Writing “Tech”: Science Fiction

Science fiction is my first love.  The very first book I ever bought for myself was Victor Appleton’s Tom Swift and his Ultrasonic Cycloplane.  The first “serious” hardback I ever bought – in 5th grade – was Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit – Will Travel.  If I needed any other impetus to begin the affair, I don’t remember it.

A few days before writing this I got the notion to reread Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer.  I was sure I had a copy around the house – certain I’d bought one recently at a used book sale – alas, no go.  Ended up borrowing a copy from the local library, and read it overnight.  It’s probably been thirty years, at least, since I read it last.

When I finished, I looked at the original publication date: 1956.

If you’ve never read The Door Into Summer it’s well worth it, even if it’s a little dated in some ways.  The funny thing is that in others, we still haven’t quite got there.  The action of the story takes place in 1970 and 1971 – years I remember all too well – and 2000 and 2001, years also stored in my memory.   The protagonist, Daniel B. Davis, is a mechanical engineer and inventor who decides it’s his mission in life to create true labor-saving gadgets for the automated house.

I’m sure at least some of you have seen the “Roomba,” a robotic vacuum-cleaner.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s the website:


Interesting that they call it “irobot,” eh?  You don’t get the reference, other than the movie with Will Smith?  So google “Isaac Asimov.”

I remember the first time I saw a Roomba the first thing that popped into my mind was “Wow!  Hired Girl!”  That was the name of the floor-cleaning robot that was Dan Davis’ first invention in The Door Into Summer.

Some of you may remember when computers took up whole rooms and were called “mainframes”; you may even remember that a lot of their commands and programming were stored on magnetic tape.  Heinlein, in designing his “future tech” mentions “tapes” and something he calls a “Thorssen memory tube.”  A “tape” in this context refers to what we, today, would call “software” and a “Thorssen memory tube” is pretty obviously a hard drive – or even a thumb drive.  For the rest of Hired Girl, Heinlein uses “off the shelf components”: “…a floor polisher used in army hospitals, a soft-drink dispenser, and those ‘hands’ they use in atomics plants to handle anything ‘hot.’”  Otherwise, “the whole thing could be built with standard parts ordered out of Sweet’s Catalogue…”

I googled “Sweet’s Catalogue.”  There really is such a thing, which began in 1906 with architectural materials and expanded to 38 volumes, including parts for mechanical and electrical engineering.

I mention this simply to show Heinlein’s intriguing attention to detail.  Yet the point is less the detail of existing “engineering art” but how Heinlein artfully weaves together “what is” to show “what may be” in just a few more steps.

There are several other ideas for inventions mentioned in The Door Into Summer that are noteworthy: Drafting Dan; dictation software; and the “hydraulic bed.”

We would call Drafting Dan by the name of AutoCAD and it wouldn’t be a typewriter-like machine as Heinlein describes it, but software you load onto your computer.  Nonetheless, the idea of automated design is the same.  It would be interesting to know if the software engineers who wrote the original code for AutoCAD were inspired by Drafting Dan, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they were not.  Inspiration for that idea would be as simple as noticing that it’s pretty easy to make a straight line, or a series of straight lines, appear on a screen; now, hmm, let’s see, what if you could make a perpendicular to the line, and, ah, yeah, maybe some curves?  That’s really all there is to the basic idea, the 1% inspiration that Thomas Edison spoke about, and all those endless hours of writing and refining code belong to the 99% perspiration part.

Dictation software is alluded to by Heinlein, a “secretary” machine, so to speak.  I’ve used several versions of software of this sort and read or heard reviews by others.  Maybe it’s my Southern accent, y’all, or maybe they’s a few bugs to be worked out.  Nonetheless, the basic idea is there, and is more or less practical, even if to me the execution still leaves something to be worked out.

The idea of the “hydraulic bed” is mentioned briefly in The Door Into Summer and somewhat more extensively in what is arguably Heinlein’s most famous work, Stranger In a Strange Land.  This might be one of those urban legends, but I heard that Heinlein held the patent for a hydraulic bed – we know them as “water beds.”

One point I must make before continuing.  I don’t want to leave the impression that accurate prediction is a requisite of hard science fiction.  What we think of as “hard science” today may or may not still be around in another hundred years – or it may be considered as laughably antiquated as the notion that the world is flat and borne through the Cosmos on the back of a giant turtle.  My favorite hope and cherished dream in this direction is that contemporary science will be proven wrong about the possibility of superluminal travel, despite the almost-universal chorus of “IMPOSSIBLE” from the last three generations of physicists.

Accurate prediction could be considered in a different sense, however.  What if one interprets the phrase as meaning accurate in the sense that it can be used to predict social behavior in some sense or another, in response to some fictional invention or discovery?

In another Heinlein book, Space Cadet, Heinlein goes to considerable lengths to describe Hohmann orbits, their uses in space travel, and some of the various methods to achieve them.  Accurate, yes, but what’s the point?  Isn’t this a little much?

