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Writing Excuses 6.13: World Building Communications Technology

Writing Excuses 6.13: World Building Communications Technology


Key Points: Consider communications technology when you are planning your stories, as background, as part of the narrative structure, as a part of the conflicts. Don't ignore it, and don't assume that it will always be the way you think of it. Avoid lazy storytelling and idiot plotting. No matter what genre you are writing, speed and availability of communications affects plot. Consider disabling the technology to add complications. Mainly, consider communications, and how it affects your plot, don't just assume something. Oh, and remember Napoleon's giant semaphore robots.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode 13, World Building Communications Technology.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] And I have a cell phone.
[Dan] Yes, you do.
[Howard] You know what, if I were in a horror movie, I have a spare cell phone in my house that I would give to a friend and we would talk on the phones the whole time and then we would never split up.

[Dan] Okay. Now, I remember back in the day when X-Files came on television, everyone made a huge deal... I read essay in every magazine at the time about how all the characters on this new show used cell phones. That's so weird. Now cell phones have become ridiculously common, we're more connected as a society than we've ever been, and yet there are still television shows where people don't use cell phones... And movies... And it's kind of silly.
[Brandon] Once you start to notice it, it starts to get glaring. This is one of the reasons we want to talk about this on the podcast, is because communications, whether you're writing fantasy or science fiction, the level of communications technology is just essential to most stories. To the narrative structure of the stories, to the conflict, and... I don't want to call it lazy storytelling, but... Okay, I'll call it lazy storytelling. Lazy storytelling is to say... Oh, we're just going to ignore this aspect of life so that we can tell the story we want to. My agent calls it idiot plotting... People have to act stupid, in order to have... Stupid in just a ridiculously dumb way...
[Dan] Well, this isn't so much idiot plotting as it just is... Authors have a tendency to assume a level of communication exact to their own experience. Even though that is wrong in almost every genre you write. Even that's not true, because now we live in this connected society and people are still writing with 20 years ago communication.
[Brandon] That's what I'm getting to... People are... Television shows are putting this out... And books... They're ignoring the cell phones because it's convenient to the plot. This is lazy storytelling.
[Mary] It used to be such a big thing. This was the major plot thing is, "Oh, my goodness, we have to get to so-and-so to warn them."
[Howard] There was an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man where the whole point of his bionic legs in that episode was so that he could run across town and deliver a message.

[Brandon] Right. How many movies or shows have you seen where the first thing that happens that you know stuff is going wrong is when the lines get cut? So the telephones go out?
[Dan] Well, a communication breakdown can mean only one thing. Invasion.
[Howard] I loved the Rainbow Six novel by Tom Clancy because those folks had cell phones and one of the things that the Rainbow Six team realized is that the terrorists are going to have cell phones, too. So the first thing we need to build is something that we can upload to a cell tower to shut down everybody's communication but ours. That took all of that into account. I love Tom Clancy because he writes like a science fiction author should write, and he's writing right now. Or five... 10 years in the future.
[Dan] Well, the thing I want to point out, though, about this issue is that it's not solely a science fiction issue. Any genre you're writing in, whether it's just mainstream fiction, whether it's fantasy... The speed and availability of communication is going to greatly affect your plot.

[Mary] We have a tendency with fantasy to assume that the only way to communicate with people is to actually travel there.
[Brandon] Yeah, get on a horse and go.
[Mary] But if you look at history, people had other ways of communicating. Like, Napoleon had the visual telegraph, which I think is a fantastic thing. These big towers with arms. He could get messages from one end of France to the other in like 20 minutes.
[Dan] Giant towers with moving arms? You're telling us that Napoleon had giant semaphore robots?
[Mary] Yes.
[Dan] In our own world?
[Mary] Yes.
[Dan] In real life history?
[Mary] In real life.
[Dan] That's why I love Earth.
[Brandon] Well, the Great Wall could pass information just hugely quickly. Jordo was telling me about how they did a test. They could pass information faster along the Great Wall than an SUV driving along the Great Wall could deliver that information. These are important things because... These, both of these technologies we just talked about are basically war technologies. Having a war... Napoleon used them to keep his armies communicating. Engaging in a war across a large period of time for a fantasy writer... Period of time! Space! This is a real issue that we as writers should be thinking about. If you don't want to think too much about it, you can work in a cheat. I... It's fine, I did this in Elantris. I specifically gave instantaneous communication as part of the magic system so that I could work in the plot elements I wanted to, and so that I could actually realistically explain why the society has some of the more modern concepts that it does. Because my personal belief is that looking at history and the progression of science, communication progression has mirrored our societal progression. The ability to talk to someone across the ocean and realize they are like me changes the way we look at the world.
[Mary] Absolutely. In England, they had essentially... They almost had e-mail during the Victorian period. Where they would... They had mail delivery 10 times a day.
[Brandon] Really?
[Howard] It was very fast.
[Mary] Very fast. In London...
[Brandon] So you could IM somebody, essentially. Because there's a lot of people I IM... We go back and forth maybe 10 times.
[Mary] Yeah. It was amazingly fast.

