Nov 062017

In a fantasy setting, technology means things like forging steel weapons, plate armor, or chainmail—the trade of blacksmiths, who are held in high regard. There are more rudimentary elements that our audience is unlikely to care about, including plumbing, irrigation, aqueducts, water wheels, and general tools for farming (a wood plow vs. an iron one). These are generally assumed to exist, but the question here is whether our new species is capable of such industry. Do they have architects smart enough to build structures that withstand storms and earthquakes? Can they build fortifications? Is the technological level enough to create more sanitary living conditions?

If not, they’ll have to go without, live among those who do, or get these things by other means, whether stealing, buying, or conquering. They might have allies who’ll agree to trade and train them in how to achieve something on their own.

Science Fiction

In SF, we think of technology as being far in advance of our own on Earth, not the sort of rudiments mentioned under the fantasy section above. Is our species able to design and build machines of any kind, not to mention something far beyond current human capacity? This requires intelligence, education and infrastructure for mining, refinement, chemistry, and more. Do we envision that they’re chemists, engineers, and physicists? If not, they must steal everything, with it being more likely that they’ll steal an entire ship, for example, rather than the parts to assemble one; this would be true of most if not all other technologies.

Can we assume that some of these intellectual capacities and skills, like engineering, are needed to operate machines? That depends on our goal. Creators often grant spaceships advanced artificial intelligence (A.I.) that takes care of many functions. This gives a less than brilliant species far more opportunities, just as a gun allows a child to kill a samurai. Do the builders of these machines account for that and require more intelligence to operate something, or biometric security? A good approach would be a mix of these styles so that we can decide, based on our story needs, which option is in effect. For example, one species could make everything easy to operate while another does not. A third species that is contemplating stealing something would take this into consideration.

Decide what their life with technology is like. An ignorant and uneducated species can enjoy life in space even if they’re not in command, because every space ship needs janitors, for example. This subservient position is something to keep in mind because it greatly broadens opportunities for them. While they might be in unenviable positions, they can still get around, and there’s the mutiny idea of such a species taking over despite their limited technological skills. Maybe they bribe ship’s officers into helping them. With some ingenuity, we can find a way to empower a weaker species.

Maybe our species steals or captures ships and is smart enough to operate but not maintain them; if something goes wrong, the crew might be stranded. Are they known for having to send out distress calls over this? It would likely get them captured and arrested, but they probably know all about this problem and travel in pairs, for example, the still-functional ship rescuing the other’s crew before everyone flees. They might also set traps, taking over a ship that comes to help them, whether they really need that help or were just setting someone up.

More advanced species will be the ones inventing technology and trying to safeguard it. They’ll be the victims of ruses by those species who can’t create these things. How has this changed or hardened/softened attitudes and laws about theft and tampering? With biometrics, devices could be set to only work with one species. We can invent all sorts of safeguards and ways of defeating them.

Not every species’ society which lacks the ability to create technology will be “evil.” Some might need the protection of another benevolent species. They might be taken advantage of by a nefarious one. There can be attempts to exterminate them or make them slaves. Fear about such outcomes could drive them to seek alliances, which may carry risks of their own.

If our species lack a society capable of producing technology (of whatever sophistication level), they may still be part of a mixed-species society that does indeed have the sophistication to create technological wonders. In this scenario, the smarter members of our species might be capable of gaining education, unless the society forbids them from doing so; a reason for that restriction is preferred, such as misuse of advanced information in the past. If our species can gain skills needed, they could introduce them to their own society with one degree of success or another.


  2 Responses to “Can Your Species Use High Tech Stuff?”

  1. You have omitted a well-known and tried method of stealing not the technology, but the technologists. That can be done as slavery, or as the indenture work for German top engineers and scientists after WW2 both in the USA and the USSR.

    David Niven’s “Known Space” universe has a prehistory where a psionic master species known as the Slavers (or Thrintun) took a species of genius technologists (the Tnuctipun) as their go-to slaves for everything technological.

    In another universe, know-nothing financers enslave an entire caste of scientists and engineers to work for maybe twice the blue collar workers’ income while generating revenues that makes the financers’ outrageous life-style possible. – Oh, wait, that world has been done already. We’re living in it.

    In fantasy or myth, these engineer-caste subordinates are standard. The Norse myth has dwarfs and svartalfar, the Sidhe have dwarf-like smiths as well, Saruman had uruks operating his heavy industry, Harry Potter has cobold artificers, the titans has lesser giants toiling away to make their weapons and artifacts.

    Having such high-profile slaves comes with a risk, of course – Nivens Slavers were overthrown by long-term sabotage of the Tnuctipun and a few allies, or think of the story of Wayland who ruined the king who had crippled him. That’s what half of the “AIs gone bad” dystopia stories are about, too, including iconic ones like “Terminator” or “Battlestar Galactica”.

    • Excellent comments! I think this basic idea is mentioned somewhere in The Art of World Building but isn’t highlighted as you’ve done here. Thank you for all of the examples and the comment! – Rand

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