Einstein, Heinlein, and Queen

Science-fictional ideas have been gradually percolating through our popular storytelling and entertainment for years, as I noted at the beginning of these observations.  One example is the idea of time dilation—that time passes more slowly at very high velocities—in the theory of relativity.  The classic illustration is the “twin paradox.”  We can trace this image from the science itself, through a classic novel, to—of all things—a rock song.

The Physicist’s Version

Those who are already familiar with relativistic time dilation can skip to the next heading.  Otherwise, here’s a rough layman’s explanation of the phenomenon:

One of the consequences of Einstein’s theory of relativity, noted as early as 1911, is that time passes more slowly as we approach the speed of light.  More precisely, a clock (or other process) that’s moving at a high velocity, relative to the observer, will be seen to operate more slowly than a clock in the observer’s own reference frame.  If I sit in my comfortable lab on Earth and watch what’s happening on a spaceship accelerating away from the Earth, I’ll see the spaceship’s clock running slower and slower, falling further and further behind the clock on my wall.  The closer to the speed of light (usually symbolized as “C”) the spaceship gets, the greater the discrepancy—the “time dilation.”

Time dilation graph and equationThis isn’t an illusion.  When the spaceship eventually returns to Earth, I’ll find that the traveling clock is behind the stay-at-home timepiece.  The same is true for living organisms.  If I planted a pair of trees before the ship left, the tree that made the flight may still be a sapling when it returns, dwarfed by its towering ‘sister’ on Earth.  If you’d like the math, the Wikipedia article on the twin paradox gives an example for a trip to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri.

As with most of the peculiar consequences of relativity, we don’t notice such differences in ordinary life because they’re so small as to be undetectable at the speeds and scales we normally deal with.  But if we look closely enough, the same effects are observable.  Even the humble GPS app on your smartphone has to take into account the slowdown of the clocks on the GPS satellites, which move slowly compared to C but fast enough that the very precise positioning signals are affected.

Early on, physicists came up with a vivid illustration involving a pair of twins.  If one twin takes a trip at near-lightspeed, she will end up younger than the twin who stays home.

At low velocities, the difference will be unnoticeable.  A twin who spends a few months on the International Space Station will come back slightly younger than the stay-at-home twin, but only slightly.  Up the velocity, though, and we up the ante.  It would be quite startling, by normal standards, if the astronaut twin were still college-age while the earthbound twin were ready for retirement.

Sounds like a story, doesn’t it?

The Storyteller’s Version

Robert A. Heinlein’s 1956 young adult novel Time for the Stars does exactly this:  it makes a story out of the twin paradox.

Time for the Stars coverTom and Pat Bartlett are teenagers growing up centuries from now.  Tom is our viewpoint character.  Pat is the “dominant” twin:  he always seems to end up with the bigger piece of pie.

In this future, population pressure is extreme.  The Long Range Foundation commissions twelve near-lightspeed “torchships” to look for colonizable planets among the nearby stars.  The LRF has discovered that certain pairs of twins can communicate with each other instantaneously, by telepathy (which baffles the physicists no end, since that’s theoretically impossible).  This gives the LRF a way for the starships to get their findings promptly back to Earth, and incidentally explains what an average teen is doing aboard an interstellar exploratory ship.  One twin goes abroad; one stays home.

Heinlein’s characteristic mixture of sound scientific detail and relatable characters makes the novel a highly engaging story.  We see the finagling by which it’s decided which twin (Tom) goes to space.  We get a vivid picture of life aboard a starship that will travel independently for years (even according to its own time frame)—which is where I first learned the word “ecology.”  We see strange worlds and watch how the people aboard the Lewis and Clark (known to its passengers as the “Elsie”) interact.

Time dilation is described with realistic detail.  As the Elsie approaches the speed of light (never quite reaching it), Tom has to “speak” to his brother more and more quickly, and Pat on Earth has to communicate more and more slowly, because their time frames are increasingly out of sync:  “he complained that I was drawling, while it seemed to me that he was starting to jabber” (ch. 11, p. 113).

