Chris Farnell has written about technology and fiction (and sometimes both together) for Hack Circus, ARC, Maker World and more, as well as giving talks, workshops and the occasional exhibition. He will be talking more about the science fiction of existing technology in “How To Invent The Wheel: Why You Should Write Sci-Fi About Existing Technology”, part of the Creative Writing stream at Nine Worlds. Dirty Work, a collection of his fiction, is on sale now.
According to Isaac Asimov, science fiction can be defined as "that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology”. As sci-fi definitions go this one is interesting, because Asimov doesn’t specify that it has to be ‘future’ or ‘non-existent’ technology…
Singing in the Rain is about as pure a science fiction story as you can get. It’s set in the aftermath of the relatively new technology (cinema) and deals with the social consequences of that technology (the sudden existence of movie stars and the difference between their public and private personas). The plot is thrown into motion by the invention of yet another technology (talkies) which creates problems for one of the characters (Lina Lamont can’t sing). But more than that, the solution is a technological one as well. To solve the problem, the characters invent the process of dubbing another actor's voice onto the soundtrack. Basically, as movies go, this one has more science fiction than Star Wars.
The Evolution Man (Or How I Ate My Father) by Roy Lewis
The Evolution Man is, in many ways, the original science fiction story. It tells the story a group of cavemen, including one unorthodox and widely disapproved of patriarch, Edward, who has a claim to being humanity’s first ever mad inventor, and like any inventor, he pisses people off by changing the way they live. The conservative Uncle Vanya says of the invention of fire “This could end anywhere. It affects everybody. Even me. You might burn down the forest with it.”
But these inventions aren’t just fire and pointed sticks. Science fiction can be social as well as technological. Just as today people cling to the idea of heterosexual, monogamous nuclear families, in The Evolution Man characters protest, “People always mate with their sisters. It’s the done thing.” Only for Edward to respond, “Not any more. Exogamy begins right here.”
Of course, for a far shorter version of the same story, you can also look at Dresden Codak’s Caveman Science Fiction cartoon.
The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster
Of all the stories here I think this one is the biggest stretch, in that the technology described doesn’t technically exist, but I challenge you to read it and not feel a shiver of recognition. I did, but then, I first read this story at work after the company email went down, making any work at all impossible. Written in 1909, without the benefit of very complicated calculating machines, let alone computers or an internet, Forster still manages to write the first story about social media. You can read the whole thing here, from your box.
Making Money by Terry Pratchett
The Discworld books are all-out fantasy, and there are people who believe you can’t have a fantasy story with wizards and trolls and giant turtles that is also a great example of hard science fiction. They are silly people.
Lots of the Discworld books focus on how the Discworld responds to the introduction of a technology we already think of as commonplace. Moving Pictures shows us the Discworld responding to cinema, Men at Arms sees the Discworld briefly possess its first gun, The Truth gives us the Discworld’s first printing press and newspaper. In fact Making Money is the second in a trilogy, following Going Postal, which has the Discworld responding to the invention of “Clacks Towers”, their equivalent of the telegram, and also the internet, and coming before Raising Steam, where the Discworld enters the steam age.
But Making Money shows us that money itself is a pretty science fictional invention all on its own. Pratchett shows us, in devastating fashion, that our entire economy is based on a bunch of impossible-to-keep promises that we just sort of agree to imagine will be honoured. And he does it by having the Discworld invent that system for themselves.
"The Argonauts of the Air" by H.G. Wells
This wasn’t by any means Wells’ only story about flight. The War in the Air is his more famous one, written in 1907, and now seems an eerily prophetic portrayal of how planes would be used in the Great War (even if the German air raids on New York are more like alternate history).
But I prefer this story, published in 1895 and concerned entirely with the experimental first flight of an aircraft. You can read the whole thing here. Because of its narrow focus it hasn’t even dated. The plot is simple (and I just linked you to the whole story, so don’t complain about spoilers). An engineer builds and test flies an aircraft. It doesn’t end well. That’s all that happens.
But the final paragraph is poetry. So much sci-fi follows the Caveman Science Fiction path of “Scientist invents thing. Thing goes wrong with terrible consequences. See what you get for trying to learn KNOWLEDGE?"
Wells follows the first two points, but then says that the gory details don’t belong in this story (despite the fact he lists them comprehensively), because it “was written only to tell how the first of all successful flying-machines was launched and flew. Though he failed, and failed disastrously, the record of Monson’s work remains a sufficient monument - to guide the next of that band of gallant experimentalists who will sooner or later master this great problem of flying.”
That’s a moral that we could stand to see more of in science fiction.