We write a lot about magic here at Mythcreants, but technology is the other half of the speculative fiction coin, and it has just as many pitfalls. In fact, technology can actually be more difficult to portray than magic, because technology is based on things that actually exist. No one knows how a magic missile works, but people use technology every day, and they don’t have to be experts to notice when something is wrong.
Even though misrepresenting technology can alienate a large portion of the audience, such mistakes always crop up. We’ll look at seven of the most common, any of which can throw someone out of the story. These are big-picture problems, not fine details that only an expert would notice. By learning to recognize them, you’ll have an easier time keeping them out of your own stories.
1. The Tech Is Underused
The first mistake is misunderstanding how technology spreads and why. At the most basic level, people adopt new technology because it’s useful to them. Sometimes that usefulness comes in the form of entertainment, and sometimes it’s bent toward more practical purposes. Either way, the demand for new technology is strong.
Which is why it’s always strange to see people not making use of technology when it’s right in front of them. You’ve probably seen this in the form of a single video game character who uses a gun, while everyone else uses swords. Does only that character get a powerful ranged weapon? But this mistake can also manifest as a group of people refusing to use technology that’s readily available and would be a big help to them.
Such is the case of the Green Bones from the novel Jade City. If you’re not familiar with it, Green Bones are magical martial artists, so called because they draw their power from enchanted jade. They fight with fists, knives, swords, and blasts of chi. Notably, they do not fight with guns, even though their island has 1960s-level tech and machine guns are readily available. No explanation for this is ever given. As deadly as Green Bones are, they’d be even deadlier with firearms, since even a magical martial artist is still slower than a bullet.
The book provides some vague implications that Green Bones look down on guns, but that’s not enough. Green Bones are ruthless warriors, constantly at war with each other for territory. They’ll take any advantage, so the idea that none of them would consider the benefits of a powerful ranged weapon is absurd.
Underused technology usually arises when a storyteller wants the aesthetic of certain technology but can’t portray the full implications without damaging the story. In the case of Jade City, the author really liked the 1960s tech level, but the story still needed to be focused on melee martial arts fights.
One solution is to put in an explanation for why the technology isn’t more widely used. The Dresden Files takes this approach by saying that magic degrades advanced tech, which is why wizards don’t have smartphones or fighter jets. Jade City could have done something similar, but beware: adding a complex explanation means a greater burden for the audience as they try to learn the rules of the world.
When possible, a better way to address the problem is to create a setting where the rare technology explains itself. For example, if most of the setting is poor and rural, no one will question why the rich villain has more advanced weaponry than anyone else. You can see this in the Firefly episode Heart of Gold, where the evil landowner has a laser pistol while everyone else uses a normal gun. The episode never pauses to explain this because it doesn’t have to. Viewers understand just by looking at the differences in wealth.
2. The Tech Is Unnecessary
Here in the real world, we’re used to the idea of useless technology. We see it advertised on late-night commercials all the time, from proprietary juice pouches to vacuum shoes. But this technology rarely catches on, because people aren’t interested in spending money on something that isn’t useful. On the rare occasion where useless tech does proliferate, there’s always a clear reason, like when naval powers kept building bigger battleships in the 20s and 30s. Aircraft were quickly outmoding the old dreadnoughts, but no one had the data to prove it yet because testing military hardware was expensive.
In fiction, it seems people are far less discerning with their technology, or at least that’s the impression we get from all the unnecessary gadgets floating around. The most obvious example of this mistake has to be planet-destroying superweapons like the Death Star. While Star Wars is most famous for its oversized battle stations, plenty of other franchises have them, from Star Trek to Babylon 5.