But it’s the age difference that makes things really difficult.  At the end of the first near-lightspeed jump, Pat is eleven years older than Tom and has a seven-year-old daughter, Molly.  It becomes harder for Tom and Pat to connect; they’ve grown apart to the extent that they now have little in common.  Fortunately, it turns out that the twins’ connectedness can sometimes be passed on (stretching the original concept considerably):  Tom can communicate with Molly as well.  As time goes on, Tom’s connection with Earth is increasingly through his brother’s descendants, though Pat is still alive.

The Lewis and Clark’s expedition ends when she’s met by a new ship from Earth.  Based on investigations into the instantaneous telepathy, scientists have developed a new theory that allows for an “irrelevant” space drive—one that can whisk the whole crew home in mere hours.  The twin imagery is vivid when college-age Tom meets his brother Pat, now an old man in a wheelchair.  The time slippage is even more pointedly illustrated when Tom meets his great-grandniece Vicky, whom he’s spoken with telepathically for all of her life—and is now going to marry.  (The appearance of incest is illusory:  Tom and Vicky have only 1/8 of their parentage in common, or five degrees of consanguinity in terms of Wikipedia’s table.)

Jo Walton has a review with a fascinating (and telling) aside on what Heinlein’s book would have been like if it were written today, rather than in the 1950s.  But we’re going to go on to look at a more unlikely treatment of time dilation.

The Musical Version

As far as I know, no one is contemplating making Time for the Stars into a musical.  But years ago I ran across a song on a 1975 album by the rock band Queen.  The song is called “’39.”  The official lyric video gives you both the recording and Brian May’s lyrics.  Note the imagery the band chose for the introductory graphics.

'39, official lyric video openingIf you didn’t have the lead-in we’ve walked through here, the song might seem rather baffling.  The acoustic sound, the rather antique style, and the mention of sailing off to discover new lands makes us think of olden times.  But what’s with “. . . the day I’ll take your hand / In the land that our grandchildren knew”?

One clue is the songwriter’s coyness about the first two digits of the date that forms the title.  If someone says “’39,” we normally assume they mean 1939.  But there was nothing like this happening in 1939.  The song is full of this careful ambiguity.

If you come to the song with a science-fiction background, however, it’s clear what it’s really about.  Clues are scattered all through the lyrics.  We’ve got the population pressure:  “the days when lands were few.”  The brave crew is “inside” the ship, rather than “aboard.”  It sails “across the milky seas”—the Milky Way.  The singer is “many years away” from his beloved.  The Volunteers bring back news of “a world so newly born” to colonize.  Most significant, he’s “older but a year,” yet the earth and his beloved have radically changed.  We haven’t got twins or telepathy in sight, but otherwise, we might well be talking about the mission of the Lewis and Clark.

When the Web was invented and I finally looked up the song in Wikipedia, I was tickled to find my guess was correct.  According to the Songfacts site, the composer May studied astrophysics, and he himself has referred to the piece as a “sci-fi folk song” (commonly referred to as a “filk song”).

The story line isn’t as clear as Heinlein’s, to be sure.  For one thing, the traveler seems astonished at the relativistic time slippage when he returns (“this cannot be”).  No real astronaut would be that unaware of what to expect.  In addition, in the chorus the singer seems to be addressing both a stay-at-home spouse with whom he’s had grandchildren (“my love”), and a descendant (“your mother’s eyes”)—unless perhaps, like Tom Bartlett, he’s fallen in love with a much younger family member.

In any case, with the necessary compression of a story into the poetry of lyrics, we don’t expect as literal a narrative as in a novel—particularly when, as here, May seems to have been deliberately indirect, even tongue-in-cheek, as a sort of joke on the listener.

But, just as in the novel, the song’s emotional resonance involves a romance as the most poignant expression of the results of time dilation.  It also ends with an appeal for sympathy with the personal dislocation of the narrator, who returns to a world far different from the one he left (“For my life still ahead, pity me”)—a theme also touched on at the end of Time for the Stars.

