Science fiction storytellers love futuristic computer technology, and every day it feels like the real world is becoming more like science fiction. Unfortunately, information technology doesn’t always make it easy for us to tell stories. Let’s look at some challenges storytellers face when depicting computers, the blunders that result, and what we can do to avoid them.
1. Easily Copied MacGuffins
Storytellers love MacGuffins. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, a MacGuffin is any physical item that’s critical to the plot. Traditionally, it’s a weapon, a key, or a powerful magic item. During the story, the hero, villain, or both will try to get their hands on the MacGuffin, frequently fighting over it. MacGuffins are incredibly convenient for storytellers because they give characters something to do other than kill each other. On top of that, showing the MacGuffin go back and forth between Team Good and Team Evil is an easy way of raising tension and signaling which side has the upper hand.
The tough part is explaining why one item is so dang important. In a fantasy setting, you can just give it a magic power, but in contemporary or scifi settings, that’s a little more difficult. What’s more, story logistics are simpler if the MacGuffin is small enough to be carried or thrown. Because of this, many storytellers have been tempted into making their MacGuffin some data on a disk or flash drive. It’s easy to explain why such data could mean success or failure for either side, but it also creates a bigger problem.
Information can be replicated in a matter of minutes, and any lucid person would think of that. Most people back up everything on their computers. Yet stories keep pretending there’s only one copy of MacGuffin data. Few things are more ridiculous than a villain demanding the return of a flash drive that holds proof of their evil deeds. Sure, the hero can return the drive, but the villain has no way of ensuring there aren’t a dozen more copies that could send them to jail.
How to Fix It
If your plot depends on an un-copiable info MacGuffin, you have two options. First, the MacGuffin can hold a lot of data. An enormous, mind-bending amount of data. Assuming the story happens on an urgent timeline, which it probably should anyway, no one will have time to make a copy. You may need to justify why this critical information takes up so much space – very few things do. Rogue One used this route for the Death Star plans, but some viewers weren’t convinced the plans would be that big.*
The second route is to use incompatible technology, so transferring the data to a normal phone or computer is impossible without engineering new methods. For this, you’ll need some alien tech, or at least some experimental, top-secret stuff. Keep in mind that if the alien device shows a message, someone can just record that with their phone. Fifty hours of a playable message could work, or it could simply be unreadable without decryption.
Instead of avoiding copies, you could also change the plot so copying is a problem for Team Good. Maybe the heroes have to keep the villain from getting their hands on the information. But since data is also easy to delete, Team Good’s incentive to retain the information has to be as compelling as the potential catastrophe if Team Evil gets it. Discovery season two failed at that, so the writers put in some far-fetched scenes where the alien data protects itself from deletion by hacking into the ship’s systems. The entire crew of Discovery forgot they could just pull out some hard drives and smash them.
2. Familiar Alien Systems
Weird tech is a staple of science fiction in the same way magic is a staple of fantasy. And while our characters occasionally make their own fantastical contraptions, putting them into contact with strange stuff they’ve never seen before is part of the fun. Since that stuff’s going to be central to the story, our protagonist will need a way to manipulate it and save the day. Whether escaping from an alien spaceship, rewiring tyrannosaurus robots, or firing a big laser gun, characters frequently have to operate or alter weird tech to move the plot forward.
Therein lies the problem. Humans can barely open a file in an unfamiliar operating system. We wouldn’t be able to deal with a control panel in a different language, much less fly an alien spaceship without practice. Even with directions, operating unfamiliar technology is challenging. If I told you to click the “start” button on a software screen you’d never seen before, it could take you ten seconds just to find the button on the screen, much less execute a series of commands to disable the guns just in time.
Yet somehow in every science fiction story, Team Good can instantly control alien devices without significant errors. UFOs always seem to have a convenient joystick that can be operated by a bipedal animal with two hands. Every control panel has a psychic drive that beams training on how to use it into the brain of the nearest protagonist.
How to Fix It
This one’s a little tricky, but there are some options. First, in many space opera settings, human and aliens could actually use the same or nearly the same gadget. Any galactic economy is going to have huge enterprises that sell vessels or devices to multiple species. To make manufacturing more efficient, they might be designed so they can be operated by species with either hands or trunks. For instance, Boeing may be located in the United States, but it sells planes to countries around the world. So an American pilot in a foreign country might run into the same plane they usually fly, even if the labels on the buttons are in another language.
