July 22 – 28: “Must new technologies contribute to the plot?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5New technologies are often introduced in thrillers. This week ITW Members Boyd Morrison, Jeff Carlson and D. J. Niko will contribute to another can’t miss discussion while they answer the question: “Must new technologies contribute to the plot?”


TheLochNessLegacy_800Boyd Morrison is a Seattle-based author, actor, engineer, and Jeopardy! champion. He started his career at Johnson Space Center, where he flew on NASA’s Vomit Comet, the plane used to train astronauts for zero gravity. He went on to earn a PhD from Virginia Tech, develop thirteen patents at RCA, and manage a video game testing group at Microsoft before becoming a full-time writer. His debut thriller, THE ARK, became an international bestseller and has been translated into twenty-one languages. His other thrillers include THE LOCH NESS LEGACY, THE ROSWELL CONSPIRACY, THE CATALYST, THE VAULT, and ROGUE WAVE.

TheRiddleOfSolomon_front2D.J. Niko is the author of The Sarah Weston Chronicles series of archaeological thrillers. Her debut novel, THE TENTH SAINT, won the Gold Medal in popular fiction in the juried Florida Book Awards. A career journalist and editor who has traveled the globe, Niko writes about the world’s remote places and cultures with the authenticity that can only come from firsthand experience. She is a native of Athens, Greece, and now resides in Florida with her family.

interruptJeff Carlson is the international bestselling author of PLAGUE YEAR and THE FROZEN SKY. To date, his work has been translated into fifteen languages worldwide. Readers can find free fiction, videos, contests and more on his website.

  1. In my debut novel, The Tenth Saint (Medallion Press, 2012), I introduced the concept of new algae technologies for carbon sequestration and, ultimately, controlling climate change. This concept is so new and under-the-radar that it reads like a sci-fi twist–even though it’s very real. (Look up “algae for carbon capture” sometime. You’ll be amazed what comes up!)

    In my case, the technology was central to the plot. It was the basis of an environmental-engineering empire built by my antagonist, Sandor Hughes (whose identity is not revealed until the last third of the book), with the intent of saving the earth from the certain destruction brought about by global warming. Though his intent was noble, his arrogance in believing he could play God made him a sinister figure.

    But the technology also presented a philosophical and moral dilemma that was the very foundation of The Tenth Saint. Even though we have the ability and the means, do we have the right to control nature? When it comes to intervention in the natural process, where do we draw the line? Is science the end-all? These are questions the book doesn’t answer, because there are no clear answers; but, hopefully, it makes the reader think.

  2. I love including new technology in my books just because I’m fascinated with tech innovations. I think they do have to contribute to telling the story, whether that is through keeping the plot moving, establishing the setting, or fleshing out the characters. In the case of my thrillers, they usually are critical to the plot.

    In The Vault I set a crucial scene inside a robotic parking garage. These automated structures, which really exist in many cities today, take your car from the entrance bay and move it without human supervision to a slot within the garage, allowing the cars to be tightly packed inside. Without this piece of tech, the plot would have ended right there because my protagonist would have no way to snatch the device he needed back from the bad guys.

    Many times I even create my own technologies. Nothing I come up with breaks the laws of physics, but sometimes we haven’t quite advanced to that level of sophistication yet. In The Loch Ness Legacy quadcopter drones are integral to the plot. You’ve probably seen videos of these four-propeller drones that you can buy at Radio Shack and operate remotely using your iPhone. However, I tweaked their capabilities a bit so that they could be used in combat situations by arming them with bombs and Tasers. I’m sure the military is making use of the tech that way, but for civilians it would take some work to weaponize them. Still, it’s a scary thought that it’s doable for an ordinary person given enough time and money, and in my book they set the villains’ plans in motion.

  3. Posted for Jeff Carlson:

    Late to the party, that’s me! 🙂

    D.J., I love your algae tech for carbon sequestration & especially the fact that it’s NOT science fiction. We live in interesting times. Sometimes I feel like we exist inside a Philip K. Dick novel. My great-grandparents were homesteaders in Montana, rode horses, farmed and hunted their own game. They didn’t have cars, much less electricity. Imagine what they’d think of smart phones, the net, nano medicine, robotics, weapons tech like Boyd’s drones, and developments in astronomy and astrophysics. The future is now.

