Has it ever struck you how many science fiction novels and movies feature planets with only one notable feature? Our Earth has seas, deserts, grasslands, frozen wastes, tropical forests, mountain ranges, and a lot more. Yet novelists and scriptwriters get lazy and offer us single-type planets with no variety: all-desert planets (like Dune or Tatooine—in fact the Star Wars universe has lots of all-water planets, too), all-frozen planets, or all-jungle planets. Yes, you can find them in reality: Mars is mostly desert. But even Mercury has now been found to have an ice cap (and not the Tim Horton’s kind).

A similar thing happens with technology. The storyteller whips up one big technological breakthrough and then tells only one story associated with it. The reality is that technology breakthroughs are like oases: you start with a pool of water and a patch of damp grass, and before long you have a whole ecosystem: not just beautiful birds but also rats and lice. We’re seeing that kind of tech shift right now with 3D printing. It’s not just for making model renderings of prototype inventions, but also consumer products, prosthetics and false teeth, cars, houses, even human organs (though not viable ones quite yet) and...plastic weapons for criminals. Sure, an author has to keep a story to one or two main plotlines, but we owe it to the integrity of our work and to our readers to flesh out our created worlds with mentions of spin-off tech.

We’re now witnessing the development of prosthetic eyes that enable the blind to see with reasonable resolution and some colour distinction, and cochlear implants that permit the deaf to hear. Yet we know from experience that it won’t be enough to merely replace the senses of sight and hearing, we’ll soon enhance them. What form will that take, and to what uses will it be put? If you’re from my generation you’ll be picturing Six Million Dollar Man Steve Austin visually zooming in on the bad guys with his bionic eye, or Jaime Sommers using her enhanced ear to detect approaching danger. And it may be true that quasi-military operatives will be among the first to use tech like this. But what about when it becomes widespread? The ability to see wavelengths of light beyond normal human range would be a big plus for forensic crime scene investigators (following a blood trail only visible in ultraviolet, perhaps), geological surveyors and agriculture specialists, maybe even urban traffic analysts and security surveillance monitors. Augmented hearing might allow industrial inspectors to walk through factories and hear worn or off-balance mechanical connections before they fail, search and rescue teams to locate lost hikers, or utility workers to retrieve a puppy trapped in a drainpipe. Since you’d have the advanced technology hooked up to a highly-sophisticated processor—the human brain—real-time on-scene analysis of extra-sensory data would be a boon for dozens of occupations, and would probably foster new jobs we’ve never thought of.

On the darker side, new technology for exchanging money using your smartphone or an ID chip implanted under your skin opens up a whole new range of opportunities for personal robbery, identity theft, spoofing of security systems (making it much easier to frame someone else for a crime?), and the abuse of citizens’ rights by overzealous government organizations.

New liquid biopsy procedures quickly screen DNA from a blood sample for the tell-tale signs of cancer. But as screening becomes available for more and more diseases and genetic conditions we see the specter of human genetic selection raising its head. How much will we really want to know our likelihood of succumbing to any number of specific health problems—not based on generic population statistics, but our own genetic markers? How will that change the way we live our lives? As more and more diseases are detected early and treated more effectively, how will our society handle the demands that come from greatly extended lifespans and dwindling death rates?

For writers, there’s a whole additional level of world-building implied by each significant innovation. Daunting, sure. But just think of the fun! And not a bad way to kill a few hours when your muse is on a lunch break.


When I stumbled onto an article on the website BuzzFeed called “27 Science Fictions That Became Science Facts In 2012” it got me thinking about that term “science fiction”. What the writer meant (I assume) was that these 27 things that had previously only been predicted had at last become reality (except that’s not nearly so catchy as a headline). Not everything was gadgetry or bioscience. The article mentioned the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle—theoretical physics, yes, science fiction, not really. Still, I expect most people think of SF as a literature that’s about predicting new technology. It can, and often does, but that’s not really the point. The most interesting science fiction extrapolates how such developments will change our lives.

As an example, the article describes the newest prosthetic limbs operated directly by the patient’s brain, and electronic implants that give sight to the blind. Well, SF predicted high-tech prosthetic devices decades ago, but the stories arise from trying to foresee how the arrival of such technology will affect our world. The implications and ramifications are what’s interesting.

I mentioned in a recent post that such high tech devices can often be hacked—let your imagination run on that possibility. Will the proliferation of “bionic” limbs and eyes and ears create a new class of citizen? Before you laugh, consider that governments love to require us to have special licenses to operate complex devices. Are you sure robotic legs would be any different? And is it much of a stretch to say that such specialized licenses might imply defined categories of personhood? If prosthetics do end up providing an advantage in strength and speed (like the Six Million Dollar Man) then people with them will be in demand for certain activities and likely banned from others (in the interest of fairness). Will you need to get special insurance for your electronic eye? Will your life insurance policy pay out if your mechanical leg fails while you’re crossing a busy street? We can assume there would soon be a black market for prostheses and their parts. Would there be a thriving used market, too? What would happen to people whose body part replacements need maintenance or repairs for which they can’t afford to pay? Repossession? Perhaps indentured service until the debt is repaid?

The BuzzFeed article also touched on an experiment that extended the lifespan of mice to three times their normal age. That’s science. The science fiction writer would explore how our society would be changed if certain members of it, through wealth or privilege, could live three times as long as the rest of us. There would be no question of different classes then. The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few would make today’s wealthy one percent look like pikers. Inheritance laws would be thrown into chaos. The long-lived might have to escape the wrath of normal people by changing their identity several times throughout their lives. Could we expect marriages to last more than two centuries? Would they become afraid to take risks with so much more life to lose?

I don’t claim that any of my speculations above will come true, but that’s when science fiction is at its best. Not so much predicting technology or other developments, but helping us to see what the implications of such things might be so we can make choices about them in advance before hard decisions are thrust upon us.

And let’s face it, for both writers and readers, the speculating is just plain fun.