The three-part comparison reminds us that, even as far back as the 1970s, science fiction turns up in the darnedest places; and that scientific developments can bring new aspects to the timeless concerns of our hearts.


High School Musical: Or, Artful Trope-Wrangling

High School Musical posterIn this season of festive frivolity (and guilty pleasures), what could be more frivolous than the Disney Channel TV movie “High School Musical”?

Yet there may be a few interesting words to say about it.

The Phenomenon

If by some chance you’re not familiar with HSM, the Wikipedia article has a detailed description of the production, plot, and characters.  You can brush up there; I’ll wait.

Since the early 1980s, the Disney Channel has produced a formidable list of original made-for-TV movies, generally aimed at a tween-to-teen audience.  Few of them make much impact on the general moviegoing public, though a number of actors and musicians have gotten their start in the “DCOM” venue.  But every now and then one finds something more substantial among the fluff.

Such surprise successes are not unknown among more adult movies.  No one expected Casablanca to become a film classic when it came out in 1942.  It’s A Wonderful Life, with disappointing results in its original 1946 release, became a beloved holiday heartwarmer in the 1970s.

Disney didn’t expect anything extraordinary from HSM, either.  But the movie was a whirlwind success in its target age group.  Disney, always ready to strike when the iron turns out to be hot, followed up the original HSM not only with the conventional TV sequel but also with a third episode that was released in theatres—“the first and only DCOM to have a theatrical sequel,” according to Wikipedia.

When HSM premiered in 2006, I had a daughter at the right age to be interested; that’s how I came to see the show.  But I was favorably impressed.  As lighthearted romantic fluff goes, this venture was pretty enjoyable.

Clearly, the HSM team did something right.

The Chemistry

High School Musical, karaoke scene, Troy and GabriellaA romantic comedy can’t work unless the couple appeals to us.  In this respect, HSM hits the right note from the initial meet-cute.  Teenage strangers Troy Bolton (basketball star) and Gabriella Montez (science-oriented A student) are propelled onstage at random by a boisterous karaoke crowd at a resort’s New Year’s Eve party.  By the usual musical-theatre convention, they sing the required duet perfectly, without any prompting, though they act as if they’re amateurs trying this for the first time.  We watch them gradually loosen up, exchange shy glances, and get into the song with enthusiasm.  It’s entirely adorable.  The song itself, with the refrain “This could be the start of something new,” fits neatly with the beginning of a relationship.

Romantic chemistry is to some extent in the eye of the beholder.  But I felt the actors and filmmakers did a good job of making the romantic interest both credible and enjoyable.  (To mention only one example of a film that fails in this respect:  Star Wars fans will wince in unison when reminded of the fact that the prequel trilogy requires us to treat Anakin and Padmé as heroes of an epic romance, but the actors have no chemistry whatsoever.)

The Tropes

HSM is a gallery of familiar tropes—but it does some interesting things with them.

The idea of star-crossed lovers whose groups are at odds goes back to Romeo and Juliet—or Pyramus and Thisbe.  Using the traditional high-school dichotomy of jocks and nerds to create this opposition makes the situation ripe for comedy.  But what makes HSM interesting is that there’s a third force involved:  the drama club.

While the sports championship and the scholastic decathlon preoccupy the basketball team and the brainy types, Troy and Gabriella are really trying to succeed at a third thing—trying out for the spring musical.  Their real opposition is the reigning drama queen, Sharpay, with her acquiescent brother and dance partner Ryan.  Having three factions in play complicates the standard “Two houses, both alike in dignity” plotline.  It also allows for a satisfying alliance of the sports and science factions at the climax, when they conspire to create simultaneous disruptions so that Troy and Gabriella can appear at the all-important (I’m trying to say that with a straight face) callback auditions.