[Howard] Now, in fiction, one of my favorite examples is in the Ringworld books. You have... If you're not familiar with Ringworld, big science fiction construct, huge construct with varying levels of low technology society on it.
[Brandon] Wait, wait. If you're unfamiliar with Ringworld, just think Halo. That's where they got it.
[Howard] Halo writ much, much larger. Million miles across... 93 million miles in diameter, 300 and some odd million miles in circumference. Enormous thing. There was an organization that had established communications over the entirety of the Ring via semaphores on the rims. Mirror semaphores, because they've got... Constantly got access to sunlight. It made perfect sense. And it was important to the plot, because our characters don't think that there can be any sort of instantaneous or any sort of communications network without a radio because they're technologists. They are startled by the fact that a message about their arrival has actually moved ahead of them, and they've been moving at hundreds and hundreds of miles per hour.

[Brandon] Excellent. Let's do our book of the week. Book of the week this week is Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. We picked this one specifically because it does deal with communication in an interesting way. It is a really brilliant steampunk... err...
[Dan, Mary, Howard] Cyberpunk!
[Brandon] Cyberpunk book. But it's almost postmodern cyberpunk. It's so over-the-top, it's making fun of itself. I mean, if you want...
[Dan] Yeah. The main character's name is Hero Protagonist.
[Brandon] Yes. He is the greatest swordsman in the world. It says it on his business card.
[Dan] And the greatest hacker.
[Brandon] But it all makes sense. Like, the thing about Neal Stephenson is he has these wacky concepts. Then he starts you off in the first paragraph, you say this is ridiculous. It gets more ridiculous through the first chapter. By the end of the fifth chapter, you're like, "Wow, it all is serious." So, it's a wonderful book, groundbreaking. It changed the way I view fiction. It's one of those types of books. So, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Go to audible and you can... Howard?
[Howard] Yeah. will let you kick off a 14-day free trial membership. Download a copy of Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. One of my favorite books. Didn't realize until two thirds of the way through the first chapter that it was all being written in the present tense, and it just works.

[Brandon] All right. So let's get back to this. We've talked about about fantasy and how, honestly, you really need to consider this stuff when you're writing your fantasy books and world building. Let's talk about science fiction. How... What do science fiction writers need to consider when looking at communications?
[Mary] Many of the same things. Although one thing that you'll run into with science fiction is the need to disable the technology to make things more complicated. Because frequently you can solve so many problems if you can just talk to someone. I'm thinking specifically of John Scalzi's The Last Colony. I'm sorry, I know he's your nemesis.
[Brandon] Yeah, well, that's all right. Scalzi! Okay. I've got it out of my system.
[Mary] But basically, they plunk everyone down on this planet and tell them you cannot have any communications devices at all because the signals will be picked up and you'll be bombed out of existence. So suddenly they are dropped back into... They actually have some Amish colonists as well, who are totally helping them cope with the sudden level of no technology.
[Howard] I'm surprised that they didn't build Napoleonic telegraphs.
[Mary] They totally should.
[Dan] Their giant semaphore robots. If you're not going to disable the technology, I think what you need to do as a science fiction author, is first of all look at where we are right now. When Osama bin Laden died, it was on twitter before it was on CNN. We are so connected. Communication is so instantaneous, we don't even know how instantaneous it is.
[Howard] Another thing to look at is the failure points in existing systems, as you're trying to plan a story in which there are catastrophes or whatever. When we have an earthquake, when we have a hurricane, cell networks clog up to the point that you can no longer dial in or out of the affected areas. David Brin has postulated that the solution for this is to make all cell phones by law able, if they can't get a connection, to function as a peer-to-peer network. Which is brilliant, because suddenly you could effectively bit torrent messages out of the affected area, because we are all holding radios. But these radios that we are holding are not made for broadcast. So concepts like this... I love Brin's idea because [inaudible]
[Brandon] Yes. That's why David Brin is a genius as a science fiction writer.
[Howard] Exactly. So here's an idea that could save our world. You might want to consider using it in your own. Just call it the Brin peer-to-peer system, give credit where credit is due.
[Dan] There's a lot of technology that does exist today that may well be implemented in the future. Cell phones specifically. We have the technology, within an enclosed building, to cut all cell phone signals. There are several groups in the US I know trying to pass a law where movie theaters and stage theaters and have those. That kind of technology, I think, is also a consideration.
[Howard] When we did our episode on cyberpunk, I mentioned the nanoparticles in Halloysite clay? One of the applications of that was paint for the walls of movie theaters that would block all phone signals.
[Brandon] But of course then the contrast for that is you can't get emergency signals out.
[Dan] Well, which is why they have never been able to make those legal.

