Science fiction authors have a tough job.

There have been a bunch of breakthroughs lately in different tech sectors. These range from coding improvements to new technology that interfaces with the human body, to stuff that many people thought outright impossible. Sometimes it’s mind-boggling. Other times it’s happening so slowly that you have to really step back and realize how different things have become.

My friend Lori took some time to introduce me to some of her favorite westerns the other night. In a scene in Shane when the characters (several homesteaders, plus the titular Shane who is helping them out) stop at a general store, the female lead (Marion Starett) pauses to examine a Mason jar in wonder. “My, my, my,” she says. “What will they think of next?”

Well, contemporary audiences no doubt got a kick out of that one, separated from Marion by almost a hundred years of technological development. The telephone, the phonograph, the automobile, the airplane, the rocket, the computer, cinema and television — all these were in her future, and in their past, in their present. The answer to her question was long, complicated, and unbelievable to her contemporaries. 

But they themselves couldn’t predict that they could eventually take that telephone and put it in their pockets. They couldn’t predict that the photograph would give way to eight-tracks, cassettes, CDs, or MP3s. They dreamed of the self-driving car, but they would still be amazed at how far Ford has come. They didn’t know that air travel would become so commonplace that airlines would start removing first class accommodation. They dreamed of visiting other worlds, but not what a network of satellites would mean for their descendants. They couldn’t predict that the computer — a new invention that had yet to truly change society — would one day be a staple of the American home, and merge with the telephone and phonograph and link to that satellite to become something new.

And we mainly use it to look at cats.

And we mainly use it to look at cats.

Today, we continue to find wonders. Some are small, some are large. Warp drive is now considered — at least theoretically — possible. The Internet has changed the landscape of all print and visual media, from news to fiction. 3D printing has already changed the way manufacturing works. The blind see, the lame walk, and we may soon harness the power of the sun. (I have my doubts about that last one for various reasons, but it does seem to be a genuine step in the right direction.)

We seem to be living in the age of science fiction, if not outright miracles. Yet, remember, humans are amazingly adaptable. We’re just over a hundred a fifty years from that first Mason jar, after all.

Science fiction writers, therefore, have a very tough job. They have to predict the future, and do it in such a way that when stories are read in that future, their material still lives on. Most of us will fail at that. Very few stories last for generations. Even when they do, they survive more on their characters than their technology, because that’s what we really read stories for.

That’s the point to remember about worldbuilding your technology. Don’t worry about predicting the future so much as showing it as believable. Heinlein — considered one of the giants of science fiction — had that issue. For example, in Farmer in the Sky, he starts off the story with a young boy who has a helicopter pilot’s license, in a world where the devices are so plentiful that there are air traffic lanes (a la Jetsons or Back to the Future II) and it’s commonplace for young teens to use them by themselves. And yet that same character does calculations on a slide rule.

My niece has literally never seen a typewriter in real life outside of a museum exhibit. I really don’t know what she’d think if I pulled out one of these.

When sci-fi starts aging, it does so because it didn’t predict the future well enough. It’s one thing to have a book where the Soviet Union still exists five hundred years in the future; it’s another entirely when no one in the future uses email. The latter is so familiar that it’s hard to understand a world without it now.

Or, even simpler: a friend was telling me recently about watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time, and finding it odd at first that none of the teens had cell phones. They’re so ubiquitous now that it’s a huge mental adjustment to see something that looks so contemporary, yet is still almost twenty years old.

In fact, Buffy came out in 1997, just three years after this news segment aired:

Now, let me stress something here. If you sit back and laugh at how stupid people were years ago for not understanding what’s common knowledge today, you’re reading the wrong blog post. That’s not what this is about. That clip is from 1994. I’d only sent my first email the year before those people sat on that couch wondering how to pronounce “@.”

Meanwhile, my niece was born in 2000, and her little brother in 2005. They’ve never known a world without the Internet. I’ve never known a world without television. My father, in contrast, had a driver’s license before he saw his first television.

That’s how adaptable we are. I didn’t have my first cell phone until thirteen years ago, and now it’s unusual to find an adult who doesn’t own one. Change continues. Or, to put it another way, shift happens.

Science fiction really isn’t anything of the kind if you don’t have technology in it; but the important thing is to put it in context. Fictional technology is little different from a magic system in a fantasy novel: even after you get the reader to accept that it exists, you still have to obey your own rules; and if your magic or technology doesn’t have significant limits, then it solves too many problems to make for a believable story. (Failure to watch either is what I call Superman Syndrome.)

Science fiction has one drawback that fantasy doesn’t, however, and that’s that your average sci-fi fan has at least slept through a high school physics course. Fantasy doesn’t have to advance with current knowledge, but sci-fi does.

The best example for this, however, is also the best example for my point about understanding human behavior first and foremost. That example is the 2009 Star Trek film. In it, Starfleet ships stationed near Earth scramble to respond to an unknown attack at Vulcan. All they got was a general distress signal. No one questioned the idea that more information might be the norm.

When I saw that in the theater, my one and only thought was “Wait . . . Vulcan doesn’t use Twitter?”

You see, if people can communicate with video-chat over interplanetary and even interstellar distances, they should have had more warning from Vulcan. If that’s the norm, then the very fact that they only got a general distress call, without further details, from a solar system with the population of Vulcan and the number of ships moving about it . . . well, at the very least, they should have suspected enemy action.

But still “Vulcans don’t use Twitter” stuck with me. This movie was supposed to be a reboot of the franchise, yet we were still going into the series with a 1960s vision of the future. Yes, yes, I’m well aware that it was still supposed to be the same universe . . . but honestly, for this Star Trek fan, if you’re going to change all the stuff they changed (meaning stuff that can’t be attributed to the time shift), you might as well go whole hog and do a true reboot.

So again, worldbuilding your technology isn’t just about looking at current discoveries, inventions, and theories. It’s about looking at application. How do people respond to this in your world? Where are the boundaries, and how are people pushing them? And can your current audience put it all into context and imagine that this world exists?

As I said at the beginning, science fiction authors have a tough job, because predicting technology is hard enough. Predicting people makes that look easy. In the 1960s, technology was advancing through better and better vehicles. Today, we’re advancing through more and more information. Predicting the next big shift in society is pretty much impossible; but if you can write a story where your characters react to that shift in a human way, you’ll do fine.

That’s why Heinlein is still read decades later. His worldbuilding is out of date. His characters are not. Keep that in mind and you’ll do fine . . . even when shift happens.