This is part seven of my ten-part world-building series. As always, I’d like to point out that what’s presented here isn’t absolute gospel. There are many ways to world-build, and many paths to get to the same destination. I’m not the all-knowing guru, but rather a geek who’s sharing how he goes about it. Ready? Let’s go.
Clarke’s Third Law. You know the one. For those of you following along who don’t, you’ve likely at least heard it, or a variation of the adage. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And that’s why this world building article follows on the heels of our discussion about magic, because what tech you bring to your world has just as large as—if not larger—an impact on the development of your world as spell-slinging does.
During this, I’ll be providing my own guiding axioms that—while I don’t dare wax arrogant enough to believe they will ever be as well known— hopefully will give you some waypoints to follow as you move through the questions of how developed your own world is, technology wise.
Let’s blind ourselves with Science, shall we? No? Okay, goggles on then, killjoys.
Your World, Your Tech
Xero’s world-building tech law 1: Every gain of useful technology will affect the history and cultural development of a world.
Time to play anthropologist and historian again. At least, time to familiarize yourself with the studies. Because when you look at our own history and growth, civilization wise, you will inevitably find key points where a new piece of technology facilitated it. Writing. Metallurgy. Chemistry, biology, physics, and other base studies that gave rise to new inventions. From Cuneiform to the Printing Press, the wheel to the internal combustion engine, from fire to thermonuclear weapons, the march of technological progressions are the chapter headings of our history books.
At each point when you look, the society that follows is radically altered from the one that existed prior to the acquisition of that technology. While you don’t have to treat our own history as an absolute playbook for how your own world will develop, it does at least give you pretty clear guidelines for what happens when a sentient race gets their hands on a fun new toy. It always impacts the history that follows, for good or ill.
This isn’t limited to sci-fi, either. There are plenty of examples of tech existing alongside magic as well. But, again, you have to be able so serve Lord Why when it comes to putting this stuff in, or combining, or omitting. Just don’t fudge the details on those pivotal moments where a new technology shapes the course of what comes after.
A Question of Morality
Xero’s world-building tech law 2: Groundbreaking technology will both drive, and be a slave to, the relative morality of the user.
What I mean by that is any technology’s development and use after the inception point is driven by the needs of a society (or its leadership), and those decisions are driven by the moral choices of said society.
Steel builds a stronger plow, but it also makes a fine sword. Gunpowder creates brilliant displays in the sky, but it can also sling a projectile at distance with lethal speed. The energy necessary to travel at lightspeed to explore the cosmos has just as much potential to create a device that can end planets. You get the idea.
There are very few examples where technology has not been co-opted for a purpose outside the one proposed by its inventor, and I mean this both ways. Agents of destruction can be applied to techniques that improve the quality of life just as easily as the other way around. So, it’s up to you to decide just where your world’s moral compass is pointing at a given stage of development.
The fact is, if your world has this technology, or said technology is available, then they’ve already answered their own question of why. Now it falls to you to suss out the particulars, both virtue and vice. If they have nuclear fusion, but no nuclear weaponry, why? If they have nuclear weaponry, why haven’t they gone all Dr. Strangelove on each other? If they can open up wormholes for instantaneous galactic travel via a nifty dialing prop, why haven’t they colonized other worlds, or been colonized themselves?
You get the gist.
The Haves, The Have-nots
Xero’s world-building tech law 3: Advancements in technology establish a social hierarchy vis a vis its perceived commonality.
That’s a mouthful, so let’s simplify a bit. Think smartphones. They’re utterly common to see in every developed corner of our planet these days. But there was, of course, that point prior to wide-spread adoption where having one of these gadgets was a big deal. It was social status. It was a mark of everything from being on the cutting edge to having the disposable income to BE on the cutting edge.
But, you missed something. It went by so fast, and was so subversive to what we accept as everyday normalcy that it might not have blipped on your radar. Look at that previous paragraph again. I’ll point it out if you’re still stuck:
“ … every developed corner of our planet …”
Even on our world, we track and rate the relative growth and solvency of any nation by the level of technology it possesses, almost before any other metric. And even if your own world is more homogenized than ours, inevitably there will be a strata of society that will get quicker access to any new tech before the rest, and another that will be last to the party.
