Storyworld Design: Communication Technologies

connected

Ever since homo sapiens turned sapiens2, telecommunication has become the greatest instrument of modern evolution. From the internal structure of companies, to the grand scale of global commercial empires and the ever-present, ever-growing world of social media platforms, near-instant communication across vast distances, between vast numbers of people, has become the epitome of our era.

Everything in our lives relies on communication and the technology that makes it possible.

So it stands to reason the future will also depend on it, perhaps more, perhaps less, perhaps in an entirely different way. But communication technologies are the tectonic plates that shape a science fiction world, and as such, they have to be carefully developed—or at least considered—in every good SF story.

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First, there’s the question of the basic means of communication. Will the people in this storyworld use mobile devices to communicate, sending text or voice messages? Will they use embedded devices that can automatically translate their brain patterns into messages, as a form of technology aided telepathy? Will they use an intermediary live being to do the translating for them (think: Babel fish)? Or will they have to rely on the physical transfer of information between locations, aka The Postman, because a local Apocalypse nixed all technology on their world?

Once the decision of the basic means of communication is made, we need to figure out the networks this means will likely generate, and whether there will be any autonomous, sentient parts in those networks, such as Artificial Intelligences, androids, self-organized robotic systems, etc.

Then the real extrapolation begins. 🙂

Global Network

 

Planetary Communication

Everything’s global already, and it will be more so if the technology we use to coordinate and share information becomes even more efficient, more immediate, and more reliable in the future.

For the planets that aren’t Earth, like colony worlds in other systems, terraformed worlds, etc. the planetary communication networks must be set up from scratch, and adapted to whatever needs that particular environment has. Mobile communication as we know it today, for example, wouldn’t be a viable technology on a world that suffers regular ion storms whipping in from its sun; or on a world with huge mountainous ranges. Satellites in orbit could be an answer, but then you need a lot of them, and management of a vast satellite network is insanely expensive and complex and might not be viable for a small-to-medium colony.

And since we’re talking about colony worlds, we inevitably have to consider

nasa interplanetary
NASA reveals solar system Internet for interplanetary communication

Interplanetary Communication

Space is immensely, insanely, freakishly huge. Here’s a presentation of our solar system TO SCALE, just to get a feeling for the stupendous distances between celestial bodies.

Let’s say you want to send a message from Earth to Jupiter. Earth is 1 AU from the sun, and Jupiter is about 5.2 AUs from the sun. So Earth is somewhere between 4.2 and 6.2 AUs from Jupiter at any given time. At the speed of light, it would take that message between 32 and 54 minutes to reach Jupiter. Instagram would be called Latergram with that kind of lag.

Unless, of course, you can devise a way to bring instant communication into your world. Science Fiction is practically built on the idea of instantaneous communication, since no multi-planetary Empire could ever exist without it. From the familiar Ansible to the freakish Dirac Communicator, FTL communication is highly popular and pretty much a mandatory thing in SF. Many of our favorite stories would fall entirely flat without it, and many a plot would be absolutely impossible to write if characters would have to wait for hours between every message.

But delays in communication can also offer plenty of grounds for conflict, misunderstanding, hardship and just plain old trouble, so choose wisely.

titanfall-starships-fleet-wallpaper

Ship-to-Ship Communication

If you have colonies, you likely have ships that regularly travel between them. How these ships talk to each other when they’re in flight—possibly spread throughout the system or in orbit around different planets—makes a big difference. Let’s say we ignore the inevitably lag in communication (unless it’s instantaneous for a good reason, see above^), you’d have to either

a) know exactly where a ship is in order to talk to it,

b) have a ginormous network of relays spread evenly throughout the system (sort of like a planetary network but humongously bigger and more expensive), or

Switchboard Operatorsc) use a central communication distribution center, which all ships call in to and pull messages from, but which would make general fleet coordination a nightmare.
Even if some for of instantaneous communication is possible, there would still be a need to identify the right recipient. Encryption would still be paramount to provide privacy, and the size of the devices would greatly determine who can have them.

The energy needed by a communication network of this magnitude to function and deal with fluctuating load (not all ships will talk at the same time, but when they happen to do so, you’d better hope the network can handle it) is something frequently overlooked in worldbuilding, and can even be prohibitive. In which case, once you’re in flight, you’re totally on your own, bud.