High School Musical, creme bruleeSimilarly, the basic theme of the show is a classic (especially for teenagers) “do your own thing” or “be yourself” message.  But the three-party problem points this up in a slightly unexpected way.  Troy and Gabriella don’t need to recognize each other’s existing strengths; they’re each trying to do something that’s new to both of them.  The same theme works its way down through the minor characters.  In a song about sticking to the status quo, various people confess their unorthodox ambitions.  To me there seems to be something whimsically specific about a basketball player’s dream of cooking the perfect crème brulée, which becomes a running joke.

The HSM characters are typical high-school stereotypes, but with a little more to them.  They are, at least, multi-talented; and they’re capable (in the end) of appreciating each other’s disparate abilities.  It’s just enough of a spin to lift HSM out of the run of teenage comedies.

The Music

The musical numbers are pretty good pop-rock songs, IMHO.  The comic pieces are well done, and they’re carried off with great joie de vivre by the enthusiastic cast.  The love songs—“Start of Something New,” “What I’ve Been Looking For,” “Breaking Free”—are enjoyable enough that they’re worth listening to even aside from the video.  The big finale, “We’re All In This Together,” is just the kind of rousing, energetic closer one wants for an entertainment of this sort.


High School Musical, finaleThere are, of course, flaws.  Characters don’t always act consistently; for instance, the drama club moderator Miss Darbus is sometimes flagrantly biased in favor of her pet prodigies Sharpay and Ryan, while at other times she goes out of her way to give the newbies a fair chance.  The final wrap-up, in which everyone from all factions become friends (temporarily, until the next episode), is endearing but just too neat.

But to my mind, HSM succeeds at being good light entertainment—and that’s not something to sneeze at.  It can be harder to bring off a light comedy than to craft a drama or an action-adventure flick, just as it can be easier to broil a steak than to make a good soufflé.  (Or crème brulée, perhaps.)

Kelsi Nielsen, HSM's "composer"

Olesya Rulin as Kelsi Nielsen

I also have a particular fondness for HSM’s acknowledgement of the composer of the musical as an unsung hero.  The drama club’s musical is being written by a younger student, Kelsi Nielsen.  The senior drama people act superior with Kelsi, but Troy points out to her that in basketball terms she’s the “playmaker”—the one who makes everybody else look good.  That’s an especially satisfying observation to those of us whose activities lie more in the writing and composition areas than in onstage performance.  It’s another welcome subtlety I wouldn’t necessarily have expected in a casual Disney Channel production.

No one will mistake HSM for high drama.  But it’s undeniably fun, and it reminds us that even the most well-worn tropes can be fresh if you throw in a few new twists.

Looking Backward/Looking Forward

One of the things that distinguishes science fiction and fantasy is the direction they look to for greatness.  In SF, we expect things will be better and greater in the future than they are now.  In fantasy, the great days are behind us.


Both F&SF recognize that things change over time.  Empires rise and fall; discoveries are made and lost; human ability to control the environment expands or contracts.  Both of them help counterbalance our mental inertia and remind us that things will not always be as they are now.

Our present era is particularly alert to changeability.  “Disruption” is the watchword of today’s businesses, and Moore’s Law reminds us that technology can be expected to improve.  But the two kinds of literature tend to look in opposite directions.

The Bright Future

Modern science fiction started out by anticipating scientific and technological advances.  New inventions like the railroad and the telegraph suggested further developments like flight and advanced weaponry.  This is so obvious that we might overlook the key assumption—that we will know more, and be able to do more, as time goes on.

Brad Paisley, "Welcome to the Future"

Brad Paisley, “Welcome to the Future”

The trend has a familiar resonance, after all, in our own experience.  As individuals grow up, they learn more and become more able.  Shouldn’t we expect society to do the same?  Stories of wonderful inventions and daring discoveries were the meat and drink of early modern SF.

Of course, “more powerful” does not automatically mean “better.”  But a future dystopia presented an extraordinary menace precisely because advanced technology or social change could allow a tyranny to expand its oppression.  The two-way television sets of Nineteen Eighty-Four made it possible for a government to observe its citizens’ private lives at any time.  Now that such surveillance is actually practical, we are grappling with the issues of privacy and security that Orwell’s novel raised hypothetically.

