Everything I Needed to Know About Tech Writing I Learned from Reading Science Fiction

The following posting is a conference paper I never submitted…it’s still relevant.

When I started working in Disney’s Information Technology department, I found myself facing a mysterious world. At first, IT seemed unfamiliar to my English Lit major’s ears. I was faced with unfamiliar concepts, unfamiliar terminology, and an alphabet soup of acronyms to memorize. It was difficult to know where to start. Then I began to realize
that this feeling was familiar: Of course! It was like reading science fiction! I have been a fan of science fiction (SF) for years, and I now found that that literature trained my mind to deal with technical writing.

I’m still convinced that SF should be considered part of the core curriculum for tech writing students.  The tasks of the SF writer and the technical communicator are in fact similar:

  • The SF writer describes an unfamiliar world; creates challenges for the reader resulting from real or imagined aspects of science; and provides solutions to those challenges based on situated knowledge.
  • A technical communicator seeks to help the user understand an unfamiliar technology and solve certain problems based on the communicator’s description of that technology.

Science fiction can give the technical communicator a new way to approach his or her work.  I’ll demonstrate this approach using three different types of science fiction stories, the lessons technical communicators can glean from them, and how they can apply those lessons in the real world.

Science Fiction (SF) Defined

A prominent critic in the field, Brian Aldiss, has described SF as “the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode.”[1]

Gothic fiction, of course, is “a type of romance developed in the late eighteenth century, relying on suspense and mystery and containing a number—a limited number—of startling props.”[2]  The most famous Gothic novels are Frankenstein and Dracula.  Depending on the circumstances, SF can still be related to that tradition, with its horrors and mysteries.

SF deals with mysteries of science, some known, some invented. Technical communication deals with science and technology, some of which may be mysterious to the neophyte technical writer. However, by reading SF stories, the new tech writer can find clues to making the unknown known.

The field of SF is as broad and varied as other forms of fiction, like westerns or crime dramas. However, I will constrain myself to three types of SF: the “enormous big thing” story, the time travel story, and the sociological story.  I will also describe the lessons I was able to apply from each type of story, and how it was possible to apply those lessons to my own work.

“Enormous Big Thing” Stories

Story Type Defined

These are stories about “enormous big things,” where characters explore massive, unknown alien artifacts. Much like the protagonists in these types of stories, technical communicators must keep constantly reevaluate their preconceptions, experimenting with new ideas until they finally “get it” (the central mystery of the environment).

Examples

Ringworld by Larry Niven
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
Cities in Space by James Blish
Diskworld series by Terry Pratchett

Lesson #1: Don’t be afraid of metaphor and simile when constructing your mental model of a process.

In order to reach non-technical readers, the SF writer uses vivid, descriptive language. Otherwise, only people with science degrees could read SF. SF writers must rely on a variety of similes and metaphors to convey their “vision,” either through exposition or dialogue, as characters voice their reactions to the unknown.

Application

This metaphorical thinking can apply to the daily work of a technical communicator, especially when brainstorming about a new topic. By playing with metaphors, the technical communicator can find a common frame a reference for the potential reader. The writer can also use the power of words to describe a scientific theory that changes our view of reality or introduce potential customers to a new product with little precedent in the market.

Time Travel Stories

Story Type Defined

In typical time-travel stories, protagonists face the possibility of altering the “true order” of history; in “alternate history” stories, protagonists live in worlds where history has already taken a different turn. In both cases, technical communicators can learn lessons in the order of operations—how processes “should” happen and how to avoid “paradoxes.”

Examples

“All You Zombies–” by Robert A. Heinlein (short story)
Time Patrol by Poul Anderson
Terminator, Terminator 2, 12 Monkeys (motion pictures)

Lesson #2: Like SF writers, technical communicators must ensure that complex information flows in a logical order

Technical manuals can be written for technologies with multiple, concurrent, or “dependent” activities. Written content must be clear to the user so that operations occur in the proper order to prevent incorrect assembly, damage to hardware, or harm to people.

Application

As technology gets more and more complex, it becomes more and more important that the documents supporting the technologies are written clearly. Otherwise, a minor change in a document’s order could impact the other parts or how the new system will interact with existing systems. This is sometimes called a “cascade effect,” where one minor change can have large consequences. The SF-reading technical communicator, acting as a project’s institutional memory, can become a guardian against unintended consequences. By becoming familiar with fictional opportunities and problems, the technical communicator can better anticipate them in the real world.

Sociological SF Stories

Story Type Defined

A protagonist is placed into an unusual social environment and must learn to act based on new social, legal, political, or other mores. Such stories occur very often in our work lives, especially when new technologies affect the way people interact with each other. Sociological SF enables readers to think about the social and ethical implications of the technologies they describe.

Examples

The Left Hand of Darkness,  by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, and I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Red Mars, Green Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

Lesson #3: Science fiction is about human beings and human concerns

One of the best ways I’ve found SF to translate into technical communication is by its focus on the end user. It is easy to get lost in the complexity or wonder of technology, but science fiction stories give us a human actor upon whom to focus. In SF, a protagonist uses what he or she knows about an unfamiliar environment in order to solve a particular human problem.

Application

The ambassador and “police officer” characters in SF can teach technical communicators lessons about how to approach their work. You have to love the work, have an inquisitive mind, and have a strong willingness to ask questions, even in the face of possible rejection or obstruction.

For instance, when a project team was collecting requirements for a program being developed for Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we had to understand not only the veterinarians’ technical needs but also their internal culture: How do they run their daily operations? How do they interact with the animals? Who decides who performs which treatments? Who is allowed access to what?

As an ambassador between the subject matter experts, the technical communicator must act as a liaison between those who live in an unfamiliar environment, and the engineers, who must eventually act upon information given to them by the SMEs. In addition, the technical communicator can bridge the gulfs of understanding between SMEs, engineers, and end users, all of whom can live in alien and potentially hostile worlds.

As an investigator, a technical communicator must identify the means, motives, and opportunities that drive end users to employ specific technologies. Technical communicators can draw upon the experiences of science fictional police officers in jobs where a problem must be solved, be they experiments or accident investigations. As an investigator, the communicator must gather evidence, assemble the parts that fit together, and arrive at a suitable answer.

Conclusion

Science fiction can open one’s eyes to the possibilities of technology. Therefore the wise technical communicator, by reading SF, can learn to ask the appropriate “What if” questions, and become an integral part of any project team.


[1] Aldiss,
Brian, Trillion Year Spree, pg. 25

[2] Aldiss,
Brian, Trillion Year Spree, pg. 16

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in education, science fiction, technical writing. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Everything I Needed to Know About Tech Writing I Learned from Reading Science Fiction

  1. Pingback: How Do You Approach a New Topic? | Heroic Technical Writing

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