Department header
Bewildering Stories

The Chips Are Up

The Role of Technology in Science Fiction

by Don Webb

One of our Review Editors remarks about Gary Clifton’s “The Never Index,” in issue 567, “The chip implant secret info was a bit of a stretch.” Now that is certainly true. It recalls an old saying: “To err is human. To really mess things up, you need a computer.”

In “The Never Index,” Elena, a secret agent, has a chip implant that contains complete information about her side’s military dispositions and plans. As a captive, she will be more valuable a prize than the enemy could have imagined.

And that is the stretch: what on earth could Elena’s superior officers have been thinking, to put such information at risk of capture? Or were they thinking at all? The story does seem to make that point; the officers in the “top brass” are as incredibly careless about security as they are callously indifferent to their human “assets.”

* * *

The chip’s contents are the important thing, but let’s look at the container. Does anyone think it strange that a secret agent would have an computer-chip implant in the first place? In today’s popular culture — especially television and even “mainstream” literature — the technology is still considered futuristic, but it is taken for granted.

How times have changed. A computer-chip implant may be no great stretch in and of itself — today. But until relatively recently, it was inconceivable. Let’s take a historical overview.

Some 360 years ago, Cyrano de Bergerac did not “invent” computers in literature, but he did imagine the Walkman or iPod. Today’s computers would have mystified almost everybody, but they would have come as no great surprise to him or, probably, to his contemporary Blaise Pascal, who devised a calculating machine.

Sixty years ago, in the 1950’s, computers were just beginning to emerge on the horizon of science fiction. The very term “computer” was not yet in common parlance; writers often had to invent terms of their own. And the computers, whatever their name, used vacuum tubes — or “valves” — because the transistor was not yet in use.

Indeed, a science fiction story in the 1950’s had a primitive version of Elena’s memory chip. People carried portable memory recorders in satchels, and the recorders used magnetic tape. Even Cyrano’s technology was more advanced.

Forty years ago, in the mid-1970’s, the personal computer — thanks, Apple — made “chips” practical. Henceforth, science fiction writers knew how computers worked. It was easy to imagine a chip that had any amount of storage and could even be made an implant.

Today, we can reasonably expect that technology will once again outstrip science fiction. We might even ask, “Elena has a memory implant? Where can I get one?”

Tomorrow, if and when room-temperature — or perhaps body-temperature — superconductivity makes quantum-computer implants possible, the enhancements enjoyed by Martin Kerharo’s Jane and the space-alien Dohani will seem downright ordinary.

* * *

Science fiction and technology seem to proceed at a walking pace; one or the other is the foot forward at any given moment. For example, in “That Monkey is a Spanish Physicist,” we find the note:

Cyrano carefully refrains from mentioning the name of the Spanish gentleman, who is none other than Domingo Gonsales, the hero of Francis Godwin’s “Man in the Moone” (1638). Gonsales was carried to the Moon by a flock of geese. Godwin’s story reads like a fairy tale today, but it is based on Galilean physics and Copernicus’ heliocentric model. In its time it was cutting-edge science fiction.

Cyrano may have been a little miffed that Godwin’s Gonsales had beaten him to the Moon. But Godwin was using “current technology,” and Cyrano was not about to be outdone by any garden-variety geese. He invented an entire future technology: balloons, aircraft, and the multi-stage rocket. In the process, he recapitulated the history of flight in the 20th century — three hundred years in advance. Were Cyrano’s literary “inventions” a stretch? Most certainly they were — at the time. Today we admire his prescience.

How does science fiction see the 24th century? If Star Trek is any guide, it looks a lot like the 1990’s with such additions as androids, cyborgs, holograms, replicators, warp speed, wormholes, temporal anomalies and universal translators. Cyrano would appreciate the technology, but he would not be overly impressed. He would ask, “Where are your Societies and Governments of the Moon?”

The moral seems to be: use current technology, if you must; improve on it, if you can. Is your dramatic device not yet a real gizmo? Do you not know how it might function? Don’t worry; somebody is — or will be — working to “make it so.”

The essential thing is to let your characters go where they need to go and do what they have to do. If they need technology, borrow it or invent it. Make sure it is not simply wishful thinking and that it works self-consistently. As long as you make it do only what it logically can do, readers will go along for the ride. Then you can follow Cyrano’s example and take them to “the Other World.”

* * *

Now, are you satisfied with that conclusion? I am not. The essay has proved what ought to be obvious but is often overlooked: technology is sometimes necessary as a dramatic device, but otherwise it’s irrelevant. Rather, the science fiction that deserves to be remembered shows us what “the other world” is. Cyrano, Voltaire’s “Micromégas” and others do that in grand style.

Gary Clifton’s “The Never Index” at least shows us a world that is so disturbingly like our own that we would do well to fear it. What “other worlds” give us not only cautionary tales but images of a more desirable future?

Copyright © 2014 by Don Webb

Home Page