The field of economics probably bores the average lit reader, and probably most sci-fi readers as well. Yet the best sci-fi reads are the ones that construct plausible alternative economic environments. Whether we like it or not, our lives are immersed and enslaved to whatever the current economic paradigm is in place. So much so that most people don’t even know that alternatives exist. They don’t comprehend that the economic system that they are bound to be only an invention, and that other (maybe better, possibly worse) systems can exist.
The whole point of science fiction is to question our own current political, economic, social and scientific situation. Economics can influence how power is distributed, how society becomes structured, and how technology develops. Science fiction seeks to introduce readers to new ideas, and the subject of economics is by far the most effective in terms of changing society for the better, or worse. It can be the root of all evil, and the driver of all that can be good.
A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam
It was stories about the ‘mad scientist’ that kicked off genre literature, ever since Daedalus fabricated wings from feathers and wax for himself and his son Icarus. Invention is the heart of all sci-fi stories, which in turn becomes the heart of inspiration that turns science fantasy into reality. Geosynchronous communications satellites, computer worms, Segways, wall-mounted home theatres, exoskeletons, smartphones, virtual worlds, and organ harvesting were all described by sci-fi writers long before engineers turned them into reality.
Many authors are indeed engineers and scientists, Arthur C. Clarke, Edward E. “Doc” Smith, Joe Haldeman and Isaac Asimov to name just a few, making their work some of the best sci-fi out there. They get to create and test theoretical technology in fiction and at the same time, get inspired to dream up solutions in the real, current world.
Engineering is obviously fundamental to all sci-fi stories, and not only to have fantastical new technology for your characters to play with, but also to ‘engineer’ a world, a society that is victim to the ramifications to the inventions that pervade it.
Engineering is the plot device of plot devices.
A city designed to protect itself and maintain itself over millions of years.
The Man in the Maze, by Robert Silverberg.
Published by Avon Books in 1969
A device used to see into specific internals of time.
From Legion of Time, by Jack Williamson.
Published by Astounding Science Fiction in 1938
A crystalline form of water so stable that in practical terms it would never melt.
From Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Published by Random House in 1963
A virtual universe.
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson.
Published by Bantam in 1992
Repellor Anti-Gravity Rays
Device provides support for planet-side air travel.
Armageddon: 2419 A.D. , by Philip Frances Nowlan
Published by Amazing Stories in 1928
Device of alien manufacture, which will reverse, or turn inside out, any object passed through its mobilator.
Doorways in the Sand, by Roger Zelazny.
Published by Harper Science Fiction in 1976
A method for storing the mind and memories of a person, and recalling and reconstituting them at will.
Whether its curing existing diseases or encountering new ones, a bit or a lot of pathology doesn’t hurt a story or make for a bad plot device. Injecting fear and dread into any scenario can be as easy as prescribing an epidemiologist or two.
The scope in speculating future disease can again be endless, e.g microbial, fungal, genetic, psychiatric, crystalline extraterrestrial agents, or cyber infections
We are already living in Isaac’s world. Big data already allows governments and corporations to make educated guesses at what’s coming around the corner. As this information age deepens, how will it change the way we live? Does big data ever get too big to predict anything?
This discipline is also available to writers. This blend of trends, mathematical modelling, history and sociology and can open up a window into the future, turning anyone dedicated enough into a Nostradamus. Big History, Microhistory, Macrohistory; used as a major or minor plot device, how could any writer get it wrong.
Let’s face it, we now have the technology. We can rebuild you. It’s rudimentary at the moment but scientists have proved it can be done. As more applications become possible it is hard to imagine any work of sci-fi without featuring some kind of cybernetics, cyborgs or bionics, especially if it’s already the norm in reality.
This is a contentious field. There is an existing industry around this type of thing. Has been for years. Now, no one has ever revived anyone, because… there is no actual technology that has been proven to work. But people a paying big bucks for a two-way ticket without the means for the return trip. And of course, business is catering for these people with technology based on assumptions, which are based on ideas developed by science fiction writers.
A rule I use in science fiction writing is, everything is possible in this cosmos, there is always a way. Maybe freezing body tissue isn’t the right path, maybe it’s something else. It’s a challenge, and that’s why this field makes the list.
This science is a given. Even if the story doesn’t involve alien ecosystems, a near or far future world is an undiscovered country of new manifestations of living things, human or otherwise. What have we so far found living on this planet? Plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, slime moulds, archaea. From synthetic to quantum biology the list of organisms that can be conjured up is endless.
With Dan Simmon’s Hyperion Cantos and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series inching closer to television screens, a question resurfaces, a question I’ve been asking ever since first reading these two works of classic science fiction, both of whom have been fighting an eternal battle for the number one spot on my favourites list.
What makes these stories so great?
For me, it’s the scope of these novels. It’s how the authors infuse a multitude of scientific disciplines and morph them into the plot. This little project is intended as a study guide for me to use and others if they choose, and aims to list as many topics and fields of study as possible. It’ll be an ongoing process as I probably will miss a few academic disciplines along the way.
Science fiction is an art form, and visual art and science fiction have complimented and inspired each other from the beginning. From cover art of Jules Verne’s novels and Amazing Stories to the mind-bending number of sci-fi influenced artworks in existence today, to the contemporary music inspired by this muse called sci-fi, it is a shame art doesn’t feature as much inside sci-fi stories as science does. Film and television do combine the two formats (art and literature), a synergy that creates its own standalone art, but there are few stories that explore art as a theme or as a science. How many authors pose the question, what is art?
Science fiction, to me anyhow, is about exploring new concepts, and neglecting to explore such a vast aspect of human behaviour is always going to be a missed opportunity. As humans, we possess a range of sensors that can be aroused by art or information. Our eyes have pictures to lust over. Our ears have music to listen to. Our tongues have gourmet food to explore. Our skin has fashion; our noses, perfume and smell. Our inner ears give us balance, so is not defying gravity an appreciation of its beauty?
How else can humans make art? How would aliens make art? How else can an author explore the endless possibilities of art?
Apart from the SETI researchers who search for signals that are millions of years old, not one person today is a practising xenoarchaeologist. How can they be when there are no artefacts for them to study. This should not stop an author from giving it a go. The discipline can be monumental or incidental to the story, whether it’s uncovering an unknown civilisation, humanity’s alien origins or finding relics predating the cosmos, what better way to give a story some background than to have xenoarcheologists research the history of a place or people, here on a future Earth looking back at its past, on some exoplanet, or in deep space somewhere.
Is it the architects leading the writers, or the other way around. Either way, whether you’re a human, transhuman or alien, you have to live somewhere.
From bionic architecture to autonomous buildings nothing sets the scene better than creating unique habitats for your characters to live in. Functional spaces can add synergy to any plot whether they are based inside subterranean slums or in space palaces.