This week, we're talking about technology in stories. What better topic could there be for an engineer-turned-mystery-writer?
Do I use much gadgetry in my mysteries? Not really. My series protagonist, Faye Longchamp, is an archaeologist, and they tend to use Iron Age tools like shovels.
But perhaps I'm being too hasty in saying that my Faye stories don't involve much technology. Since Merriam-Webster tells me that technology is a "practical application of knowledge," our notion that the word "technology" can be represented by the latest gee-whiz, up-to-the-minute invention is a bit limited. A shovel is a combination of the two of the six classic simple machines defined by Renaissance scientists as tools which use mechanical advantage to do work by changing the direction or magnitude of a force.
(And now I've probably lost some of you artsy, touchy-feely people. Let me try again: A machine is a tool used to make work easier.)
The six classic simple machines are the lever, wheel-and-axle, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, and screw. If you give a little thought to how a shovel is used, then you can see that the cutting edge is a wedge, and the handle that helps you lift the load is a lever. Voila! When Faye shovels a big pile of dirt out of the ground, she is using technology. Simple technology, but technology, nonetheless.
When Larabeth McLeod, the protagonist of my thriller, Wounded Earth, goes to work at the environmental consulting firm that she owns, she uses cutting-edge biotechnology to clean up polluted soil, water, and air. When her adversary, the raving lunatic Babykiller, blows up holding basins full of water that has been polluted with radiation-making nastiness since the dawn of the nuclear age, he is making use of technology that is 70 years old, but it is still just as deadly as it can be.
What does this tell me, as a writer of fiction? It tells me that I use technology every instant of the day, from the moment I use a fork to shovel breakfast into my mouth until the moment that I screw the water valve shut at night after I brush my teeth. Since I spent more than five years of my life studying physics and engineering, I might give a little more thought to how these things work than most people, but it doesn't change how they affect my life.
So it is with Larabeth and Faye and all my imaginary friends. If I let them do things that violate nature, like maybe having tiny little Faye lift a humongous boulder without the aid of a lever, then you, my reader, will notice. I will have lost you. But if I stop the story and do the math, so that I can prove to you in numbers that a six-foot lever is sufficient to allow Faye to accomplish this feat, then I will have lost you in a different way.
For me, the bottom line regarding science and technology in fiction is this: I must make sure that my fictional world makes sense in every way--physical, intellectual, and emotional. If the events in my story unfold in a way that is logical and true, then my readers will feel at home in my world.