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How can I describe technology while avoiding problems with scaling?

General Tech Technology & Software
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Vanshika Bhatt


( 4 months ago )


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Note: I'm talking about purely numerical issues with scaling, not the technology itself becoming outdated because new tech is invented.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?

Pooja Bhardwaj


( 4 months ago )

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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