Low tech? In sci-fi?!

Science fiction is so often about cool new technology. But technology always has its limits. One interesting thing to consider in sci-fi is the tech you don’t have. What are the limits of the possible in a given universe? What are the limits in what has been invented so far? And what limits plague the characters themselves—what do they not have access to?

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com

The impossible

When creating a universe, you also get to create the laws of physics. This is why my books aren’t in a shared universe—some of them take place in a universe where faster-than-light travel is possible, and some do not!

So ask yourself what can be done in your universe. If it can’t be done at all, we can be confident that no one our characters meet will be doing it. (Then again, maybe it can be done and our characters just haven’t discovered it yet!)

In The Expanse, faster-than-light travel is not possible, but virtually infinite acceleration is. This affects everything that happens in the books. Some people might think it pedestrian to have sci-fi without warp drive. But these books show there’s an awful lot you can do just within our solar system.

Later, it turns out wormhole travel is possible. Obviously this changes the entire game, even while our characters still travel with their old Epstein drives most of the time.

In Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, it’s impossible to travel faster than light, but easy to communicate instantaneously using an ansible. This has massive effects on the universe. When characters are on a planet, they’re pretty much stuck there for the duration—but they can still phone home. Characters can get from one planet to another, but it takes years. Due to relativity, they don’t age as fast on the journey as people back home do. So traveling puts you out of sync with your loved ones. Obviously, few people do it because of this.

The forbidden

Another interesting question is, what can be done but isn’t? In Star Trek, genetic engineering is possible, but it’s highly illegal. As one might expect, it’s still totally done all the time . . . but with awful consequences when it does happen.

But I could easily imagine a society which banned the transporter instead. What if your soul isn’t reconstructed on the other side? What if it’s actually murder every time? Who would continue to use it, and would they get away with it?

In my Imperial Mars series, electricity is forbidden, with a few rare and strictly-controlled exceptions. You would think this would make the tech side less interesting, but in fact it’s enormous fun thinking of mechanical solutions to different needs. If you can have infinite tech so long as you don’t have to turn on a switch, what can you do? Fiber optic lights, crank fans, solar sails, an entire math-obsessed social class to run the numbers.

The unavailable

In Star Wars, tons of amazing tech exists. But what has Han Solo got? A janky hyperdrive. When the universe is full of possibility, it’s the ultimate underdog position not to have the great stuff the bad guys are using. It’ll take extra gumption and skill to win in that position—but your characters can do it.

One of the funnest parts of writing sci-fi is coming up with strategies that work around the tech you have available. So you don’t have a big gun like the baddies have. Could you accelerate a rock to high speeds? Lose them in an asteroid field? Fly up close so their gun turrets can’t aim at you?

Sometimes, there are advantages to not having the tech. Say most goods are transported instantaneously, while you are the equivalent of a space trucker. Who would hire you? Maybe people sending fragile goods that can’t handle being teleported. Or, more likely, contraband. The instant transporter scans the goods, and we can’t have that.

Common wisdom might suggest the more advanced tech always wins. But there’s more than tech contributing to any conflict. And sometimes, tech can be tricked. Ships that use scanners instead of human eyes might be fooled by clever strategies. A shield intended to block laser fire might not stop a single hijacker in a spacesuit. Many readers love the story of human ingenuity and courage beating technology. We like to know we aren’t obsolete.

* * *

So, consider the lack of tech in your worldbuilding. Cool gadgets aren’t everything, and there’s always a limit. Playing around with those limits can spawn endless plot ideas. Take your characters’ blasters away and see what happens!

In other news, my book is available for preorder now and it’s climbing the ranks on Amazon. If you’ve been longing to see lesbian pirates swordfighting in space, your wait is drawing to an end!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s