Science in your fiction – it’s easy to get wrong

Today I tried to ring my insurance company.  I dug out last year’s policy. Yes, it had the policy number on it.  Yes it had all the details I needed.  Then I tried to ring them and couldn’t.

Because I couldn’t work out the phone number.

SMS messaging on phones was introduced in the 1990s. Back in those days, and on some phones even now, you typed in a message by pressing a number key once or more times.  For example, if you wanted to type an A you pressed the number 2. If you wanted a B, you pressed 2 twice. For C you pressed 2 three times quickly.  If you wanted a D you pressed 3 once.

I don’t know how much later it was that some advertising guru had a bright idea.  Numbers are hard to remember.  Words aren’t.  I do know the practise has been around in Australia since the early 00’s.

My insurance company didn’t provide me with a phone number, they provided me with a word, INSURANCE, to phone.  (It wasn’t insurance, it was the company name, but I’m making it generic.)  The only trouble was, I was Skyping.  I wanted a number I could type into a field.

So I had to hunt for a phone with the number/letter combination, translate the letters back into numbers, then go back to my computer and finally make the call.

With the advent of smart phones you no longer need to use the number pad on the phone to type letters.  Thus nowadays, the letters on the keypad are there for historical reasons only.  I can foresee a future when they drop off altogether.   What happens to all those clever text phone numbers then?

Replacing numbers with text to make the number easier to read was a good idea, but technology has surpassed it, and in less than 20 years.  If you wrote a book set in the first decade of the 2000’s someone might conceivably type INSURANCE into their phone to ring their insurance company.  I don’t think they’ll be doing it in the second decade.  By the 2020s you probably wouldn’t even understand what it meant.

Technology and science change the world faster than it sometimes seems possible.

Any time you write about technology of the day there’s a good chance it will be obsolete before you are published.  Even songs.  In 1972 pop group Dr Hook and the Medicine Show had a hit with a song called Sylvia’s Mother.  As part of the lyrics the operator keeps chiming in saying, “40 cents more for the next three minutes”.  Even back then subscriber trunk dialling had been around for ten years. How many people born in the last 20 years would understand that line? Not many.

If you can’t even catch the technology changes when writing about the present time, think how difficult it is for the science fiction writer who not only has to extrapolate current technology—what’s going to last, what’s not—but think up new ones as well. Sometimes it’s the little bits of technology that trip us up.

One of my favourite examples of this is Ivan Southall’s Simon Black series.  Southall wrote them over a period of ten years.  The first was written in 1950.  The stories were based around the Firefly, a vertical take-off and landing aircraft (VTOL).  VTOL-type aircraft started being designed in the mid-fifties but their use only took off a decade later.   Southall, a pilot himself, made a good call on this one.

Something he made a bad call on was transistors.  Back in the 1950s they didn’t have transistors, they had big, clunky glass valves that had to be warmed up before you could use them.  He put those into the book too.

So he has a plane that’s the equivalent of, say, a Harrier jet, and they spend a few minutes before every flight warming up the valves before they can go anywhere.

I love Simon Black, but every time I read about him and Alan warming up the valves I remember just how wrong you can be about where science is going, even in the near future.

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