[Brandon] But we're looking at science fiction... I'm going to say this whole communication thing is huge. Sometimes, living in [misfit?] I don't think we realize how huge it is. If you go back to the 80s and talk about the science fiction, they're talking about flying cars. They're postulating flying cars. They're postulating laser guns. They're postulating this huge shift in technology in that direction. None of that happened. We shifted toward communication. We have as fantastic and fabulous things now as those flying cars, honestly, in our cell phones. It's just not as flashy.
[Dan] Well, what makes it... The challenge to write about that though, is a society in which everyone almost instantly knows everything. I mean, which we're almost living in right now. That's almost not science fiction.
[Brandon] Right. Well, what I'm saying is, the challenge for the science fiction writers is to say, "Okay, here's where we are. All of these postulations... We didn't go that direction. We went this other branch. So, are we going to continue on that branch? If so, where do we go next?" That is where science fiction's challenge is, is dealing with communication in this way. A lot of the science fiction I read says, "No, I'm just going to keep what we have now and continue with it because that's..."
[Dan] We're going to have today's communications, with flying cars.
[Brandon] Yes, exactly.
[Dan] Which is probably not where we're headed as a technological society.
[Brandon] No. It depends on the type of science fiction you want to write. If you're writing space opera, okay, that's fine. You can do what George Lucas did, and say, "Eh, we're going to go backwards. We're going to no longer even have these things, we're just going to have people do these holograms that looked pretty but are pretty terrible communication devices.
[Mary] Sorry, that just made me remember that in Star Wars, they were having to use intercoms.
[Dan] Well, though, he did treat his communications consistently, though.
[Brandon] Yes. It was important.
[Dan] They had their little communicators. There was a scene in the first movie where the ability to communicate was broken down, and became important. He was treating it right.
[Brandon] No. He did a good job with it. But it is treating it like a space opera rather than a hard SF. If you're writing hard SF or cyberpunk, you actually are going to need to extrapolate rather than...

[Howard] I think the takeaway for people who want to write, which should be most of the listeners of the podcast.
[Dan] We assume.
[Howard] The takeaway is what does this really mean for your story. The ability to communicate... The failure to communicate in situations where it really should be easy can't be an important plot point unless you've got a really good reason for the communications systems having failed.
[Brandon] Well, this is a world building podcast. We want to talk about world building. Really, what we want to do is encourage you to consider this aspect of your worlds so that you can use it as a tool for your stories, rather than ignoring it. Like all world building podcasts, I should point out that you can't do everything in every book. This is just one aspect you can consider that you can deal with in your novel. That's why sometimes you may want to just take the easy out. You may want to say, "Okay, we're going to set it all... Our fantasy novel in one city, and we're going to have the 10 communications a day. That's going to facilitate what I want to do, and we aren't going to consider it beyond that." Or, you can say, "I'm going to make communications a big part of the magic, and breakdowns of the communications be part of my plot." You can go either direction. Just, it's something to consider. All right. Let's do a writing prompt. Let's see. Who hasn't done one in a while? Howard!

[Howard] Okay. The fax machine. We're starting with a fax machine as the basis.
[Dan] The fax machine, by the way, was posited by Jules Vern [inaudible]
[Howard] That's awesome. So the principle behind the fax machine was we are sending a text message via cell phone networks. Take this communications technology, and instead of faxing things, you are now sending physical objects.
[Dan] Like 3-D printers?
[Howard] Yeah, like 3-D printers. The fax machine as a 3-D printer as a starting point for a short story.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: communications, complications, giant semaphore robots, idiot plotting, lazy storytelling, technology, world building
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