The Tech Side #1: A Broad-Spectrum Approach To Sci-fi Storytelling

In this series of articles – The Tech Side – I’ll be talking about various bits of different tech, what gave me the ideas for them, and a little about what I did with them in various stories.

This time, I’ll be giving a brief overview of my relationship with technology, how it influenced my writing, and what to expect in future!

Once upon  a time, after a high school English period, nearly 30 years ago, one of my favorite teachers said something about my writing that stuck with me to the present: She remarked that I used sci-fi terminology and descriptive terms with flair and apparent ease!

[Incidentally, in order to see the rest of these articles in this series, click on the category name The Tech Side.]

Having been my English teacher for only a few short months, that lady had only read my writing assignments, essays and compositions I’d handed in for marks one term, which – in the context of length, complexity or significance – wasn’t very much. In fact, due to scheduling clashes between various subjects resulting from subject choices, I and a number of other students found ourselves shifted to a different English class, and that was the end of that. Nevertheless, over the short time I was her student, she’d done her best to encourage me to write more and to develop my own style – by giving me room to grow and experiment, and by means of pointers and encouraging remarks such as this one. I blushed.

“Well Miss,” I admitted, “I guess you could say I’ve always enjoyed reading and watching sci-fi shows, and I’ve always had my own ideas on how things should be done!”

I have to admit, looking back, that sentence pretty much defines not only my own writing, style and subject matter – but my entire life.

I’ve already provided much background and history about my own writing career in the past, so without getting too deeply invested in that, in December 1991 I finished high school, and was called up to military service in January 1992. Although I spent a lot of time writing and honing my craft, a lot of my time was consumed by dealing with daily life and personal issues, including gender dysphoria. Professionally, I have a background in computing, photography and multimedia, which are skills I picked up while I worked for the military. I was a soldier for just over 17 years by the time I finally put all that away and entered civilian employment. I love history and research, so I’ve also researched a lot about “tech stuff” and although I’m not a rocket-scientist or an autistic savant by any stretch of the imagination, I have a broad sense of how some things might work in a future setting – and of how they would affect people in various circumstances.

As much as a lot of sci-fi seems to be built around future tech and seems to become trapped in orbit around that tech, that’s not what I wanted my stories to be like. I wanted to tell stories about ordinary people living in a different time, whose lives are different due to the tech they have in their time – not stories about tech, where the characters are just props to demonstrate how it would work!

I think the motive of the writer is what it’s all about in that respect – and for me, the key to telling believable, relatable sci-fi stories is to not give too much tech information to the reader, where the characters fade into the background and the story becomes all about the tech and the science behind it. Some of the earlier sci-fi writers (often described as sci-fi visionaries) used to do that sort of thing – pages and pages would be taken up in describing how a piece of tech worked, what its positives and negatives were, and lengthy explanations of their effects on society, or why (in the case of nuclear war for example) it was a bad, bad idea that would probably lead to mass extinction of the species, if not all species!

Plus, when I write about things like teleportation, faster than light propulsion or energy weapons, it’s a good deal easier these days – you don’t have to explain how it works in fine detail as much as in previous decades, because most sci-fi readers are already familiar with these ideas and concepts! A guy standing on a street corner in Chicago chatting on his mobile phone to his boss who’s at a business conference in Proxima Centauri seems just a little more believable nowadays, doesn’t it?

Besides to strengthen my point, the US Navy has already developed and tested high-energy laser cannons, and scientists have already successfully experimented (on the atomic scale) with sci-fi elements such as teleportation and – believe it or not – time travel! While it may be many years before some or any of these items shows up in our daily lives, things that were science fiction only 20 or 30 years ago, are already turning up as science fact! Things like microwave ovens, desktop PC’s – laptops and smartphones – and even the humble brick-sized cell phone from the early 1990’s – made the sci-fi future seem to be within our grasp!

As a matter of interest, I’d only just completed the first draft of “Galaxii” in about 1993, when South Africa’s first cellular service providers suddenly popped into being and excitedly announced that the future was here! To give you an idea of how rapidly things changed, the first typed draft of “Galaxii” was executed on a Sinclair QL back in 1989 (most people under 25 today probably won’t even know what that is) and a horrible green CRT monitor that made my eyes hurt – and actually turned the dust that gathered on it, green too! As if that wasn’t bad enough, that manuscript couldn’t even be printed because printers as we know them today didn’t exist yet – at least not in every other home or business as they do today!

Even the later “IBM compatibles” didn’t use microdrive tape cassettes like my QL – they used floppy disks, and my floppy disk drive’s interface stopped working! By 1990, a school friend very kindly offered to retype the latest handwritted draft on their dad’s shiny new desktop PC, and printed it for me on a dotmatrix printer! (Yes, one of those noisy old things that used to do a line of dots in a row across the page at a time – going “Cheee! Cheee!” back and forth!) I couldn’t replicate this effort for myself, so as late as 1992, my mother – who was a typist by trade – typed another draft of “Demonspawn” for me – on an electronic typewriter! If I wanted copies of it, I’d have to photostat it, or if I wanted anything changed, that page would have to be retyped!

It was all very frustrating, and time consuming – whereas these days it’s so easy and quick that we actually take it for granted!

To illustrate just how fast-evolving and advancing tech influenced my writing over time, in 2003 I finally got round to retyping all my then-completed stories myself on a P3 Windows 2000 desktop PC, and could print them on A4 paper from a laser printer! I could even email it (via a dial-up connection) almost instantly to a publisher on the other side of the planet – and equally quickly, they could send me a preformatted rejection letter! Isn’t tech marvelous? 😉

It dawned on me that I simply had to start including wonderful things like that in my stories too! So I did. In the meantime, the world around me slowly began to take on a startlingly less idyllic slant!

