For more details, as well as a list of resources on military history and culture, check out my resources page.
MIF # 4 – Technology
If you took a look at the book Masks of War that I recommended in my article on the vibe, you saw the author’s hypothesis that the US Air Force “worships technology.” In a way, that can be said to be true for all the services, for all militaries, for all time.
This argument might inspire some debate. One can easily point to the Tokugawa Shoguante of feudal Japan, who spent the better part of its 200-plus year rule trying to keep technology (firearms) out of its country. To me, this only highlights Japan’s obsession with technology; to them they linked their swordsmanship to their culture. They held to their technology with steadfast devotion until the fall of the samurai class in the late 1800s. It defined them as a people.
Examples of technology changing the tides of battle are littered all throughout history, most notably in the last century of warfare. The tank, the airplane, the repeating rifle, the GPS, the internet – all of these inventions – most of which were originally developed for military and not civilian use – dramatically changed warfare, and therefore the world.
You will need to devote some time to researching technology if you are to write about the military; there really is no avoiding it. Barring a completely farcical comedy in which all the principles of physics and reality are ignored (I can’t quite think of one at the moment because this is such an extreme), technology is going to play a role in your plot.
Here are your three points to make sure you are asking the right questions about technology in your writing:
1.) Accuracy/Feasibility of Information. Regardless of how low or hi-tech your society is, you need to make sure that you can at least create the illusion of feasibility for your technology. I rag on movies like Eagle Eye or Stealth, but that’s only because I’m intimately familiar with modern militaries and the principles of aviation. In truth, it doesn’t matter that Hollywood does some truly absurd things with technology, because they make it seem believable. Nobody (at least not many people) turn off a sci-fi program because traveling near light speed makes an object’s mass approach infinity, and is therefore impossible.
Understand basic physics. If you are writing a book in which aviation takes place, understand the principles of lift, drag, thrust, and weight, and understand how they affect flight. Know that you can’t do a barrel roll in a 747, and know that the human body doesn’t normally withstand G-forces higher than 7. So if you have a character who saves the day by making a passenger airliner do a 50-degree turn at 50 feet above ground, what you really have is an explosion and a lot of dead people.
If you are writing a book where sword combat takes place, understand the principles of your basic combat equipment like weapons and armor. How much force does it take for a sword to penetrate well-made scale mail, chain mail, or plate armor? Can a cavalryman, dismounted by a lance, roll smoothly to his feet and draw his sword while wearing heavy armor? Probably not. Knights in the middle ages, once unhorsed, were usually taken captive or killed because they spent the next hour doing their best impression of a turtle flipped over on its shell.
Readers don’t need to know that you have ten books about medieval swordfighting on your bookshelf from the litany of details you give them, but you need to be secure in what you’re talking about so that when you DO decide to bend the rules, you have already built your credibility to the point where the reader doesn’t notice. I’ve heard advice to the effect of “make them believe the big things, and you can lie about all the little things you want.” That’s good advice to go by – if you have a man on horseback that travels 300 miles in a day on a single animal, I’m probably not going to believe you when you try to tell me that an arrow shot from a recurve bow went through three bad guys dressed in full armor.
There are many resources you can use to become familiar with gear, especially modern technology. Check out the Janes Information Group series of books/magazines at www.janes.com (or your local library), or the Federation of American Scientists at www.fas.org. If you want to get into the minute details of swords and swordfighting, look up Medieval Swordsmanship: Illustrated Methods and Techniques by John Clements. That’s more of a tactics resource for a later article, but there’s some good info in there about the equipment as well.
2.) Implications and Applications. This is one of my favorite parts about putting technology, especially new technology, into my fiction, because it sets the creative juices wild. Think about how much the world changed after DARPA (not Al Gore) invented the internet. Imagine what the world would be like today without it. Now you get to write a situation that is just as crazy. How cool is that?
This applies equally to magic systems as it does to technology. In fact, for most of this article you can easily substitute “magic” for “technology.”
All technology has two parts of application: its intended use and its unintended use. The internet was originally invented as a communications system for the military; now we use it for everything from commerce to dating. Radar was developed under a British research project looking for the death ray. Their criteria for success was whether or not one could use the device to kill a sheep from about 150 feet away, and eventually they realized that you could achieve “returns” when the radio waves bounced off metallic objects. Now we use radar to detect, track, and engage targets AND give you speeding tickets through Doppler measuring.
(*Wheel of Time Spoiler)
Technology cannot exist in a vacuum. Look at the later novels of the Wheel of Time series, when Mat Cauthon (in conjunction with an Illuminator) inadvertently develops artillery in a world that was thitherto dominated by bladed weapons. Now all of a sudden it’s not just the magic users that can create explosions and spread death and fear – anyone with a match can do it. What implications is that going to have on warfare, on the social status of the magic users who before were held in such fearful esteem because of their terrible power? What effect did the introduction of firearms finally have on the social structure of the samurai in Japan? It was the end of an age for the samurai, and all because a thousand years earlier someone figured out how to make some black powder explode. In one of my novels, I make allusions to a type of magic that allows instantaneous communication over any distance. That is going to make for some interesting societal developments in a world that is fueled by rumor.
