a physical interaction between components – a clockwork mechanism. In milder form, though, a pilot could learn to control his body and interpret his experiences, which – while somewhat different from one pilot to the next – would be basically consistent for that pilot from trip to trip. The best pilots might be gourmet cooks with finer discrimination over their senses of taste and smell! Navigation might be like designing a meal, this combination of flavors followed by that, and going off-course might give a disagreeable flavor to the navigational checkpoint. Perhaps different “standard courses” have a single dominant flavor for which they are named?
  • What do you experience when exiting FTL onboard a ship? This would obviously be somewhat similar to the experience of entering “Corkscrew space” in reverse, with the sensations of “strange motion” declining in intensity. But there might well also be an “aftertaste” from the trip, with the best pilots able to ensure that this is palatable.

This example shows how a standard concept (entering some sort of hyperspace) could be made singular and unique. Keeping the effects mild permits the crew to operate in space. Passengers would have to be strapped down and possibly sedated, to prevent them injuring themselves; and would probably continually monitored for medical complications. There might well be some kind of “jump shock” to overcome at the end of a trip – quick recovery from any such would be another attribute that a successful pilot would have to have. Part of the pre-jump sequence would involve shutting down all non-essential electronics so that power didn’t go where it wasn’t supposed to – though it might be possible for simple, specially designed and configured circuits to continue to “function”, once the topological transformations involved were understood. In fact, a clear pattern of technological improvement seems quite obvious to me – from simple ships with no electronics and marginal control through to sophisticated ships designed by a “topologist”. This example might be a little extreme for use in a game, but it’s certainly one of the more unique and unusual possibilities. Used as part of a campaign or fictional background, it would bind the stories together in a way that left no doubt that they were part of the same world. And that’s the objective here.

AI/Computers/The Internet/Virtual Reality

The second of the ubiquitous technologies. Here we are concerned with three key questions: What can you do with it, How do you perceive interaction with it, How do you control it, and what is the Hacking experience like?

In the Zenith-3 campaign, they call the internet “The Dreamtime” in reference to the Australian Aboriginal Mythology. Interface is described as “dreaming” because you are surrounded in a virtual reality in which a fog of related information surrounds you, displacing the normal reality that would normally be perceived. Within that fog, it is possible to create “dream constructs”, virtual sub-environments which present a unified thematic artificial experience, something like a flash-based website taken to the nth degree.

The technology available in a different (lower tech) part of that campaign also distinguishes between what is termed an “Artificial Intelligence” (which has self-awareness, self-control, and is fully independent) and an “Artificial Personality” which mimics these things to provide a more humanistic interface to interaction with a computer system. The difference is largely one of having human-like judgment – an Artificial Personality will accept whatever directives it is given and find the most expeditious and efficient means of achieving that within the restraints and parameters it has been given – regardless of the costs outside of those restraints and parameters.

What can you do with it? Or more to the point, how many problems can be handled simultaneously? What different avenues of technological development might have been followed?

Modern PCs operate using something called ‘execution threading‘ which simulates the capacity to do multiple things at once by switching processing attention between different tasks so quickly that the gaps can’t be perceived. As I write this, I have various pieces of software on standby, I have a web browser displaying a couple of web pages, I have antivirus software protecting me from any surprises coming through those web pages, I have an MP3 player running, I have software monitoring the health of the PC and adjusting its system parameters for increased efficiency in response to dynamic workload changes (switching off monitoring of unused USB interfaces to permit greater responsiveness to the USB interfaces which have devices connected to them) and I have the text editor running. These seem to function simultaneously, but that is an illusion conjured up by the speed and power of the processor. If I open a heavily-dynamic web page, the demand for resources it entails will cause stuttering playback of the mp3s. The quality of the MP3s also has an impact – the higher the bitrate, the more samples have to be processed in a given second of playback, leaving less capacity for other tasks.

But, in the future, instead of all this processing power being co-located in the one central PC, perhaps a smaller, decentralized, less powerful, and much cheaper computing device will be the standard. This assigns individual new tasks to one of the internet provider’s network of small computers, which dedicates its entire existence to processing that one task in real time and feeding the results back to my home device. The ISP might have thousands or tens of thousands of these small devices available as a pool apon which their customers draw. Some software on such a home computing device might be cleverer than others, breaking a task into many smaller ones and handling them all simultaneously.