We live in a weird world where things like a cure for cancer took a back-seat to profiting from the drawn-out treatment of it – tagging the only known effective cure as a “gateway drug” for narcotics because it would knock the legs out from under the pharmaceutical companies and the cancer industry, and where green energy alternatives are casually dismissed as “unviable” because adopting them would put the billionaires in the fossil-fuels industry out of business… In the meantime, since the 1980’s NASA’s space programs have stalled, hamstrung by budget cuts while funding for space exploration and education were channeled into the wasteful pursuit of endless warfare to feed the military-industrial complex. Meaningful advancement on the frontier of space exploration took a back seat since the end of the Cold War in 1989-90 when the US seemed to think they’d run out of communist competitors to impress. (Incidentally, China – a country the USA habitually looks down on – has landed a series of small rovers on the Moon since 2007 and is talking about a manned mission to the far side of Luna within the next decade).

Down here however, things aren’t looking too good – and more so each year. Every time I see something negative about our environment, I’m reminded about all those old encyclopedias and Usborne books about the future I read as a child and late teen – and I’m sorry to say, that the world today is starting to look a lot like the dystopian nightmares described in a lot of them.

The air, land and sea are poisoned, global weather patterns are changing, water levels are rising – while people do bugger-all to change it, waiting for some skyfairy to intervene and save them – and I could go on at length about that. Suffice to say, the world is in serious trouble – and a lot of people are ignoring it not just because they actually know better, it’s generally because of who’s giving the warnings (what do a bunch of geeks, atheists and teenage girls – know, right?) but because they’re running from their own fear that if they stop to believe the warnings, they’ll be overcome by the same sense of dread and hopelessness already felt by the rest of us who have been paying attention.

Meanwhile, scientific messiahs like Elon Musk have taken up the slack, and at this very moment are keeping the sci-fi dreamers hopes alive by aiming to colonize Mars within my lifetime – and are literally taking real, physical steps up that ladder!

But back in 1989, when I first wrote the early drafts of “Galaxii” and “Demonspawn“, the crew of the starship Mordrake boarded the alien derelict vessel carrying bioscanners – devices around the size of a large smartphone today – that would give the user full readouts of the environment they were in – temperature, barometric pressure, air chemical content analysis, EM, radiation and light-spectrum content etc. They would also be useful in detecting life signs across a broad band of known species.

For those who might be thinking ” gee, that sounds awfully like a tricorder from Star Trek“, you’re actually helping me prove my point – it’s all been done before, right?

Right through my Galaxii Series, and Quantum, and even Panic! Horror In Space, the characters visit and refer to extrasolar colonies – that is, colonized worlds in other solar systems – and they tend to speak of them like we do about having relatives in Alaska, or Australia. They’re far removed from us geographically, but we can visit each other or speak to each other without too much fuss. Perhaps in a century’s time, people will speak about their cousins living on Mars in the same way?

While you’re unlikely to encounter any new tech in my stories that you’ve never seen before, you’re likely to trip over yourself realizing that I’ve done something – well, different with it.

For example, most starships in my stories come equipped with a teleportation device called a ‘transmatter’ – because it transmits matter – and yes, it is used in they usual, expected, almost conventional manner, to travel between ships, or from ships to planets and vice versa. However, in several of my stories, a couple of enterprising characters also happen to use their transmatter as a weapon. [read “Loderunner” and “Secret Weapons of the Resistance: Bovine Torpedoes” to find out how]

Although I’ve already written about it in an article (but not in a technological sense) the Akx from “Demonspawn” is both a villain and an interesting example of tech in context of this series of articles. It’s all very interesting, but in sci-fi isn’t tech all just plot devices? That’s a question we need to explore in context of these articles!

From my perspective, the reader is more interested in the story – what the characters are doing, their interactions, and what happens to them, and how they get out of a jam, than in how exactly a handheld bioscanner or a blaster or why a warp engine works, and if you’ve written a couple of papers or a dissertation on the subject, or if you’ve drawn an exact circuit-diagram on how to build the thing if the reader could just get the right parts for it!

I love sci-fi – and the main reason for that is, in a terrifying world filled with a million reasons to feel hopeless, sci-fi stories – and the marvel-machines dreamed up by their creators – gave me hope. I hope to do the same for my readers – but not entirely just through the tech used by my characters – also through the eyes of my characters themselves, and their actions.

As a storyteller, I know I have to make this stuff believable without getting wrapped up in explaining for three pages how a reflex furnace or transmatter works – the typical modern reader would get bored and lose interest in the story! It’s entertainment – not a technical manual! The story needs to flow, so as a writer I cut the cackle and work around the lengthy explanations and treat the tech as someone might write about a character using a cell phone or a microwave oven would today. Granted, it’s not quite that simple, but it operates somewhere between the two extremes, and that seems to work.

Now that the introduction is out of the way, in the next edition, we’ll be taking a look at a piece of Galaxii tech without all the “backgroundian” chatter!

Feel free to email or message me via Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn if you have any comments or questions!

Until next time,

Cheers! 🙂


If you’re reading this long after it was posted, click “The Tech Side” to see a list of all the articles posted in this series!

TIP: If you want to know what Christina Engela writes, or who her focus group or target market is, please read here.

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All material copyright © Christina Engela, 2019.

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