Writing Tips: Tech Levels

The concept of Tech Levels is a useful one for both science fiction and fantasy stories. Let’s put it this way: Is it feasible for a caveman to have a rifle? No, because the creation of that rifle requires other technologies that a caveman doesn’t have.

Any technology exists within an ecosystem of other technologies that are necessary to support it. Thus technologies can be thought of as existing in levels. Here’s an example model of Tech Levels:

  • Hunter/Gatherer: flint weapons, bow/arrows, animal domestication.
  • Bronze Age: agriculture, swords, shields, infantry, cavalry, rowed ships.
  • Iron Age: metal weapons, horse shoes, stirrup, sailing.
  • Steam Age: steam engines, trains, early guns, fireworks.
  • Industrial Age: factories, tall buildings, cars, planes, radio, radar.
  • Early Space Age: space ships, satellites, nuclear power, jets, computers.
  • Cyber Age: internet, automation, first AIs, cloning.

One can continue extrapolating in order to build a plausible background for stories. So, here are eight principles to help you in crafting Tech Levels for your stories.

Eight Basic Principles

  1. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
    – First coined by Arthur C. Clarke
  2. “Tech Levels” are a useful model for understanding species advancement.
    – The technologies grouped within a tech level can be somewhat arbitrary.
    – Useful models exist in roleplaying games such as Traveller and GURPS Space.
  3. It is possible for a technology to be inexplicably pushed into a later tech level, but the inverse is considerably less likely.
    – The stirrup was invented considerably later than it could have been.
  4. The pace of technological advancement has been increasing steadily over the course of human history.
    – Despite setbacks like the Black Plague, which wiped out 60% of the population of Europe.
    – The Black Plague actually sped up technological advancement by creating a need for less
       labor-intensive farming techniques.
  5. 90% of the technologies in a tech level can be extrapolated from the tech level below it.
    – From John Barnes
  6. 10% of the technologies in a tech level are either unimagined previously or based on newly discovered principles.
  7. A technology has a lifespan, i.e. – it starts out in an experimental form, advances incrementally over time, becomes mature and then is eventually supplanted by a different technology.
    – The horse was the most effective form of human transport from a few thousand years B.C.
       until about 1900 A.D. when it was supplanted by automobiles.
    – A supplanted technology may still hang around later for hobbyists, e.g. – horse riders,
       sailors, balloonists, etc.
  8. The primary problem of SF stories is to slow down technological advancement so that the technologies in stories remain familiar and comprehensible to a 21st century audience.

Common Problems

  1. An obviously mature technology is used in a story, where no experimental or earlier versions of the technology were ever possible in the timeline.
    Dollhouse: Personality implantation with skills and memories
  2. A technology is inserted into a story without accounting for its ramifications.
    Star Trek: The transporter and its capability for matter duplication.
  3. The story is set in the future, but key technologies are inexplicably archaic or the overall tech level just isn’t as high as it should be.
    Starship Troopers (the movie): In the future but using WWII-era military weapons.
This entry was posted in Writing Tips and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your email address will never be published.