Maybe.  Here’s a question for you: do you know why they’re called “Hohmann” orbits?  As one might guess, a mathematician named Walther Hohmann described them in his book titled The Accessibility of Celestial Bodies – which was written in 1925.  The technical definition of a Hohmann orbit is, according to Wikipedia (see “Hohmann Transfer Orbit”), “an elliptical orbit used to transfer between two circular orbits of different altitudes in the same plane.”  In effect, it’s the most fuel-efficient means for a reaction-driven space vessel to travel from one planet’s orbit to another.  Therefore reaction driven space vessels are likely to use them – have done so, in fact.

Heinlein wrote that, for a passage in Space Cadets, he spent two weeks with his wife Virginia, reputedly a much better mathematician than the Master himself, working calculations and graphs to be sure that the astrogation particulars he described would actually work in real life.  Well, at least, would if such vessels existed.

Now of course we know that such vessels exist; the Apollo Program put astronauts on the Moon and NASA, along with other space agencies, has sent dozens of probes to Mars and the outer planets, using either Hohmann orbits or other astrogational techniques pioneered by Hohmann.

Note again the date of Hohmann’s work: 1925.

It’s worth noting here that the Russian space pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, began his pioneering work in astronautics – including the need for and descriptions of such esoteric as space suits and air locks – prior to 1900.

The important point to grasp is that Heinlein is describing human behavior – i.e., how space ship crews will get from one planet to another – using scientific discoveries that were, at the time he wrote, about thirty years old.  The only “fictional” aspect of his work was the space ship itself.

But maybe the real piece de resistance of accurate technical detail – as accurate as it may be possible to get in fiction — is an obscure story by the great Dr. Werner von Braun, titled Project Mars: A Technical Tale.  This book is half science-fiction story and half technical manual and anyone who knows anything about the early history of the Apollo program and what Dr. von Braun tried to do – establish a permanent manned space station in orbit to serve as a way station not only for the Lunar flight but as a stepping stone to the other planets – will see at once that it was first outlined in this book.  Essentially, the technology of Dr. von Braun’s book, in a form only slightly more developed, took us to the Moon and back.

Here’s the kicker: Project Mars: A Technical Tale was not published when it was originally written, but the Author’s Preface was written sometime in 1950.

I remember people reacting to the entire notion of space flight and astronauts as if it were something new, something part of the post-World-War-II Jet Age – but the basic ideas of space flight were in development a full half-century before the first Moon landing, and science fiction writers like Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were exploring them in fiction and making them real to a generation of new dreamers, who went on to be the engineers and scientists who put men on the moon and built the Space Shuttle and sent Pioneer, Voyager and Viking, among others, on their way.

This leads me to my point: “hard” science fiction in the sense of “technically accurate” is not merely the stuff that dreams are made of, but brings one to the very edge of the reality of dreams.  That question demands a corollary inquiry: if the fiction were not technically accurate, would it be as effective?

Here we may intrude upon matters of taste.  In purely historical fiction my answer to that question would be “No” and I believe I could defend it pretty well.  In fact I’m working on a post to that effect.

But science fiction might, arguably, be different.  The reason for that might be contained in Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that science, sufficiently advanced with respect to the percipient, is indistinguishable from magic.  I would argue that “sufficiently advanced” doesn’t necessarily mean the difference between 1900 and 2000.  In the 1930s my grandfather was an electrician for Georgia Power Company.  He told me that one of his favorite things was to string a power line from the main feeder up some little hollow to a farm house where they still used horses to draw plows.  When he installed electricity and a light fixture the last thing he’d do would be to turn on the light, and leave the farm family staring at the brilliant bulb as darkness fell outside.  Just a simple little thing like that, something we today take as a given of our existence, and yet so short a time ago it was, if not magic, then magical.

But that illustrates the principle upon which Clarke’s maxim works, and some of its subtlety.  If my grandfather, an electrician, appeared at the very least as a sorcerer’s apprentice to these families, then how might a contemporary, say the quantum physicist Neils Bohr – or the mathematician Walter Hohmann – appear to my grandfather?

Ray Bradbury is arguably one of the great science fiction story tellers, and it was enough for him that rockets existed, that you could fly through space in them, and go to strange places like the Mars of his The Martian Chronicles.  He could probably have cared less about the technical details.

It could be, then, that art, sufficiently advanced, like science, can appear magical.  Since there’s evidently a place for each let’s leave it at that.


1 Comment

Filed under science fiction, technology in fiction, Tom Learns His Craft, Writing

One response to “Writing “Tech”: Science Fiction

  1. Hm… interesting… true tale…
    A lady lived in a house with no electricity. No she didn’t have much money and of course was careful not to waste anything. She always left lighting her candles to the last minute.
    Along came the electricity company and connected her. They were more than happy to do so as she was one of the last houses in Cornwall (UK) to be done.
    About six months later, the company noticed that hardly any electricity had been used, and so of course went to check it out. Finding nothing wrong with their installation, they asked the lady if she happy with her electricity. “Oh yes,” she replied. “It allows me to light up my candles later in the evenings.”
    This is actually a true story, hard to believe. But it does illustrate one important issue… there are people around who are very reluctant (for whatever reason) to use new technology.
    Hard SF actually has another function, apart from entertaining and giving ideas to the inventors to pursue… getting people familiar with new technology they are likely to see in their lifetimes…

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