Similarly, you could make one of your characters have previous experience working for your alien species, giving them a little experience operating alien equipment.
If your plot requires zero contact between humans and aliens prior to the story, but your humans still have to fly an alien ship or operate another strange device, give them an alien voice translation box. If the aliens speak to people, they must have that. Then make the alien equipment respond to voice commands. It’s not perfect, but it’s something.
Last, make the learning curve more realistic when you can. If you can tweak your plot to give characters time to train or study, do it. Then, remember that problems and errors only make a story better. Let the protagonist struggle with unfamiliar tech for a while before they get it right. The clock might be ticking as they produce error after error.
3. High-Action Hacking
Popular culture often views hacking as a glamorous pursuit, much like a jewel thief who scales the outside of a tall building and carefully cuts a clean hole in the glass to get in. Since we’re already keen on depicting advanced computers systems in a huge range of contemporary and futuristic settings, bringing in hackers to duke it out in cyberspace seems like a natural way to create interesting conflicts.
The problem is that hacking isn’t actually exciting. Sure, to a computer admin it’s exciting, but everyone else just watches the admin click around on their monitor. Describing a hacking conflict in any depth gets super technical very quickly. Plus, hacking doesn’t usually happen as a struggle between an admin and a hacker in real time. If it’s not crucial for the system to stay online, the admin might dramatically pull the plug to keep the remote hacker from doing anything, but then it’s over. As long as you have good backups, malicious software is easy to eradicate. The trick is preventing it, and then discovering it after that fails.
However, many popular stories aren’t ready to give up on dramatic high-action hacking. So they make up a bunch of ridiculous depictions that have no basis in technical reality, hoping a nontechnical audience will suspend disbelief. The 1995 movie Hackers has a Pac-Man running across the screen, eating columns of random characters. The show Castle throws a bunch of kitten videos on the monitor. The book Omnitopia Dawn, about an MMORPG, has a virtual fantasy battle where the hackers are fighting their way to a cyber tree that would give them root access to the server, because puns.
How to Fix It
Hacking can be used for conflicts, but it doesn’t work well as the main action for a climactic scene. If you’re a developer and you have a whole novel to explain technical concepts to a reader, it might be possible, but generally hacking works best as a warm-up or an extra complication at a critical time. The one popular story to show hacking accurately is the 1983 WarGames. In that movie, hacking is used to get the teenage protagonist interacting with a dangerous military AI, but not to prevent nuclear destruction at the movie’s climax.
Instead of a battle, you can think of hacking as the opening of a spy movie. The hacker is a spy who is trying to infiltrate the defenses of a heavily guarded building. Once they sneak inside the building, they can eavesdrop, commit sabotage, or even use it as a base of operations for further mischief. That is, until they’re caught. Then it’s over – there’s no fight scene between them and the guards, they just get kicked out.* If they’re really lucky, they might be able to sneak in again later. The building will probably have better security then, but you never know.
Unless this is your area of expertise, avoid focusing on the technical action in favor of highlighting the effects of hacking: information is being leaked and the systems aren’t working quite right. If outside parties discover the hack first, the hacked system might also be blacklisted. Other computers and networks will block it. In a cyberpunk setting, that could be significant.
4. Fatal Cyber Deaths
Ever since computers became widespread, people have been writing stories about virtual reality. There are few things more interesting than a world where anything you want can appear but nothing is as real as it seems. It’s the perfect place to theorize how technology affects the human psyche or whether technology has its own psyche. You can give your virtual reality the semblance of a medieval fantasy, a utopia, or a western, and still have characters from a relatable, contemporary-like setting.
But any type of virtual reality comes with a big problem: no stakes. Since the world isn’t real, it’s difficult to make anything that happens in cyberspace matter. Without that, any story set in virtual reality will get boring as soon as the novelty of the setting wears off. The book Ready Player One sags in the first half for this reason. The protagonist has a lot to gain by winning the virtual treasure hunt, but nothing to lose.
Cue the slew of stories with ridiculous explanations about how if characters die in the game, they’ll also die in the flesh somehow. The Matrix has a vague line stating that virtual death kills a person’s mind for reasons. Sword Art Online has super-villain-designed headsets that murder people if their avatars die. No one in the headset factory thought these murder machines should be reported to the authorities or the press?
