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One thing I’ve been thinking about with respect to science fiction settings in the relatively near future is the question of the overall technology level and how much things should advance in fields not directly relevant to the intended world.

A nice example of this contrast is the difference between Eclipse Phase and The Expanse. Eclipse Phase has extremely advanced technology overall, to the point that it almost becomes hard to work with from a story standpoint. On the flip side, The Expanse almost doesn’t seem advanced enough for a society that is as developed as they are in terms of space travel.

So as a general question, how much should a setting advance overall in areas outside of what is required for the setting to exist?

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    $\begingroup$ Could you clarify your end goal? Are you looking to make your overall world more realistic? Are you trying to achieve some narrative effect? $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Aug 27 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ Using (presumably) known third party properties like the ones you mention without going into any kind of detail as to even what they are, let alone what kinds of technologies they have and what kinds of societies the represent -- a potential dissertation in and of itself! -- is pretty meaningless. If you're asking a question about those properties, then Sci-Fi and Fantasy is the correct forum to ask in. If you're asking about your own fictional world, or even about a hypothetical fictional world, then you really need to focus on that world. Any comparison you make with a movie or tele ... $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Aug 27 at 23:37
  • $\begingroup$ (cont)... world needs a) to be put into context with your own world and b) needs to be sufficiently described within your question so that we're all on the same page. In other words, a respondent shouldn't have to go find out what an Eclipse is, apart from the astronomical connotation or an Expanse, apart from something big and wide. VTC for lack of clarity / focus. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Aug 27 at 23:39
  • $\begingroup$ @elemtilas using 3rd party - eh? One makes example of 3 laws of Asimov or any other work and become a wanted man? Lol. Read the question, and maybe AlexP answer - question itself is quite clear. Expanse tech evaluation - it is exactly what it is. It just 2 concept and 2 halfs of concept spiced with some details - mostly it is well made minimalism. However hate their water problem they use for driving the plot in first season and laying it as part of the fundament for conflicts - it logical inconsistancy of huge proportions considering their main tech abilities. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Aug 28 at 1:25
  • $\begingroup$ Thinking more on second level technologies could have been allowed them to build a better setting - but for some reason they didn't succeeded in that. So it just an example with known problems. And it looks like they realized (have been told, and had other stuff going on) so they drastically reduced or removed mentioning of water problem. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Aug 28 at 1:26
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I think it's a good question. Like I recall many years ago reading Harry Harrison's "Stainless Steel Rat" stories, where people have starships capable of faster than light travel ... but on the ground they still drive automobiles with internal combustion engines and rubber tires. This seemed very unlikely to me.

I found "Caprica" very jarring this way. They live on another planet and have interstellar travel ... but they dress in clothes that look exactly like 21st century American clothes. Not only do they have cars that look just like 21st century American cars, but they even have license plates that look just like 21st century American license plates. Not only is there technology 21st century, but their social and political structures are the same too.

Now that said, some technologies reach a point where they are, essentially, complete. Like, the fork has been unchanged for hundreds of years and I suspect will be unchanged for hundreds of years into the future. People have tried to add a motor to it so that it can pick up things like spagetti easier but that just makes it bulkier, and now it has a battery that has to be recharged. I expect that people in the future will sit in chairs little different from those we use today. Etc.

But other technologies, we seem to be simply somewhere along the path to completion. I would be very surprised if computers 500 years from now were just like the computers of today. Etc.

All that said, if your story is about, say, an action adventure of the colonists on Tau Ceti 3 rebelling against Earth, you don't want to get bogged down in a lengthy discussion of how footwear has changed over the centuries. You want the story to focus on what's relevant to the plot. So the trick is to not have glaring anachronisms, but not to dwell on background details.

Imagine someone in 1821 trying to write a story set in 2021. Let's suppose he is foresighted enough to predict the invention of airplanes. He might have a scene where he wants a character on the airplane to get a hot drink from the flight attendant. In retrospect, we could see that it would clearly be a blunder if he wrote, "The flight attendant added some coal to the oven on the airplane." Would he have the prescience to think of microwave ovens? Probably not. But at least he might be smart enough to figure out that it would likely be an electric stove and not coal. If he casually made a reference to the flight attendant turning up the electricity on the stove, that would set the right background for the technology without having to dwell on it.

He might well ask himself, "Will people in 2021 still drink coffee? Or will there be some new drink?"

