Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.15: Technology

Your Hosts: Brandon, Dan, Howard, and Mahtab

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about magic systems in our worldbuilding. It’s time to talk about  science and technology in that same way. This has been a staple (perhaps the defining staple) of science fiction since before “science fiction” was a word.

At risk of opening the “where do you get your ideas” can of worms, this episode covers a little bit of where we get our ideas, and where you might get—and subsequently develop—some more of yours.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Go read Wired (or some other science and technology periodical, whether online or in print).

Thing of the week: Feed, by M.T. Anderson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: How do you develop technology for stories? It’s an ongoing process. Look at the implications of the technology, but try to avoid being the person who thinks the war will end in a week because we’ve shot so many bullets. Consider the speed of change in technology and the speed of change in understanding how to use the technology. How do you adapt current technology when looking forward and guessing about the future? Take the technology, but make it accessible and palatable. Keep an eye on the technology, change it for your audience, and make a story. Look for fun stories to write that grow naturally out of something we are already doing. How do you write technology for young people? Look for real science and use it in cool ways, combine science and fun. Focus on the character, how does the technology relate to what they want. Use the technology as a point of conflict. Not too many details, but how can the technology help the character? How do you use technology as metaphor, MacGuffin, or conflict? Look at who created it and what biases or limitations did they build into it. What did they accidentally put into it? What could go wrong?

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 15.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Technology.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Mahtab] And we’re not that smart. 

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Dan] I’m Dan. 

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Mahtab] I’m Mahtab.

[Brandon] We are talking tech today on Writing Excuses.

[Howard] After a fashion.


[Brandon] We did a whole month on magic systems, so let’s talk about technology this time around. How do you go about… Howard, you write the most science fiction. Dan does a lot, too. But how do you go about developing technology for your stories?

[Howard] It’s… Honestly, this is one of those questions that has become a little bit like where do you get your ideas? Because I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s just an ongoing part of everything I do. Everything I read… I mean, I read a lot of tech stuff. I watch documentaries. I listen to audiobooks about history and war and whatever else. All of that goes into the hopper. So that when I’m asking a question like… Well, in World War I, when the machine gun first saw the battlefield, there were people who thought the war would be over in 20 minutes, because that is how long it will take us to fire enough bullets to have killed everybody on the other side at the rate of one bullet per person. We look at that now, and we say, “Well, that’s patently ridiculous. Nobody could possibly think like that.” Except there were people who did. We look back at the second World War… Or the first World War and the way technology changed those things. That is the sort of discussion I’m having in my head all the time. I want to look at the implications of the technology, but I don’t want to be the guy who thinks that the war is going to end in a week, because that’s how long it will take us to shoot enough bullets.

[Brandon] That is really a smart way of putting it. I really like the history of warfare paralleling the history of technology. World War I is one of those really interesting moments where the technology changed faster than our ability to understand how to use that technology changed. I remember listening to a podcast about how they were just dumbfounded by how much the war had changed, and nobody knew what they were doing.

[Howard] Nobody knew what they were doing. On a more pleasant note. Today, we look at greenhouse gases and carbon emissions and there’s a lot of people writing peak oil sorts of apocalypse stories. I have $0.99 solar powered lights in my yard. I say $0.99. I replaced some of them, got them at Walmart. $0.69. I have solar powered lighting for $0.69. I realized any post-apocalyptic fiction that set after oh, about 2020… If you don’t have the lights on all the time, you probably haven’t thought ahead far enough, because of what solar is doing. So these kinds of implications, I’m always, always spinning them. Because it’s so cool.

[Brandon] So, how about you guys? When you’re looking at writing a science fiction story, guessing about the future, how do you adapt current technology when you’re looking forward?

[Mahtab] Well, trying to write for younger adults, I try and take the technology, but make it more accessible and more palatable. One of the things that really excited me was the Mars One project. That was started about two or three years ago, and the whole concept of this was this is a one-way trip. I think it caught the world’s interest as well, because you had so many applicants, and then they had to go through these interviews. I used to look at YouTube videos of people posting what they had to learn. Then it was individual, and then it was a group, and stuff like that. So I… For me, I actually took that as the starting point. I wrote a science fiction novel called Bionic, because I wanted to… If it was a one-way trip, but then they needed the technology on Mars itself to be able to survive. Because of the economics of getting stuff there would have been tough. So then I paired it with 3D printing. In fact, just recently I read an article where a company’s sending a 3D printer to the International Space Station. So there… The only thing that you really have to do is keep an eye out to all the technology. Wired, DARPA, just keep your eyes open. Read. Then just change it to your audience, and make a story.

