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 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 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 science-fiction, science-based or hard-science.
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)
- Should the hard-science tag be retired?
- Considered harmful: questions where the asker expects us to figure out a scientific explanation or alternative for their handwavium
- Advice to Querents asking "is X plausible or realistic?"
- Why asking for the details isn't always a good idea
- Advice concerning questions asking HOW to implement a technological procedure or device
- Are "how would X explain Y?" questions on-topic?
- What is "narrative necessity" and how does it apply to worldbuilding?
- How best to deal with "what are you expecting?" questions
- Best Practice for Helping OP's with Science-Based Fantasy Requests
1 Over 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.