Technology in Worldbuilding

Writing science fiction can be intimidating. The technology alone presents such a huge challenge that many of us give up on our early drafts. Even with careful research, we worry our invented tech will fall flat.

Here are a few tips for creating a richer fictional world with technology in mind. This list is by no means comprehensive, but rather how I approach worldbuilding during revisions:

1. Give Your Technology Limits

Each major technology in your story should have its own history and specific rules for how it functions in the present. We need to establish clear boundaries: what can the technology do vs. what can it not do. Technology is not perfect, so what happens if there’s a glitch? How does a malfunction affect your characters and story?

It’s also a good idea to decide who benefits from the tech in your story—and who does not. If your world includes flying shuttles, perhaps only the rich can afford them. This could be because the cost of maintaining and fueling shuttles is unreasonable for certain economic classes. Maybe this is due to the fact that shuttle fuel is a limited resource; it’s expensive to import, because it’s mined off-world in small quantities.

Establishing limits may seem like making simple choices, but as you can see, the boundaries you set may be symptomatic of much greater issues affecting your world (more about these issues later).

2. Create Familiar Technology

Some of the best fictional technology is both new and familiar in some way. When readers encounter shuttles in a book, they draw upon existing knowledge of cars, airplanes, and spacecraft, and the technologies involved in operating and maintaining these vehicles. To ensure technology is accessible, some of it should be based on existing conveniences. We can update (or downgrade) it, depending on sub-genre and setting. We can combine several technologies into one and streamline it.

If your beta-readers are having trouble understanding your technology, you might want to try this trick. It’s also possible that you’re not explaining unfamiliar terms. If I call the shuttles in my story “slicers” for the way they seem to slice the air when they fly, I need to make sure I’ve explained that they’re shuttles, not a type of sword. Carefully placed descriptions can make your tech reader-accessible.

3. Determine the Relationship Between Technology and Society

A well-built world will show the effect technology has on society. Keeping with the above example, imagine the impact of shuttle technology only being available to the ultra-rich. How does the shuttle industry affect the economy? How does it affect average workers? What about the world the fuel is mined on? What are the environmental consequences of mining?

The society I outlined for the sake of this post is a capitalist one. But maybe yours is a totalitarian dystopia that hinges on a dictator hoarding technology. Maybe it’s a flawed utopia in the wilderness with minimal tech. Access to technology should reflect the political realities of your fictional world. Cultural attitudes influence the legislation of technology. Are certain developments, like gene hacking, banned in your world? Is there a black market for such technology? How do individual characters react to new tech? Are their reactions influenced by certain moral values in your society?

Technology has the power to shift borders, cure epidemics, overthrow regimes, and even destroy planets. Its impact can be massive. And it can be small. It all depends on the choices you make when developing the social and political landscape.

But hold on a minute! 

“What about how technology impacts an experience I haven’t lived?”

Erasure and stereotypes are convenient pits writers fall into. For example, it’s extremely common for abled authors to erase disabled people entirely from futuristic worlds by “curing” them with technology, or by creating a technological breakdown through which disabled people haven’t survived at all. Take care not to harm real people.

4. Exercise: Developing Technology

Many authors make the mistake of treating tech like confetti. They toss as much as possible into a story without doing the work to develop it. This often bogs down the narrative with terms and devices that don’t really do much for the plot. My advice is to focus your story on a few key discoveries.

How do you decide what to focus on? Ask yourself the following questions about your story:

o   Which technology does my plot hinge on?  
o   Which technology impacts my fictional world most?  
o   Which technology had massive historical significance?  

In Star Trek, the answer to these questions could be the warp drive. The Star Trek universe is rich with technology, but the warp drive is one of the most significant. It’s the process much of the world is built on top of. Without it, the plot would not be possible.

Once you’ve determined your major tech (narrow it down to 1-4), spend some time developing each:

 

Development Questionnaire

What can the technology do? What can it not do?  
Who has access to it, and why?  
What are the cultural attitudes toward it?  
What sociopolitical impact does it have?  
How does it move your plot/character arcs forward?  
 

Bonus Questions

Who invented it? When?  
How did its discovery change the course of history?  
What other technologies does it interface with?  

Note: This doesn’t mean you must delete all your minor technology. You can keep a lot of it, so long as you bring the major developments to the forefront of the narrative.

5. Finally: Don’t Panic About the Science! 

You do not need a background in science to invent fictional tech. It certainly doesn’t hurt, but please don’t self-reject if you don’t. Anybody can invent simply by thinking critically about existing technology, its impact, and applying this to a fictional landscape.

Science fiction often requires us to suspend belief so the improbable can be made real. Science fantasy takes that one step further to venture into the impossible. It’s perfectly okay to justify every element of your story with science fact, but it’s equally fine to include a process or object that is, by all current understanding, impossible.

Rachel SomerRachel Somer’s love for science fiction began at the young age of six when she co-wrote her first story about a furball from space. That love followed her to South Korea where she now works as a freelance writer. Her hobbies include cat herding, home hair-dye disasters, and amateur baking. She writes YA science fiction and fantasy.

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