Bob Billing, Associate Editor, SF
Issue # 3: 04/01/01
A Theory of Alternate History
And that series of inventions by which man from age to age has remade his environment is a different kind of evolution -- not biological, but Cultural evolution. I call that brilliant sequence of cultural peaks The Ascent of Man.
The Ascent of Man
are about people - but the worlds those people inhabit will bring out the
best or worst in them. And it's our job as authors to adjust our imagined
worlds so that they will be plausible to the readers, while at the same
time presenting the characters with some serious problems. I'll be talking
about the sort of SF that has space travel as a major theme - because
that's what I like - but a lot of what I have to say applies to other
genres as well.
Imagined future technology has two uses to the author of SF. Firstly it
allows speculation about how society might change in the future. If we had
robots to do all the work for us, or interstellar travel to broaden our
horizons - if we visited aliens with a completely different outlook on
life or could travel back to the past and fix the nasty bits - what would
our world be like? This can be taken further into the "idea as
hero" story, in which the driving force of the story is the
development of the idea itself, the human characters being upstaged by the
Secondly it allows us to tunnel past the reader's preconceptions. If we
write a story set on an ocean liner or
an airliner we are faced with the reader having used real ships and
airliners. And the reader will bring a great deal of emotional baggage on
board which will get in the way of what we are trying to do. But if
instead we move to a spacecraft, then we can be almost completely sure
that the reader has never travelled in one. Now we are in control,
everything the reader knows about the environment must come from what we
have said. And we can use this as a tool to get closer to the eternal
truths about the human soul.
To do this we have to make up some future technology - and we have to do
it in such a way that the reader will say, "Yes, that's how it would
have to be." In my opinion doing this depends on two things: point of
contact and consistency.
The point of contact is the place in the reader's mind where the imagined
thing sits, the handle that the reader can grab hold of. It allows the
reader to put something new into a familiar category. For example:
spaceships are a bit like aeroplanes, blasters have the function of
handguns, interstellar communicators mirror mobile phones. But at the same
time everything is sufficiently different to remind the reader that we are
a long way from home: the spaceship has an airlock rather than a boarding
door, the communicator has a lot more buttons than a cellphone - or none
at all. Consistency is slightly more subtle, but in some ways easier to
achieve. Even if the reader knows little of the laws of physics, or
screams and stands on a chair when equations are mentioned, they still
live in the real world. Readers know that horses need hay and carrots, big
engines need diesel, aircraft need kerosine and steam trains need coal. So
they aren't going to take too easily to a machine that runs on nothing at
all. Say "conservation of energy" and they'll look blank, even
though that's the right name for the physical principle behind the idea
"it's got to run on something."
It's possible to spend all your life studying dozens of subjects - and
still be caught out by this sort of thing. But the more effort an author
puts into consistency, the more believable the future technology will be.
There's no real alternative to doing some research here - even school
textbooks will help. Useful topics include:
Conservation of mass and energy.
Conservation of momentum.
Hydrostatics - the relationships between weight, depth and pressure.
The properties of common materials such as wood, glass, metals and
The forces acting in simple structures.
Most of these ideas have been around for a long time. New discoveries
have slightly modified them - but in the main they haven't changed. It's
probably quite safe to say that they will go being useful well into the
far distant future.
A lot of these concepts can be summed up as "You can't get something
for nothing." This is a vital part of any plausible imagined
technology - it must need some inputs, it must be fed with something that
your characters can run out of. When they run out they have a problem -
and when your characters have a problem you have a story.
Creating the technology is only the first part of the exercise. You now
need to give it a "look and feel." This means answering
questions such as:
How much training does it take to use one of these effectively?
How long does it take to start up?
Can you leave it turned on while you are away?
Are mistakes by the operator common?
Can an untrained person get it to work at all?
Coupled to this is the problem of making life too easy for the
characters. Let's say you issue the hero with a self-loading,
self-repairing weapon. It contains a little computer that makes sure it
can't miss, can't shoot the wrong person and won't work if the bad guys
steal it. You'd get one or two short stories out of it and that's all.
You've made life too easy for the hero; it's difficult to think of a
situation he couldn't resolve by firing a few shots in the right general
Several otherwise good timelines have died in their adolescence for this
reason. Larry Niven once said that the introduction of the unreasonably
strong materials had stopped his "Known Space" series. He
couldn't think of any problems to set his characters that they couldn't
One solution to this problem has been to make the technology monumentally
unreliable. Think how many "Star Trek" episodes contain
transporter malfunctions. This sort of thing isn't convincing,
particularly if done too often. Readers will after a while begin to ask
why they don't find a way of fixing the thing - or sending it back and
getting one that works.
Despite technological progress there are some things that don't change.
People wear clothes and jewelry, ride in vehicles with wheels, cook food
and eat it, write messages on flat surfaces, hold parties and get married.
All these things are mentioned in the Bible - they haven't altered much in
two thousand years. But there is a tendency among science fiction authors
to think that the rapid changes in technology in the last hundred and
fifty years will go on for ever. This leads to a school of writing in
which nothing invented in the twentieth century survives to the
twenty-second. Personally I don't subscribe to this - I think electrical
wiring, television cameras and power tools will still exist and have the
same functions. They may get a lot better but they won't go away.
Because of this I think it's sometimes possible to take a short cut with
future technology - what I call "borrowing in fancy dress." Take
a long hard look at a supersonic aeroplane. Make it a bit bigger, swap the
turbines for something more powerful. Assume you have a stronger, lighter
composite to make it out of. Bolt on an engine that will work in vacuum.
You've built yourself a spaceship. Put someone in it, send them
somewhere, give them a big problem to sort out when they arrive. And
you've got a story...