One of the major differences between science and technology is that new scientific discoveries can completely invalidate previous theories but any device that worked in the past will continue to work in the future. Even if anti-gravity were to be discovered tomorrow, wheels would continue to exist for as long as humans do. The circumstances in which a given engineering concept or technology applies may be reduced by new concepts or technologies but very few things disappear entirely.

In Hit List, the latest volume of the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter novels, Anita Blake comments on a piece of mandatory equipment – her bullet proof vest:

When we got to the SUV we put on the full gear for monster hunting, including the vest, which I hated the most. It hampered movement and it wouldn’t stop either a vampire or a wereanimal.

The problem with bullet proof vests being that they are useless against sharp weapons such as blades and claws. Now, there is a something that offers some protection against sharp weapons, but it’s been around for hundreds of years and is consequently dismissed by many as obsolete. Yes, I’m talking about chain mail. Of course, if you’re going to arm a modern character with something like that, you’ll want to update it. Take this description from Changes, the twelfth volume of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels.

Molly was dressed in her battle coat, which consisted of a shirt of tightly woven metal links, fashioned by her mother out of titanium wire. The mail was then sandwiched between two long Kevlar vests. All of that was, in turn, fixed to one of several outer garments, and in this case she was wearing a medium-brown fireman’s coat.

I’m sure that the U.S. Marshal’s Service could come up with something a little more polished, but you get the idea. As with fashion, any good engineering concept or technology is likely to be reused sooner or later.

Another area where authors can run into trouble I’ll call “technological inertia” – the assumption that some things work adequately and so there’s no reason to believe that they will be substantially different in the future.

In the Honor Harrington stories by David Weber, shipboard systems (such as weapons) are managed from the bridge by way of “control runs” – dedicated communication lines. The problem with control runs is that they are vulnerable in combat. Such as in chapter 33 of The Honor of The Queen:

“We’ve lost the control runs to the after ring, Skipper!” Commander Higgins reported from Damage Central. “We’re down to two-sixty gees!”

A full half of the ships propulsion system is inoperative because the dedicated lines have been severed by combat damage! Very bad design for a ship that is hundreds of years in advance of anything that we could currently build. Ordinary twenty-first century technology could put together control systems that would be invulnerable to such damage for the simple reason that they would be massively redundant.

All you need is a network of fiber-optic cables and routers. Fiber-optic cables are cheap enough and small enough that every bulkhead could have several small fiber clusters running through it. The routers are small enough that they could be placed at every intersection between two corridors on every level of the ship. As long as some fiber pathway existed between two systems, they would be able to talk, but with that much fiber, the number of available pathways would be huge. An enemy would just about have to cut the ship in two before controls on one end of the ship would be isolated from systems on the other. If you were really serious about redundancy, you could add wireless connections between routers as well.

From later in the Harrington series, in Honor Among Enemies there is this conversation – from a post exercise debriefing.

“I, uh, I rerouted the data, Ma’am—I mean, Milady,” Aubrey said, flushing darker than ever as he corrected himself, but she only shook her head gently.

“‘Ma’am’ is fine. Where’d you reroute to?”

“Uh, well, the array itself was still up, Ma’am. It was only the coupling. But the data from all the arrays runs through Junction Three-Sixty One. It’s a preprocessing node, and the blown sector was downstream.” He swallowed. “So I, uh, I overrode the main computers to reprogram the data buses and dumped it through Radar Six.”

“So that’s what happened,” Lieutenant Jansen said. “You know you cut half my starboard point defense radar out of the circuit when you did it?”

We’ll leave the enumeration of the many problems with this section as an exercise for the reader.

I don’t want folks to think that I dislike these books or that the technical shortcomings above have marred my enjoyment of them (much). For the most part, both authors do a very good with making the technical aspects of their works feel “real” and I can only hope that I will be able to do that well.

This opens up an interesting question, one that, as an aspiring writer, I can’t really pretend to know the answer to. What can we do during the research, writing or editing phases of creating a novel to insure that we don’t overlook technical details that will annoy our readers?