Anyone in the know regarding computing technology will have been saying to themselves “we have such a thing” or “that sounds like” X or Y. “Decentralized Parallel Processing On Demand” is how I would describe it, and it is well within our technical grasp at the moment – it simply requires a different mindset and technological evolutionary path than the one we have followed. Nor is there any reason why we can’t or won’t go down this path at some future point; the current generation of smart-phones are already taking the first steps in this direction. The key to having this be the standard model of home computing is for improvements in data communications technology to have occurred sooner than developments in processor technology. Superficially, this would not have changed the look and feel of our existing technology very much – individual high-intensity tasks like image rendering and the like might take longer to achieve a result, but a home computer could do more things at once. There would be similarities to the “batch processing” of mainframes back in the 70s and 80s – less real-time and more putting tasks into a queue and awaiting your turn.

When a hacker came sniffing around, the difference would become extremely noticeable. You could try and intercept the results being feed to the home processor unit. Or you could try and find the individual processing unit that was handling the task. That could be done by following the progress update reports being sent to the home processing unit, or it could be done by hacking into the task scheduler – or you could poke and prod at each of the 1000+ processing units and hope to get lucky. Security would be a very different arrangement than we have in place, and expectations would also be different.

Let’s pause for a minute to contemplate gameplay considerations. Much of the time, you will simply want to give the players the results of any internet search they care to set up, because the effect otherwise would be to give the character attempting to search / hack the system a disproportionate share of screen time. But every now and then, and especially when a character unfamiliar with the technology you have devised is using it, you will want to focus a little more sharply on the experience. It follows that whatever you come up with should be non-intrusive into the game (except when you want it to be). This matters more with this branch of technology because it’s essentially the activity of one individual. The more interactive your technology is, the more you need to find a way to make it a shared experience so that all the players can participate. This was not an essential consideration with FTL because that is something that they can all experience at the same time. It’s just something to bear in mind.

Entertainment

This should be considered after you have thought about the computer technology because that will have a big impact on what is possible. I won’t go into too much detail on this particular branch of technology because there was extensive coverage of it in the previous article. The one certainty is that entertainment technology will be somewhat different to what is currently familiar, and that entertainment technology will be about as ubiquitous as it gets – and let’s leave it at that.

Medical Tech

One of the major fumbles committed by Star Trek The Next Generation was a failure of imagination when it came to the medical technology of the 24th century, in particular the uses to which the Holodeck could have been applied in this area. Severed spinal column? Let’s blow it up to 10,000 times size so that individual nerves are the size of strings or ropes or electrical cables. Let’s have nanotechnology perform the surgery, matching what the surgeon does to this enlargement in miniature, connecting artificial nerve structures to bridge the damaged tissue.

Medical technology is advancing all the time. Artificial organs, transplants, remote sensing and diagnosis. Even the delivery systems for medications have advanced – time delay capsules and the like.

Things to think about: What can be cured in this world/era that we can’t, and how is it done? What can be diagnosed more quickly and simply, and how? What diseases have been wiped out and which have not? What can be immunized against? Do children experience gene therapy for specific diseases just as we immunize children? What new diseases have arisen? What diseases are no longer lethal or incapacitating but can be managed with medication and/or treatments? What new advances have there been in medical scanning and imaging? How has patient care changed?

Now, turn the question on it’s head: What is the state of play in terms of Biological Warfare? What can’t be cured? What is the current “scary disease”? How has the problem of antibiotic resistance been addressed – or have we inadvertently bred a set of Superbugs to plague us, reducing aspects of medical treatments to the standards of the 1930s?

Thirdly, what is the state of the art when it comes to voluntary medical procedures and cosmetic surgery? Is plastic surgery ubiquitous? Do people change faces with their moods – and what has this done to their sense of identity? Do people look like they are in their twenties until they drop dead of old age?

And the final stop on this medical review: Psychology. What is understood that wasn’t? What treatments are in vogue? What can be treated more effectively then than now? Is it a criminal offence not to take your medication, such as it is in Larry Niven’s “The Ethics Of Madness“? What new psychological conditions have arisen as a result of technology and how are they treated?

Communications

People talk to one another at a distance.

  • The “tap your shirt” signal for opening a comm channel used in Star Trek The Next Generation has become almost a default standard.
  • In an earlier era, it was the flip-phone, thanks to original Trek.
  • Before that, talking to your wrist, thanks to Dick Tracy’s wrist-phone.
  • And of course, shaping your hand like a cup and holding it just in front of your face has signaled radio communications for decades.

