Writing Excuses 6.13: World Building Communications Technology

Let’s talk commo! How does the ubiquity of communication tech affect your story? How far out of your own experience do you need to step in order to build a culture whose communications are believable?

We talk about the Great Wall of China, Napoleon’s visual semaphore, the Brin P2P Plan, and cell-phones in the X-files. Our goal? To get you to think about how the people in your stories communicate with each other, and how those communications can fail whether you’re writing fantasy or science-fiction.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson, narrated by Jonathan Davis.

Errata: The Ringworld is not 93 million miles in diameter. That was the approximate radius. Also, Howard got the circumference wrong. If only we’d had instant access to some sort of database, some network of computational resources while we were recording this episode…

Writing Prompt: Start with a fax machine, make it a 3d-printer/prototyper, and run from there…

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40 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 6.13: World Building Communications Technology”

  1. One really important communication tool that historically was very important but is largely ignored in fantasy works is using pigeons to deliver mail.

  2. Pigeons were used during World War II, so much so that both sides organized falcon units to hunt down the pigeons. Of course in many fantasy settings they have flying mounts so air mail would be possible.

  3. o.O I’ve read Snow Crash at least 3 times, and never noticed that it was in present tense. That’s how well it works.

  4. An example of how far communication has come: in 2000 my hometown of Los Alamos was threatened and eventually evacuated by a forest fire. Things were handled very well by everybody involved but people were still left confused and had difficulty reaching each other after we left. One of my classmates stayed behind at the local radio station and maintained a database where people could search for each other and leave contact info. News coverage was limited to showing the same three houses burning over and over, and when the evacuation was ended many people didn’t find out for a good day or so. Things were patchy and what resources there were often needed word-of-mouth to find. Couldn’t Google “Los Alamos evacuation database” or anything.

    Jump forward to this summer, when Los Alamos was once again threatened by fire. I’m out of the state but my mother was on Facebook from the very beginning keeping her friends updated so they didn’t need to rely on rumor. The government had daily streaming townhall meetings to keep people informed. Important documents and sentimental photos had already been scanned and could be stored in the cloud so that even if the hard copies were better to save there could be something. I found it amazing the contrast with the confusion and lack of control we felt ten years ago, though that was also tempered by having been through it all before.

  5. Minor comment about the Brin peer-to-peer idea mentioned in the podcast — here at our university, the simulations of doing that have shown that it would not be very effective in actual emergency scenarios. Not enough range, the p2p nets don’t hold up for end-to-end communications, etc.

    Now, on the other hand, they are looking at a related approach, with store-and-forward technologies so that the cell phones “hold onto” messages and then “burst transmit” when another cell gets close enough AND they can piggyback on other media (such as passing cars, which also have communications capabilities). So far, this looks more effective in simulations. Delay tolerant networking, I think is the keyword.

    Just… there’s a whole lot of people doing work in this area (and have been for some time). It might be worthwhile checking with the communications people, too. I would hate for people to legislate a system that didn’t work :-)

  6. It seems like the most important thing about communication is that your characters need to take whatever system they have for granted. That way communication doesn’t become a plot point unless you want it to.

    Sorry for the nitpick: The first Fax machine patent was in 1843. Verne was 15 and unpublished at the time. There was a lot of cutting edge work happening in that area around the time he was writing his novels, including the first long distance successful fax. He was probably geeking out about new technology, rather than imagining it. He imagined quite a bit though.

  7. I’m sure this is another amazing podcast and please don’t take this as a criticism, but more of a suggestion…but the podcasts lately seem to be so…out there…a return to the basics of good writing (which is what I think a lot of people want to hear) would be refreshing. Just a thought.

  8. It’s an interesting point you make about the technology levels. There are a couple TV shows where you see police officers use cel phones all the time. The thing is, when a person collapses the first thing they scream is, “Someone call an ambulance!” when you know they have a phone on them. On the other hand, the movie “The Cottage” is a horror movie where the reason phones don’t work is handled in a marvelous way (not going to spoil it).