Galactic Empire

Interstellar Communication

Ah, the galactic Empire. It could not exist without instantaneous communication between thousands of units at the same time: ships, stations, colonies, systems. The bigger the better, but also the harder to sustain and manage. As with every big organisation, there will likely be several communication technologies in use at any given time, and they will most likley not integrate well into each other. The more worlds you have, the more complex this gets. Any ship traveling from one system to another, where different technologies are in use, would either have to have one of each, or tediously change them all the time. A device that could communicate with all other types of devices — and still be handheld and look cool — would be even more utopic than an Ansible.

There are so many different SF communication devices to choose from, the possibilities and the issues they’d generate are literally endless.

So when things go KABOOM on the speculative mind-map, just remember the first rule of storytelling:

[Tweet “Put the sidekick in jeopardy.”]

Wait, no, that wasn’t it.

[Tweet “The story is king.”]

All things need to serve the story: flesh out the characters, or drive the conflict. The entire storyworld is built to serve the story line, after all. (Okay, some SFF authors place the world at the center and just make stuff up on the go to show off its many splendors, but I’m a plot kind of gal.)

And if all else fails,

[Tweet “Just lie convincingly about a few key things, & readers will trust you with the rest.”]

I’ll have a tattoo of that someday.

 

6 Replies to “Storyworld Design: Communication Technologies”

  1. I always have trouble with this. I usually gloss over the details of how communications across space work. Instantaneous communication just makes storytelling easier, but in the back of my head, I know that that sort of technology is way more advanced than anything else in my story.

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    1. Indeed. FTL communication and transportation often use the most advanced technologies in any SF story, without the process of having reached that level in these areas seeming to affect other areas of technological development.

      I guess it’s an issue of how complex you want your overall worldbuilding to be, and does the story really require you go that far. Because some short cuts are allowed for storytelling purposes. It’s fiction, after all, not pure scientific speculation. 🙂 I’m rather tolerant in this area, as long as there are no stark technological contradictions.

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      1. I have a basic understand of how physics work. I know that the way we currently use to understand space involves what we can see/detect.

        So that means: Light, and every other scale of the electromagnetic spectrum that you can’t even see (x-rays, gamma rays infrared, and other any sort of invisible radiation).

        I have to disagree that the only way to have an empire is with instant communication. The Roman Empire had vast territories under it’s control and lacked instant communication. Really, if you have FTL starships then you already have a source of FTL communication to control your star empire. Just use the starships like carrier pigeons to send messages.

        Starmail ships anyone?

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      2. Given how light works in a vacuum (and I’m not supposing that the FTL energy you use for FTL communication is light), what’s to stop the weaponization of FTL communication tech?

        If you can communicate across interstellar distances in record time, then what’s to stop a super duper FTL laser from being invented?

        Granted… you can figure ways around this, but you get my point?

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      3. Being able to send a message faster than light does not automatically mean you’re sending light itself at faster than light speed, or that you’re sending any matter at all (see quantum entanglement). But if the technology allows for the transmission of matter or radiation at faster than light speeds, then yes, such technology could be weaponized. The downside would be that you couldn’t target anything at will over vast distances, and would be pretty much either shooting blind, or shooting toward a pre-established receiver of your “call.” This could make for a very interesting SF storyworld, though. 🙂

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      4. I find the comparison between the Roman Empire and an interstellar Empire inadequate. At its height, the RE had ~5 mil square kilometers. If urgent messages were to be transmitted, the principal choice of travel would have been by water. It would have taken, say, roughly 1 week to transmit a message from Rome to the Gibraltar, an average distance considering the width of the RE. Across the land, the trip would be made on horseback, and it would be roughly 2’500 km long. With an equivalent of the pony express, a frequent change of horses and riders would allow the message to be delivered in, also, around 7 days and nights. If you don’t have FTL communications in an IE, but have to rely on light-speed information delivery, an equivalent of the size of the RE would make your interstellar Empire be just a one-system empire, as the smallest distance between two stellar systems is still measured in light years. Coordinating fleets or governing colonies in any meaningful way over distances like light-years or light-decades, is impossible. Even distances of light-hours (meaning lags of hours between units) would make any coordinated military maneuvers unlikely. Such a vast empire would inevitably disintegrate, as any colony would be pretty much isolated, and would always have plenty of time to declare autonomy.
        Now let’s assume you have FTL travel, as you said, then you would automatically have the technology to establish FTL communication without having to send human message carriers around the galaxy. You would send drones, high-speed probes that would travel far faster than any manned vessel since there would be no extra bulk or energy expenditure for life support, and their acceleration would not have to take into account the survival of human organisms aboard. And if you’re able to send a physical object bearing mass across space at faster than light speeds, you’d definitely have the technology to send messages. So if you have FTL travel, you automatically have FTL communication, and then we get back within range of possibility for an interstellar empire.

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