Science & Space

How some future tech will work part 1

There are certain technologies that are common in science fiction stories, ones television shows almost all depict working in specific ways that make no sense. Now there are good meta reasons for this, but nonetheless the problems exist and you should be aware of them.

This category is both the universal translators from Star Trek and more mundane ones that have certain languages programmed and can translate them for you (what we are able to sorta make today).

The thing about real life translators is that they almost always have to wait for the end of a sentence before they can translate. Languages are not all structured the same, for example in English you almost always put the noun before the verb “Josh is going to the store”. Whereas in most other languages it works the other way around “To the store Josh is going”. You can’t do a word for word translation because it would come out sounding like you were Yoda.

This means that a conversation between two people with translators would go something like this;

Josh speaks a sentence in English while Aldo waits.
Josh finishes the sentence then waits while Aldo listens to it in Spanish.
Aldo speaks in Spanish, Josh waits.
Aldo finishes speaking then Josh listens to the sentence in English

Everything would take twice as long because everything would be spoken twice, once in each language. And that assumes that things like tone could be gotten across, if not it could take longer and require both sides to speak more clearly then they would otherwise have to do.

Even if we are talking about universal translators that can read your mind (like a babble fish) most people think in the language they are speaking. That is one of the steps to being truly fluent in a language after all, I doubt that would really gain you much speed.

I will be the first the admit this is minor, and a pet peeve of mine, primarily from Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST:TNG) style communicators. However they are not the only ones to make mistakes of this kind.

If you have watched any ST:TNG you know how the comm badge works: you hit the badge and say the name of the person you want to talk to and you can talk to them, the other person hears you ask for them as their badge chirps.

The problem with this is that before you said the person’s name the badge had no idea who you were going to ask to talk to, so how did they hear you ask to talk to them? Does it play a recording of you asking to talk to them? That seams very inefficient.

A better way would be this
*Picard hits his comm badge*
“Commander Data”
*It Chirps to let the Captain know the connection has been made*
“This is the Captain…”

Data would only hear the part after the chirp, so the Captain would have to say who he was twice. Again Star Trek is bad about this but they are not the only ones. If you want your world to be real then you have to think about things like this work, if something is used often enough and its done wrong often enough it will cause you problems.

Voice Recognition
This is something that later Trek did very well and early scifi often did badly oddly enough.

Anyone who has tried to used voice recognition instead of typing has learned that it is not that fast. Most people can type faster then they can talk, particularly when your talking about responding while taking data in.

I can’t listen to one person, while talking to them. However I can read something or watch some dials while using some controls or typing.

Using voice commands as an additional way of inputting data, particularly when your already maxing yourself out using your hands does make sense. Using your voice as a primary way of imputing data is just too slow, and I don’t see it being used that much.


Often what writers do when they try and make aliens really alien is to make them incomprehensible, they act is ways that don’t make any sense to the characters. This will often fall flat, there are certain things that even aliens must have if they have a technological civilization (Note that if a race was uplifted these need not apply).

First they must have a survival instinct, if they give up on life too easily they would hardly still exist.

They also must have a sense of community, a need for social contact. You can’t build a civilization working by yourself. They would almost certainly have to raise their kids.

Third and most important they must be curious, if they are not they would never do any science, they might never even get to the fire and wheels stage.

They also have to be both intelligent and rational enough to do the science and engineering needed to get out into space. We may meet aliens that we can’t have a talk about love with, but I doubt we will meet aliens we can’t talk about math with.

The thing is though that your aliens need to be different, but still have the above and still able to interact with humans to some degree (or they would probably not exist in your story).

For my money there are really only two things you need to decide; goals and motives. Everything else will take care of itself.

First give your aliens some goal, something that we can understand, but may not know, something we would not do ourselves. For example the Borg in Star Trek have a simple goal “Multiply” that is really it, everything they do supports that one goal.

Their motive is “To achieve perfection” not that they define perfection like we do, but they don’t have to think like we do.

One of the reasons the borg are so effective as villains is that you know why are doing what they are and that they will never stop. They are a force of nature that you can’t even hope to reason with.

There are any number of motives and goals you could give your aliens but the most important thing is that YOU understand them. You don’t have to tell the reader but if you don’t understand them then they will probably not make any sense to anyone. As a rule simple is best, it should be something that can be expressed in one sentence.

One way to get across this difference when dealing with them on screen is the way they talk. Don’t have them talk like a human, have it clear that whatever is translating is having to work hard. The best example of this I can think of is the Vorlons from Babylon 5. When they speak you hear a set of almost musical notes then something like “The avalanche has already started, it is too late for the pebbles to vote”.

You don’t have to go that far but it should be clear that the person talking is not human even if they are using a translator.

Why are you in space?

When writing a science fiction one thing that has to be addressed is why are people in space? Getting to space is very costly after all.

