The Guns Above Author Robyn Bennis on Imagined Technology


Cover detail from The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis, courtesy of Macmillan

I won’t pretend that the technology in The Guns Above was easy to imagine. I spent months working out the details and checking them against real-world analogues. A thousand cool and exciting ideas were cut down in their prime, excised by the cruel blade of reality, because I wanted tech that would pass the test of the hard-fantasy reader. I wanted an airship you could build yourself, with enough money and no more than one or two alterations to the laws of physics.

It wasn’t easy, but it was made easier by my background. I work in biotech, so conceptualizing fictional technologies is part of my job. That may sound like an ironic commentary on some recent biotech ventures, and perhaps it could be, but it’s also a sincere expression of how far a clever new concept must travel to meet reality halfway. Even understanding existing technologies requires a healthy imagination, since most of the work in biotech takes place on a scale that’s invisible to even the world’s most powerful optical microscopes. As our industrialized molecular machinery goes to work—let’s say it’s a polymerase replicating a gene—all the human eye can detect is a small plastic tube filled with unchanging, clear liquid. That’s why, when the engineers are building devices to perform the assays we biologists develop, one of their greatest challenges is making the machine look like it’s actually doing something. Blinking lights and countdowns are a popular go-to, though LCD screens with colorful backgrounds and dubious progress bars are starting to come into vogue.

Down on the molecular factory floor, meanwhile, proteins skitter and bumble along at the job we’ve harnessed them for. Far from the serene fluidity of motion you’ve seen in educational animations, the world at this scale is a madhouse of chaotic, Brownian motion. In the animations, our polymerase latches onto a gene without any fuss and diligently begins its work. Meanwhile, in the real world, the actual polymerase is writhing like a handful of meth-addicted worms. Its attachment to the gene is apt to break at any moment, as that attachment is only attractive forces temporarily winning out against their repulsive counterparts and transiently overcoming local kinetic energy.

But the human brain just isn’t built to conceptualize that world, so we imagine little colored balls stuck together with sticks, their interactions as smooth, deliberate, and graceful as the docking scene from 2001. This is another way of saying that our mental models in biotech are their own work of science fiction, employed to turn the actual workings of molecules into a story we can relate to.

So perhaps you can see why a career in science prepared my way, when I went looking for methods to lift, power, and arm an airship for combat above a Napoleonic battlefield. My background primed me to think about how systems aboard Mistral might interact with each other. How is unwanted torque from the turbine absorbed by the keel? How are wooden box girders affected by steam exhaust? How does the still-evolving science of blade aerodynamics match engine advancements to propellers that can take full advantage of them? How does the overall danger of a primitive combat airship influence the safety margins built into each system?

More than that, my background gave me an instinct for knowing how much of the truth people can handle in one sitting. You can’t just teach someone the “meth-worms” version of polymerase activity, after all. It’s too alien to learn all at once. So you teach them the ball-and-stick, 2001 docking sequence, then come back with the truth at a later date.

I recommend a similar game plan for authors of hard fantasy and science fiction. Invent and understand the intricate workings of your hero’s raygun, but resist the urge to explain everything the first time they use it. Your reader has a lot to absorb already, so keep it simple for a while. How about a blinking light to show that it’s working? Or, if you really want to get fancy, you can give it a Liquid Quantum Display with a colorful background.

When my readers first come aboard Mistral, there’s a whole lot of ship for them to take in, so the workings of plot-critical components are simplified. The reader knows that the turbine is working when it emits an annoying whine, and knows we’re in for trouble when it makes any other sound. Later in the book, they’ll learn more about the ship’s power train, but even as problems are described in more detail, that familiar whine still provides a cue to drive the message home.

Mind you, even as more technological detail is given later on in the book, I never reveal more than a tiny fraction of what I’ve imagined. It’s important to resist the urge to drop a steaming load of tech onto the pages of your book, if you want to engage a wide range of readers. Personally, I prefer dropping hints to dropping loads. Interested readers can follow those hints and work the finer details out for themselves, while uninterested readers won’t be bothered by endless technobabble. The key in either case is working out the details of the technology and consistently abiding by its rules. If you can do that, then both classes of reader will sense the fully-developed world hiding just behind the page.

As for creating that technological detail in the first place, nothing serves so well as a healthy appreciation for the fictions all around us.