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.
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. 🙂
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
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.
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
c) 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.
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.