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Worldbuilding chat has pointed me to this stack because it's less about defining the technology and more about how to express these definitions in a relatable and realistic way.


A pretty frequent occurrence when working with fictional technology is that when describing what the tech does and how it works, the author messes up the scale of the underlying technology or what it is capable of. This can happen in multiple ways (all examples are purely fictional):

  1. The author describes near future technology with ludicrous numbers, which actually are on the other end of the power bell curve. the author may, in 2001 describe a computer in the 2050s whose power is actually closer to something from the 2020s. The opposite also happens: the components from the machine actually are much stronger than what's possible at the time.
  2. The author describes a machine that actually is woefully underpowered for what it is said to be capable of. For example, blowing up a meteor the size of Texas with a nuke buried 800 feet deep.
  3. The author describes a machine that actually has much more energy than needed for the job. They mention "a 1 Kt bomb, big enough to destroy the empire State building", but such a bomb would actually take out everything 5 blocks around the empire state building as well.
  4. The author has a concept that's scaled well at the time it's introduced to the story, but when used later on, it either scales poorly or not at all. An example would be a martial artist taking of weighted clothing as a powerup, but he keeps doing it even when he's not even hindered by the clothes anymore.

Note: I'm talking about purely numerical issues with scaling, not the technology itself becoming outdated because new tech is invented. I'm not talking about "cassete recorders in space", I'm talking about "A spaceship to the moon with the power of a bottle rocket".

Assuming you already have your technology worked out concerning what it has to do, how do you go about describing the tech to a reader without pulling potentially knowledgeable readers out of the story when your numbers don't add up?

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One good trick is to choose a point of view characters who is at the low end of technical competence. That way your other characters will talk down to them (and the reader), avoiding technical descriptions which involve numeric and scientific details.

A cub reporter, the ship's recreation officer, or a hobbit from a backwards and far-off land... these are all great point of view characters who can work their way into the action without ever having to really understand what is going on or how things work.

The weapons chief paused, obviously calculating the explosive force needed to vaporize an asteroid of our target's size and density. I watched her lips moving as she silently did the heavy math. Then, realizing that I was waiting for an answer and recognizing the kind of answer I was looking for, she paused, smiled, and said, "It will have to be a really big bomb, but we can do it."

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    This is a good technique — not so much the cabbagehead character in all situations, but acknowledging that math needs to be done. It's the Heisenberg Compensator kind of thing. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Jan 11 '17 at 19:33
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    In a similar vein, you can have somebody competent start explaining the tech, but then have somebody interrupt them immediately. – Jeutnarg Jan 11 '17 at 21:05
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    This character is often called a Watson. – chrylis -on strike- Jan 12 '17 at 1:35
  • This is a great technique, but you don't really need any character to pull it off. It is perfectly fine if the author doesn't explain the world to the reader. Just as you do not have to describe every aspect of the fictional world and can just say "a car" and leave the reader to imagine the model and color, you don't have to explain physics to readers of fiction. – user5645 Jan 12 '17 at 20:23
  • @what As long as everyone is more or less in agreement about what "a car" is and what "a car" can do. A car cannot grow wings and fly unless you explain that it belongs to James Bond or Agent Coulson. You don't have to explain how the wings work, but a car doesn't normally come with that equipment. So if the car is falling out of a plane, you have to say "Ah, but this car has wings!" and Coulson hits the Wings button, and there you go. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Jan 13 '17 at 18:28
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If you've worked out the tech, why haven't you worked out the scale? Isn't that part of "working out the tech"?

Just coming up with the idea of "a rocket that goes to the moon" isn't sufficient. You have to come up with how it goes to the moon. If your story is meant to be realistic, then you have to do enough hard-science research to determine how a rocket could actually get to the moon. You need to understand thrust, weight, the layers of the atmosphere, velocity vs. vacuum, orbits, and so on.

If your story is fantasy (relying on magic, for example), then you still have to cover the mechanics of getting to the moon, and your magical system has to be logical to a certain extent. (This is what I call the Heroes Power Conundrum. The show Heroes had people developing abilities like being able to heal from any wound, or flying, or turning invisible. But those gifts never seemed to require power. If the cheerleader grew back a toe, the energy to create that toe had to come from somewhere. She should have been constantly eating cheeseburgers to fuel her healing.) So just "casting a spell to put the rocket on the moon" is insufficient. You have to establish how such a spell is learned or created, where the magic comes from, who can use it, if there's backlash, et cetera.

The short answer is, to avoid problems with scaling, figure out how the tech would really work, or as close to it as possible. If you put a bomb in a building, do research on how much C4 you need to take out a building of that size, or how much more damage your chosen amount of C4 would do. And so on.

