Thursday, June 11, 2015

It's all made-up tech (although some is more convincing than others)

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / TsuneoMP
Science fiction, as we've discussed many times, is fiction based on science. We often argue on where to draw the line. One example that springs instantly to mind is faster than light travel (FTL). It's a mainstay of space opera, allowing writers to whip you away from your lounge room and onto one exotic planet, or space station, or space ship, after another. The means of transport may well vary, though, ranging from a portal, where you step through from one world to another, warp drives (like Star Trek), hyperdrives (Star Wars), quantum drives and a variety of other made up hardware. The essence of it is that readers will accept the premise if it suits the story.

Then there's gravity. It's a known fact that the human body doesn't take kindly to long periods of low gravity, so most space operas contend with that in a number of ways. The use of centrifugal force to simulate gravity is canon – apart from anything else, it's true. So the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey is good science. So is the cabin steward, who walks carefully along the aisle of the shuttle in velcro-clad shoes, with her hair tucked away in the weightless conditions. But most of us emulate the movie makers who don't want to deal with weightlessness in their spaceship corridors and use artificial gravity in our spaceships. The purists might not like it, but those of us who grew up on Asimov and Star Wars are fine with that.

Sometimes, though, there's a tendency for readers of science fiction to accept a particular author's version of technology and question another author's interpretation. Take matter transfer, as used in Star Trek (as in 'Beam me up, Scotty'). I, for one, wasn't too impressed with that as something real when I saw it on TV all those years ago. But I've now had to accept it's possible. The same with cloaking devices. We're on the brink of having technology which can hide an object from radar emissions.

Which leads me to spaceship 'shields'. It's generally understood that exposure to cosmic radiation would quickly kill a human. Our atmosphere protects us from harm on the planet's surface, but what we would use for spaceships is unclear. But let's say we have such a shield. The canon is that the shield protects a ship from bombardment, as well as cosmic rays. Can one fire through the shield? Some authors say yes, others say no, and yet others avoid the issue. If the answer is no, then the shields must be dropped to fire at the enemy. Or maybe only a certain amount of the shield needs to be dropped. Jack McDevitt uses that weakness in his book A Talent for War. McDevitt also speculates that the oft-mentioned scanner which can see through a hull and establish who/what is in a ship isn't as simple as other authors suggest. Makes sense to me. If you have to shield your ship from cosmic rays, would that not also shield the ship from external scanning? Linnea Sinclair in Hope's Folly suggests such scanning is possible. Jack McDevitt in Slow Lightning says it's not. Most especially if the ship is alien.

I don't know the answers. Nobody does. All I'm really saying is that in any science fiction story the tech has only to be true to itself in its own universe. If the reader doesn't believe the technology, isn't convinced by the author's argument, then so be it. But that doesn't make the technology wrong, and comparing it to another writer's universe simply shows the reader's own bias.

What do you think? Is there any 'technology' that you simply will not accept in a novel?


  1. As long as the rules are consistent for that author's universe and don't break some of the basic laws of physics like gravity or vacuum in space (unless they have a believable theory for that rather than just ignoring or forgetting about it), I'm fine with whatever the author comes up with. I find it interesting that we're working on matter transference and cloaking devices, but there still isn't much of a practical theory for creating artificial gravity other than centrifugal force or velcro footware, lol.

  2. There are AG devices (nanotech) in all the flooring material of spaceships. Run by the main engines that also do environmentals. If the engines fail, so does the AG. (How's that?)

    We'll get there in the end. We always do.

  3. Not exactly a technology, but intergalactic travel really pushes my buttons. (Not to anyone's surprise, because I've been pretty vocal about it.) I should clarify that I'm talking about intergalactic travel using "traditional" SF propulsion systems, not something exotic like traveling through a wormhole--or even a black hole--to be flung across the cosmos. In real space, the distances we're talking about are so incredibly immense it would take a ship over 2 million years traveling at the speed of light (which we're not sure is even possible) to reach the nearest galaxy. Galaxy-hopping is completely outside my suspension of disbelief abilities.

    1. I have to agree, Laurie. If we're talking some osrt of hyperspace - yes, alright. But there's plenty of space in our own galaxy to keep us busy for a while.

    2. Generally I'm like Pippa--if the author is logical and consistent with the tech in her story, I'll go along. But glaring illogic--like using ion drive to travel to the next galaxy, as Laurie says, or shooting through a black hole without even benefit of a spaceship, as INTERSTELLAR proposed--drives me crazy. I even had to write a whole fanfic novel to explain all the stuff that was left UNEXPLAINED by the writers of STVI:GENERATIONS with their crazy Nexus. Thinking it through, Kirk couldn't be dead in some timelines, and that's the way I wrote it!

    3. Oh, yes. Interstellar. Interesting movie, but yes. Let's all pop into a black hole.


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