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Article – “Science Fiction, Fantasy, Artifacts & Gadgets: Just the Basics” by Craig Allen

It is hard to say exactly when the genre of Science Fiction first began, but it is relatively easy to identify the moment when gadgets or machines first appeared. Although there may have been others, the first significant machine appeared in 1865 when Jules Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon. A few years later H G Wells constructed The Time Machine, and the inclusion of futuristic machines and gadgets was off and running.

With the rapid advance of the industrial revolution in the late 1800’s, real-life machines and gadgets became more and more common, and writers began to seriously explore what the machines of the future might be able to do. Wells had defined time travel, and Verne had begun the exploration of space – two of the most enduring sub-genres, and two that always require some sort of machine.

The connection between Fantasy and machines or artifacts is a bit more difficult to define. Homer’s Odyssey includes many mythical creatures, but his “machines” were largely limited to real things like ships reflecting the reality of the times. George MacDonald’s Phantastes, written in 1858, is often considered the first true Fantasy novel but it didn’t include many such things.

As the genre developed, the traditions of mechanisms within the genre seem to have become focused around two major ideas: futuristic weapons and discovered artifacts. The weapons are usually similar to something available in real life, albeit often with some added capability. The artifacts are often something with truly advanced technology discovered amongst the debris of a past earth-based civilization, usually left by a previously-undetected alien encounter.

Even pseudo-scientific publications have tried to cash in on this idea, with Erich von Dänikan postulating that Mayan stone carvings may actually be representations of men riding in space ships, while the huge images and lines on the desert at Nasca, Peru were interpreted to be directions to the spaceport. Although his work was later debunked, the idea has persisted in the genre, making regular appearances as a way to explain something considered otherwise unexplainable. It’s impossible to count the number of times that aliens helped built the pyramids in Egypt or Stonehenge in Great Britain.

None of this is really new, for even way back in ancient Greece, Euripides and other dramatists used, and abused, the concept of Deus ex machina. Since that time, the over-use of this plot device has made most readers skeptical, or even nauseous, when it suddenly appears.

With all this history, many authors consider the inclusion of a machine an easy way to move their story beyond the bounds of modern society and into the realms of Fantasy or Science Fiction. However, utilizing this concept requires more than a good imagination. There are rules, and the author who violates them can discover difficulties that no magical machine can rationally resolve. For the sake of this discussion, let’s consider both “gadgets” and “artifacts” as “machines.” You can decide which term better describes your own situation.

So, what are the rules? Here’s a quick review.

Rule Number 1, the most basic: Before you start, decide if your machine is a plot device or a character

In The Time Machine, the machine is simply a plot device, allowing the Traveler to do something otherwise impossible. The machine does its job well, and the reader almost forgets it is around. In the same way, the spacecraft in From the Earth to the Moon is just another transportation device. Once the reader understands the function of a machine, it simply fades into the background, and that’s fine.

We are content that a character simply uses the machine much the same as we drive a car, and the magical machine should perform in exactly the same way, regardless of its function. A good example, though not fiction, would be Apollo 13, where the spacecraft, even though crippled, remains a simple container where the human drama plays out. The only reference beyond that is the final goodbye, issued as the Lunar Lander is jettisoned just prior to re-entry.

In the original Stargate movie, archeologists uncover the transit mechanism. While its original purpose is not initially obvious, it is evident that it’s not simply some other artifact from the earlier culture. We accept its existence because no one pretends it’s a native element. As a “foreign object” we simply wonder what it does, and once deciphered it becomes a pure plot device. All the rest is just normal human conduct, with confrontations between cultures and desires for power, domination, and control.

On the other hand, robots, or their more modern counterpart androids, are best written as characters. When the venerable Robby the Robot, introduced in the movie Forbidden Planet, first appeared, he had no verbal skills but he did understand language. He could interact with the human characters, and provides all sorts of opportunities for conflict. While he was not the first – Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still probably deserves that honor – he was certainly not the last time artificial life characters have appeared.

Roy Batty, the leader of the rebellious replicants in Blade Runner and Bishop, the “artificial human” from Alien are other great examples of machines as characters, and Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation might just be the ultimate incarnation of this device. As characters, these machines provide not only conflict and assistance, they can also make great comic foils, simply because they may understand language a bit too literally.