These are all instantly recognizable physical code to most people. And that poses two problems.

First, it discourages the attempt to create a new symbolic gesture, because the existing ones are so effective. That’s a problem because of the baggage they carry in the form of assumptions about how they work and what the limitations are.

Secondly, few people stop to think about the infrastructure requirements. Mobile phones don’t work without GPS*. The rotary-dial telephone (never mind the pushbutton phone) requires sophisticated switching technology to be built into the telephone exchange.

* Actually, it’s technically possible to have cellphones without GPS – each transmission tower sending out a unique identifying code and the phone choosing the first tower that meets a minimum signal strength or choosing the one with the strongest signal. But this chews up bandwidth that would reduce the number of simultaneous conversations that were possible.

How do people communicate? Are videophones ubiquitous? Do phones identify the user by genetic code to prevent false identification? Can phones route this code to the police at the push of a button?

At the moment, we’re just starting to come to terms with some of the consequences of our telephone systems knowing a specific individual is at a specific location. Consider advertising that is tailored not only to the location but to the tastes of the individual. Consider the social impact of having your every move known and cross-referenced. Never mind what a system was designed for – what can it actually be used (or abused) to do?

Local Transport / Teleporters

People will still need to travel, to go places. It’s one thing to postulate flying cars, quite another to think about the infrastructure and safety requirements involved. Piloting in three dimensions is a LOT harder than driving in two. Of course, if VR becomes advanced enough, telecommuting suggests that it’s possible for the place to come to the person. What are the health implications of that? Fewer traffic accidents, less pollution, less use of fossil fuels, lower absenteeism, less time wasted in travel – lots of good things. Even less exercise, more intrusion of work into everyday life, less ability to escape stress, perhaps longer working hours, greater dependence on technology – there are some potential downfalls.

Teleporters, like those used in Star Trek, or The Fly? How much do they cost to operate? What are the risks, the dangers?

Teleporters are used in my superhero campaign. I once wrote a very lengthy description of the processes and systems used, especially those designed to provide safeguards against things going wrong (I’d make it available, but it was written back when I was using a commodore-128. Somewhere I have a hard copy, but would have to type the whole thing in again).

Food Distribution Tech

Star Trek has its replicators. How do they work? Do you dematerialize something with the transporters and copy the data into a library? Why can’t you do the same with replacement organs? Are the replicated meals only imperfect reproductions – and what does that do to the safety and purity of the product?

I used to go out to do my grocery shopping. These days, I order groceries over the internet.

There used to be no such thing as a prepared meal. ‘TV dinners‘ were revolutionary when they appeared. These days you can get Gourmet Meals frozen, ready-to-eat.

People still need to eat, normally three or four times a day. That means they will be interacting with this technology – a lot.

Convenience Tech

The last category is something you might not have thought of. I call it “convenience tech” and it’s all about eliminating inconvenience from our lives. Shaving. Brushing teeth. Looking for a taxi. Having the correct fare ready on the bus. Tracking credit and personal finances. Remembering to take your pills. Annoying phone calls at awkward times. Being bound to the clock. Losing your keys. Needing Keys. TV shows that start early, or late, or that run overtime. Web sites that are down when you need them. Misleading advertising. Things that break unexpectedly. Light bulbs that burn out. Clothes that fade or wear out, and that need periodic washing. If you can think of an inconvenience, assume that someone has invented something to alleviate the problem – then drop it into your future world (or decide the solution is too advanced).

To brush your teeth, you crush a pill on the roof of your mouth with your tongue, releasing a swarm of nanobots that seem to “foam” within the mouth. These scrub the teeth, cleanse the breath, repair any cracks or potential cavities, change color if they detect something that needs greater attention like a mouth ulcer or cold sore – and are then rinsed out. Repeat as necessary.

Bathroom scales that communicate with your menu planning software, which checks your scheduler and estimates the number of calories you are going to burn, and then orders the requirements for an appropriate meal from the supermarket from amongst your favorites.

Light bulbs that automatically switch to a spare filament (or LED, as the case might be) – then order a replacement and schedule the installation in your day planner.

This is technology that, in story terms, is mostly throwaway. Its sole function is to make you feel like you are in the world of tomorrow; but there are so many possibilities. Address just a few of them, track the ramifications into other areas of technology, throw in some effort on the staples of the genre, and bring your world to high-tech life.

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