And just by the way, notice I said, "the flight attendant". My guess is that few writers in 1821 would have anticipated the social changes that would lead society to go from referring to such people as "stewardesses" to calling them "flight attendants". Anyone with that foresight could have written a story about that all by itself. And probably readers at the time would have said, "Wow, did you read this crazy science fiction story? The writer imagines a society where women don't want to be thought of as women any more, but they want to be just like men! Why would any woman want that?"

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  • $\begingroup$ In the early 1800s stewardship was still considered an honored roll. A steward was normally the servant or officer a person of authority trusted enough let take his place in important matters while he was away. So, even the idea of a stewardesses would be shocking because that would mean that a woman was serving in an honored role that granted her significant authority. More likely the author would have called her a flight slave/servant as an analogue to the domestic slaves/servants that were common place at the time. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Aug 27 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki: In the early 1800s, one of the meanings of the word "steward" was the servant attached to a naval officer aboard ship. The OED dates oldest attestation of the the meaning "servant in charge of catering or serving meals" to 1717 in the context of a college and to 1496 in nautical context. By the 1800s, a woman doing what the a steward did aboard ship would naturally be called a stewardess. (The word "steward" can mean an officer or official supervising an event, such as a race for example, and enforcing the regulations, even today.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 27 at 21:03
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP In the older nautical context, the word steward more accurately means lieutenant or other lesser officer. You do appear to be correct though that steward sometimes meant servant in charge of serving before 1821, though stewardess did not appear to be used this way yet: "Only in later use did “stewardess” come to mean a female attendant on a ship (a sense first recorded in 1834), a train (1855), or a plane (1930)." grammarphobia.com/blog/2018/10/ess-words.html. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Aug 27 at 22:07
  • $\begingroup$ Digging into it more, I think it's close enough that stewardess may have been used this way by then and ppl would know what you meant by it, but it still would have been an unlikely thing to say since all uses of the word up until then had be used in references to Saints and Heroines being called good stewardesses of God's gifts or their husband's estates. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Aug 27 at 22:07
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It depends

How much the story setting should be advanced overall in areas outside of what is required for the setting to exist depends very very much

  1. On how the author wants to tell the story, and

  2. On what specific technological areas are of interest.

For the first point I can only repeat Buffon's quip that the style is the man himself, or le style c'est l'homme même in the original French.

  • In the quaint and engrossing Republic of Cinnabar Navy sprawling space opera by David Drake, the characters spend a surprising amount of time riding on trams (= streetcars in American), and even waiting for trams. Trams running on actual tramway rails. Trams may seem incongruous with faster than light ships, but they serve a stylistic purpose.

  • In the same series of novels, the main characters are part of a fully fledged feudal hierarchy. A feudal hierarchy with its person-to-person loyalty is of course incompatible with the person-to-institutions loyalty expected from a functional modern state, but this too serves a very important stylistic purpose, and serves to underpin essential plot points.

    (And yes, socio-political structure is technology, one of the most critically important technological areas.)

  • In Ann Leckie's acclaimed Ancillary trilogy, tea and teaware get a very prominent place, as befitting the general tone of the stories. Tea harvested by hand, of course, by (functional) serfs, because how else could it be harvested?

  • Or consider how telecommunications are treated in David Weber's Honorverse. In civilian settings, person-to-person communication technology is basically completely out of sight and out of mind, never mentioned, because obviously in the far future it will be ubiquitous and as transparent and pervasive as the air people breathe. Only in military settings is communications technology treated as relevant, because obviously in a military setting comms are rigidly regulated.

Now on to the second point, the point is that technological areas which are of no interest whatsoever do not need to be described in any way; if it is irrelevant how advanced or how retarded they are then no mention should be made of them.

  • For example, what do we know about how the characters in Asimov's kaleidoscopic Foundation series wipe their behinds? Do they use sponges like the Romans did, or do they use paper like we do, or do they use the three seashells? We have no idea.

  • For a more extreme example, consider the world of Star Wars. Many films and serials have illustrated engrossing stories set in that world, but in the end we have almost no idea whatsoever how that world works. We don't know what those people eat, how they grow their food, how the financial sector is structured, how people get money (except for clearly exceptional occupations, such as pirate or bounty hunter), we don't know from where the clothes and most of the equipment come. We've never seen a factory, we've never seen a productive farm. We don't even know how the judicial system works, something which we know is excruciating detail about the long lost worlds of the Greeks and Romans.

