In order for a story to incorporate the technological advance aspect of science fiction, it must be set in the future (or in a sort of alternate universe situation, which usually means there is an event in the past that either did not happen or something new that did). An author setting their story in the future has both a lot of room for imagination and a lot of room to influence readers.
Having an idea for a useful or intriguing or perhaps destructive technological advance does not constitute a premise for a story. When writing this type of story, it is important to have a message behind the devise. If a writer uses the advance technology successfully in their story, they can say something profound about humanity and where it is heading. Both the reasons why this invention was created and how people react to it in the futuristic setting of the story will reveal the writer’s views on human nature.The technology utilized in the story will first reveal to the reader what that type of invention will do to humanity, and then it will answer deeper questions, in particular: WHY would we feel the need to use this invention? What does this invention say about human nature?
While I would have discussed H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine in the time travelling post, I find it is more appropriate to discuss it here because the character travels into the future, does not touch the past, and the concept of what is occurring in the future has a greater impact than the fact that he is time travelling at all. That being said, a time machine is a technological advance that has obviously not been discovered yet, and one over which many writers have pondered. In the future, the time traveler discovers two new races of beings that have developed from Homo sapiens: the Eloi, who have developed into small and dull beings because they no longer needed strength or brains to survive, and the Murlocks, who are brutish, nocturnal cavemen. Both species have lost the need to be intelligent, their IQs diminishing as they evolved over thousands of years, which reveals to readers the destructive qualities of technological advances that protect humans from dangers and challenges that require critical thinking.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a scientist discovers a way to create new life… not in the natural way. This technology, while not the main focus of the story (his monster is), reveals the possibilities that sprout from human intellect. Frankenstein created a being with emotions and desires, using his mental prowess and technology he invented.
Sometimes technological advance in a story is actually invented one day. While the cameras from George Orwell’s 1984 had already been invented, they had not been used for the purpose of security on the streets and spying on people, as they are now. The book was, at the time, a dystopian future in which the government became totalitarian, using cameras to watch people 24/7. Looking back on it now, it seems like a warning, since cameras are perched on street corners all over the world.
The film Soylent Green is another good example of a dystopian future in which new technologies controlled by the government harm humanity. With an overpopulated world and the majority of people on earth living in overcrowded slums, the elite must find a way to provide nourishment for the billions and billions of people living in poverty, but without enough room on the planet to use agriculture. Even though it’s a classic film that I’m sure many people have seen, I do not want to give any spoilers, so I will not discuss it further… However, I will say that the technology in the movie reveals both the compassion for human life and the selfishness of humans in danger, as well as what happens to humanity’s respect for the deceased when life is threatened.
Other good science fiction film is Artificial Intelligence (with Jude Law and Haley Joel Osment). The book Free Radicals by Michael Brooks describes the history of many inventions and the mindset (and mental oddities) of their inventors. What other books or films have you read or seen that use technological advance or futuristic settings?
THE REAL SCIENCE BEHIND TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES
The thing about technological advances is that they are completely up to the writer. It is possible to expand on something that has already been invented, pushing the limits in order to reveal the impact, be it positive or negative (it’s usually negative), that it has on society, so the writer must have some knowledge of current inventions and how they could be improved. However, most of this is speculative, discovering what something could be. This means that the “real science” behind technological advances in science fiction is not engineering but psychology. A writer of dystopian future fiction should have a purpose in their story which concerns the psychological or social impact of technological advance.
During the Industrial Revolution from 1750 to 1850, new innovations, in particular textiles and steam power, brought thousands of new jobs to the West, as well as more efficient technologies in agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation. In 1752, it is rumored that Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity, and we began running electricity through our homes in the late 19th century, with the help of scientists such as Michael Faraday, Andre-Marie Ampere, George Ohm, and that guy that invented the light bulb. Karl Benz invented the first automobile in 1879, and cars began to be sold to the public in the early 20th century. The next world-changing innovation was the synthetic material we call plastic, brought to the public in the 1920s.
New technologies are developed every day, and the speed in which we invent things is increasing. Less than 200 years ago, we had no electricity, and today we can hardly go one day without it. Textiles, electricity, vehicles, and plastic are all significant achievements that brought new and more efficient ways of living to humanity, but they are all extremely dangerous to our health and safety, as well as to our psychological and philosophical view of human nature. Who knows what inventions could be created tomorrow? And what effect will they have on the way we live our lives?
Some technological advance scares me. Nuclear weapons scare me. I love the internet, but it is enormous, foreboding, and a bit scary. Those remote-less television sets where you just sit on the couch all day and speak to it in order to change the channel and the volume scare me. Those sensors that measure and display to everyone on the road how fast you are going, those scare me, but only because I don’t particularly want to be pulled over. I know how much over the speed limit I’m driving, thank you; no need to display it to the world… There are some things I think are good, though, like solar-powered cars and spaceships and water filters, but there are more scary things than helpful things, in my opinion.
When it comes to technological advance in books, it is almost always used in dystopian futures. As I scanned my bookshelf for examples to use in this post, I found probably four or five books with technological advances about six set in a dystopian future. I am willing to keep an open mind, though all of the books I’ve read and films I’ve seen have all appeared to me to be warnings for humanity about what our selfish desire to expand our technologies can do to hinder our compassion for one another.