  9. Sorry, just one more comment… World of Warcraft players may have heard of a product called Figure Prints, which makes a 3D image of the player’s character. Figure Prints pretty much uses the faxing 3D objects technology by printing out slices of the character model, then assembles them. Here is a link to the process, though if it gets cut, I’ll understand:


  10. Great cast!!

    I thought of a few great examples of this from Genre fiction.

    1. Lord of the Rings

    Several of the important plot points from this book focus on communication. The Palantir is an instantaneous communication device which Sauron has been using to get a fix on the characters. Aragorn harnesses the strengths of this device to project a false communication to Sauron, who then makes decisions based on incorrect information.

    Also, the Watchtowers. I loved the scene from the movies where they light the towers, and you get a message to Rohan incredibly quickly, which then encourages Rohan to ride to Gondor’s aid.

    Boromir dies, and his body is dumped down the waterfall. The arrival of this body much later causes significant story problems.

    2. A Song of Ice and Fire

    One of the major themes of this book is the incorrect decisions made because characters are acting on outdated information.

  11. In Wheel of Time some people use the dream world both for direct comunication as well as for leaving messages.

    There are also pigeons often mentioned as a form of communication being used, but never actively”shown”.

    On a side note on pigeons that’s not relevant here.

    If a pigeon would fly into a cinema showing a movie it would be bored pretty quickly. The movie is shown in 24 frames a second, a pigeon can see a couple of hundred pics a second. To them it’s rather tedious slideshow (also true for other birds and animals).

    My favourite episode of black adder is when during WWI he soots the generals messenger pigeon and get’s a court martial followed by execution by firing squad. Oh well never mind

  12. Charlie Stross integrates cell phones excellently in The Fuller Memorandum.

    One word: “JesusPhone”

    PS: If the style appeals to you, do NOT read his Laundry books out of order. They’re too good to spoil.

  13. @Nathan — interesting point. Back in pre-history when I attended a corporate training course, part of the training was to first yell and get other people involved. As the presumed first responder, you were supposed to be checking the person and getting ready to administer first aid, not making phone calls. I would guess that still holds true, although it might be a fun scene for a single responder to yank out the cell, press 911, put it on speaker phone, and start taking care of the person while trying to deal with the 911 questions at the same time.

  14. I think some ancient methods of communication are fascinating, and if a modern minded person were to be stripped of modern communication, he would have a hard time coming up with them. For example, I think it was the Romans who had a message system based on two pots that had a floating pole thing with common messages posted vertically on the pole (like, we see and advancing army, or we need supplies). At a torch signal from the sender, the two sides would pull the plug on the pots at the same time, until the sender would would send an ‘end’ signal and the receiver would re-plug his pot. Voila, you got a message based on how far down the pole sunk.

    Also, as a side branch of communication, is how one would send a secret, encoded message. Of course, this method would vary depending on the time period.

  15. @Ed

    Both actually, but carrier pigeon were used in WW 2 and the Germans went so far as to create dedicated falcon units to hunt them down. British intelligence liked to use the pigeons to communicate with Resistance cells, because the enemy could not triangulate your position by trying to follow the pigeon. :)

  16. Since you mentioned David Brin — who is one of the masters at taking a technological idea and thinking aobut all the implications of it — his novel Kiln People is very relevant to what you are talking about. Though the technology involved (making disposable duplicates of yourself) isn’t strictly a communications technology, it certainly has many of the same features. He also postulates, in that book, a society that has gone off on a different fork — the current trend toward computers and the web has been supplanted by this new technology. Anyone interested in how to handle the effects of technology on society should read Brin’s books very carefully.

  17. Very interesting stuff here – and not just for world-building. How many real world scams were perpetrated just because someone got the information first, or was able to delay the information for everyone else?

    One of my favorite fictional riffs on the “giant semaphore robots” is in the Pratchett Discworld books, especially Going Postal, where Pratchett takes semaphore towers and turns them into a fantasy world internet, including coders and hackers.

