Author Julie Hyzy uses examples from popular books and films that incorporate fictional technology to understand what makes for appealing, believable tech-dependent stories.
Have you ever walked through doors that whooshed open at your approach? Sent an email? Texted a friend? Had your temperature by a touchless thermometer? Going back a bit deeper, have you ever watched a movie on your TV? Listened to music on a record player? Driven a car? Flicked a switch to make the lights come on?
We’re living a sci-fi reality that our great-grandparents likely never imagined. We regularly interact with technology that, at some point in in history, was considered unattainable. Perhaps even foolish or absurd. The stuff of imaginative fiction.
But, as they often do, clever people came up with ways to bring these outlandish ideas to life.
Which is why I’m always surprised when readers—all of whom carry cell phones, own computers, and travel by air—shake their heads and say, “I don’t like science fiction.”
When I ask why not, they usually tell me that they don’t enjoy stories that they don’t understand, or that SF is too tech-y for their tastes.
Fair enough. People like what they like.
But then how to explain the acceptance—scratch that—the overwhelming adoration for films like E.T., Star Wars, or Back to the Future? Books like The Time Traveler’s Wife, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fahrenheit 451, Ender’s Game, Frankenstein, The Handmaid’s Tale, Jurassic Park, Flowers for Algernon, Station Eleven, or those in the Hunger Games series? Even the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, contained elements of science fiction.
What is it about these stories that makes them so beloved? And, how can I—an author known mostly for writing mysteries—create a techno-thriller that’s appealing to all readers, even those who usually shy away from SF?
I decided to examine why the above stories (and others) were so successful and I came up with some common denominators:
1. For tech that hasn’t been invented yet, liken it to something familiar in order make it more accessible.
Have you ever started reading a novel only to find it loaded with technical jargon? Or one so confusing it made you dizzy? I have. And unless an author provides solid handrails to keep me on a story’s path, I’ll toss books like those aside.
While there are plenty of tech-interested readers out there, the majority of the reading population will not care about how a particular piece of technology works—what they care about is how that technology affects the characters. Limit your tech jargon to only story-critical details.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and other contestants battle for their lives in sophisticated arenas designed by gamemakers. Author Suzanne Collins doesn’t go through the schematics of these arenas. Why should she? Readers know what arenas are and even though Collins presents us with a futuristic version, we’re comfortable with using our experience as a starting point. Collins also doesn’t explain the mechanics behind the arenas’ forcefields. Would we even want that level of detail?
My new novel, Virtual Sabotage, opens by comparing cellphones (familiar) to brain-powered virtual reality (futuristic). Making my new tech accessible in this way, I hope to encourage all readers to dive into the story.
2. Go light on the details. No, seriously.
Tied closely with the idea of keeping tech accessible to all readers is the idea of providing the right amount of detail. In tech-based novels, more is not necessarily better. Do we need to know the specifics of the surgery Charlie Gordon undergoes in Flowers for Algernon? Or is it enough to simply understand its consequences? I’d argue for the latter.
In Colson Whitehead’s book, The Underground Railroad, set during the dark days of slavery in the United States, Whitehead imagines the renowned escape network as an actual subterranean locomotive with platforms, engineers, and boxcars. Whitehead’s titular railroad provides the means for Cora to flee from her pursuers yet the specifics of its construction or how it even came to be are virtually ignored. The railroad isn’t the book’s central focus. It exists solely to support the characters’ stories. Whitehead trusts his readers to fill in the blanks where necessary. As he should. Readers tend to appreciate a bit of mystery as long as a writer performs feats of misdirection well. Too much explanation could spoil the magic.
This is why, in Virtual Sabotage, I chose to have Virtu-Tech’s technology connect directly into participants’ brains. Supporting science isn’t there yet—there’s still much we don’t understand about the workings of our minds—but that’s exactly why the concept works. Because the human brain is not yet completely understood, there’s plenty of wiggle room for imaginative possibilities.
3. Name your fictional technology.
It’s your tech. You invented it. Give it a name. One that’s easy to relate to. Think of it this way: In Star Trek, The Next Generation novels, when Jean-Luc Picard orders up his Earl Grey, the author doesn’t need to explain how the beverage appears. Picard uses a replicator. The tech has a name. Once terms are made clear, readers easily follow along. Think about how J.K. Rowling got us to understand what muggles, floo powder, and horcruxes were. Referring back to The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins uses familiar words to help readers understand the concepts she’s created. The Cornucopia (symbolic of plenty) is where participants can find food, supplies, and weapons. Tracker Jackers (the term conjures up visions of yellowjackets) are genetically modified wasps whose stings are often fatal.
And, from yet another universe entirely (the Back to the Future movies), one of my favorites: Doc Brown’s Flux Capacitor. Genius tech-naming there!
4. Stick to the rules you've established.
You’ve undoubtedly heard of world-building in fantasy novels and how important it is to keep your new universe’s rules in mind when you’re establishing setting.
Readers need to be grounded in reality before they feel comfortable enough to move into a world that’s wholly made up. Tech-based tales are no different. When an author has written himself into a corner, it’s tempting to simply invent a new rule to solve the plot problem. Deus ex machina is one of the most reader-disappointing examples of this. But even small scenes need to play by your universe’s rules. Remember the 1960s Batman movie? Batman dangles from the Batcopter, asking Robin to hand down the shark repellent Bat Spray that they just happened to have on board. That show got away with such antics because it was presented as pure camp. An author who regularly relies on easy shortcuts may find his or her credibility diminished.
5. Finally, the most important tech-in-fiction advice I can offer is this: When in doubt, remember that it’s always, always about the characters.
No matter how amazing the technology, a story’s success depends on its humanity. Would Guy Montag’s transformation in Fahrenheit 451 have been believable without Clarisse’s influence? What makes these characters so compelling is that we can relate to them. We see Montag at home with Mildred, his withdrawn, vapid, and depressed wife. The tech that surrounds them isn’t the focus. Her distance from reality is. The super-surround TV, the machines that assist with household chores, Mildred’s interaction with fantasy beings are all there as background for the Montags’ unhappy marriage. Spirited and curious Clarisse, by contrast, lives genuinely, eschewing what the rest of society embraces. And Guy Montag finds himself caught between these two worlds. The book isn’t about the technology. It’s about choices.
While there is a wide variety of tech-based novels out there, I find that the ones I’m most drawn to are those that explore our humanity as we interact with machines—those that question what people will give up for the high of new entertainment or a tiny bit more convenience. Those are the topics I tackled as I wrote Virtual Sabotage. The tips above represent just some of the guidelines I kept in mind while creating Kenna Ward and her adventure. But this is my take on tech. You may approach such a project differently. What other tech-in-fiction guidelines would you suggest?
JULIE HYZY is a New York Times bestselling and Anthony Award-winning author. Her novels include the standalone techno-thriller, VIRTUAL SABOTAGE (October 23, 2018; Calexia Press), the White House Chef mystery series, the Manor of Murder mystery series and the Alex St. James mystery series. A Chicago native and graduate of Loyola University, she lives in the Chicagoland area with her husband. You can visit her at juliehyzy.com.