A Question of Scale

What do I even mean by that? I am coming at that question from two perspectives.

  1. As a science fiction writer, one often needs to build worlds, political systems, industries and infrastructure … usually so that we have something to pull back down again. So how do these things grow, evolve, come into existence even? Usually, it is a question of scale – and all the pieces of the puzzle being there, being ready, big enough, and open to working towards a bigger goal. But is it evolution or revolution? Is there a tipping point?
  2. The other is real world – how do whole industries appear? We can also think about things like the industrial revolution, the space race, and perhaps what we call the information revolution, why not Google itself. In all of these cases, they didn’t just happen. Again it was a question of scale – and, like for my first point, all the pieces of the puzzle being there, being ready, big enough, and open to work towards a bigger goal. Where is the tipping point here?

Buzz Aldrin, Space race, Moon landing, Harry Tuttle, Modern Cave Dweller, MCD

Now, here is a question for you. Do you think anyone saw these revolutions coming? Or, did someone just decide to invest massive amounts of money and presto-magic, revolution?

Clearly, people knew. Let’s consider the space race. On May 25, 1961, President J. F. K. announced the mind blowing goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade. It is clearly not a question of going out to the industrial park and asking the guys to stop making cars and build a space ship. They knew all of the necessary industries were there, albeit in varying degrees of readiness, they “just” needed a push.

War had given rise to missiles, which would give rise to rockets that would get people off this rock. Electronics were certainly primitive by today’s standards but the diode had been invented for over a decade and already by the mid 60s Moore, of the Moore’s law fame, was seeing a pattern developing for this technology. Moore initially thought that the number of components (like diodes) per integrated circuit was doubling every year, this was later revised to every two years. Progress was fast, and indeed, Cray was already building solid state computers by the 60s, and these were already quite powerful (relatively speaking). Not completely unrelated to these efforts was progress in materials science – amongst other things the computing “industry” needed more complicated material structures and cleaner materials – they’d been working on this for a while as well.

Anyway, that’s all getting very technical, but the point is that there were myriad fields of science and diverse technologies powering ahead, happily, quite probably, except maybe for those making the bombs. So how did we bring these all together and get to the moon? For sure, the massive amounts of money thrown at the problem helped, but that is not really enough, or is it? Was it the focus of such a massively optimistic challenge of going to the moon that brought everyone together in such a coherent way? My personal opinion is that the money was more or less already there and these different fields would have progressed nicely in any case. The real difference was identifying a challenge that was bigger than any of them. That is the only way to achieve extraordinary things.

So that’s sort of OK for how industries arise, and I would add, we are still profiting rather nicely from the space race. What about science fiction and world building – what can we take away from this? Firstly, your world needs to be multi-dimensional, multi-disciplinary. It is no good only ever seeing what is happening in the warp-drive factory, the teleportation station or the galactic parliament. You need to think about why they needed them. How did they get to have warp-drives? Was it just an evolution from the war machine department, or was there a revolution? And if it was revolution, what triggered it? Do you copy the cold war scenario of our amusing little planet, or do you think outside the box/universe? Maybe a wizard did it… In any case, if YOU know, then your story will be better for it; it will have greater depth. At the same time, you don’t need to tell everyone, like a good character, the reader will simply be more convinced by the depth and reality of your world.

I think that I have now asked far more questions than I’ve answered … which sounds about right to me. I will certainly be coming back to this subject as I find it quite fascinating, both as a writer and a human. In particular,Elon Musk is probably an excellent example of someone dealing with scale, so it could be that I might look a little into how he is changing the world. If you have any thoughts on the matter then don’t hesitate to chime in! Do you know of any good examples of how companies have “scaled up” or worlds have been born?

Image from: http://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a11/AS11-40-5903HR.jpg