Technology in SciFi: Star Trek, Star Wars, WH40K, and David Brin

So I was watching the new Trek (Discovery) and then playing some 40K games on my PC, which got me thinking about how science fiction works that are ongoing address technology over time.

Basically, I think these categories generally summarize how it’s usually handled:

  1. the stat-tweaker (e.g., Star Trek): technology stays functionally the same over time, everything just supposedly gets a little bit better (Warp 6 becomes Warp 7; photon torpedoes become multi-phasic torpedoes). There’s also a fair amount of ret-conning in this approach with “older” versions of later introduced tech showing up in previous eras as the stories turn to those early eras.

  2. the palette-swapper (e.g., Star Wars): this approach doesn’t even try to posit that technology increments. Old Republic, New Republic, all of it has the same technology, just aesthetic differences.

  3. the grumpy-old man (e.g., W40K): this is the dystopian future, with technology actually degrading over time. The current age is a bronze age, with the golden age long past. Technological wonders are dug up from the past.

  4. the data-miner (e.g., Brin’s Uplift Universe): this one is more rare. Here, technology has reached it’s apex. “Research” involves the daunting task of mining a nearly infinite database of technological information to find the ideal/more optimal solution to a technical challenge.

I personally find 1) and 2) extremely lazy, but I get that it’s hard to write stories over multiple settings in a shared universe while trying to keep the “flavor” of the setting. I also get that it taxes the limits of creativity to somehow be able to keep speculating on more stuff and gets you stupid stuff like the current size escalation that marks “technology” in Star Wars. Bigger is more advanced!

So the question: have you seen a different approach, a more interesting approach, than the categories above? Is there a good way to handle the march of future time in a sci-fi series?

And with Discovery, arguably the opposite. Admittedly I didn’t watch much DS9 and hardly any Voyager, but the forcefield tech in Discovery seems more advanced than anything I recall seeing in Star Trek before.

Interesting idea for a thread!

1a) or 5) The big brains in the labs come up with new tech. It is so much more powerful that provides new strategic options instead of just incremental changes. Babylon 5 had a bit of this as the dumber races had to muck about with zero-g while the cooler races had artificial gravity. I haven’t read the Lensmen series in a while but recall each new book introducing an exponential boost in tech-coolness and capability. The Honor Harrington book series watched “Napoleonic ships in space” upgrade to “WWII carriers in space” and beyond. Though I suppose it still featured spaceships going pew-pew at each other.

5b) or 6) Taking a number of books or episodes to study the effects of one new tech on society, but sometimes through subtext. The Miles Vorkosigan books saw a huge shift in mores in a martial, Klingonesque society when uterine replicators became available. Also, in The Demolished Man (EDIT: I meant The Stars My Destination, not The Demolished Man. Sorry.), where regular folks could start teleporting around.

While I recognize the videogames didn’t necessarily have a super different feel to them (because in a videogame, balance is important, so no matter how good your Lazors +7 are, the enemy’s shields will eventually catch up), I found the march of technological progress in the Wing Commander universe–especially in the novelizations–to be really interesting to watch. From the early games quickly shifting from battlecruisers-in-space to carriers-in-space as the preferred mode of supremacy to the advancement of fighter technology and capital ship powers as the series moved on, it really did feel–to me–like a culture rapidly adapting its technology–perhaps even after stagnating a bit–in response to almost constant warfare.

Star trek is kind of wonky in its tech. There are definite technological improvements, but they are not explained, they just are. In the original series there was no holodeck. There were no replicators although the mechanics of those food units were never really explained, there were no nano-bots, etc… Then in one movie we have trans-warp drive. What ever happened to that? Then we get the aforementioned techs in ST:NG. A bit later we get living ship systems in Voyager.

The real issue is there that not a lot of time goes by between these technologies so I would not expect a bunch of world changers, if any at all. What was the last world changer we had? I would suggest the internet, and before that, TV / Telephone and then Electricity. That is a large time span not really shown in these shows.

I do not consider Star Wars sci-fi. It is science fantasy. There is no real explanation for how anything works other than the “force” and that is definitely not science.

As far as how to solve the problem, you would first need a story that really spanned a long time. 100s, if not 1000s of years. You may look at our past century and say, look at all the technological wonders we invented, so why shouldn’t that be in every sci-fi universe? Id then ask you, what technological wonders happened between the year 800AD and 900AD? Not much.

Now look at where we are and where were going. What technological wonders lie in our near future? I am not aware of any. What we are doing is improving old technologies. Better batteries, better lighting, better medicine, better food production. What is the next world changer on the horizon? If we were a sci-fi story right now, we could easily be described as scenario 1.

The Culture novels approach to this issue is interesting, I think, if very Whiggish. There’s a limited amount of technological development during the time periods covered by the novels (and the history they reference), but essentially the Culture is peak technology, short of the Sublimed civilisations. It has nowhere left to go beyond engineering refinement. So you have them encountering and interacting with civilisations of varying technological advancement (there’s even a taxonomy) with a general galactic principle of non-interference with the technological advancement of lower civilisations. Of course the books are all about the interference that does take place.

I mean, there are definitely candidates. Fusion power. Graphene, nano-materials and just materials technology in general. AI/Machine Learning. Commercial space flight/exploitation. Whatever the fuck we come up with to deal with climate change.

I wonder if Vernon Vinge’s zones of thought would be a separate category, in that certain technologies could only function in areas where the laws of physics allow, and where technology and even intelligence work at different rates. It’s kind of a bizarre concept that I’ve never seen duplicated in another work.

I think autonomous driving is going to be huge. Once it matures, we’re talking a huge change to society. That technology is also going to leverage into many, many other areas, as dollars are invested into it.

