Essay: Technology as a Character in Science Fiction
Excellent, sci-fi and spanking romance author, Cara Bristol, started a discussion on Facebook, asking about what tech we sci-fi writers and readers would see in the future, relative to what we see now. There were a lot of interesting answers, but as well as answering her question, it got me thinking. If you consider it closely, you would find that in many science-fiction novels (particularly hard sci-fi), the tech is basically a character. That goes for cyborgs, androids, sentient computers (like Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke), artificial intelligence, and even spacecraft. If the tech plays a central part in the story, it’s basically a character.
Let’s dissect this more. When a writer writes new, creative technology into her or his story, she’s got to create the tech (often influenced by current tech, or concept level tech that already exists); she’s got to detail and thoroughly describe the tech in her notes; she might need to draw a sketch of it; she has to decide whether it’s a supporting character or a main character. Those are basically the same steps a writer takes when creating a character profile.
There are lots of books where tech takes a main character role. My Romantek series, for example, uses nanotechnology to do a very important job. The stories would not stand without the manufactured dreams, relying on computer technology and molecular-level devices. While I don’t describe how the technology was created, I do mention who created it, what its purpose is, and how it’s used. I’d call it a supporting character in the books.
Others use cyborgs (Cara Bristol for one), or new and innovative technology like the ramscoop, without which no space travel could take place in many of Larry Niven’s books. Consider the very important technology in The Matrix, or even Time Cop. The venerable book 1984 by George Orwell relies on Big Brother technology, which is outdated now, but was very much a scary future for readers when it was written. There wouldn’t be a story without those machines and artificial intelligences. Consider Ray Bradbury’s awesome short stories (you can find a bunch in I Sing the Body Electric), and his brilliant way of using technology to illustrate the emotional struggles of humans. And, how can we forget the book, The Martian, by Andy Weir? The movie was excellent, but the book went into more technical details, some of which were hilarious, though realistic, and some of which were scary. Well worth the read.
My conclusion is that the best sci-fi includes a “character” that’s pure technology. It’s an important part of building a sci-fi universe, and one which an author ignores to her own peril.