On the surface, these weapons seem really impressive. They can destroy planets after all. But upon closer inspection, one must ask the question: why do you need to destroy a planet? Unless you’re constructing a hyperspace bypass, surely there are cheaper alternatives? Most of the time, these superweapons are used against defenseless cities or a single Rebel base. Those could be taken out with a little orbital bombardment. Even in the rare situation where you absolutely have to kill every living thing on the planet’s surface, cracking the crust open or burning off the atmosphere would take a lot less energy than demolishing six sextillion tons of rock and iron.*
Compounding the problem, these superweapons are almost always huge undertakings to build. For the cost of a single Death Star, the Empire could have had a fleet of Star Destroyers to instill fear in and hunt the Rebellion. Over on Star Trek, the Xindi spend most of a season constructing their superweapon to destroy Earth when they could have easily wiped out humanity with the ships they already had.
The storyteller desire for superweapons and other flashy tech is understandable, as they have many advantages. For one thing, they add novelty. Audiences are used to spaceships and laser guns by now, so it takes more to wow them. A new gadget can also demonstrate that something out of the ordinary is happening, which is crucial for building tension. Characters going about their normal day just aren’t that interesting, even when their normal day is in space. Lastly, superweapons provide an easy endpoint for the plot: destroy the superweapon.
But what if I told you that it’s possible to have flashy tech and maintain believability at the same time? The key is figuring out what the tech does that couldn’t be done before. First, decide what the technology is supposed to do. In the case of superweapons, that’s obvious: destroy the enemy. Next, consider what options are already available for accomplishing that task and what their shortcomings are. The new technology should mitigate at least one of those shortcomings. For a real-life example, the American military could destroy cities well before the atomic bomb was invented; it just took a massive commitment of resources. Nuclear weapons made mass destruction easy.
Your superweapon could do something similar. Perhaps planets in your setting are protected by powerful shields, so one faction creates a weapon that can punch through the shields like paper. Or maybe your superweapon can launch attacks from far away, never putting itself in danger. Starkiller Base from The Force Awakens does this well, launching its attacks through hyperspace* to make retaliation difficult. Of course it’s not clear how the First Order gathered the resources to construct a planet-sized base, but that’s a different problem.
3. The Tech Is Awkward
Engineers might not want to admit it, but usability is just as important as functionality when it comes to technology. Sure, a rocket that can carry 20 tons of people and cargo into orbit is impressive, but it’s not very useful if the only way to ride it is taping yourself and your luggage to the outside. That’s why tech companies have huge departments just for testing how easy their tech is to use. They don’t always succeed,* but the importance is clear.
Anyone with a smartphone understands the importance of usability, even if they can’t put it into words. That’s why it’s so jarring when speculative fiction tech is seemingly designed without people in mind. The Chitauri flyers from The Avengers are easily my favorite example of this. Their capabilities are really impressive. They’re fast, durable, highly maneuverable, and they can transition from space to atmospheric flight without difficulty. They’re also open topped, which proves they’ve never been user tested.
Open-topped military vehicles do exist, but they’re almost always used for scouting or other specialized roles.* The Chitauri flyers seem to be front-line fighting vehicles, or at least that’s how they’re being used. In that context, lacking a roof is absurd. It means the pilot is exposed not only to enemy fire but also to shrapnel and other debris, all of which is really common in the close confines of city fighting. Plus, the pilot could just fall off, an especially high risk with all the violent maneuvers these flyers perform. Let’s not forget that these vehicles are also designed for space combat, so the pilot had better hope there’s nothing wrong with their suit! This is bad enough in the single-seat hoverbike versions, but some of these flyers are modified with a platform for carrying passengers, who are even more vulnerable than the pilot. It doesn’t look like they even have seatbelts!
It’s not surprising to see such usability issues crop up in stories since even Disney’s budget isn’t likely to pay for experts needed to test the usability of fictional devices. Individual authors have far fewer resources at their disposal, so what should they do? Are we doomed to stories full of awkward technology?
Fortunately, we are not. The first thing storytellers can do is compare their technology to its equivalent in real life and make changes accordingly. For example, it’s reasonable for the speeder bikes of Star Wars to be open topped, because they’re based off scouting motorcycles used by real militaries.* Similarly, the Empire’s AT-AT walkers could do to learn a few lessons from actual armored fighting vehicles, like how you shouldn’t make a military craft so high off the ground if you don’t have to: it makes you a target for miles around.