The notion of technological progress in SF was reinforced by the parallel of biological evolution.  Primitive forms of life, from one-celled microorganisms to dinosaurs, develop into today’s dominant humans; the future may see further evolution into some superhuman being.  While the idea of evolution by natural selection does not actually imply that later creatures are “better” than earlier ones—they are simply better adapted to recent conditions—it has been almost irresistible, in SF and elsewhere, to assume that later species are improvements on their predecessors.  (The traditional way of fudging this issue is to refer to the later creatures as “higher” forms of life, which suggests “better” without quite saying so.)

The Past Glories

In classic high fantasy, on the other hand, the present day tends to be presented as a come-down from the great days of old.  The Golden Age is in the past; we understand less, and can do less, than our predecessors.

The Silmarillion, coverThe archetypal example, of course, is The Lord of the Rings.  The War of the Ring (taking place in the “Third Age” of the world) is small potatoes by comparison to the immense conflicts of the First Age (depicted in The Silmarillion), no matter how cataclysmic it appears to those involved.  The heroes of the First Age are of legendary stature; Aragorn modestly points out that he is not a hero on the same scale as his ancestors Elendil and Isildur.  The most powerful weapons, such as Gandalf’s sword Glamdring, are handed down from an earlier era.  No one in the Third Age, we gather, could craft such weapons.  The downward trend even continues forward from the time of the story.  The Elves are leaving Middle-earth, the Age of Men is coming, and we’re led to expect a gradually more mundane (if perhaps safer) world from which the colorful magic and variety of LotR are absent.

Robert Jordan’s immense fantasy series The Wheel of Time operates on the same pattern.  The story is set in a world where the vast powers and knowledge of the Age of Legends, three thousand years before, are largely lost.  The magic that remains is far less capable and much less well-understood than in ancient days.  Relics left over from the Age of Legends, if one can discover how to use them, have powers vastly greater than anything contemporary characters can exercise on their own.

Camber of Culdi cover

From the Deryni series

The earliest books in Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series take place in a world where the magic-wielding Deryni have been largely pushed into hiding, and even those still active hardly understand their own powers.  Later on, Kurtz wrote prequel stories set in that earlier era when Deryni magic was in common use.  Seeing for the first time that earlier, more civilized era produced a fascinating effect—as did the publication of Tolkien’s Silmarillion, decades after LotR.

In a similar way, when Lucasfilms released Episode I of Star Wars—the first of the prequels—we had a chance to see for ourselves what Episode IV had called “a more civilized age.”  The appearance of this fantasy trope reminds us that Star Wars has a good deal in common with high fantasy, despite its spaceships and droids.

There’s a psychological basis or resonance for fantasy’s backward gaze.  As children, we are wards of larger people whose knowledge and power far exceed our own.  We grow into adulthood ourselves eventually—but it’s still hard to feel equal to our parents’ generation, because we don’t feel all-powerful and all-knowing when we get there.  We’re too aware of our own limitations.  So as our parents move offstage and we take over the reins, there’s a vague sense that the Great Ones of the past are gone and the world has devolved upon our more modest powers.  Remember when you were a high-school freshman, and the seniors who ran clubs and activities seemed larger than life?  When you yourself were a senior, you weren’t larger than life; it was hard to feel equal to the older leaders you remember.

Mixing Things Up

Having noted this very broad general tendency—SF looks forward, fantasy looks back—we can say a word or two about the numerous exceptions and nuances.

You can get interesting results when you mix things up.  Another classic SF trope is the discovery that some great vanished civilization or species preceded our own.  They may seem godlike to us; our own people may even have considered them gods, if there was an overlap in time (see the first Thor movie).  Here we get some of the high-fantasy ambiance mixed in with regular futuristic SF tropes, for a distinctive overall feel—as, for example, in many of Andre Norton’s later novels.  We may learn from the Forerunners’ technology, or we may make use of it without understanding it, as in Frederik Pohl’s Gateway series or Poul Anderson’s The Avatar.

