Technology and science fiction

As a kid I imagined one day we’d all be walking around with pocket-size TVs, literally TVs, it didn’t occur to little me that there might be other uses for mobile devices. Now we have pocket-size devices you can watch TV on, but most of us probably aren’t using our smartphones to catch up on daytime TV, though little me was probably more interested in He-man and Transformers, with a side serve of Thundercats.
As a science fiction writer, and even as a technical writer, I like gadgets. In my day job I get paid to describe how things (software) works, but in my fiction writing I often have to fight the urge to do the same. In A God-Blasted Land the main character can jam electrical currents, rendering electrical devices useless, at one point he needs to stop somebody from identifying his companion with a bio-scanner. In the early drafts of the story I went into great detail about this device, describing among other things, how it was powered, collected samples, connected with a satellite to query a remote database, and so on, all so that the reader would understand exactly how Avril (our reckless hero) was able to disrupt the device.

Luckily, one of my earlier readers read this thoughtfully crafted technological description and asked:

Do I need to know any of this?

And followed it up with:

Couldn’t you just say he jammed it?

And you know what? I realized I could and that most readers would probably be thankful I did.

Another reason to avoid involved technological descriptions, or even specific instances of technology – aside from putting non-techies to sleep – is to prevent the text from quickly going out of date.

If I write a novel today, set in 2020 that refers to characters using their iPhones, who is to say iPhones will even be around in 2020? All signs indicate they probably will be, but who knows for sure? Apple could go bust, or we could all be using d.evolution style implants for our communication and computing needs.

The generic term phone poses much less risk, and it seems unlikely (in most cases) that the brand of the phone will be critical to the story. The word phone already means something radically different to what it meant eight years ago, and its meaning will likely change again in the next eight years, but for anybody reading your fiction in eight years time an out of date reference to a once common instance of phone technology will probably only distract them from the story, whereas the generic phone won’t.