Of course, the question remains how to decide which technological areas are of interest and which are not. This is of course a matter of tight plotting and style. Tight plotting will highlight what the reader / viewer / listener needs to know in order to enjoy the story; and style, again, is a reflection of the author's vision.

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    $\begingroup$ "We've never seen a factory" - "Oh, my goodness! Shut me down! Machines making machines. How perverse!" $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Aug 27 at 22:19
  • $\begingroup$ Hey, take look at comment section under the q, seems I hit a wall in my english skills, @Alexander maybe you as well. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Aug 29 at 9:04
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It Depends on your Goals

Generally speaking, if you want a believable setting, then you should advance both, but if you want a relatable setting, then you only advance the technologies you need to.

It's like this: In the movie, A Knights Tale, the audience sung "We Will Rock You" during a jousting event. This was totally anachronistic and really bothered a few history gurus, but it was a conscious choice by the director to make the scene more relatable to the modern audience because we do not associate flutes and bagpipes with sporting events.

Likewise, if you go forward to the space age, seeing people still use keys may seem really out of time with your setting. Everyone who knows anything about modern security knows that the world will be using biometrics for everything soon, but to the normal person, seeing someone whip out a key communicates something familiar that you don't see from someone casually strolling through a high security checkpoint like it's not even there.

If both Believability and Relatability are important to you, you will need to find a workable compromise.

Compromise Method 1: Break Through Tech

Sometimes the best compromise is to consider 1 technology that has reshaped the way technology works very quickly, but to tell a near-future instead of a far-future story. Throughout history, we have seen periods where the world totally changed in a single generation from 1 invention, even though most other stuff progressed pretty slowly. The Printing Press, the Steam Engine, and the Computer, just to name a few. So in your story, the Warp Drive could be a discovery that is not hundreds of years in the future, but something that someone figures out right now, here in 2021.

If we had a warp drive dropped in our collective laps right now, then the story you have in mind might be achievable by 2040 or 2050. In this case, you'll still have a lot of minor new technologies, but you won't be so far forward that people would be surprised to still see a lot of familiar stuff

Compromise Method 2: Third World Setting

Another approach is to place your setting in a poorer part of your world. Here on Earth, there are places that still rely on tech that is hundreds or even thousands of years old. So, while the richest nations may have some magical technology pervading every aspect of thier lives, your protagonist may be driving around in an old pickup truck that his family has been keeping in a barely running state for generations.

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  • $\begingroup$ FWIW, I still drive an '88 Toyota pickup :-) But I very much doubt your claim re biometrics: in most situations, it's highly inconvenient. Suppose I need to let a friend borrow my car, or stop by my house to feed the dog? I can just hand them a key: programming biometrics to allow the same thing seems a hassle at best. You need to consider what technologies actually DO. For instance, a modern LED bulb is much more technically advanced than the incandescents of a century ago, but the user still flips a switch and gets light. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Aug 27 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf The most likely scenario is that biometrics indeed will dominate. However, they will be supplemented by keypads or keys as backup options for situations as you describe or in case of power failure. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Aug 27 at 19:23
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    $\begingroup$ We already have corporations that are mining our biometric information. It would be very easy for your iPhone to collect your biometrics from a Zoom call and save it to the cloud for Siri to use and correlate with other people's contacts lists. So I could already be gone when I realize I need to let you in. I could say "Siri, James will be at the house at about 3:00pm. Let him in when he gets there." And my house will know to let you in based on biometrics you never really gave me. This means I no longer need to make a physical key exchange to grant or revoke permissions. SUPER CONVIENENT $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Aug 27 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki: It would be utterly impossible for my iPhone to collect anything, because there are no circumstances in which I would ever buy an Apple product. Nor would I ever have a Siri-equivalent in my house, or talk to a machine. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Aug 28 at 1:02
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Don't get me wrong, I fully believe that some people 30-40 years from now will still use keys. But they will the exception to the rule: just like some older people today still insist on using checkbooks, fax machines, or Facebook. But history shows us that convenience beats out pretty much all other factors among younger consumers every time; so, when you go 100+ years from now when me and you are dead, our great grand children would view someone handing them a key as ridiculous as you might think it is to get a telegram. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Aug 28 at 3:41

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