Writing Technology Fiction

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The hardest part of this picture was selecting the color of the floppy. I still have about 100 of those things.

There are two kinds of technology books: ones that take place in the present day, and those that take place in the distant future. Both present a unique set of challenges to the author. Anybody who’s watched a technology film from the 80’s – 90’s that involved long disk write times to floppies or command lines knows what I’m talking about. Those movies seem so adorable now.

Future technology isn’t much easier. Sure, you can swing for the fences with things like cloning, teleportation, robots, etc. But you never know when the real world is going to catch up to you. And if you go for really over-the-top tech, well then you’re basically playing with magic.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned from writing a technological mysteries:

Characters carry stories, not keyboards: First and foremost, your readers must care about your characters, no matter what they are doing. Write characters who end up in a different place than where they started, who possess flaws and have goals and you’ll keep people coming back even if the tech eventually looks out of date.

Not everyone has a smart phone: I worked at the library my senior year in high school (2002-2003). That was the year we were just beginning to phase out VHS tapes from the collection. DVD players weren’t much more expensive than they are now, but not everyone has the money for extraneous entertainment. People still use the library for the free internet and computers, even if they have an active social networking life. Just because something new and shiny has come out doesn’t mean everyone will have it.

Software can do anything, except it really can’t: I’ve been binging old NCIS episodes on Netflix. It’s kinda cute how McGee breaks through complex encryption in a few seconds, something that would normally take a supercomputer a couple of years, or even centuries. Most hacks of major corporations involve human, not technology, failures. Skipping some realism allows your plot to move forward, but you often can get a lot more out of setting a few rules. One of my editor Brian’s best comments was asking me what video game avatars could and could not do. Avatars at the end of the day are puppets operated by someone at a keyboard, meaning that in emotional moments we’re not getting the same facial cues as if we were talking in person. That can set up some real moments of disconnect that drive the narrative in new directions if you follow the rules.

No techno-babble: A lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation solutions to problems can be summarized this way. Really complicated, possibly nonsense, technical explanation from Data or Geordi, followed by simple analogy the audience can follow from Picard or Riker. Sometimes Troi, who apparently doesn’t know the difference between quantum strings and filaments. Our relationship with technology raises a lot of interesting questions that can be addressed in fiction and non-fiction alike. It shouldn’t just be intelligent sounding filler in-between moments of plot. You don’t use big words you don’t know do you? Then why would you talk about a Hisenphram Gigaplexer Automonatron? Not a real thing, unless making up technology words counts as a patent. Then it’s mine.

Feel free to make a few jokes that only 10 (Base 2) people will understand, but keep it under control, okay?: I’m an engineer and I like engineering jokes. My current favorite is PEBKAC = “Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair”. That’s funny to some of you, and inside jokes can engage your core audience. But too much and your average reader will just feel lost. And even with smart phones and ubiquitous internet, nobody is going to take the time to look up all your obscure jokes. They’ll probably just put the book down, or ask for a glossary. This is a rule that can be a little hard to follow.

What’s your favorite technology book or movie?


Filed under Trube On Tech

6 responses to “Writing Technology Fiction

  1. “Okay, Morta. The Enterprise computer system is controlled by three primary main processor cores, cross-linked with redundant melacortz-ramistat 14-kiloquad interface modules. The core element is based on an FTL nanoprocessor with 25 bilateral kelilactirals, with twenty of those being slaved into the primary Heisenfram terminals. Now, you do know what a bilateral kelilactiral is?”
    “Of course I do, human. I am not stupid!”
    “No. Of course not.”

  2. richsrbc


    peace, rich


  3. Great points, especially the first one about characters. I wrote a somewhat techno-thriller novella, and I tried to counterbalance the techno-babble with strong character relationships.

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