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    Exactly. I know you do not like Brandon Sanderson, but his magic systems, while often very complex, are extremely logical.He is a good example of how to scale powers correctly. – Lew Jan 11 '17 at 18:02
  • Google, how much C4 would it take to blow up the White House? > You are now on a watchlist. – AndrewP Jan 12 '17 at 4:52
  • @AndrewP Yes, there is that problem. :) You do have to be careful about that kind of research. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Jan 12 '17 at 10:51
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It doesn't matter. The tech is a McGuffin. It's a device to drive the story.

The entire plot of Casablanca revolves around a pair of passes that cannot be revoked by the local Nazi authorities. The passes are a McGuffin. They are absurd on the face of it. Of course any such passes could be cancelled by the local Nazi authorities. "Yes, Obergruppenfuhrer, I knew they were enemy spies wanted by the Reich, but they had magic tickets so of course I had to let them get on the plane." Right.

Tech in Star Trek? All technical problems are solved by reversing the polarity of blah blah blah.

Tech in Dr Who? Make it up as you go along and change your mind half way through.

It doesn't matter. What matters is that you tell a good story. What makes a good story is not that it is technically plausible. So many stories could be so much more easily and safely resolved by another quite obvious course of action, or simply by a character asking an obvious question. What makes a good story is that it is emotionally true and that it brings the protagonist to a point of moral or emotional crisis that is resolved in a satisfying way.

Yes, there will always be people who nitpick the details. There is a rather entertaining series on youtube that picks holes in every major movie. The point being that these are major movies that told compelling stories and made millions at the box office. Their tech, and often their plots, make no sense, and is utterly lacking in scale. No one cares. They want to watch men in capes bash each other while having deep philosophical discussions.

Nitpicking the details is a sport for some people. It is part of how they enjoy a story. If there were no nits to pick, they would enjoy it less, not more. (Think about Amy's deconstruction of one of the Indiana Jones movies on Big Bang Theory in which she showed that Indy's actions made no difference to the outcome of the plot. That was fun. I but a whole bunch of people went out and rented it again just to see if she was right. Ka-ching. "Thanks for the residuals" say the screenwriters. )

It doesn't matter. The tech is a McGuffin. Focus on telling a good story.

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    If the plausibility of technology did not matter, we would not have a "hard Sci-Fi" genre. If you employ the technology not only as part of your backdrop, but a part of your plot, you better be sure your technology makes sense. Or you will end up killing your beautiful story with just a lack of research. Or a sound of an explosion in space. – Lew Jan 11 '17 at 17:57
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    @Lew, Hard Sci-Fi is a genre defined by the tech mattering, which is a clear indication that it does not matter anywhere else. And hard SF is a tiny genre. It is a tiny tiny piece of the reading public. The OP does not specify if their work is hard SF, but it it is, the answer is self-evident: get it right. The question hardly seems worth asking unless it is not about hard SF. – user16226 Jan 11 '17 at 19:15
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    @LaurenIpsum, yes, Trek and Big Bang do hire tech experts, but I suggest that is for flavour rather than strict authenticity. (And flavour very much matters in these things.) On Tom Clancy, I agree that some of his reader are professional nitpickers, but a lot of his appeal is more gun porn than anything else: my missile is bigger than your missile. But I will reiterate the point that nitpicking is part of the fun. I am known to exclaim loudly about plot holes when watching TV, but it does not stop me watching. It is not about being right, it is about being entertaining. – user16226 Jan 11 '17 at 19:19
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    and only Sherlock puts in nitpicks on purpose to rile up the fans so we'll connect the subtextual dots. :) – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Jan 11 '17 at 19:34
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    Research is a key part of good writers' toolset. It's not just scientific plausibility; it's accuracy in details. Historical details of who was king when, technical details of how people on fishing boats really live and work, accurate descriptions of real landmarks, and (very importantly) accurate insight into how people truly behave and react in real life. All of this is to assist telling a good story; dry details are not sufficient...but I contend that telling a really excellent story is not possible with no knowledge of what you're writing about. – Wildcard Jan 11 '17 at 21:12
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For hard SF the answer by Lauren Ipsum is correct. For space opera, the answer by Mark Baker is correct. Also, the first sentence of each answer is sufficient, you can skip the rest.

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  • you are such a delight. :) – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Jan 11 '17 at 17:07
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    Sounds of massive applause (in a vacuum) :-) – Lew Jan 11 '17 at 17:59
  • Right, because understanding why something is true is of no help at all. :-) – user16226 Jan 11 '17 at 20:11

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