Tom Calen Tom Calen is the author of the bestselling horror series, The Pandemic Sequence (comprised of The Tilian Virus, The Tilian Effect and The Tilian Cure), as well as the science-fiction series, Scars of Tomorrow (comprised of Torrance and The Ignota). A New York City native, Tom holds a degree in English and spent several years toiling in the world of business before abandoning all reason and deciding to write full-time. He finds the worlds in his novels far less frightening than the corporate world. His books The Tilian Virus and The Tilian Effect both reached #1 on Amazon’s Bestselling Science-Fiction Series list, and both were the #1 Hot New Release in horror and science-fiction.From Castle Rock to Arakis, Middle Earth to Westeros, Tom eagerly devours as many science-fiction, fantasy, and horror novels as time allows. He credits George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan, and Stephen King as the major influences on his style. Tom is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association, and International Thriller Writers, Inc. He is currently living in Nicaragua, where he is working on his seventh book.
by Tom Calen
Robotic limbs? Check. Cloned mammals? Check. Tablet devices? Check. Holographic touchscreens? Genetic engineering? Check. Nearly every gadget and doohickey in Star Trek? Check, check, check.
There’s no denying that real-life technology has made drastic surges forward over the last fifty years. Tech that was once only available in episodes of The Jetsons and Star Trek are now found in homes around the world. We carry it in our pockets (iPhones), on our wrists (smart watches), and on our faces (Google Glass). We use it to shop (credit cards, and now Apple Pay) and to go to war (stealth bombers and unmanned aerial drones). These technological advances have undoubtedly made our lives more convenient. But, as a writer who has recently dabbled in penning science fiction, I politely ask: Please STOP! You’re making my job more difficult.
Obviously, my request is hyperbolic and more than a little tongue-in-cheek, yet with every new tech advance, sci-fi writers are losing one more tool with which to impress their readers. Part of the wonder I experienced when reading sci-fi as a youth came from the inventive technology the authors created. In film, I remember 2001: A Space Odyssey blowing my mind not just with the space travel, but also the smaller things like the video phone. Back then, a kinked and tangled cord still tethered us to the wall phone. Today, I Skyped with my family back in the States via an iPad while I sat on the beach.
Granted, there’s still a good amount of tech we’ve yet to master. Warp drive and interstellar travel. Teleportation machines. And, ahem, I was promised a flying car by now. Yet, those concepts have somewhat lost their “wow factor.” I don’t get the same goose bumps I did when I saw my first Star Destroyer float onto the screen. My breath doesn’t catch when the stars streak past the Enterprise as it warps towards her next mission.
Now, some will argue that it’s not the “gadgets and doohickeys” that make for great science fiction, it’s the plot and characters. And while that is true, that’s the same definition for plain ol’ fiction.
A quick look at contemporary science fiction shows not only a lack of “wow factor” tech, but an almost deliberate attempt to avoid wow-factor tech entirely. The Hunger Games is set in the future, and our heroine totes a bow and quiver. V for Vendetta…another future setting…knives and guns. Gravity is billed as science fiction, yet our major tech is the Hubble telescope and the International Space Station. Cloud Atlas (which I believe is one of the greatest novels in decades) is also rather light on the science. Even in my own sci-fi series (Scars of Tomorrow), there’s some interesting tech, but nothing on the scale of Asimov or Clarke, Lucas or Rodenberry.
Admittedly, many of the examples I’ve sited feature dystopian futures, where tech advances might justifiably be stifled. But, why the turn towards dystopia? Have we, the viewing/reading audience, suddenly become solely lovers of the bleak? Perhaps. But, it is also possible that it’s part of a sci-fi dilution. Basically: We’ve emptied the wow-factor tech stores, and the audience views what exists as literary wallpaper, so we’ll use wow-factor scenarios instead. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (said in my best George Costanza impression). Of the examples I sited, I enjoyed each and every one. I’d also add Neill Blomkamp to the list of those doing something very interesting with science fiction.
But, I miss the tech. When I was little, wrapping-paper tubes were lightsabers. Now it’s bows and arrows to mimic favorite sci-fi books and movies. Back then, I imagined what each car on the block must look like when it transformed into a robot. Now, children imagine themselves trying to escape a maze.
Given the recent box-office successes of Abrams’s Star Trek films, and the excitement already building for a new Star Wars film a year away from the screen, I want to believe the appetite for wow-factor tech still exists. We just need a contemporary Isaac or Arthur, a George or a Gene to dream up what that tech will be. We’re a few weeks away from the release of Interstellar. Maybe Mr. Nolan can take my breath away.