[Howard] Three or four years ago, I was on a panel at a convention where we were talking about colonizing Mars. Everybody pointed out, not obvious, we are the civilization that throws robots at other planets and lands them there successfully. It’s only a matter of time before we’re throwing robots at other planets, and they are robots who are able to make other robots. By the time humans get to Mars, the sorts of stories we may be telling are human cowboys who are robot wranglers riding wild robots trying to rope them up. Okay, on the one hand that’s kind of ridiculous…

[Dan] There’s your writing prompt.

[Howard] On the other hand, that would be a fun story to write. And it grows very naturally out of this idea that it’s something we’re already doing.

[Brandon] So let me put Dan and Mahtab on the spot here. One thing we I don’t think talk enough about on the podcast is specifically writing for young people. Because our kind of bias is toward the adult market, I think. Specifically, taking science fiction or technology. Any hints on how to approach writing these things in a way that works for the age group? How do you… You say you try to write the technology for the young people in a way that works in the story? How are you specifically doing this? Any suggestions?

[Dan] So, with Zero G, in the series there, I started off by trying to write hard SF. The first book is, but none of the rest of the series will be. But as I went through, what I was trying to do was use real science in a way that looked cool. What can I do with zero gravity that will make kids go, “Wow, that’s fun, I want to do that?” What can I do with spacewalks? What can I do with freeze-dried astronaut food? All of these aspects of space travel and all of these scientific principles, how can I use them in a way that looks fun, like they’re playing. That’s how I structured the entire series, was, okay, now they’re on a planet, what can I do with a planet that looks fun but is still grounded in real science? The combination of those two things, science and fun, is what drives the whole series for me.

[Mahtab] Well, I always focus on the character. Whatever the technology does has to relate to what the character wants. So my main character in this… Actually, there are two main characters, one’s an alien, or a Martian, and one of them is a human. Alex, who is one of the points of view, he hates technology. But it is the only way he’s going to be able to survive in space and look for his parents who are missing. So I adapt the technology to the story, to the character, to what he needs. Also, using it as a key point of conflict. Now, I think I was just trying to see who else did that, and Andy Weir in Martian, I mean, there is a lot of science and technology involved there, but it all relates to how Mark Watney has to survive, get to the… What is that… Shuttle that’s going to help him launch into space and then get picked up. But, I mean, when I was reading the book, I really was getting kind of bogged down with all of the details that Andy had put in there, which I didn’t get completely, but then what I did get… It’s like if you just step back, it’s like everything serves to help this character escape from where he is, or escape that difficult situation. I think the movie did that pretty well. I really enjoyed that because everything was about everything breaking down, but the character is resolving the issue. It also helps to show the character’s motivations and the will to survive. So I thought that was done pretty well. That’s why, when I write for middle grade, it’s not too many details but however the technology can help the character.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which you’re actually going to tell us about.

[Mahtab] Yes. My absolute… One of my favorites is Feed by M. T. Anderson. It was actually written in 2002, but it was way ahead of its time. It focuses on issues like corporate power, consumerism, information technology, data mining, pretty much what Google does these days. He predicted this way back in 2002. So the story revolves around this one character called Titus. The novel starts with, “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to suck.” Which is one of the most brilliant opening lines I have ever heard, which is why I’ve memorized it. But they go there and all of these… About 73% of the Americans have got a chip in their brain, which is called feed, and it basically helps these corporations to profile the candidates and basically give them experiences that would help with profiling them and helping them shop and living a certain lifestyle and giving the data back to the corporations. But at one point, when they go to the moon, the feed gets corrupted, Titus and his friends managed to get the feed working again, but one of the friends that he meets, a girl Violet, is a kind of rebel. She tries to fight the feed. The stories about their relationship and what happens in the end. It’s a… I don’t want to give out the spoilers, because you just have to read it. Whoever’s listening, you have to read it.

[Brandon] Excellent. That’s by M. T. Anderson?

[Mahtab] Anderson. Feed.

[Brandon] So, one of the things that technology… We’ve kind of been focusing on presaging the future. But I don’t think that’s the only way technology can work in science fiction and fantasy stories. I think of some of my favorite science fiction stories from the first part of the 20th century, and none of those got very much right. My favorite science fiction story of all time is Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, and that imagines a world that did not come to pass, right? But you don’t read that story and say, “Oh, he got it wrong.” You read that story as a sort of metaphor for the life he was looking at, the world as he was looking at. So we’ve already talked on the podcast a little bit about metaphor in science fiction. But let me ask you about this. Using technology as a metaphor, using technology as a MacGuffin, using technology as conflict. How do you do this in your stories?

