Author Ian Tregillis On Why Fictional Worlds Need Fictional Technologies

Illustration for article titled Author Ian Tregillis On Why Fictional Worlds Need Fictional Technologies

The fictional worlds we love wouldn’t be the places they are without the fictional technologies that populate them. Here, author Ian Tregillis explains just why it’s so important for fiction to catalogue those technological deviations, and why fiction and technology are so inextricably linked.


Tregillis joined us today to answer questions about his new novel, The Mechanical, including one question about the role of invented technologies in writing alternate histories. He explained just how tightly the two were linked in his book — and how the real world development of the steam engine played into it all:

Alternate history implies an alternate technological evolution, and vice-versa. If one was to be very strict and rigorous about the worldbuilding, they have to be inseparable. That level of rigor can quickly become a dreaded chore instead of a fun brainstorming/creative outlet, though. (At least, it does for me.) So I try to find a balance where I can at least show I’ve thought about the lowest-level questions (even if I haven’t answered them), while also hoping to earn the readers’ goodwill so that when I take things in a direction that chooses fun, or story concerns, over historical rigor, my hope is they’ll go with it.

My approach to this kind of worldbuilding is similar to my feelings about writing magic. My philosophy is that you want readers engaged enough to start asking questions, to try to explore the world and explore its ideas more deeply. But no magic system can ever be truly logically ironclad because they’re not hermetically sealed against the rest of the world. Magic is a violation of the rules, so by definition it will scrape up against certain boundaries inconsistently. (Really great writers, like Tim Powers, can push that boundary far outside where the reader is likely to start peeking under the rug.) So the trick is to anticipate readers’ questions, saying, “Aha. See, I thought of that because of X,” and, “My answer to that is Y,” for maybe the first couple of levels of questioning. But in reality it’s turtles all the way down. So you also want to stop the reader from asking the questions you don’t want to call attention to — you don’t want them picking at the seams of the worldbuilding.

That’s when I toss in an explosion, or somebody gets an eye gouged out, or something. It’s all just a question of throwing chaff before the readers’ eyes to distract them. My approach to the altered historical development of technology is much the same.

I’m not a historian, nor am I a technologist, as is no doubt abundantly clear from my novels. But I did take a few history of science classes in college because it was a subject that fascinated me. One thing that stuck with me was the convoluted history of the development of a good, efficient steam engine. That’s why, in the world of The Mechanical, I posit there are basically no steam engines in the 1920s. It’s hard to invent a really good steam engine; it’s much much easier to say, “Hey, you, ticktock man: go turn that crank 24 hours per day 7 days a week for the next 99 years.”


You can read Tregillis’ whole interview right here.

Top Image: piotreknik / Shutterstock

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Maybe it all depend on how much you believe in technological determinism. As James Burke would love to point out, the emergence of any piece of technology is brain meltingly convoluted to say the least. But at the same time, he’d also say that not piece of technology is ever done to one inventor or one factor.

Burke would be the first to point out that there are many, many, many alternate paths to arrive at some technical innovation.

So for example, if you kill Marie Curie or Albert Einstein as children, you might delay the arrival of nuclear weapons by a few decades, but would you really stop anyone from ever developing nuclear energy?

Probably not.

The seeds of relativity were already sewn in Maxwell’s equations and Mach’s mechanics decades before Einstein was in university. Eventually someone other than Curie could have figured out what radioactivity was and how it worked. Mysteries drive scientists to figure them out.

Einstein and Curie are famous because they were brilliant enough to figure it out quickly and first, but they were hardly working in complete isolation. There were many other scientists working on the same mysteries at the same time—and here is the key bit—those others were approaching the problem in very different ways.

So when Tregillis says making a really efficient steam engine in very complicated and hard, he’s right. But even against that daunting complexity, Burke would tell us there are many alternative paths we don’t consider which arrive at the same thing. And at the same time, making really efficient flywheels and clockwork is at least as hard.