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We are receiving questions asking for us to factually invent an idea or technology with increasing frequency. The questions are usually asked by people with insufficient education but a strong desire to join the ranks of professionals who have successfully written novels of the hard science genre.

  • They don't seem to realize that the level of detail they're looking for damages a story more than helps.
  • They sincerely believe that a fully scientific answer exists and regularly use the or tags to ensure they get it.
  • They don't understand that they've asked their question with insufficient detail, They're unable to provide clarifying details, and they usually become irritated that people don't just answer the question.
  • They aren't competent to judge a best answer.
  • They never realize there's a very high probability the question can't be answered.

To make matters worse, too many users who don't understand the Help Center's admonitions that every question shouldn't be answered and only well-asked questions should be answered try to answer such questions. The overall result is a growing set of low-quality, badly-thought-out questions suffering from insufficient research on the part of both the querent and the respondents.

Proposal: What is worldbuilding in relation to new technology?

It's simple to suggest that the level of detail required for an answer should be set by the querent. But what to do when the querent doesn't understand the difficulties or consequences in doing so? In many cases, the querent appears to be asking for the factual design specifications and/or schematics for their (often fanciful) idea. But is that worldbuilding?

I propose that worldbuilding inherently demands some level of simplification and that crossing the line from simplification to full detail makes the question off-topic. A good technology-creation worldbuilding question would ask about...

  • The functional operation of the device.
  • The UI of the device in relation to the creatures/civilization using it.
  • The consequences of using the device in context of the rules/nature of the querent's world.

But not how the device does any of that.

Fans of worldbuilding often want more than the author ever intended. That's actually a good thing.

I suspect that part of the drive for excessive detail comes from the natural fan reaction of wanting to know all the details about a world they've become enamored with. Consequently, they think that the natural evolution of good worldbuilding is to provide ever more detail. Regrettably, fans who think this don't understand good writing skills, not the least of which is the need to hook the audience with a sense of always wanting more.

It isn't helped by (frankly ubercool) deep worldbuilding projects that have mind-boggling detail such as Orion's Arm where they contemplate thousands of years of technological advancement with an effort toward "hard science fiction taken to the extreme, with all the dials turned up to the maximum." That would be absolutely laughable were it not for their definition of "hard science."

Two of those possibilities are of special interest to the OA project: paths for possible future technologies that they call 'Conservative Hard SF' and 'Radical Hard SF'. Conservative hard SF is based on cautious extrapolation from present-day knowledge, with perhaps, at most, one or two carefully justified and limited forays into something that's more speculative. Radical hard SF on the other hand takes on every hard SF technology ever imagined and then pushes the envelope further with a few 'not impossible' techs that may not get the nod from every current scientist but do at least get a serious hearing from some significant number of experts in the field.

In other words, the ability to patent the invention isn't what they call "hard science." From a perspective that may only make sense to engineers, they embrace science, but not engineering.1 Unfortunately, what many of the querents on the Stack are asking for isn't science... but engineering.

Proposal: We don't engineer new technologies.

We will help rationalize a proposed technology with as much science as we can, but we will not invent or develop the technology in detail. Users asking for help defining a technology in their world should expect answers having at least one level of abstraction or more regardless the use of , or .

Abstraction, or the process of generalizing ideas by understanding examples, is an indispensable tool in the engineering process. Humans are privileged in our ability to relate physically distinct concepts through their common qualities, which allows us to translate problems from one domain into another. (Electrical and Computer Engineering Design Handbook)

Related Questions


1Over the years I've had fun perusing the pages of Orion's Arm. I've not yet found an example of technology at the engineering level. There's a lot of wonderful description — and appropriate abstraction — but no engineering. Perhaps there's a page or two I've missed, but I couldn't find any schematics, no chemistry, no specific realization of any technology. It's a great example of good worldbuilding.