The ripples of new technology are never-ending and sometimes severe. When YOU introduce technology into your combat environment, consider its unintended applications, its repercussions in both civilian and military society, and don’t forget to look beyond the narrow focus of warfare.
3.) Development and Counterdevelopment. As I’ve alluded to before, technology builds on technology. It is especially so in competitive environments, the apex of which is warfare. Look at the business competition between Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony, each trying to one-up the other by coming up with the next new thing. Without competition, you would have stagnation. We might all still be playing Pong, and that would suck.
There is no greater example of development and counterdevelopment in today’s military world than the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States over the last half of the 20th century. Technology went absolutely insane between the end of World War II and today, completely revolutionizing the way the world works. I would argue that almost no period in history has influenced life on earth as rapidly or as dramatically as the Cold War.
This really boils down to that silly song we’ve all heard, “Anything you can do I can do better.” Oh, you can see my airplanes from miles away using your radar? Boom – here’s the F-117 stealth bomber. Chew on that. You can send a monkey into space? We can send a man. You can send a man? We can put him on the moon and then have a popular music star invent a dance about it.
In your writing, consider the competitive spirit of the warrior. Not only does he want to become more technically proficient in fighting, he wants to become better equipped. He wants sharper swords, bigger guns, brighter lasers – whatever will bring him victory. If the enemy gets it first, he must have something better. It is competition, the tit-for-tat development of technology, that makes this possible. The rapid increase in the use of firearms in warfare in the latter part of the 14th century happened largely due to the clash between the Ottomans and the Christian empire even though gunpowder had existed for nearly a thousand years. Without that competition, without that drive to push the limits of technology, LARPing might not be so far from reality (lightning bolts aside).
Or you can turn this principle on its head and force a culture into stagnation because of its underlying principles. There are many examples in history of warrior cultures that refused to integrate new technology into its tactics. I’ve already talked about the samurai, so let’s look at another example. The Zulu warrior society showed both extremes; their relatively small, insignificant tribe was able to take over Zululand through the leadership of Shaka, who introduced a new type of close-range stabbing spear that revolutionized the way the tribes conducted warfare. In the end, however, the tides were turned. They stagnated, and the British army crushed them at the end of the 19th century using superior technology.*
As you can see from the examples given above, your armies don’t need to adhere to one principle or another. But you do need to be consistent, accurate, and considerate when using military technology in your fiction.
Case Study: Mistborn Series by Brandon Sanderson
I purposefully chose a book that doesn’t actually have all that much “traditional” technology in it because I wanted to illustrate the principle in an unconventional way. Plus, sci-fi examples are a dime a dozen, and I don’t want to hear any fantasy writers whining because they feel left out.
Let’s give a quick synopsis of the system so we don’t lose anyone who might not have read the books, which are, by the way, excellent and highly recommended. Basically, certain people have the ability to ingest metals and “burn” them – kind of like calories or Magic Points – to do specific abilities. Tin lets you do one thing, copper lets you do another, etc. There are other branches of that system – some people can use certain abilities simply by touching the metals, for example – but that’s the gist of it.
Brandon hits point #1 on the head, even though his system is completely fantastical (I love that word). He’s big on making magic systems with rules associated with them (unlike Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, for example), so it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that he got this part right. Yet he pays strict attention to physics and even a little bit of biochemistry. Newton’s law states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction; when a magic user uses magic (wow, read that again) to push on something three times his weight, he’s thrown back instead. Those little tidbits of realism really help the credibility of the author and the believability of the magic system (technology).
He also adheres to point #2 above – the implications and applications of the magic system (read: technology). By burning iron and steel, one can push/pull metallic objects toward oneself. Brandon extrapolated on this concept and moved from simply throwing things around to actually using it to propel oneself through the air – pushing on railroad tracks, or even coins thrown by the magic-user himself – allows for hugely varied methods of transportation. Say goodbye to the horse and buggy. Can we go any further with this? Well, in Brandon’s world only certain people have the ability. But what if it was common? What do you think about riding in a taxi that is flinging you through the air using coins pushed off the ground? That’s what I mean when I say implications.
This article was a look through a soda straw at a very large and complicated topic, but I’m allowed to do that because, hey, this is a blog, not a doctoral thesis. Hopefully I’ve given you some resources and some insight into technology and its military (and civilian) applications. Remember to properly equip your fighting force, and that will properly equip you to keep your military environment feeling real.
…Man that was corny.
Thanks for reading,
*Interestingly enough, in the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, Zulu warriors armed with primitive spears and shields defeated a well-equipped British army. This was mostly due to the British underestimating their opponent, but I’ll bet you can learn from this example and create something interesting in a story.