Columns > Published on May 25th, 2012

Gear Up! It's The Top Ten Technologies in Science Fiction

Listen, I love Science Fiction for all the highbrow reasons that you do. The genre provides readers with nothing less than a chance to project humanity beyond our current physical, spatial, and mental restraints. 

Having said that, sometimes it's really fun to just freak out about the crazy cool technologies on display. Who hasn't pretended they had a lightsaber, or an Orgasmatron

So here's a list of my favorite gadgets and doohickeys from Sci-Fi. These were not selected for their usefulness in galactic domination, but rather for how much I want them to be a part of my life.


10. Cloud Sculpting

In J.G. Ballard's short story The Cloud Sculptors of Coral D, humans take to the sky in gliders in order to shape clouds into any shape they please. It's an intriguing meditation on the impermanence of art and culture, with the expected Ballardian twists. And while cloud sculpting itself is not exactly hard science, or a momentous breakthrough, something about the gorgeous simplicity of the idea makes me wish it were true. I'm not alone, as the Japanese prog rock band Vermillion Sands (who took their name from the short story collection containing The Cloud Sculptors of Coral D), wrote a song about it. 

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9. Space Elevator 

While every geek grows up with astronaut dreams of strapping themselves to the top of a rocket and shooting into space, adulthood brings the realization that sitting on top of a giant bomb might not be the safest proposition. Enter the space elevator, a link between the Earth and a satellite in geosynchronous orbit popularized by Arthur C. Clarke in his novel The Fountains Of Paradise. In the book, a scientist battles with the monks that inhabit a mountain which will serve as the 'base' of a proposed elevator. As much as I appreciate a nice tonsure, I have to side with the scientist on this one. 

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8. Biosoft

A first-person, fully immersive biographical experience, this technology could very well be the next step in reality television. Of course, instead of just setting a DVR for Top Chef, William Gibson's Count Zero explains that the user simply plugs a biosoft directly into their brain via an implanted "nuerojack." It's an invaluable technological advancement that is capable of holding the true essence of someone else's memories, not to mention the item for which every character in the book is frantically searching. Not sold? Here is Mr. Gibson's description of the biosoft experience: "It was vaguely like riding a roller coaster that phased in and out of existence at random..." I'll take two please!

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7. Culture Ship

Throughout his soon-to-be nine novels set amidst the interstellar, hedonistic society known as The Culture, Iain M. Banks has introduced some amazing technology. But the item I covet most is one of the massive, faster-than-light spaceships. Not only are the biggest ones capable of comfortably hosting millions of people, but they also are self-aware Artificially Intelligent "Minds" that have fully formed personalities. Who wouldn't want to be bros with a freaking spaceship? (Oh, right...)

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6. Whuffle

OK, maybe this is just the part of me that derives income and self-confidence from being a freelance "internet writer" talking, but a system of monetary compensation based on personal influence and the respect others have for you makes total sense. So a solid low-five to Cory Doctorow, who introduced the concept in his novel Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom. And because the Internet is essentially a self-aware AI itself at this point, the Whuffle Bank already exists.

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5. The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

Imagine a book that knew you, recognized your surroundings, and then taught you the skills and knowledge you require to be a success. Sweet! I'd happily be a little neo-Victorian girl in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age if I got to be a well-read kung fu master like his main character Nell. (Also, I look positively dashing in a bustle.) As Nell grows up in a nanotech enabled future China, the book teaches her everything from cryptography and computer programing to ass-kicking. Truly, a modern lass!

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4. The Nautilus

I'm not much of a gearhead, but even a Honda-Civic-owning, not-super-skilled-stick-shift-driving lame-o like me can appreciate the sheer baddassery of tooling around the ocean in a bitchin' submarine. Hell, even Jules Verne spends a good amount of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea nerding out about Captain Nemo's sweet ride. It's actually fully electric, using batteries that run on mercury and the sodium pulled out of seawater. And the inside is positively tricked out, including fine paintings, lavish appointments, and Nemo's pipe organ! Related question: can you ghostride a submarine? I promise that if I ever get one, I will find out.

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3. Ecstasy Plug

What, I have to explain why I want one of these? It's a plug, in your head, that uses household current to stimulate the pleasure center of your brain! Yes, people get addicted, like the title character in Larry Niven's short story Death By Ecstasy. And, sure, scientists proved back in the '50s that rats implanted with electrodes would continue stimulating their pleasure centers over any other activity, including eating and sleeping. But I'm sure I'll be fine.

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2. Time Machine

Another no-brainer, especially because it doesn't require brain surgery. As pioneered by H.G. Wells in his classic novel, a time machine is a one-man vehicle that moves backwards and forwards through the ages. His protagonist, helpfully named "the Time Traveler" takes the device to the year 802,701 where he discovers a world split between vegan hipsters and bloodthirsty vampire cavemen. Personally, I would have headed for Kublai Khan's Pleasure dome, which some guy on Yelp called 'stately!' Or maybe a quick trip to whatever part of the future Starcrash is at. But either way, no Morlocks, right?

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1. Ubik

Everything else on this list is cool because of what it would add to my life. But Ubik, from the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, is much more than a fun toy or a means to get from one place to another. The plot follows the events following an explosion at a moonbase for telepaths, which, come on! How can you not adore this man's writing? As the survivors of the blast trip through what may or may not be the afterlife, they continually run into the seemingly innocuous spray, which actually holds the very stuff that keeps the Universe together. Call it reality, God, or whatever, Ubik is omniscient and seemingly all-powerful to boot. So yeah, I want some of that . (And just imagine what the dudes from Style Wars could have done with a couple cans!)

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Got a favorite piece of tech you think I missed? Let me know in the comments!

About the author

Originally from Concord, Massachusetts, Jon Korn spent a decade in Los Angeles trying to get warm. He now lives in Oakland, where he works as a writer and film festival programmer. Over the past 10 years, Jon has watched tens of thousands of movies for the Sundance Film Festival, AFI FEST, Outfest, and CineVegas, among others. Not all of them were good, but it is still a wonderful job. Jon is the co-creator of the Echo Park Time Travel Mart and a Jeopardy! champion. His hobbies include cooking, being sad about baseball, and not answering the phone.

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