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    $\begingroup$ I know we've been kind of dancing around this topic for a while now. Could I ask you to append maybe the top three or five questions you find problematic? I don't really pay too awful much to tech questions, and flat out refuse to look at hard science questions. But I am interested in this topic as it does affect the very nature of this community. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jul 17, 2023 at 5:45
  • $\begingroup$ Right now on the front page is a question that I believe is bad, that I believe asks for things that cannot be answered with our understanding of the relevant sciences, that I believe was asked by someone misunderstanding scientific knowledge in the area: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/248117/… Two people VTC'ed it at time of writing; but JBH gave it a great answer by going with the parts that work and addressing where it won't. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jul 17, 2023 at 8:46
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    $\begingroup$ I'd recommend rephrasing -- or even reframing -- at least the first part of the question; it focuses on what you feel are inadequacies of users and writing/worldbuilding styles rather than the questions themselves. I also definitely agree with @elemtilas; listing existing questions would be super helpful. I can think of some hypothetical example questions in this vein that feel totally reasonable (and some that are totally unreasonable!), so maybe I'm misunderstanding the type of questions you have in mind. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868 Mod
    Jul 17, 2023 at 14:08
  • $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm --- Thanks for the link! However, since JBH took the time to answer that query, I shall only quip that by definition, it can't be a paradigmatic question! Though in fairness, he does seem to be edging his answer in this direction. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jul 17, 2023 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ I take exception to the philosophy that “Users asking for help defining a technology in their world should expect answers having at least one level of abstraction or more regardless the use of science-fiction, science-based or hard-science.” Science fiction is a category as well as a level of abstraction, as is magic and internal consistency. I agree in principle with the goal of this question, it’s not the right direction. My belief is in fact the opposite. Default to the lowest level of abstraction, considering all tags to be a request for elevation of our detail from that default. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Sep 22, 2023 at 4:22

3 Answers 3

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Specific points on the proposal

  • They don't seem to realize that the level of detail they're looking for damages a story more than helps.

That's not our concern. Not everyone is writing standard-issue 300-page novels. Some are devising TTRPG rules, some are writing a technical appendix to a larger work. Some are just exploring an idea to complete their mental model of a thing, and know very well that none of this worldbuilding will ever make it to print. And hey, maybe some are writing terribly overwrought infodump stories. Regardless; it is not for us to judge whether someone is writing badly, that's Writing.SE's job.

  • They sincerely believe that a fully scientific answer exists and regularly use the science-based or hard-science tags to ensure they get it.

  • They don't understand that they've asked their question with insufficient detail, They're unable to provide clarifying details, and they usually become irritated that people don't just answer the question.

[...]

  • They never realize there's a very high probability the question can't be answered.

I always am reluctant to guess at motivations. But even if someone is asking from a wrong assumption, the way to respond that would most benefit the user is to address their misconceptions head-on. For example with a Frame Challenge.

  • They aren't competent to judge a best answer.

The most persuasive of your points imho; definitely a problem, but not a problem unique to tech questions.

I propose that worldbuilding inherently demands some level of simplification and that crossing the line from simplification to full detail makes the question off-topic. A good technology-creation worldbuilding question would ask about...

  • The functional operation of the device.
  • The UI of the device in relation to the creatures/civilization using it.
  • The consequences of using the device in context of the rules/nature of the querent's world.

But not how the device does any of that.

I disagree. Internal workings strongly influence all of functional operation, UI, and world consequences. I even tend to start with a technical idea and then write the story around its consequences. To start from story-relevant consequences and then make up a technical reason is to create Technobabble. That's definitely not all Worldbuilding.SE is meant for.

"What power source would make the most sense for laser guns?" is a question that I presume would be outlawed under this proposal, as the question matter is none of those three. However, e.g. a nuclear power source drives operation (cooldown after firing), UI (need for a function to discharge waste material), world consequences (waste material piling up in radiated garbage piles outside strongholds).

