This is the third post in my mini-Seminar on Technology in World-building. This mini-series follow a slightly different format than the standard-form Monthly Word-building Seminars. So for this post, I’ll be covering how to match your World-building to your technology in terms of general concepts.
There are five things to consider when deciding what level of technology will reasonably support your narrative with the fewest plot-holes:
- You need to have a general idea of what is powering your technology. Is it man-power? Horse-power? Do you have steam engines or electricity? What natural resource is generating this energy? You might have food for humans or animals, coal or gas for steam engines or internal combustion engines. You could have nuclear power running a steam turbine to generate electricity. Perhaps you have wind, geothermal, solar, tidal, or river power to run an electric generator.
- You need to know what support technologies and knowledge are required for your energy-production method. Do you need metal-working? What about physics? Battery power requires knowledge of chemistry. Electric power requires lots of advanced knowledge to be widely-spread.
- What other technologies are likely to have been discovered on the path to your most modern science, and are they obsolete, moribund, or still of practical value? Most societies with war as a major component learned how to make edged weapons and armor. Sword-forging techniques are incredibly innovative and complex. When reliable fire-arms came along, however, they were soon obsolete. Windmills and watermills were original created to grind grain or pump water. But even though we have more advanced methods for that today, we were able to incorporate that knowledge into new technology, to generate electric power. With the advent of computers and electronic mail stationary production is no longer strictly necessary. Many people no longer rely on letters as a form of communication on a regular basis. And yet some of the technology and systems involved still survive in diminished capacities.
- What technology does evidence suggest are developed alongside the technology you wish to use in your story? Can or would a society evolve to ignore those technologies if they don’t work for your narrative structure? Modern communication has invalidated many of our most popular narrative structures. Yet many authors are so used to writing in those structures, they find increasingly creative and improbably ways to invalidate the new technology and thus create space for their narratives rather than figuring out how to create tension by designing new structures to incorporate modern realities.. Or they don’t have the technology exist at all.
- Relatedly, can you somehow justify your narrative or society despite the fact that the necessary combination of technologies is plausible based on your world-building or story events? How many plot-holes can your story support if you can’t quite make things fit how you’d need them to?
In its simplest usage, technology is the list of possibilities available to you as an author to move your narrative along. But it’s also a set of restrictions on what you can realistically accomplish within your narrative.
If you have cell-phones, then it’s a lot harder to plot a story where key pieces of information are kept from various characters due to narrative shenanigans. Really any sort of spycraft story is gonna be very different with long-distance communication. You can text pictures of important documents, for example, instead of having to break back out of the evil fortress. Sneaking around is a lot harder with cameras and heat-sensors. It’s relatively easy to assume a false identity in the middle ages. How are they going to fact-check you when you’re from a thousand miles away with shitty roads and a bandit problem? In the modern world, it’s a lot harder to get along as a fake person, despite what you may see in the movies. Communications technology has a huge impact on a society and its national identity, and we’ll be covering those effects in-depth in a later seminar.
Cheap, high-quality steel can lead to very advanced swords–way better than were available back in the day. But! They’ve probably been outmoded by guns by the time such steel is available. But the implications as far as national security and expansion potential given a certain level of military tech relative to neighboring lands should be pretty obvious.
And all this is ignoring the possibility of magic mimicking advanced technology in a fantasy story.
It’s also important to keep in mind that available technology is going to have a strong influence on how your society is structured. Your population density for cities increases sharply with easy transportation or aqueducts to supply water. Concrete makes for cheap, durable housing for the masses. Good building insulation increases the number of climates humans can have an advanced civilization in. Road-building and ship-building technology mean increased trade, which leads to more wealth. They also make it easier to hold together a large political region, because it’s easier for the ruler to communicate and enforce his will.
Medicine is also important. Good medical technology lets people live longer, take greater risks, and increases population. People aren’t dying all the time from plagues, and they’re living longer. This can lead to more skilled workers, give a genius more time to pursue knowledge, and increase the amount of wealth held by individuals or families.
It’s impossible in a single post or even a series of posts to cover even every major question about how technology will influence the world and any narratives that occur in it. Different environments or political situations are going to affect how important a given aspect of technology is. Some paths of development on Earth are just accidents of history and can be deviated from. But it’s still an important thing to consider. In the fourth and final post in this series (for now), I’m going to examine Jurassic World and the ways in which technology both make the story possible, but also leave some pretty gaping plot holes.