If there’s a collapse of civilization, we ourselves may be the fabled precursors, whose lost technology must now be rediscovered.  Any number of post-apocalyptic stories take this tack.  In A.E. van Vogt’s Empire of the Atom, a far-future priesthood uses power sources and spacecraft it barely understands—until the genius Clane Linn appears on the scene.  SF can also show us decline from a lost golden age.  It’s significant, though, that the SF story tends to be set at a point where we’re going back onto an upward trend after the collapse, beginning to reinvent or recover lost arts and abilities.

Dragonflight coverAnne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern stories throw us a sort of double-reverse.  The opening story Dragonflight feels like a fantasy, with its dragons, its medieval-style technology, and its feudal society.  But the introduction makes clear that this is a human colony on another planet that has lost (or given up) its technology—the story is really science fiction.  When the characters begin reinventing devices like the telegraph, there’s a fascinating sense of acceleration and change that plays simultaneously against the fantasy atmosphere and the SF basis of the story.


Reading both fantasy and science fiction helps us gain a balanced perspective.  Great days may be behind us, in the Age of Legends.  They may be ahead of us, in the Age of Tomorrow.  Or even today may be a moment of greatness, by contrast to where we’ve come from or where we’re going.  As Carly Simon once put it, “these are the good old days.”

Useful Simple Things

Inventing the Everyday

What are the best inventions of the 20th century?  I’m sometimes inclined to nominate the Ziploc bag.  (The generic name, apparently, is “zipper storage bag.”)  An inexpensive airtight, watertight, reusable bag—it has a thousand uses.

Ziploc bagRunner-ups (at least for geeky types who dote on office supplies) include the Post-It note, which allows removable annotation of papers and other objects.  I use them for bookmarks in magazines, with the added bonus that you can write on them to list pages for later reference.  And then there’s Velcro (all right, “hook and loop fasteners”), popularized in the space program, and beloved of small children who haven’t learned to tie their shoes.

Computers?  Atomic energy?  Spaceflight?  Sure.  But while no one has yet (alas) offered to put me on a spaceship, I use Ziploc bags every day.  Sometimes it’s the small everyday innovations that do the most to make our lives easier.

When we’re developing the setting for a science fiction or fantasy story, we may focus on big showy stuff, like the Ringworld or light-sabers.  But whether we’re dealing with technology or with magic, we also need to think through how the principles embodied in those big inventions may affect more mundane activities.

Making Bathrooms Unnecessary

Sherwood Smith, Inda, coverIn Sherwood Smith’s world of Sartorias-deles, magic has been known for thousands of years, and is used in some form by practically everybody.  For example, as soon as possible, at about four years of age, a child is taught the Waste Spell.  As the entry in the glossary explains:  “these few syllables, whispered when a human being lets go of waste, gets rid of it.  Waste includes vomit, and with a syllable attached, menses.”  Babies have to have diapers changed, as usual.  But once the child learns the Waste Spell, it’s no longer an issue.

Imagine the implications.  No latrines, no chamberpots.  No scenes in which women go off to the bathroom together to compare notes on their dates.  No sewer systems.  Less disease.  That single innovation could make significant changes in the story mechanics.

Smith’s simple magics also include enspelled water buckets that clean and sanitize anything dipped in them, and “cleaning frames” through which clothing and such can be passed to cleanse them instantly.  The work of medieval-style drudges who might otherwise spend hours rinsing clothes in rivers and beating them dry on rocks just became vastly easier.

Then there’s the other end of the alimentary canal.

Larry Niven, Neutron Star, coverLarry Niven’s Known Space stories include teleportation in the form of “stepping discs.”  Step on one of these sidewalk spots and you’re instantly transferred a block down the street, or to the vestibule of a friend’s home.  That’s the snazzy futuristic effect.

