This is the scifi book I’ve been missing all year. Imagine if Starship Troopers was written by L Ron Hubbard and Christopher Nolan, then you’d have an inkling of the tone of this book. Though not the plot because it’s completely original and action packed, sans giant alien bugs. There are definitely aliens. But they aren’t generally some slimy dudes, they are much more like humans. Sometimes indistinguishable, sometimes not. Although the jargon does take some getting used to, I liked the advanced technology and politics contained in the story. The characters are faced with tough choices, and Taylor is constantly struggling to do what’s right for her people while getting over past heartache. This was an interesting mix of serious and humorous, with a great deal of suspense thrown in as the worlds are in an uproar over multiple attacks. I’m excited to see where the series goes from here!
Guest Post by Adam Quinn: Conflict and the Creation of (Fictional) Technology
As I’ve guided Flashpoint from first draft to publication, the manuscript has passed through a lot of pairs of hands—critique partners, editors, reviewers—and each has had plenty to say about it, but one of the most common reasons these people have mentioned for why they enjoyed the story was its technology. It makes sense—a story grounded in a deep, consistent technological environment has an easier time drawing readers in—yet constructing such an environment seems like a daunting task. It has taken all of humanity millennia to dream up the technology we use today, so how could a single writer come up with a similarly consistent system for a fictional universe, much less one that is thousands of years more advanced than our own civilization?
The answer lies in the definition of technology. The Oxford English Dictionary defines technology as “The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.” I’d simplify that definition to say technology is a scientific solution to a conflict. Note that the conflict in question need not be interpersonal—in writerly terms, a conflict is any situation in which a character is blocked from obtaining a goal. In fact, many technologies are the solutions to conflicts with nature, such as when Jonas Salk’s conflict with polio was resolved by the Salk vaccine, or when NASA’s conflict with gravity was resolved by the Saturn V rocket.
The idea that technology is a solution to conflict is great news for writers because conflict is our bread and butter; it’s one of the few elements that all good stories have in common. (I’m looking at you, literary hyperrealism.) However, this concept deserves an asterisk: there are many different kinds of conflict in a story, and only certain kinds can be resolved by technology without destroying the plot.
Conflicts that are a necessary consequence of the setting of the story—what I like to call inherent conflicts—can almost always be resolved by technology, and in fact are one of the best ways to generate technology for a new story; simply come up with a broad idea for a setting, and then walk a character through that world, noting where the peculiarities of the setting interfere with his/her goals.
If you haven’t come up with the plot for the story yet, that character could be a random person going through their everyday routine. Suppose my story is to be set on an airship that is perpetually traveling the world—I might invent Airship Mechanic Bob, who wakes up every day, brushes his teeth, and heads off to work on the engine. Already we’ve uncovered an inherent conflict: where does one get water with which to brush one’s teeth on an airship? If this is a sci-fi setting, maybe the ship recycles its onboard water supply, or siphons hydrogen and oxygen from the atmosphere.
Alternatively, if you have come up with the plot for the story, you can do the same exercise, but using your main characters and their actions within the story to hunt for inherent conflicts—you can even do this while you’re writing, so long as you have a strong grip on your world. Pedants will argue that this method is non-rigorous—if there is never a scene in my airship story where my protagonist brushes their teeth, I might never be forced to address that particular issue—but most stories don’t have to be that rigorous. If your characters never face a certain inherent conflict, then describing the technology that resolves that conflict is more likely to pull readers out of the story than keep them engaged.
On the other end of the spectrum from inherent conflicts are what I call plot conflicts. These are the core of the story—Harry Potter vs. Voldemort, Stormtroopers vs. Rebels, Mark Watney vs. Mars—and they can never be resolved by technology alone. Even in the highly technical book and film The Martian, Watney’s conflict with Mars is not resolved by some technology, but rather by Watney’s ingenuity and perseverance. Resolving a plot conflict with technology is almost always considered to be a deus ex machina—a contrivance.
Somewhere in between plot and inherent conflicts are what I call staging conflicts—conflicts that have to do with getting the right characters in the right places for the plot conflicts to play out. Unlike the other two types, staging conflicts are conflicts for the author, not the characters (although resolving them may involve creating new plot conflicts for the characters). The acceptability of using technology to resolve staging conflicts varies, and depends a lot on the seriousness of the conflict. If I need my sci-fi protagonist to sprint to catch a train as it leaves the platform—and not get arrested—I could create an instant iris scanner that he can glance into as he runs past and thereby purchase a ticket. However, if I need a defeated supervillain to get out of prison to confront my hero again, inventing a never-before-seen technology to facilitate that escape will just leave my readers feeling confused and cheated.
The most important thing to remember when filling out a setting’s technology, though, is that the goal is to create a coherent universe. This is why it is crucial to have a general sense of the world you want before you create technology—even if you don’t yet have a plot. A certain piece of technology might be able to perfectly resolve an inherent or staging conflict, but if it’s so powerful (or so abnormal) that its existence would realistically disrupt your world, the safest bet would be to avoid it. Star Trek Into Darkness made this mistake when it introduced death-defeating superhuman blood and starship-obsoleting interplanetary transporters, and the Internet noticed.
TL;DR, the conflicts inherent in a setting can be an excellent source of inspiration for that setting’s technologies, but only if you make sure:
- …you know whether the conflict you’re resolving is inherent, staging, or plot.
- …the conflict is not so irrelevant to the plot that it distracts readers.
- …you’re not creating a deus ex machina.
- …the new technology would not break the setting.
Thanks for reading, and good luck!
About the Author
Adam Quinn is a Chicago-based author of science fiction and space opera. When he’s not writing about the technology of the future, he’s studying engineering so that one day he can help create it.
Looking for more of Adam’s work? Check out his facebook page, or his website at adamquinnauthor.com to learn about all his current work, and subscribe to his newsletter to make sure you’re the first to know about new releases.