A contrast in how science and technology drives plot

In the past few months I’ve read two absolutely amazing science fiction books that I highly recommend: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie1 and The Martian by Andy Weir. Looking back on them, one of the fascinating things to me is how they use science and technology (hereafter S&T)2 to drive the plot.

Aside: this is a spoiler-free post, although it does talk about some overarching themes.

The plot of both books involve a study of the human condition. In The Martian it’s about human perseverance and ingenuity. In the Ancillary series, it’s about what it means to be human and what values that encompasses.

In The Martian, the force of the plot revolves around interacting closely with the limits of S&T. You see the main character solving problems on how to stay alive with the technology available to him vs the laws of the universe as we know them. The author went to great lengths to make the book as realistic as possible, something that makes it very engaging and relatable. If the S&T in the book had been distinctly different than what you and I know it would have been much less real, and thus much less engaging. I would even argue that while clearly hard science fiction, it is so realistic it feels like it could have been a documentary of events in the near future.

In contrast, the Ancillary series has a completely difference tact to S&T as we know it. It unveils a universe with laws that seem very much like our own, but yet has technology that skirts the edges of what seems possible (ie: ancillaries, shields, gate space). The plot requires this almost-magic technology to exist, but doesn’t dwell on it. Instead, the author presents the technology with sensible limitations, and then uses it to drive the human-centric plot. It would have been impossible to tell this story without violating the S&T as we know it.

Thus you have two books who use S&T completely differently to drive their plots — one which adheres strictly to S&T as we know it, and another which intentionally stretches it outside of our norm — all to focus on the human condition. If you enjoy science fiction, I would encourage you to add both to your reading list.

1 Actually, I read all three books in the series: Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and the newly-released Ancillary Mercy — all of which are great.

2 Daniel and I had a somewhat heated discussion in which we debated what actually counts as science and technology. Being an actual scientist he argued that science is a process of study, not a thing in and of itself, whereas technology is a tool. Me being the engineer argued that science is synonymous with fundamental laws of nature and technology is our interaction with them. We agreed that we really needed a new noun for discussing what we really wanted to focus on in these books, which was the interaction with the fundamental laws of physics without calling it either science or technology. We decided on “octopus cucumbers” during that discussion. I’ve decided to use S&T instead so you’ll think I’m less crazy than I actually am.

The Axemaker’s Gift

I recently finished The Axemaker’s Gift by James Burke and Robert Ornstein. The book outlines key innovations throughout human history that significantly altered the course of our history. The journey is fascinating and I’d highly recommend the book.

Two of the innovations and their repercussions were so interesting to me, that I wanted to call them out.

  • The alphabet. Not written language in the abstract mind you, but the alphabet specifically. The use of letters representing individual sounds that could be rearranged and mapped easily to oral language was in sharp contrast to hieroglyphics and other pictorial languages that came before. The alphabet began the slow process of moving power from the elite (rulers and their scholars) to a still small, but larger, portion of the population. It also allowed for the development of formalized logic and analysis as instead of trying to retain the details of what one was thinking about inside your head, you could now write them down — essentially using the written word as an extension to your thought process.
  • Gutenberg’s printing press. It’s no surprise this one was close to my heart (it’s also the reason I bought the book to begin with). The use of movable metal type for the quick reproduction of written material is fairly straightforward, although still awe-inspiring to me as to its impact. The part I found fascinating is that the use of the printing press was closely linked to the strengthening of national identity after the bible was translated into countries native languages. This increased national identity eroded people’s link to the Catholic church as they began to associate themselves more as people of a land with a common language and less as a people based solely on a common religion.

A quote from the book that I particularly enjoyed was from Plato writing to Thoth regarding Thoth’s “invention of writing”:

For your invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it, through lack of practice in using their memory, as through reliance on writing they are reminded from outside by alien marks, not from inside, themselves by themselves: you have discovered an elixir not of memory but of reminding. To your students you give an appearance of wisdom, not the reality of it; having heard much, in the absence of teaching, they will appear to know much when for the most part they know nothing, and they will be difficult to get along with, because they have acquired the appearance of wisdom instead of wisdom itself.

Sounds like this xkcd comic, no?

I think smartphones are the next disruptive innovation for the human race. Their use has become so pervasive and the capabilities they are enabling so diverse, from instant access of information to augmented reality, that I believe they are fundamentally changing how we interact with each other and our environment. What moveable type did for the written word, smartphones are doing for information.