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[GUEST POST] Elizabeth Bonesteel on When World Building Falls Victim to Modern Technology

When Elizabeth Bonesteel was five, she had insomnia. Her parents told her she make use of the time by making up stories. Her first novel, The Cold Between, is out now from Harper Voyager. You can find out mor eabout Elizabeth by visiting her on her blog and on Twitter as @Liz_Monster.

All Roads Begin Right Here

by Elizabeth Bonesteel

This afternoon, I was watching an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. “Brothers,” I believe it was – one of those episodes where Data proves that he’s the single biggest threat to the Federation there is, but they cut him slack because he’s cool and they like him.

In the episode, thanks to a malicious back door into his brain, Data is able to precisely mimic the captain’s voice, allowing him to take over the Enterprise. My spouse pointed out how foolish it was to protect something so important with a voice print. Surely a retinal scan, a fingerprint, some kind of bioidentification would be more secure.

But hey, the episode aired in 1990. Voice identification seemed like a huge fancy deal back then, never mind having a machine (sorry, Data) able to precisely mimic a human voice. The episode was flawed for other reasons, but we shrugged off the lame tech.

The science in science fiction is always a product of the time in which the story is written. And this means some stories don’t age all that well.

The first science fiction book I ever read was The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. This would have been long after the book was published, so it was already common knowledge, even for children, that the tech it described was completely bogus. I forgave it, possibly because of the chicken. I’m pretty forgiving of such things. You can’t be raised on Star Trek without being willing to ignore some really stupid fictional technology.

Of course, sometimes tech goes in circles. I first read Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep in 2002, and the Usenet-style conversations felt jarringly dated, though the rest of the book was tremendous. Today, though, those conversations work again, thanks to the explosion of social media. People do seem to gravitate toward extended textual exchanges, publicly or privately, despite all of the technology that allows us to do it differently. In another twenty years, it might all read false again, but today it seems like a logical prediction, even for the far future.

Some of my own worldbuilding fell victim to modern technology. I originally had people wearing communication devices on their wrists. And then the Apple Watch came out (apologies to all of the smartwatches that came before), and suddenly, confronted with the reality of it, a wrist communicator seemed like a clunky and uncomfortable device. (I know there are people who love their smartwatches. I will read all of your books populated by wrist communicators, and love them in spite of it.)

And I cheated as well, as one does. At the time I was writing The Cold Between, it looked like faster-than-light travel just wasn’t physically possible. I plunked it into the story anyway, but I did take the time to read about what physicists thought we might see if we actually could travel faster than light. Turns out it wouldn’t be those lovely sweepy stars that they have on Star Trek. We’d likely perceive some kind of white light. I took some liberties with that, but I did use it. (And I miss the lovely sweepy stars way more than the wrist communicators.)

Physics research moves quickly. All of my choices date the book, and that’s probably unavoidable.

On the opposite side of credible extrapolation lies the very real problem of believability. “Truth is stranger than fiction” is an adage for a reason. Reality often doesn’t work well in fiction.

Software is a perfect example. For the last several years of my software career, I primarily wrote JavaScript. For those of you who don’t know, JavaScript is an untyped, thread-unsafe, uncompiled object-oriented programming language, and all of those words used in the same sentence should scare the hell out of you. It’s also the backbone of most web pages these days. It was created in ten days twenty years ago, and thousands of brilliant people have built frameworks and toolkits and precompilers and all kinds of gorgeous stuff in an attempt to tame the monster. But as long as it’s the native language of web browsers, we’re going to be stuck with a nightmarish mix of solutions, each one hoping to find a way to embrace the future without completely abandoning the past.

You could certainly write a story that included fancy, flashy technology that did some spectacularly stupid things because it had to work with tech that was built decades earlier, but if you relied too much on that premise, your readers would start to think you’d built a society of idiots. Why don’t they just replace the old stuff? they’d think. This is nuts. Nobody would put up with this in the real world.

There are reasons I’m very happy to be out of software.

It’s easy to imagine how differently “Brothers” might have been handled if it had been written today. The back door into Data’s brain would have been treated as an allegory for the current debate over iPhone encryption. Dr. Soong’s takeover would have provoked a discussion of sentience, slavery, and abuse. The mediocre B plot could have covered the nature of free will and its relationship to trust. And in another few years, any perspective written today would undoubtedly look dusty and creaky, just as this episode does now.


More about The Cold Between

Deep in the stars, a young officer and her lover are plunged into a murder mystery and a deadly conspiracy in this first entry in a stellar military science-fiction series in the tradition of Lois McMaster Bujold.

When her crewmate, Danny, is murdered on the colony of Volhynia, Central Corps chief engineer, Commander Elena Shaw, is shocked to learn the main suspect is her lover, Treiko Zajec. She knows Trey is innocent—he was with her when Danny was killed. So who is the real killer and why are the cops framing an innocent man?

Retracing Danny’s last hours, they discover that his death may be tied to a mystery from the past: the explosion of a Central Corps starship at a wormhole near Volhynia. For twenty-five years, the Central Gov has been lying about the tragedy, even willing to go to war with the outlaw PSI to protect their secrets.

With the authorities closing in, Elena and Trey head to the wormhole, certain they’ll find answers on the other side. But the truth that awaits them is far more terrifying than they ever imagined . . . a conspiracy deep within Central Gov that threatens all of human civilization throughout the inhabited reaches of the galaxy—and beyond.

1 Comment on [GUEST POST] Elizabeth Bonesteel on When World Building Falls Victim to Modern Technology

  1. MadLogician // March 10, 2016 at 12:52 am //

    The sky was the colour of television turned to a dead channel. Blue.

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