If you’re working with technology that has no real-world parallel, this task is more difficult. The best option there is to imagine using the technology yourself. Think about how you would control the technology and what risks it would expose you to. If you need to be in two places at once to work the controls, that’s a reason to rethink the design. Unless, of course, your story is about a single person flying a ship that was designed for two pilots. Beta readers can be really helpful here since they’ll look at your technology more like a user and less like a designer.
4. The Tech Is Inferior
Do you like texting on a smartphone? Well then have I got a deal for you! How about we trade in that boring old technological marvel for a new invention I call a “telegraph.” You’ll still be able to text, except now you have to type out the letters in Morse code. Oh, and you can’t carry the telegraph with you. In fact, only a single building in town has one. But at least you won’t have to charge it!
If that scenario sounds ridiculous to you, then you can see the problem in spec fic stories where new technology is clearly inferior to whatever it’s meant to replace. This trope is common across storytelling, but one of the most startling examples is from the original Star Trek episode Court Martial. In this episode, we meet a lawyer who insists on printed books over a computer because it turns out that computers can only offer synthesis and summaries of the law, not the actual written material. With such a glaring weakness, it makes perfect sense why someone would reject computers.
What doesn’t make sense is why anyone would use computers in the first place, especially for legal matters. The only reason given is that computers take up less space, but that’s absurd. You don’t need to be a lawyer to know how important the actual text of a statute or opinion can be, to the point that many cases turn on seemingly minor issues of grammar. No legal professional would ever give up that kind of knowledge, no matter how much shelf space it would save.
At first glance, this looks like an issue of people in the 60s not accounting for advances in computer technology. After all, nowadays it’s childsplay to read entire books on your laptop or tablet. But this isn’t actually an issue of failing to predict the future, because Star Trek’s writers had all the information they needed. They should have known that no one would exchange their books for a summary of those books, because that technology already existed at the time. You don’t need a computer to synthesize a bunch of legal text: you just need a human writing overviews of the material. Those books exist, and by the logic of this episode, they should be a substitute for entire legal libraries.
So why is this episode based on such an absurd premise? Because the point is to make the old-fashioned lawyer look good, and to do that the writers had to make some rather silly choices about technology. The first step in avoiding this problem is to leave such technophobic attitudes behind. Technology is not inherently bad, and if you want to do a story about the dangers of too much tech, it needs to be based on facts. For a more immediate example, right now there’s a moral panic that smartphones are killing social skills, but it’s not based on anything. A story with that premise will seem silly to a lot of readers today, and it will only get sillier as the panic fades. On the other hand, fossil-fuel tech is a very real threat, and many authors have written excellent stories on the subject.
Alternatively, you could look at real-world factors that elevate inferior technology over its superior competitors. In a market economy, this factor is usually cost, though sometimes superior marketing can save an inferior product. Even then, the differences in capabilities will be limited. VHS won over LaserDisc and Betamax because it was cheaper, but the outcome would have been very different if VHS didn’t have color.
If you’re not actively trying to make a piece of tech inferior to its counterparts, the best way to avoid the problem is to do the same testing process from the previous heading. Imagine yourself actually using the technology. What does it let you do that you couldn’t do before? Is it worth the cost? Ask your beta readers the same question, and see what they say.
5. The Tech Is Incongruous
Most people aren’t experts in historical tech levels, but they still have a general idea of what a given era looked like. We all know how silly it would be for a WWII soldier to have an iPhone or a feudal samurai to fly a Sopwith Camel. These expectations carry over into fantasy settings that are only based on historical settings, so you would expect storytellers to pay attention. Often they don’t, though, and the results are highly amusing.