  18. The TV show “The Wire” is a great example of how a story can be built around communication technology. The story is set near the beginning of the cell phone era and a major recurring theme is that the legal system cannot keep up with the pace of technological advancement. (and at first… neither can the Cops)

    On a totally unrelated note, most people know Horatio Nelson as one of the most accomplished and successful Admirals of all time. What they may not know is Nelson gained a significant edge by seriously revamping communication methods in the Royal Navy. He did not invent any new technology to do so, he simply improved upon methods that were already in place.

  19. Cool podcast, got me thinking.

    You mention a lot that you have to avoid under-teching communication. As important, imho, is not to over-tech. This actually happens a lot in contemporary movies and TV series. “Leverage” comes to mind; there they have tiny earplugs that communicate crystal clear audio for hours over a distance of miles at times. I am pretty sure this is infeasible, at least with our current level of technology. Even if you could fit a microphone, speaker, antenna and battery in there that can do that, the resulting heat would fry your inner ear, I guess.

    One thought regarding our level of connection today: it is true we get messages around the globe almost instantly. However, we do not have any means to distinguish between truth and rumor/outrage. At times, the latter seems to be more visible so you can not even trust the majority. Crowdsourcing is inherently dangerous—you can exploit that in a story.

  20. Good ‘cast. I like how you guys (and gal) offer up little details to think about that can really influence both the setting and plot of a book.

    As for communications, this is something I’ve thought about for my own fantasy writing. I think having grown up in a world that has instant comms means everyone just thinks that way and its difficult to understand and envision a world where it’s not so ubiquitous. Writing fantasy or any historical period piece means you take that element away (unless you cheat, as Brandon did) and I think you have to be careful in how you present it. This goes along with dialogue or political views that sound too modern (such as racial views or how women are treated). Writing something that’s maybe a little too true to the time period could put off many readers that aren’t used to it. You have to walk the fine line between modern sensibilities and expectations and the time period or world-building you’re doing.

    Anyway, here’s my prompt for the week:


  21. @B. Byron Whitten: The best science-fiction starts with actual technology. The writing point is just such a starting point, though arrived at from the perspective of 1985.

    @Raphael: An earpiece that small transmits to a larger device on your hip. That device broadcasts further. I doubt Leverage is taking any pains at all to depict it that way, though.

  22. There’s a cool episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender set in an earthbending city (elemental earth magic). They constructed a huge network of chutes and slides. Gravity takes goods down, earthbending takes it up, so they have an advanced delivery system that’s pretty visually awesome. And good for battle scenes.

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  24. Someone already mention The Wheel Of Time, but I wanted to point out that is has a wonderful example of society getting a sudden boost in communications technology. Not to mention that it is actually USED in the story.

    When they rediscover Travelling, every group with access to it pretty much gives up using pigeons and whatnot wherever possible. It makes them a tad impatient though.

  25. I was at a Con in Brisbane Australia recently and saw an architectural 3D printer in action. Other then the low speed (which is like early fax machines!) it was simply incredible to watch in operation.

  26. Just wanted to share something from this years GNU Hacker Meeting:

    “GNU Free Call — A healthnet of cars and cell phones”

    Building a p2p-communication network for emergencies, and using cars as communication hubs to massively boost communication range. Your phone can reach another phone a few hundreds of meters away. If you use all that power in your car-battery, you can have a much more powerful transmitter – which does not go out of power for a much logner time.

    Remember what happens, when your phone has no connection. Give it a few hours, then it’s drained. If a car is nearby and acting as a hub, your phone needs much less power, so you can use it for days while searching for survivors. And suddenly finding that broken down car with a still-working transmitter changes the situation dramatically.

    Combine this with cheap 3D printers, but big downloads, so your cell phone would waste much of its power to get the model data you need to solve a problem. Suddenly the broken-down car gives you actual supplies, because your phone can access the datacenter.

    Oh, and this is real technology: I saw the interface prototype a few weeks ago running on an android phone. And this is free software: It is not likely to go away, so it will likely be part of our future.

  27. Whoa. So if the radius is 93 million miles, that means the diameter is 186 miles. That’s insane. I’ve got to read those books lol.

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