Imho any work of fiction featuring a laser gun that doesn't state that it is nuclear-powered but just gives those properties in isolation, is a more disconnected piece of writing that's more burdensome to write and to read. It is often a good thing to be compact; if one piece of information about internal workings can make all those properties easy for a reader to guess at, then the author can bring up the properties as they become plot-relevant without bludgeoning a reader.

And that's all subsumed by my overall feelings that we shouldn't reject questions just because we think the querent is writing their fiction badly. If we ever get to that point, I volunteer to be banned from the site; my creative writing is terrible by any standard.

Proposal: We don't engineer new technologies.

We will help rationalize a proposed technology with as much science as we can, but we will not invent or develop the technology in detail.

Ironically, what I would like to see is some more detail in this proposal. "invent or develop" is fuzzy, and the qualifier "in detail" runs counter to your earlier proposal of restricting tech development questions to operation, UI, world consequences. Some inventing/developing is still allowed apparently, but how much?

Are you saying that anything beneath the bodywork of the hyperspace scooter is off-limits, including the colour of said bodywork? Or are high-concept questions that penetrate the skin still alright ("It seems to run on some kind of electricity"). Or can we do some more internal stuff like components and even smashing some existing hardware together, but with no obligation to be exact to the millimeter?

My views on the matter

  • Does closing more questions help the people that are so dissected here? Where you describe a clueless asker, I hear someone who benefits from learning. You don't make people learn by closing their questions: you scare them away. A frame challenge or any sorts of detailed explanation why proposal X is misfounded, is 100 times as helpful as a bare comment of "VTC, too detailed". If we need any policy change it is to explicitly allow "This question cannot be answered for reasons X Y and Z" as a valid answer to any question, which I thought was what a frame challenge could do.

  • Implementing this proposal will require either a fuzzy delimitation of what kind of tech-related worldbuilding is too detailed which every close-voter will interpret differently, or a draconic restriction that outlaws any discourse of what takes place under the synthetic skin. I could be persuaded away from this view if I could have a more detailed example of what delineation you are concretely looking for. Cite me the very most detail-oriented question you'd still allow, and the most high-level tech question you'd still consider an 'engineering' question and would like to see go.

  • Technology can have a large role in some stories, requiring a level of detail that would be utterly out of place in a different one. Good worldbuilding hinges on the story and the medium in which the story is told. If I'm writing an Ant-Man fanfic and the shrinking hero literally goes inside a laser gun to mess with the wiring, I would like to know if loose wiring even makes sense in a machine like this. Even more potently if I'm making a comic book and will actually be illustrating this scene. If the question cannot be answered due to our limited knowledge of integrated electronics, then I'd like to be told that.

  • Connected to the previous point; it is not our place to be judging whether someone is writing a good book with our answers. It's our job to help people build worlds.