While I would love to think that we could and will have a large moonbase for purely scientific reasons I doubt that will happen. Given the costs involved too many people would object.

If you want it to make sense for us to be in space and stay there you need to come with a good set of reasons.

The first, and honestly best, would be economic. For example in my book the reasons humans got into space to start with was that the crystals for optical computers could only be grown in zero gravity.

Now the problem with making things in orbit is that it costs a lot, mostly because everything has to be shipped up earth’s gravity well. You also are limited by the bottleneck of earth’s launch capabilities, it could take decades to increase them by a real amount.

That is why past a certain point it would make sense to either set up a moon base or drag an asteroid to high earth orbit.

This brings up the second economic reason to got to space, raw materials. If your in orbit of earth or on the moon it’s cheap to shoot ore down to earth.

You would reach a tipping point however, once you have an easy way to orbit (space elevator, orbital ring, rail gun launcher plus skyhook. Lots of options) and can do manufacturing in space the cost would be cut to almost nothing. At this point the only thing you might bring to space is people.

The second set of reasons would be military. A fact that few people really acknowledge is that if one nation controlled space they could not be fought. If you had a thriving space industry and your enemy did not they would not be able to win any kind of war. You could hit their cities with cheap bombs that would wipe the city out. You would see anything they do coming and they would have to rely on planes for surveillance.

One idea that pops up here and there is that the earth is dying and we need a colony on Mars (or sometimes the moon) to survive. So we put all the effort we can into creating the base to save the human race.

While I have read some good fiction with this idea I think the amount of effort needed to get to Mars is underestimated and the effort needed to survive on earth is overestimated. Setting up a colony on Mars that would be able to survive cut off from the earth forever would require a very large amount of resources. You would not only need to have the base in a location with raw materials, you would need the machinery and expertise to create everything from microchips to rockets. Unless we are talking about thousands of people there would be some specialties that you just could not have.

Think about how big the ISS is, now think about how much material you would need to send to mars. You could burn through a decade of launches just sending 100 people and machinery to mars.

The other side of the coin is how much the earth would have to change for such an effort to be needful. Even if our atmosphere become unbreathable and all the plants and animals died it still would be much easier to live on earth. Whatever happened to the earth it would have to be something that would not even let humans live in reinforced domes using greenhouses to grow food.

Alien invasions

While not as common as you might think, alien invasions are still a staple of science fiction. One of the reasons they are not done often is that they are really hard to do right.

In large part this is because if the aliens just wanted to kill off the human race it would not be much of a story. All that would happen is the aliens enter the sol system, then toss a few large rocks at earth. Even if we (somehow) manage to divert one or two, it would be very easy for them to toss more rocks down the gravity well and very costly for us to divert them. We would be hit eventually, and one hit with a rock big enough could render the earth uninhabitable for centuries.

Before I go on I will say that one thing they would NOT be here for is raw materials. If you want metals, water or anything else you would find in the earth’s crust it would be easier to get them from the asteroid belt or from a comet. There are a few things that you will only find in large planets (like uranium) but Mars would be a much better place to get them.

And as stated, if you want to kill all of us humans off all you have to do is drop a few asteroids.
So you want to have an invasion anyway, what do you do? As I see it there is one good practical reason; the aliens want to keep our biosphere functional. They would have to lack the ability to make an effective bio-weapon against us of course. There are any number of good reasons they would lack that ability.
If they want to keep our biosphere functional, the aliens would probably want to move in. Note that this would only apply if the aliens were short on time. If they could wait long enough they could just kill us off with asteroid drops then wait a few hundred years for things to clear off.

Say our aliens arrived and had to be on earth in less then thirty years. They are not really the sharing type so they plan to kill us all, and won’t drop rocks because they like the earth as is. And let us also say they got in without being spotted (hard but maybe not impossible). Their technology level is about fifty years ahead of ours.
The first thing they might do, beyond studying us, is to crash our economy. There is something like $1.2 trillion US dollars in circulation. What would happen if the aliens arranged for $10 trillion to find it’s way into the hands of a large number of random people? Ideally people would just start running around spending. If the counterfeits were good enough their would be no way for anyone not at the treasury to tell if they were fake.
After this I see a few options. First you could do a large number of assassinations. You would want enough that you would start to break the chain of command. In the US what would mean the President, VP, Cabinet, and all of both houses. You could do the same with other countries, the goal would be part confusion, part slowing down any reaction to further moves.
The first step of the invasion itself would be to take out all of our satellites as well as any launch facilities. You could then put your own satellite network in place, ideally with some Project Star Wars type lasers to stop ICBM’s.
After that you have the choice of either creating a beachhead and expanding from there or staying unreachable in orbit and taking out one city at a time until the human race can no longer field a military. At this point so long as you keep a presence in space large to recover from if everything on earth is lost you could not lose. The only way to lose would be for humans to get to space which would be between very very hard to impossible.