Batty was as conflicted as any human character, knowing his days were numbered, yet placing great value on life itself. Commander Data can periodically make observations about human behavior that we wouldn’t accept from any other human, getting away with it because we know he’s not human. Though not a machine, Spock could sometimes do the same thing.

Make no mistake. We all know these are machines, even if they aren’t revealed as such immediately. However, because they are written as characters, they succeed in blending into the story differently. They cannot simply be plot devices.

We all know that rules are made to be broken, and this rule is no exception. There are machines that begin life as a plot device and then morph into characterhood. Usually this happens because something within them goes terribly wrong.

When we are first introduced to Hal in 2001, he is simply an advanced computer that talks. He seems prideful, citing his own ability to monitor every function of the Discovery, but we are told that his emotions (supposedly) aren’t real; he’s just programmed that way. However, as the story moves forward, Hal becomes a character, complete with the flaws and vulnerabilities usually reserved for human creatures.

If you carry the story forward to 2010, we discover that Hal has some serious personality disorders, caused, of course, by the humans who have misused him for their own purposes. Some things never change. All too often the transition from plot device to character is based upon the machine malfunctioning, thereby placing other characters in danger. It’s been overused, but if done well it can still be effective.

So, assuming you’ve made your decision about plot device vs. character, what are the other rules?

Rule number 2: Make the machine reasonable

No one has ever invented a machine that does everything, so don’t try. The tricorder does some wonderful things, but it’s not a weapon and it can’t create a limitless supply of food or conjure a nice warm tent if you’re stranded on some remote planet. It’s fine to create a 24th century Swiss Army Knife, but keep it reasonable.

Remember, if your machine starts to become a do-everything creation, the credibility of the whole story starts to dissolve. Batman wears a utility belt with lots of different stuff, because one size doesn’t fit all. McGyver always had to scrounge something because he didn’t have the perfect solution at hand.

Keep those examples in mind when you create your marvelous futuristic gadget. Allow it to perform one core function. If you want to make it seem more reasonable, allow it to fail now and then. Some mornings you go outside to find your car won’t start. Use that, and your creation will seem all the more plausible. There might be nothing better than to find your phaser doesn’t work until you bang it against a nearby rock wall. Real stuff tends to work like that.

Along these same lines, multiple machines should be consistent also. If your 24th century society has all the latest things, then they probably don’t have electric can openers. It’s unreasonable to expect your readers to accept gross incongruities like that. If you’re creating a world, make it internally consistent.

In fantasy, the same rule applies. In Phillip Pullman’s book The Northern Lights, published in the US as The Golden Compass, we are introduced to the Alethiometer, an artifact that in the hands of a trained observer supposedly helps discern the truth. Exactly how it works is never really described, but the mechanical aspects are fairly simple. That allows us to accept the other technology in the book, namely rather primitive airships operated by “aeronauts.” Consistency, or lack thereof, is the bugaboo of many an author, and the use of machines is a great place to trip up.

Rule number 3: Make the machine believable

Weapons look like weapons. Guns look like guns. If you’re going to create a new weapon, make it look something like a weapon. It probably needs a handgrip of some sort, maybe a “barrel” and some sort of aiming device. If you make it look like a water glass, the reader will struggle to understand how it can possibly do what you say. Stick with the old architectural concept: Form follows function.

If you’re building a ground transportation device, make it look something like a car, motorcycle, bus or train. If it doesn’t require wheels, that’s fine. But unless you’re violating the most basic laws of gravity, remember it needs something to hold it up when it’s not moving. Bicycles need kickstands, right? Luke’s speeder looks a whole lot like a car, so we can accept the idea that it has some sort of anti-gravity force field underneath it. Similarly, most of the flying machines featured in Star Wars bear some resemblance to planes that we’ve seen.

On the other hand, the walkers that appeared in The Empire Strikes Back bear no resemblance to anything known, with the possible except of a medieval siege tower. They do, however, seem consistent with other things in the movies so we accept them as plausible, and it’s almost impossible to look at an AT-AT now and not notice similarities with the monstrous mammoths employed in The Return of the King. The ideas of the future are firmly rooted in the past.

Rule number 4: There are bonus points for using real science

Historically, the big science fiction blockbusters based their machines upon something considered unattainable. Traveling at greater than the speed of light is still considered impossible, so writers discovered worm holes. Frank Herbert, writing in Dune, decided if the distance was too great, it was easier to simply “fold space” although the exact meaning of this term is left unexplained. 2001 featured space vehicles and stations that utilized the obvious solutions to a lack of gravity.