So, how does that affect the cultures of your world? Is it akin to ours, where we can at times miss our privilege even when we would like to think of ourselves more charitably? Or is it something on the far end of the spectrum, where we need to start chanting “Long live the Technocracy!”?
It follows also that once a tech has been adopted into everyday use and the cost of it has been largely mitigated that the novelty wears off. Your world may grow complacent to it, and whatever potential dangers can come from the misuse of it. Or, they may just accept the tech as a fact of life, and become ignorant to its importance until they lose it.
If ever you need a real-world experience, just leave your smartphone at home for a couple of weeks. Or don’t use indoor plumbing. Or both. Mix it up, daredevil.
The Revolution of Industry
Xero’s world-building tech law 4: Development of technology will necessitate redevelopment of the world.
You might be thinking environmental impact from gathering the natural resources needed to create technology, and you’re absolutely right! There is perforce a methodology that changes the natural lay of the land to fuel the fires of industry. Mining, logging, chemical plants, oil refineries. All that. And all of that is crucial to keep in mind. Your tech has to come from somewhere, after all.
But even more important to consider is how technology changes how we create the spaces we use outside of industry. Advancements in metal working, architecture, and construction technology informed the skyscraper, and now we’ve got cities that can expand upward as well as outward. We stepped away from the age of sail to the age of steam, and suddenly “here there be monsters” became noted trade routes on the nautical charts.
A couple of dudes tested a motorized glider on a beach in North Carolina, and eventually that necessitated sprawling intercontinental airport campuses that folks can all agree are a pain in the ass to deal with.
The V2 rocket, and the sciences that came before to make it possible, eventually provoked us to change the way we get around town in our cars by dint of GPS satellites. Developments in fuel, aerodynamics, and vehicle design influenced everything from how we laid roads out to how cross-country travel is serviced. Route 66 ain’t just a destination, baby. It’s the child of developing technology.
Imagine how we might have to shape our own world tomorrow. I’d say you’ve got plenty to think on with the one you’re creating right now.
By necessity of detail, that also means knowing the why, how, and when of the technology’s implementation and adoption. Your world has the tech necessary for teleportation? Sweet! How widely used is it? What industries support it? What former means of travel or cargo transportation has been phased out? How does that impact something as simple as the morning commute? How is being implemented, both in terms of mundane point A to B transit, to potential military application?
Hit pause before you beam up is what I’m saying.
It Just Works
This last one’s with all due respect to Clarke.
Xero’s world-building tech law 5: Every piece of technology, even the most magical-seeming, has a knowledgeable magician that understands the trick.
Ever hear the phrase “Star Trek Tech”? It’s usually thrown down to explain away the technobabble, or when things just “work” in the universe of Trek without an intricate explanation. Sure, there are plenty of folks that come in after the fact to color in the lines with explanations, by by and large the average viewer just nods, thinks the food-maker is pretty sweet, and goes on their merry way. Not everyone is a hound for Hard Sci-fi, as its known, where the creator’s meticulously gone into the science and theory of a given technology, even if they still fudge the rules a bit. For every “The Martian”, there are plenty of “Mars Attacks”.
The takeaway here, at least for me, is that you don’t have to earn your doctorate in theoretical Astrophysics to create your world of space-explorers, but it certainly helps to at least familiarize yourself with some of the particulars for flavor purposes. Like the stage magician, you need not reveal the inner workings. In point of fact, sometimes it ruins the act. But knowing HOW it works is always a bonus to you showing it working in the first place, if only for things that the technology will influence later on.
Also, you’ll need experts, right? Those experts can only know what you yourself know. Likewise, they will be the arbiters of how that technology progresses from the front lines, so to speak. Necessity is the mother of invention, and who better to know what’s needed than the people actively working on, or maintaining, said tech?
In terms of your world, that also gives you some breathing room to decide just how in-depth you really want to go. “Keep it simple, stupid” can still hold sway here, but there’s something to be said for a world-builder that knows their salt. How technical or simple you decide to create is entirely up to you, but it’s usually a smart bet to know more than you absolutely need.
Because there’s no owner’s manual here to refer to. Unless you wrote one.
And with that, I’m off to utilize this desktop technology to get back to work on other things for your entertainment. And the future grand? In part 8, we’ll be covering the problem of people. Namely, that they are people, and people can be silly.
Until next time, Horns Up.
(My new book is out! The Lexicon Calopa is on sale!)