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Most science fiction dealing in the subject of force fields depicts them in a similar and unsophisticated light, e.g. force fields rarely do anything besides form basic polygons to create walls, protect spaceships, and so on. But I've wondered occasionally why science fiction (movies and mainstream writers are my main points of reference, to be honest) never seem to imagine worlds where an alien or future society uses force fields to construct all or some of their electronic devices. Or at least more sophisticated devices than shields, domes or walkways. If you're talking about a civilization that exists tens of thousands of years down the evolutionary highway, is there a somewhat realistic universe where force-field based electronics makes sense?

My basic thinking goes like this…most force fields in fiction are able to withstand extraordinary, high-velocity forces, repel electrical signals and laser beams, etc, and often imitate many properties of matter. Likewise, it seems fair to imagine some types of force fields could also conduct electricity and take on even more exotic properties of specific types of matter. If so, and this future society had mastered nanotechnology alongside their perversion of physics, is it too much of a stretch to imagine they'd built some kind of microscopic Holtzman generators that could create force-field based chassis, mechanical parts, and even circuitry? Maybe they’d also devised some method for programming the generators so that all of the various parts would generate at the same time, thus making it possible to pull a functional, force-field weapon (or whatever) out of thin air.

It seems like this concept hasn't really been explored much in mainstream science fiction, and I'm curious why that is. Can you think of other books, shows, or films that have explored the concept of force-field based complex devices or electronics as outlined above? More interestingly, what do you think would be the most science-based, logical way to describe how this technology would work in a story?

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    $\begingroup$ Your question is based on false assumption. In Mutineers' Moon series, there are force field computers. And I'm sure I've seen more examples. So force fields are used in a way you think they are not. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Aug 30 '16 at 8:24
  • $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automan $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Aug 30 '16 at 8:32
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    $\begingroup$ Many of the more advanced systems in Iain M Banks' Culture stories seem to be constructed in this kind of way. $\endgroup$ – John Dallman Aug 30 '16 at 9:19
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    $\begingroup$ Using force fields, space and other non-matter as building materials is such a novel concept that it occurs very rarely in fiction, but it does occur. The kraniskov tube is a hypothetical example of a structure built out of folded space. $\endgroup$ – Anonymous Aug 30 '16 at 12:48
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    $\begingroup$ Actually; Star Trek did this, this is how the 'holodeck' functions;holograms for visual feed back and precision force-fields for tactile feedback. $\endgroup$ – Marky Aug 30 '16 at 13:28
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It’s a literary effect where alien and/or future worlds are more like ours in every way, with “something special” only used in a singular or niche role. If you think about it, you realize that the “special thing” would have sweeping affects across all of society, but ① the author can’t imagine the result, and ② the reader would not understand the actions and motives of the characters in everyday situations.

For a mundane example, consider a hypothetical “golden age” story written before WWⅡ. It mentions synthetic polymer used as a specific plot item, and only for that item, completely ignoring the tupperware in the break room, or that everything would be made of plastics and other materials are rare. Or that disposable “styrofoam” cups would cause problems with the environment.

This will be the case of any transformative technology. Unless the story is about that, it will be seen in a niche role only.

In another century it will seem funny that space construction is described as bolted together with structural members being an issue or even a plot point! (I’m thinking of superconductors with flux pinning, which is pretty close to the “force field” example you started with.) Today we look at a old stories where they have space travel and even space stations mentioned, but no communications satellite technology! How could he have missed such an obvious use for the space station that’s in the story?