I thought the original complaint was about just improvements, not ‘new’. We already work on better materials, we already have machine learning, we already harness the power of the atom for power. Anything else we do would be an improvement.

Ill grant you that a true, general AI that was sentient, would qualify as new, but I seriously doubt were anywhere close to that.

I think Weber gets to cheat pretty significantly here: he is using the course of real naval history as a roadmap for his technology march. I grant you, that approach does work well if the subject matter is that (e.g., a sci-fi series that is Romans in space or some such).

There’s not really a hard line between “new” and “improved”. Pretty much no technology is invented de novo. The green revolution was just an improvement, but it certainly was a world changer. The internet wasn’t new, it was just an improvement of DARPAnet. Cars were just an improvement of horse drawn buggies.
Taking machine learning and materials technology, in both cases we’re entering a period where this has gone from being a pretty niche thing largely conducted in academia to something being exploited full-bore by capitalism.
And, obviously, there will be “new” technologies that aren’t even in development right now, but it’s rather silly to speculate about how they’ll change the world.

This is true. I wonder what the OP is really looking for.

Here it seems that Sci Fi has been so imaginative and present in pop culture that when this stuff is starting to come out for real, it seems like old toys from many Christmases ago. Either that or it still seems like fantastic, ridiculous hokum.

Better Military? Infantry are getting power armor and robotic mules. Rail guns are mounted on battleships. Laser weapons are strapped to aircraft. Fission and fusion weapons are so obtainable, even third world nations can get their hands on them.

Better Medicine? Just wait until CRISPR can edit your genes, or those of your kids. We might not have a cure for cancer yet but we’re getting really good at treating a number of different kinds of cancer. They’re even getting better at treating progeria–the syndrome that makes little kids age rapidly? Now imagine taking that and treating humans that are aging at a regular rate.

Better Space stuff? I guess the James Webb telescope is only a bigger version of the Hubble, but we are on the precipice of private industry making asteroid mining and flights to Mars possible. Manned flights, too. That is without really wild stuff like the emdrive being proved…but if it was proved, that would be a game changer!

Cyberpunk stuff? Kids are puffing on vapers while saving up for VR or AR kits. Plus the Internet of Things is starting to gear up.

General Motors is forecasting exclusively electric cars instead of fossil fuel motors in the next 20 years!

I think by the time Halley’s Comet comes back, Earth and human society will be a far different place than the last time it was here.

It was really a question about literary approach. SciFi writers, obviously, aren’t tasked with inventing new technologies. Rather, it’s their choice in how to give a sense of time, via technology, in their writing. Many have, frankly, chosen to ignore the march of technology across time. Stardates, in Star Trek for example, are really just arbitrary numbers. You could usually locate almost any Star Trek story in any Star Trek era.

But as per Ginger_Yellow’s comment, when I’m thinking of evolving technology, it doesn’t have to be leaps and bounds, but it should be different in kind at least in some degree to give a sense of change (e.g., holodecks were a new thing introduced in TNG that weren’t in TOS). This is opposed to things like Warp 7 versus Warp 8, which is just a stat tweak.

I was speculating the other day how Earth might look in 300 years, post oil. I think it’s going to look quite different than people think,.

I don’t think we are ever going to replace fossil fuels as a dense energy source. There is just too much time required to concentrate that much energy. I don’t think we will be able to overcome it. So no warp drives, no interstellar travel, none of that.

Instead I think we will return to animal power for plowing fields, harvesting, etc. Along with this will come a gradual population decline over several generations. We will probably peak at 9-10 billion people and then those people just wont’ be able to survive and procreate. There may be some starvation, or there may just be a cultural shift to have less kids (or no kids) and decrease the population. There will be some instability, etc.

But here is the thing. We will never return to a caveman like existence. Our ancestors are not going to lose the knowledge we are building up, and we are not going to lose advances in governance, laws, psychology, sociology, game theory . . . hell even simple things like mathematical advances will remain and be passed on.

So it’s kind of going to be like a second Renaissance. We will have a smaller, more capable, more enlightened population. Just a smaller one, because we will not be able to sustain our current lifestyle post fossil fuels. I think we will look like feudal knights but behave like a functional modern democracy, with all of the knowledge we have now, just not the ability to put all that knowledge to use because of energy limitations.

Relatively few are telling stories over that kind of time scale, to be honest. It does come up in some specific works. The Forever War, obviously. The BSG reboot used it as a plot device and budget excuse. And Transmetropolitan has a good line in future shock.

I do not think the universe is so badly designed as to make those things impossible. Fusion, for instance, can replace fossil fuels as a high density energy source, far greater than that of current fossil fuels. I believe that FTL drive is just a matter of time, not a matter of if.

I’d have to check, but I thought the sort of energy people are talking about for keeping a macro scale wormhole open, which is what we really mean by warp drives, was on the order of a Dysonsphere, not a fusion reactor.

A couple of polite refutations.

  1. The Universe (IMO) was not designed, it just is. Therefore there is no magic secret to unlock. There are just things that happen. This obviates the “but what’s the purpose then” angles…

  2. Just because something exists in nature, or even as a theory, doesn’t mean we will ever be able to replicate or achieve it. I highly doubt we will be able to get sustainable fusion going. Fusion exists at the sun because there is so much mass there. There is a crapton(that’s the scientific term) of hydrogen in the sun, raw hydrogen doing its thing and becoming helium due to great forces caused by huge masses and actions. I don’t see us replicating it for more than a lab second. As for warp drive, Relativity thinks that’s impossible. I mean, we can dream up a Dyson sphere but we will never build one.