Science Fiction Problems: Laser-guided Bullets and Other Inconveniently Overpowered Tech

Hello again, everyone! After all that baby name nonsense, I feel the need to get back to talking about manly things like bullets and explosions, so when I saw this article, I got thinking about something that I’ve run into myself when thinking through the tech of my own science fiction worlds.

Tolkien’s Black Arrow

J R R Tolkien The Hobbit Bard Lake-Town Smaug black arrow
The best illustration I could find, by far. From

I’ve talked at length about making sure that your technology feels believable, but sometimes some of the emerging technology of our own day can feel almost like magic. In Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bard of Laketown has a magical black arrow that wills hit any target he wills it to. I’ve always liked this arrow and how Tolkien presents it in such a mythical way that reminds me of the Norse sagas and Greek myths. What it didn’t strike me as, however, was being too powerful. The arrow has clear pros and cons, and rules that it abides by. Once fired, if not recovered, it can’t be fired again. Bard only has one, after all. This balance is important. Just think if Legolas had a magical quiver full of these black arrows! He could storm the gates of Isengaard practically on his own, or at least make most threats met in the Lord of the Rings trivial.

In science fiction, however, we have a different issue. Technology means power, and while we still have a sense that this power comes from natural forces, depending on the application, that force can become so overwhelming that it creates some pretty embarrassing plot holes.

Magic Bullets and How to Add Them to Your Story

That dart-thing is a specialized laser-guided bullet invented by Sandia Labs. That’s right, this thing actually flies itself at the target, and has accurately struck targets from over a mile away. If you’ve ever seen the movie Shooter or others like it, you might know that that’s almost twice the effective range of most bullets. At that range, factors like the ambient air temperature and even the curvature and spin of the earth can effect the trajectory of a bullet so much that it will miss by as much as 30 feet. If you’re writing a story, and your characters come under sniper fire, you have this sort of factor to fall back on. However, with Sandia Lab’s new bullet, that sniper is basically not going to be able to miss.

You might have seen this article and gotten excited about adding laser-guided bullets to your story, maybe have one of your characters use them with devastating effect in a cool scene with lots of gunplay and explosions- but now you have to answer the nagging question: if your character has these bullets, why don’t his enemies? In fact, why haven’t your characters been shot already? This is unfortunately just the sort of question your readers will ask if you don’t handle this carefully.

This problem applies to any number of technologies, from time machines to energy shields, to the basic, good ‘ol nuclear warhead. In each case, you have to make sure to answer these questions, either directly or through indirect means:

  • How prevalent is this technology? Is it widely obtainable? If so, why don’t more characters use it (including the villain and his minions)?
  • How is it defeated? Unless the technology is intended to be some kind of doomsday device (in which case the first question is probably already answered), you need to come up with reasonable ways characters can defend against it. For laser-guided bullets, for instance, characters might have enough specialized body armor that these bullets aren’t really any more deadly than any others, or maybe they have electronics that can jam the guiding software so that the rounds just veer off and expose the sniper’s location.
  • Does this technology justify itself in my story? Do high-tech bullets distract from the story you want to tell? Does that time machine screw up your carefully-crafted plot? As cool as it might be, you should probably just come up with a reason why this technology isn’t used, or otherwise isn’t in your story. Maybe the bullets just aren’t reliable enough to be effective, or perhaps in your world, time travel is simply impossible. You only have to address these things appropriately to the situation (if time travel never comes up, there’s no need to go out of your way to describe why no one has a time machine).

You can have your magic bullets if your really want them, but just keep in mind these questions so that you don’t accidentally hurt your story’s believeability. If you’re careful and thoughtful, you can add cool stuff like this to your story and add new dimensions and flavors to your world that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.

That’s all for this week (unless someone else gets sick, I guess)! Next week I’ll have another science fiction-related post for your enjoyment. Until then, what are some technologies that you’ve seen in stories or movies that you think broke the plot? Let me know in the comments below!