At first glance, the setting in Six of Crows seems to be based off the early to mid-1800s. Ships are sail powered, ground transportation is all animal based, and light is provided by gas or oil. Firearms are a little advanced for that time period, but not unbelievably so. So imagine my surprise when two-thirds of the way into the book, the main characters reach the enemy’s stronghold and find it guarded by tanks. These tanks are at least as advanced as those of WWII, and the characters don’t think of them as unusual in the slightest. At first, I assumed the enemy nation was more advanced than the characters’ home country, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
The number of advancements needed to make a tank is staggering. Most notably, you need an engine to power it, and Six of Crows seems completely devoid of engines. There aren’t even any trains in this setting as far as I can tell. Once you have engines, they need to be powerful enough to move an armored hull, and they need to be light enough not to weigh the tank down. That requires a lot of refinement, which is why the first gasoline-powered cars appeared in the late 1800s but the first tank wasn’t seen until 1916. Tanks like those in Six of Crows weren’t built until the late 1920s. This isn’t even getting into the requisite advances in treads, drive trains, and the nearly infinite number of other components that make up a tank.
With no other context, Six of Crows leaves us with only one conclusion: someone invented the internal combustion engine, developed it in secret until it was powerful enough to drive a tank, and never used it for anything else. This research would have taken decades and required a prophetic knowledge of other future technologies. That’s not how technological development works, and it damages believability in the setting.
Six of Crows is hardly the only story to commit this offense, and like so many others, the author probably thought it would be cool for the bad guys to have tanks, not considering the implications. To avoid this problem in your own work, the easiest method is to stay within the technological limitations of whatever time period your setting is based on. You don’t have to be perfect, but technology more than a decade or so away will raise eyebrows. Anything outside those limitations should have a clear explanation in the story and be related to the plot. If you want your 17th-century Spanish farmers to have handheld communication devices, then your story needs to be about the strange vessel that crashed near Madrid in 1621, carrying wonderous devices within it.
Alternatively, you can use a subgenre where incongruous technology is the norm. Steampunk is the most prominent, and readers will happily accept Victorian characters flying steam-powered biplanes as a conceit of the setting. If you’re really dedicated to worldbuilding, you can design a setting from scratch where the technology is wildly out of step from any real-life period. Just be sure you know what you’re signing up for because the audience will expect an explanation.
6. The Tech Is Missing
Picture a story set in the present day, or a world very similar to it. Characters drive cars, use smartphones, and take transatlantic flights on jetliners. The only thing that’s different is that paper doesn’t exist. This is never commented on; there just isn’t any paper. When people want to write something down, they either use a computer or carve their words into a clay tablet. That would be really weird, right? That’s what it feels like when a story is missing important technology.
While I’ve never seen paper missing specifically, plenty of stories leave out technology that’s just as important. One such story is the triple-Hugo-winning Broken Earth series. The setting is less technologically advanced than our own, but a far cry from most fantasy. Characters have access to electricity, antibiotics, and even brain surgery. The one thing they’re missing is metallic cutting implements. That’s right: there are no metal knives, swords, or spears in this setting. Instead, every blade we see is made of knapped stone.
This is bizarre, to say the least. While stone tools can be perfectly serviceable, there’s no question that metal is superior in almost every respect. Metal lasts longer, is easier to shape, stands up to punishment better, and is just a stronger material. The only advantage stone tools have is that they’re easier to replace in certain circumstances. You don’t have to mine or heat anything in order to make them; you just need to pick up a few rocks off the ground. The Broken Earth’s setting is plagued by natural disasters, so I think that’s the justification the author intended, but it just isn’t enough.
For one thing, we know the setting has metalworking because we see metal used for other things, just not weapons. That’s the opposite of how things should be. This is a setting where people are constantly locked in a vicious struggle for survival, where violent raids and even cannibalism are common. Weapons technology would be prioritized in such a world because it would make taking and protecting food easier. Even if metal is hard to get in the aftermath of a disaster, weapons made from recycled scrap would still be superior to their stone counterparts.
The Broken Earth is another story that puts short-term novelty above setting integrity. At first, it’s cool and different that characters in this world use stone weapons, especially with the author’s skill at describing different types of rock. But after a while, the novelty wears off, and you’re left with characters using obviously subpar technology. Worse, this works directly against one of the story’s major themes: that people will do whatever they have to for survival. Apparently, they’ll do anything except use more effective weapons than their opponent. That would be rude.