    As a reader, I love books by authors like Rollins, Preston, Mayer, and Crichton because they pepper their stories with weird science and cutting edge technology. As a writer, I try to do the same with my own work.

    For my money, new tech in fiction must contribute to the plot. Otherwise it’s just eye candy. It’s showing off. I want my stories to be intriguing and provocative, but I’m not writing textbooks. I’m writing thriller novels. Ultimately, the intent isn’t to educate. If I can poke some new ideas into your head, all the better, but my real job is to entertain.

    Boyd, how far do you feel an author can go with inventing new devices or scientific breakthroughs before a contemporary novel becomes sci fi?

    D.J., where and when do you conduct your research?

  4. Jeff, I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s important to introduce these technologies and make readers think about the what-ifs, but ultimately we are here to entertain. Well said!

    As for my research, I go about it a number of ways. I conduct interviews with experts, I read everything I can on the topic (from books to academic journals to news stories), and, when feasible, I visit places. Though I didn’t visit the algae plants (they don’t exactly offer tours!) for those scenes, I visited other places that figure prominently in my plot. For example, I spent some time in Ethiopia, much of it at archaeological and spiritual sites, and even hung out with desert nomads. I do believe scenes are more realistic if you can bring some firsthand experience to the table.

    Jeff and Boyd, how important is research to you? Do you think readers hold you accountable for accuracy when you introduce new technologies, and if so, how do you get it exactly right?

  5. Jeff, it’s hard to say where the line is drawn between sci-fi and advanced technology. I think for many people sci-fi is synonymous with aliens and space travel. For me anything that takes place in the world today is a contemporary thriller, even if it has super-advanced tech that might seem out there. I’m sure the government has tech that they haven’t revealed yet that many of us would consider science fiction if we heard about it. Look how long the Air Force was flying stealth bombers before they acknowledged the plane’s existence. That’s where I tend to work, on the fringes of high tech. I come up with tech that we may simply may not know about yet. I think as long as it doesn’t break the laws of physics, it’s fair game. But if you come up with warp drive, human teleportation, or something else far beyond our current capabilities with no theoretical way to achieve it, that’s sci-fi.

    DJ, at the end of my novels I always include an afterword about what’s real and what’s fiction in my books. It’s always surprising when I get to the end and realize how little I had to make up for the story. But I know my readers will call me on the carpet if something doesn’t add up, so I spend a lot of time getting it as right as I can. However, I do admit to falling back on artistic license if it makes better sense for the story. It usually takes weeks to get DNA analysis back from the lab, but that makes for a boring story, so authors often speed that up to days or even hours. However, that glacial pace is typically the result of lack of resources and money, not the technology, so if you can make it plausible to speed up the pace, why not? All of this tech is used in the service of making a gripping story. If the novel isn’t exciting, then no one will want to read it no matter how scientifically accurate it is.

    Jeff and DJ, how do you balance the needs of the story versus the needs of scientific and technical accuracy?

  6. For me, the research is crucial, although I try not to become so fascinated with what I’m learning that I forget I’m actually writing a book. 😉

    Because writing can be lonely work, one of the best parts of the job is talking with geniuses in a variety of fields. For my latest novel, “Interrupt,” I spent an entire afternoon touring the Joint Genome Institute with two geneticists. I also spent hours upon hours interviewing a computational biologist with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a senior astronomer with SETI, three naval aviators, a lieutenant colonel with NORAD, a major in the Special Forces, two MDs, and my father, who’s a mechanical engineer. Trust me. It all makes sense. Ha! But wrapping my brain around piles upon piles of information was both a herculean task and as intriguing as playing an expert game of chess. Finally I had to cut myself off. I stopped calling them with follow-up questions, walked away, and plunked myself down in front of my computer.

    I want very much to be accurate in introducing cutting edge sciences and technologies, again keeping in mind that I’m not a scientist or a nonfiction author. I may have been known to tweak a detail or three to fit my plot.

    As for balancing the needs of the story, that’s critical, although it always kills me when I have to throw out pages of material because it’s too much science, too much technology, and I know I need to keep up the pace.

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