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    $\begingroup$ You ought to read some stuff by Brandon Sanderson. His stories are really more about the characters than the (transformative) magic, but the way the magics work really suffuse every corner of society and they really feel like they're part of the culture and everyday life. $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Aug 30 '16 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ Re: your last point - Renaissance by Raymond F Jones features advanced nuclear powered and particle beam armed tanks, the ability to alter quantum properties of atoms and move between dimensions, yet has on of the main knowledge bases in the booked stored on microfilm :) Always makes me chuckle. $\endgroup$ – Whelkaholism Aug 30 '16 at 14:17
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    $\begingroup$ Yea, I recall microfilm in many stories with interplanetary travel etc. Or how about Philip K Dick who described dynamic up to the moment and personalized news served up in your own home, but it had to be printed on paper to display. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Aug 30 '16 at 14:45
  • $\begingroup$ See also this answer where I try to think forward. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Aug 31 '16 at 13:50
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Regarding computers and similar complex devices, consider this:

  • Science fiction with such advanced technology tends to include starships. There is also an assumption that force-field-generated gadgets disappear when you kill the power. So having all critical systems in a vehicle out of solid, reliable matter is a good idea, unless the force field equivalents are so much better in performance.
  • Are the force fields somehow self-sustaining or do they require a projector? If they require a projector, will the projector be more or less complex than the force field construct it generates? If the technology of the setting assumes that the projector must be more complex, you gain little by having it project a device.
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe the field generator would be the only physical part of the system, and as such the Achilles heel of all devices constructed from the fields. If people living on an inhospitable planet used spacesuits built from these complex fields, maybe the generators would be bio-signed to that user, so they’d be the only ones who could ultimately power them on or off. People in complex spacesuits built from force fields...instead of ghosts in a machine we’d be machines in a ghost :) $\endgroup$ – MadGab Aug 30 '16 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ @MadGab, a biometric lock won't help again power failure. The occupant of a physical suit would probably survive a power loss for several minutes, time for rescuers to arrive. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Aug 30 '16 at 19:03
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In Star Trek, the holodeck creates a surprisingly diverse amount of things that are said to be all photons and force fields. This includes devices with capabilities beyond the computer that created them (see "The Nth Degree" from TNG where Barclay creates a holographic neural interface, or I argue Voyager's Doctor is more than just a UI for a program, but rather the hologram is part of his computer; his holographic brain is a photonic computer that supplements his program in addition to the database the ship's main computer offers, and that's why he can be lost forever if he goes down with a failing emitter, though the canon is mixed on support for that.)

The holodeck is a fairly young technology in the world of the show, so they use it conservatively to get started, but we see the seeds of them expanding it to more and more areas. It isn't just projections of simulations like a modern monitor shows the output of a computer program, but already the holograms themselves are usable devices.

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Actually, there are plenty of just such examples. Though it's only used as weaponry, and typically more in games. (that's a jab at the other plausible uses I could dream up)

So. Examples:

Don't jump to conclusions and start going off on how they're stabilized lazers. By this definition, Lightsabers fit:

Likewise, it seems fair to imagine some types of force fields could also conduct electricity and take on even more exotic properties of specific types of matter.

This fits far more neatly into what we consider forcefields used aggresively. Including the ability to wear down the battery charge, running out of sword to use.

Don't be so quick to dismiss the more typical uses of forcefields. Though it can be argued that 'the best defense is a good offense', having a strong offensive game and a personal forcefield to keep you alive isn't a bad thing.


In conclusion. It doesn't matter what is common or popular. Someone needs to be the first to take the plunge. So, I say, take the plunge. So long as the technology makes sense in context with your background world and technology, most won't mind. After all, there are those that lap up every detail from fiction where the technology is certainly nothing we know from today, like: Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Quantum Leap, Halo series, even the 007 franchise (Each movie likes dreaming up tech & gear that doesn't exist at the time the movie is released).

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Iain Banks' Culture series features drones, who interact with the physical world entirely through "fields" rather than manipulator limbs. Fields are projected force fields that can be finely tuned to handle objects, act as shielding, or repel with force. Fields can also be coloured, to express emotion and state of mind.

Ships also sport multiple layers and types of fields, some acting as sensors and others as visual projections, to encompass an area much larger than the physical dimensions of the structure itself.

Another type featured in the Culture books are effectors, multi-purpose EM field manipulator used for everything from sensors to reading minds to hacking.

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