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    $\begingroup$ What power source... wouldn't be outlawed as the answer is at an abstracted level. How to make the power source actually work. How to make the laser actually work. How to connect the two at the level of material science. Those kinds of questions would be outlawed. As a challenge to your first bullet challenge... what's the point of explaining calculus to someone who isn't equipped to comprehend its application or use in a storyline? (I can't count the number of times I asked for an explanation of why the user wanted something only to discover there was a better way to ask the question.) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 16, 2023 at 23:58
  • $\begingroup$ Imho any work of fiction featuring a laser gun that doesn't state that it is nuclear-powered but just gives those properties in isolation, is a more disconnected piece of writing that's more burdensome to write and to read. If it's not our business to worry about why the OP wants a particular answer - it's definitely not our business to worry about why anyone would respond to a story. If you want to read textbooks rather than novels, that's your business, but I was a publisher for ten years and your observation is NOT normal for readers. Not by a long way. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 17, 2023 at 0:02
  • $\begingroup$ Oddly, your quoted only half the proposal, then complained about lacking the answer given in the second half of the proposal. Users asking for help defining a technology in their world should expect answers having at least one level of abstraction or more regardless the use of [tag:science-fiction], [tag:science-based] or [tag:hard-science]. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 17, 2023 at 0:07
  • $\begingroup$ Your point #1: Stack Exchange was not meant to replace education. Yes the Stack benefits from improved questions as querents either (a) don't post, (b) improve their questions or (c) are closed. Stack Exchange embraces quick and frequent closure. Individual desires to not do so are, from SE's perspective, detrimental to the value of the service which seeks to be definitive and authoritative and depends on questions to meet that expectation - which is why SE is experimenting with AI-driven question generators to better avoid low-quality questions. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 17, 2023 at 0:10
  • $\begingroup$ Your point #2: is irrelevant. Who's to say when a question violates the book rule? Is hypothetical? Is open-ended? The reason SE has five close voters or one well-experienced close voter is to minimize complaints about the arbitrariness you claim is problematic. Stack Exchange is draconian by nature and depends on community moderation to maintain service quality. People who aren't comfortable with it are welcome to use other services. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 17, 2023 at 0:13
  • $\begingroup$ Your point #3: A users who cannot comprehend the detail requested cannot make that detail an important part of the story. Worse, it's contrary to the very first point you make at the beginning of your answer. Either the reason the OP is asking matters or it doesn't. Which side of the fence are you on? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 17, 2023 at 0:14
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH "I was a publisher for ten years" That makes you at most qualified to judge worldbuilding for books. Even then, different publishers have different tastes. Christian publishers don't mind if you bring up the role of Jesus in every other chapter. And even if your tastes and authority are universal, why are you proposing rules that only you have the expertise to apply? $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jul 17, 2023 at 7:31
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    $\begingroup$ It's better to just not judge what someone is using it for. The world being built is separate from the medium of presentation. The medium might even change as the world is being built. Let us regular cobblers stick to our last, and let the multidisciplinarians like you inhabit a role of authority on two different SE sites. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jul 17, 2023 at 7:34
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    $\begingroup$ "One level of abstraction" is not an SI unit of measurement. Okay, you're fine with describing a "nuclear power source". Can I ask if plutonium or uranium makes more sense? "Needless detail!" one cries out. "No, production methods are entirely different, this distinction is crucial!" says another impassioned bystander. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jul 17, 2023 at 7:44
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    $\begingroup$ Complexity is a fractal. You can go as deep as you want. It is also relative to one's expertise in the specific field of science: one person's 'high concept question' is another person's 'navelgazing engineering question'. Do you claim the expertise to judge complexity in every science? $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jul 17, 2023 at 7:44
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    $\begingroup$ "Yes the Stack benefits from improved questions as querents either (a) don't post, (b) improve their questions or (c) are closed. Stack Exchange embraces quick and frequent closure." (b) should be the primary avenue here. Read the room, SE engagement is rapidly dwindling. Users are leaving, to the extent that the company is banning moderator action on AI-generated questions/answers, with the consequence that moderators are on strike. If you are so worried about product health, consider that for a moment. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jul 17, 2023 at 7:52
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    $\begingroup$ For reference, in the preceding comment I was arguing by temporarily taking your position ("product health is paramount") and then describing why even from that position, which is not mine, the proposal is flawed. As I did with the writing quality thing; writing quality shouldn't matter, but even if it did, the proposal is flawed. I hope that clears things up. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jul 17, 2023 at 7:57
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    $\begingroup$ Regarding point 2, is it irrelevant to argue that a fussy proposal is worse than a concrete one? I am openly inviting you to make this more concrete. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jul 17, 2023 at 8:01
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    $\begingroup$ And in point 4, all you are saying is that you would apply the rule you just made, perfectly. Adding fussy rules means adding more ambiguity, leading to wrongful closures due to voters having less expertise, leading dwindling user numbers. It's possible that this is ultimately all we disagree on, but I'm willing to tolerate more "bad" questions if the people making them are ultimately excited about what they're doing, and humble enough to listen to reasons why their idea doesn't work. The proposal for speedier closes takes away the opportunity to learn. Acceptable cost for you, not for me. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jul 17, 2023 at 8:14
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    $\begingroup$ ...apologies, I realise now that I made a mistake in the preceding comments. I used "fussy", meaning meticulous, particular about details, when I meant "fuzzy": indistinct and vague. I would welcome the fuzzy proposal to become more fussy. $\endgroup$
    – KeizerHarm
    Jul 17, 2023 at 11:22
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This proposal seems to be based on the assumption that all worldbuilding is done for the purpose of writing a novel or creating a story, which is simply untrue. Many, perhaps even the majority, worldbuild for the sake of worldbuilding.

