Saturday, October 8, 2016

What Tech Level is a Plot Hook?

Let me start by saying I dislike SF stories where the square jawed heroes find and figure out alien tech and even back engineer or mod it all before the last chapter/commercial break. I think this is mainly a feature of the more optimistic SF genres. It goes: society is changing so fast and technology progressing so swiftly there must be a fast answer to everything. Of course we can find out how this alien portal works pushing buttons! Just take notes.

BTW taking notes is always a good idea. Zaonia taught us that.

I'm more of David G. Potter's mindset: have the alien tech investigated on a space station dedicated to it with numerous safeguards and wired to a few gigaton nukes.

But there must be a middle ground between the incomprehensible, magical Forerunner tech and Og the caveman working out a smart phone. He uses the flashlight function to become high priest of course making the light which does not burn (move over Mightor!)

(If they were less advanced they might be a major power!)

Take my recent post topic Zaonia. The Zaonians have a technology level roughly equal to Earth in the 1930's. While most of the planet fits this description there are exceptions. On Earth today the Cern Particle accelerator might be the beginning of a new era of technology once it produces some physics we can monetize. A lot of Zaonia's success was due to more advanced cultures forgetting how much you might do with barbaric diesel engines and vacuum tubes (or pen and paper).

The Zaonians avoided a world war which is the dog's bollocks for progress. On the other hand Depression Era America didn't have contact with more advanced cultures. It doesn't mean the Zaonians by and large would understand how a smart phone works. On the other hand they could send people off world to study hot topics or hire offworlders to teach them. At the very least they could bring back information. That would be very important to them. Invasions do happen as they learned. Having an idea of higher tech capabilities is essential to defending against them.

Sometimes that's a hell of an advantage. Sometimes knowing something is possible is enough to get people to do it. Let's say that the EM drive is real and generates a repulsive force making lifters like Traveller's air/raft possible.  The initial tests for the drive required cutting edge machinery to sense,  out of the grasp of 1930's tech. But the actual lifting technology is fairly simple and could be reproduced with crude transistors or even vacuum tubes. The thing is you'd never realize it without the research made possible with extremely sensitive measuring devices.

So the Zaonians have aeros. They aren't as powerful as the ones that came out at the end of the Information Age. They don't go as far or as fast and they can break down more often (glass vacuum tubes). But they have them and authorities and some special forces use them for showing off or high priority missions. Some more unscrupulous types merely buy them offworld and doctor them to appear local. Having that made on Zaonia stamp is important.

There are all manner of pieces of technology that are reproduced fairly simply on our own world. Mac 10s  were crafted by local metal workers in the Phillipines to arm their rebellion in the 90's. The weapon was mostly sheet metal parts. On the other hand no one knows precisely how Bronze Age chemists created Greek Fire, a powerful incendiary weapon. Some things are just stumbled upon and appear sooner or later than you might expect.

I'm pretty sure Civil War era technology could make a crude fission bomb. But as I said that would probably never occur to a culture at that stage of development. So much of the research required advanced technology. But once that research is done and available ...

(Can you say Dieselpunk? The Zaonian Aero-Coup!)

In many cases building something might be a matter of using advanced materials from a higher technology or unobtainium, carbon nanotubes or diamond filaments. Building a manpowered aircraft is just a matter of making it light enough for example. In some cases bioengineered materials might provide these materials.

In summary a world's tech level doesn't begin to describe everything they are capable of. They might be constructing things that have the star trader types scratching their heads. I love the idea of vacuum tubes generating lifter energy.