[Dan] One of the things that fascinates me about technology is taking a look at who created it and what biases or what kind of flavor they are adding to it, whether consciously or subconsciously. So, for example, look at Facebook. Facebook has come to completely define our society in a lot of ways. But, Facebook was created by a college sophomore. It defines itself, and by extension, our society in the things that were important to a college sophomore. How many friends do you have, what do they like, what are their favorite movies? Like, those are really kind of unimportant things in terms of broader adult social interaction. But, that’s how the technology was subconsciously created, and now it’s changing the way we all interact with each other.

[Brandon] That is fascinating and a little scary to think about.

[Dan] It is a little scary. Along those same lines, if you look at… This is actually an idea that Ted Chang posited, which is that everyone who writes about artificial intelligence and the singularity is kind of exposing not only their own fears, but their own kind of dark side. If you look at the way that tech people in Silicon Valley talk about the perils of artificial intelligence, it’s because they’re imagining an artificial intelligence that will do all of the things people are afraid that giant tech companies are going to do. Right? That if a program becomes sentient, it’s going to start profiling us and controlling what we buy. Well, that’s kind of what they’re all doing anyway. So we tend to see ourselves reflected in our technology and in our fears about technology. So looking at who created this, and what were they trying to go accomplish, and what did they accidentally put into it without realizing, I think really helps draw that metaphor out.

[Mahtab] I don’t know if you all remember seeing the Black Mirror episode number one, which was Nosedive. That is entirely exactly what you said. Which is people are so concerned with social media, so you have the society where everyone has to be nice to everyone else so that they can get likes or credits, and if you go below a certain level of credits, you’re not allowed to associate with certain people, you don’t get certain privileges. There’s a girl who wanted to attend her best friend’s wedding, and she was supposed to be the bridesmaid or the maid of honor, and she couldn’t because her credits fell. She just kept trying to… So it’s called Nosedive. But this, it hit home so well, when you talk about people being so clued in… Like, you put up something on social media and that’s… You just want the likes, you want… It’s just changing the perceptions of people and how they interact. Like, if you ever go to a… If you’re ever on public transport, no one is looking at each other these days. Everyone is glued to their smart phones or whatever. It’s…

[Brandon] It’s a different world.

[Mahtab] It’s a completely different world. I don’t know if they know how to talk.


[Mahtab] That’s what scares me. I may be dating myself, but it scares me that makeups and breakups are all done on the phone.

[Howard] Another interesting implication. I’ve been watching a lot of episodes… Well, listening to while I draw a lot of episodes of Forensic Files. Which has completely destroyed my enjoyment of any of the shows like CSI or Bones or anything like that, because this is the real science, this is the real thing. They will talk about historical cases. This was the first time that a death penalty was adjudicated based on DNA evidence. This is the first time that a conviction was overturned based on DNA evidence. One of the things that came up that was fascinating, and it happened several times in the show, someone will say, “Yeah. I was trying to figure out where this guy had been, then I remembered watching this episode of Forensic Files where they determined where he had been based on bugs in the radiator. So I went and looked at his motorcycle, and looked for bugs.” The meta is pretty deep when a TV show about crime science has somebody referencing that show in finding a different criminal, but, the show’s been running for 30 years. It has influenced itself not only to the point that it is helping people open their minds to the way they solve cases, but it’s also hurting prosecutors who don’t happen to have DNA evidence. The jury is like, “Well, where’s your DNA? Everybody’s got DNA now.” No, there’s… Actually, DNA doesn’t get stuck to everything. You can’t get DNA from a fingerprint. I mean, maybe if you licked it…


[Howard] What’s fun about that is that that is… Forensic science, in general, is this intersection of all of the sciences. Material sciences, spectroscopy… You heat something up and shine lights through it and see what the spectrum is. Okay, great, that’s how we know what things are made of. Now we do spectroscopy on a piece of lint we found on you, and a piece of lint we found on the murder victim, and find out that both of them were exact same batches of carpet. Well, that means that you and the murder victim were on the same patch of carpet at some point, doesn’t it? Watching that stuff, for me, is great for homework. Because there are all of these disciplines. Forensic geology. There are forensic geologists. They just study sand in tires.


[Brandon] Speaking of homework. Dan, you have our homework.

[Dan] Hey, that’s right. Okay, so we’ve been talking about all these really cool technologies. What we would like you to do today is go out and find one. This is less of a writing thing than it is research. Go read an issue of Wired. Go… Mahtab mentioned DARPA. Go study what they’re doing. Go read a bunch of stuff, find a new technology, or a new use of a technology. Then imagine how it could go wrong. Start jotting down potential conflicts that that could create, or extremes that that could be taken to, and just really let your imagination run wild with it.

[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.