How to Fix It
The best route is to make virtual events inherently matter, rather than inventing elaborate explanations for how the virtual world destroys human flesh. If cyberspace is advanced enough to make it a fun place to set your story, a lot of socially and culturally important things will happen there. You can have high-stakes negotiations or secret rebellion meetings in virtual reality. In those contexts, a nefarious person using a stolen avatar could make a huge difference.
Money can also change hands depending on what happens in cyberspace, and it’s pretty easy to link money to stakes. Maybe your protagonist has joined the virtual tournament because they have only ten hours to come up with twenty thousand credits, or the mob boss will kill them and their family. Your anti-hero might be working as a cyber mule to earn money for a lifesaving operation.
Last, remember that virtual reality could act as an interface for another computer system. Virtual actions might disable the power grid, commandeer military drones, or set off nuclear warheads. You’ll need a reason why someone put those controls in cyberspace, but that’s not too hard. And when Team Good and Team Evil are fighting over the controls to a nuclear missile, a stab wound that only logs someone off is a big deal.
5. Spontaneous Data Generation
Once our settings get far enough into the future, we often take miracle work by computers for granted. Today, machine learning is showing us that computers can perform many tasks better than humans, so it seems natural that in the future, computers will be able to do anything. Perhaps we’ll use them to create a Monet-style painting of our backyards, come up with hot new fashion trends, or even predict how an organism will evolve.
However, there are theoretical limits to what a thinking machine can do, no matter how advanced it is. To figure something out, a computer needs the right information, and even a supersmart computer isn’t all-knowing. Sometimes, the right information doesn’t exist at the current time. If a building is burned into a pile of fine ash, there’s probably no way to reconstruct the exact building even if the computer scanned every molecule that was left.
Yet popular stories forget this basic limitation whenever it’s inconvenient, resulting in some really silly tropes. My favorite is the “enhance” command protagonists frequently use to make parts of a low-quality image readable. Is the suspect’s face a big blur? Just say “enhance” to reveal their identity! Look, if something isn’t distinguishable in an image, it’s because the image has no data for that. I guess the computer could invent a face, but what good would that do?
And as Mythcreants has mentioned before, a computer can’t decipher a completely alien language with only audio of the alien speaking. Repeated context is needed to even guess what unknown words mean.
How to Fix It
In most cases, spontaneous data generation is easy to avoid; storytellers are just being lazy. Tropes like “enhance” are used to make the contents of an image into a slower, more dramatic reveal, one that requires sleuthing by the protagonists. But come on, people, saying “enhance” doesn’t take much skill, and running some technobabble enhancement algorithm isn’t satisfying.
Often, the best replacement is to use an observation to uncover more data. “The suspect has an ice cream cone, he must have just visited the ice cream shop on the corner. There’s a red light camera near there.” They can also use other creative means to gather more information. “That’s the only image we have, but I remember maintenance was running an infrared scan at the time, maybe it can tell us more.” Once the protagonists have multiple sources of data, they can ask the computer to create a composite image or another extrapolation using all of those sources. Computers will be great at that.
Uncertainty created by lack of data can also be used to great effect. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Identity Crisis, Geordi sees an anomalous humanoid shadow in the video he’s investigating and tells the computer to recreate the shadow’s source in the holodeck. The computer reports it has insufficient data, so Geordi tells it to assume the shadow was cast by something about his size. Because the computer still doesn’t know much, it creates a very vague and spooky shape. If the computer somehow knew what the alien looked like, the scene would have been less effective.
In the case of an unknown alien language, the problem is that humans have no data source, but the plot can’t move forward without communication. If you need to keep your aliens mysterious, consider letting your humans transmit lots of language information so the aliens can bridge the gap. You can also provide some data – maybe the unknown language is similar to another language the computer has encountered. This similarity might be an interesting clue about the unknown aliens. “Sir, they are using the same language family as the space worms that destroyed a colony two years ago.”
Assume your audience has basic knowledge of the topics your story covers, and do your best to be accurate. However, if your story really can’t be told without a break in believability, make your explanation simple and brief, be consistent, and don’t call attention to the problem.
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