A few years ago the science fiction genre seemed to hit a wall, and more than one author or group announced that they simply could no longer exceed what science itself was doing. Arthur C Clarke, the author of 2001 and sometimes described as a futurist, stated it simply: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” If you follow developments in science closely, you know there is a lot of truth in that perspective. However, there’s so much new stuff out there that you can easily use the cutting edge as a foundation for the ordinary and mundane in your created world. Let’s look at a few ideas.

Whereas earlier generations concentrated on making big machines – space ships, huge cities, and submarines – the future today might be to go small. Nano technology is a Big Thing right now, and there are new breakthroughs announced every day. However, like a lot of research science, that doesn’t mean discoveries are immediately translated into objects for daily use. So, the door is standing wide open.

How about a nano-machine that can break down molecules of carbon dioxide, releasing the oxygen while limiting the effects of greenhouses gases and confronting the Climate Change problems? Why not?

Miniature “operating” robots that can be injected into the blood stream and steered to the site of an injury? To a degree that’s been done in fiction, but I’ll bet there are still opportunities around.

Clive Cussler had some machines that would melt ice and bring about the end of the world through rising sea levels, so you can have innocent machines be used to malevolent ends. Calling Dr Doom!

Maybe materials science is your playground. The first successes in creating systems that “bend light” and create invisibility have been announced, but that doesn’t mean the old invisibility cloak needs to be discarded. Harry Potter still seems to have the only real one, but there are other applications available. It’s not enough to write about one; figure out a unique way for it to further your story.

New advances in genetic knowledge open all sorts of vistas, and boy can technology like that get used for Bad Things. We probably don’t need another genetically-created monster, and genetics gone bad have pretty well been played out. Jurassic Park and its sequels taught us all not to fiddle with Mother Nature, so I really tend to think that further writing in that direction might well be an evolutionary dead end. But, maybe somewhere there waits a different take that will prove me wrong.

The brain-machine interface is becoming more and more realistic, along with thought-controlled machines – both external and implanted models. This is another one that may be overdone, but I don’t really believe it’s been exhausted. Just stay away from the artificial hand that suddenly turns on its owner.

If you want a continuous flow of great ideas, dig around Crossed Genres until you find the Science in My Fiction blog. There’s everything from soup to nuts in those postings, with more every few days.

Rule number 5: It’s not about the machine

This is the one rule that cannot be violated!

Remember that first and foremost, you’re telling a story. Like all stories, it has a beginning where you lay out the world. You have some characters. You introduce conflict. Your characters struggle to overcome the conflict. At some point, you reach a resolution.

Remember that regardless of everything else, successful stories are always about great storytelling. The machine, be it device or character, does not relieve you of that responsibility. Its inclusion won’t compensate for weak characters or gaping plot holes. In the end, the machine must serve the story.

When people left the theatre after watching Alien, the machines associated with space travel and the guns that fired some unknown projectile weren’t first and foremost in their memories. Most remembered vividly a new style of evil creature, and a cat that caused a lot of grief. They might also remember contribution made by Bishop, sacrificing himself to save Ripley. The idea that there were machines in the story took a backseat to some great storytelling, and that’s the highest compliment a gadget or artifact can ever receive.

In Wells’ The Time Machine, the central device is a machine built for time travel. However, if you set aside the machine and the brief periods when it is in use, you’ll discover that the heart of this novel is no different than any other piece of literature. There are “good people” and “evil people.” There is a race that lives in the light, and a race that lives in the darkness. The conflict is based upon the desire to dominate pitted against the desire to be free. It could just as easily be a wonderful story about life in the Third Reich…but it’s not.

All of those things are classic plot elements, but in the end, it’s all about great storytelling. The machine is simply a tool that allows those conflicts to occur in some other time and place. The sole direct effect of the machine is the question posed at the end: Which three books would you have taken?


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About the Author

Craig Allen is a wanna-be author who writes a lot, but has yet to find a way to make a living doing so. When he’s not laboring in his day job, he can be found either at his keyboard or in his shop where he attempts to create art using wood and other debris, usually found in places like Goodwill. He has a number of projects underway, and some might eventually be completed. Some probably won’t.

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