But in one story (“Flatlander,” in the collection Neutron Star) Niven’s character Beowulf “Bey” Shaeffer visits the home of a new buddy, “Elephant,” who happens to be one of the richest men on Earth.  Elephant hands Bey a drink—in “a glass which would not empty.  Somewhere in the crystal was a tiny transfer motor connected to the bar.”  The motor teleports more beer into the glass as the original supply is consumed.  Bey dryly observes that the gizmo “must have tricked good men into acute alcoholism.”  The same trick appears courtesy of Dr. Strange, using magic rather than technology, in Thor:  Ragnarok.

Missing the Implications

On the other hand, if a writer fails to recognize that some invented technology can be used in ordinary but life-changing ways, we may end up with a plot hole—what TV Tropes calls “Fridge Logic,” the kind of problem you think of half an hour after the show is over, while you’re getting something from the fridge.  “Why didn’t they just—”

We might wonder, for instance, why they don’t have personal-sized force shields in Star Wars, to protect individuals the way the ships are protected.  They had them in Dune.  A nice personal force shield would not only change the whole nature of blaster and light-saber combat; it would also make umbrellas unnecessary.  (Not that umbrellas are much needed on Tatooine, to be sure.)

Actually, I haven’t come up with a lot of examples of this kind.  That might be a testament to the thoroughness of writers, but it’s probably also got a lot to do with the vagaries of my memory.  Anybody have a good case study where there’s a technology or magic that ought to make a major difference in how people live, but that difference is missed in the story?


There can also be good explanations as to why an innovation doesn’t affect daily life.  If a magic or technology is rare, difficult, costly, or dangerous, it won’t be used casually for everyday things.  In the Niven story, the fabulously wealthy Elephant has these self-refilling glasses, but the well-traveled Beowulf Shaeffer has never seen one before; we can infer that they’re hideously expensive.

Similarly, if the necessary equipment is bulky or consumes a great deal of power, it may not be feasible to use the technique in small-scale applications.  That might explain the absence of personal force shields in Star Wars:  perhaps the generators, like steam engines, can’t readily be scaled down to belt-buckle size.

Isaac Asimov, Foundation, coverThis is actually a plot point in Asimov’s Foundation series.  The grandiose Empire had massive force-shields, but only the Foundation’s emissaries have personal versions.  “We have force-shields—huge, lumbering powerhouses that will protect a city, or even a ship, but not one, single man.”  (Foundation, part V, “The Merchant Princes,” ch. 10)  The nascent Foundation, working with severely limited resources, had to invent smaller shields—just as American satellites in the early days of the space program developed miniaturization techniques that the Soviets, with their larger boosters, didn’t need.

Real Life

There are plenty of real-life cases where mundane innovations make possible noteworthy changes in lifestyle.  Modern business life, with its exact schedules and appointments, would not have been possible before the invention of the wrist- or pocket-watch—and in a form that was not only portable, but inexpensive enough for the average person to own.  Only the invention of the elevator, and its nearly fail-safe operation, made skyscrapers practical.

Consider the smartphone.  All of a sudden, almost everyone in many sectors of society has with them at all times not just instant voice communication, but also a flashlight, a calculator, an up-to-date map with position location—and access to a world-spanning library of information.  If these were separate devices, they’d require Batman’s utility belt to carry.  As it is, one simply slips this electronic Swiss army knife into a pocket.

We’re still getting used to the consequences.  But one thing that’s clear is that the ubiquitous smartphone makes for changes in how stories have to be written.  For example, when I wrote a story in which a teenage girl runs away from home, I had to establish that while she had her phone with her, she’d accidentally left the charger at home—so that by the time people thought to locate her by her phone, its battery was dead.  In another ten years, ubiquitous facial recognition might make it even harder to go on the run.

Grand-scale innovations, whether magical or technical, are the meat and drink of F&SF.  Everyday innovations are the humble bread and water.  But the plausibility of a story may depend on the minor as much as on the major applications.