Edit:

And even if someone is worldbuilding for the sake of a story or novel, it is absolutely not our place to tell a querent that their question isn't allowed simply because someone feels it wouldn't be useful to their story.

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  • $\begingroup$ The majority is a bit of a stretch but yes, some are building worlds with no direct story applications. There was at some point talks about people here writing/drawing books with the only purpose of showcasing fictional worlds. I'll bring back a link if I can find it. $\endgroup$ Aug 8, 2023 at 1:50
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    $\begingroup$ Here, I found what I was mentionning a few days ago : Speculative but factual Books: Worldbuilding or not? $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2023 at 16:09
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I've umm'd and arr'd about giving my 2c to the proposal. But seeing as it's a quiet Saturday night and the Wife and Kids are in bed - I'm going to give my suggestion.

I disagree with the proposal

Now that my position is clear, let me give my reasoning. Firstly - I think the issues raised are, at the very least, worthy of discussion. I'm not yet convinced of the validity of the complaint per se - but we'll get to that.

In the nicest possible way - when it comes to your initial bulletpoints - I find myself asking 'So?' - Over-enthusiasm, whilst trying at times, is still enthusiasm. People wanting to ask questions is the lifeblood of SE and Worldbuilding is no different.

I think in a different Meta-post, I made the point that ultimately, if the Asker is happy with the answer, then that's all that matters. I still largely hold that as my ultimate position, even if the Rebuttal of 'Our purpose is that others writing similar stories may find utility in previously written good answers' - is a very strong rebuttal.

And so in that vein I find myself in that position again - if someone asks for input on a piece of technology, regardless of their reasons for wanting it, I'm totally fine with answering it.

Secondly - for me, from a story perspective, even if I were to never fully describe how a bit of technology worked explicitly - knowing how it worked in my own head to have internal consistency and have that impact story elements is useful.

I'm reminded of Robert Jordans method of ranking 'power' in the WoT, to make sure that he maintained internal consistency - even if these notes aren't explicit in the book.

It may be that because I have a technical/engineering background that I'm like this - but that's me.

Thirdly - Sometimes stories can be really enhanced by a single bit of good tech. Aliens and the Motion Tracker for example - in the Movie, it's a semi-realistic, practical piece of technology that makes sense. From a narrative point of view - it's a masterclass in how to raise tension. The scene where the Alien Horde is approaching and the USCM suddenly go 'THEY ARE INSIDE THE ROOM!' - and you can't see any Aliens and they are backing up etc. Imagine if someone was writing the next Aliens esque story and someone suggested something the equivalent of the Motion Tracker - but this was disallowed due to site rules.

Fourthly - and this is perhaps my weakest argument, but I think it's important enough to state:

I like to do this. Coming to WB is entirely voluntary for all parties. I see a question I find interesting, I'm inclined to answer it. Sometimes I see something and I go 'Well, here's how I would solve it within the parameters of your world' - I find it both mentally stimulating and therapeutic of sorts. This is not to say that if this was accepted as a proposal that I would storm off in a huff and never come back - just that something I enjoy doing is missing.

So - TL;DR

I think this merits discussion. I disagree with it, I find having this knowledge helpful, Inventing technology can be very beneficial for a story and I like to do this.

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