To avoid this problem, novelty needs to flow naturally from the setting. One option is to simply use a lower tech level. So many fantasy stories are based on Medieval Europe that a Neolithic or Bronze Age setting is a breath of fresh air all on its own. If you want the contrast of a higher tech level where a specific technology is missing, then the setting needs to provide a justification, preferably in a way that doesn’t take pages of explanation. For something like Broken Earth, maybe metal ores are incredibly rare in this world, saved for only the most wealthy communities. That would make it harder to explain the presence of electricity and brain surgery, but it’s doable. Alternatively, there could be a type of stone with special properties that makes it preferable to metal.
7. The Tech Is Mismatched
History is full of conflicts in which one side triumphed despite being at a technological disadvantage. But this underdog spirit has limits. We all know that a machine gun is a better weapon than a crossbow, and it would take some extreme circumstances to justify an army of machine gunners losing to an army of crossbowmen.
Storytellers often get confused on this last point, which is how we get shows like Stargate SG1. If you haven’t seen it, this show focuses on modern-ish* American military personnel journeying to strange new worlds through an alien wormhole machine called a stargate. The main bad guys are a group of interstellar warlords called the Goa’uld. When the Goa’uld first clash with human soldiers, it goes just the way you’d expect. Human firearms are almost useless against Goa’uld armor, and the Goa’uld’s powerful weapons make for a short battle. Everyone is suitably impressed by the aliens’ technology.
But after just a few episodes, this advantage completely disappears, and the humans win over and over again despite their supposedly inferior weaponry. No explanation for this shift is ever offered. The Goa’uld are constantly at war, so it’s not like their soldiers are inexperienced, and most of the fights happen on the Goa’uld’s home turf. Eventually, the show just embraces this disparity, claiming that human weaponry is actually superior because the Goa’uld focus on intimidation rather than efficiency.
That’s pretty weak, even by lampshade standards. A weapon’s intimidation value is only useful once. After that, the enemy knows not to fear it. Unless it’s really good at killing things, of course. That’s actually intimidating. What’s more, Goa’uld technology is centuries ahead of Earth’s. Their weapons should be intimidating and effective. The obvious solution would have been for the human characters to acquire alien tech, but this never happens.* Maybe the showrunners really wanted to show off all the cool gear they got from the Air Force – I don’t know.
What I do know is that such a blatant technology mismatch not only fails to make sense but also destroys the Goa’uld’s credibility as villains. Either they can’t defeat the humans even with vastly superior technology, or they’re incredibly bad at making weapons and armor.
The key to avoiding this mistake in your own work is twofold. First, understand the limits of your technology, and design the story accordingly. Historically, technologically disadvantaged forces have exploited a number of factors to defeat their enemy, the most common being terrain and surprise. If your low-tech heroes set up an ambush, they can win before the enemy’s big guns come into play. Alternatively, the heroes might lure the enemy onto terrain where their technology is useless, the way Inca soldiers forced the Spanish to fight on mountainous ground where cavalry couldn’t operate. Just be aware this method will only take you so far. Surprise and terrain won’t matter if one side has a battleship and the other side has a big rock.
Second, remember that technology proliferates. If one side sees that their enemy has better tech, they will try to get their hands on that tech. This has happened in just about every conflict throughout history because real combatants aren’t worried about their props budget. If your story starts with the villains at a crushing advantage from their awesome guns, that’s great! Now you have an opportunity for the heroes to turn things around by acquiring that firepower for themselves.
It’s easy to get complacent about technology because we live with it every day. Shows like Star Trek and Doctor Who give the impression that storytellers can do anything they like with their tech and the audience won’t notice. But people do notice, and with every tech mistake, a story loses credibility. Your portrayal of technology probably won’t ever be 100% correct, but by thinking about these common mistakes, you’ll have a better chance of presenting technology your audience can believe in.
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