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Useful Simple Things -- by Rick Ellrod

Inventing the Everyday

What are the best inventions of the 20th century?  I’m sometimes inclined to nominate the Ziploc bag.  (The generic name, apparently, is “zipper storage bag.”)  An inexpensive airtight, watertight, reusable bag—it has a thousand uses.

Picture of Ziploc bag
From: Wikipedia, By User:Mattes - Own work,
Public Domain,

Runner-ups (at least for geeky types who dote on office supplies) include the Post-It note, which allows removable annotation of papers and other objects.  I use them for bookmarks in magazines, with the added bonus that you can write on them to list pages for later reference.  And then there’s Velcro (all right, “hook and loop fasteners”), popularized in the space program, and beloved of small children who haven’t learned to tie their shoes.

Computers?  Atomic energy?  Spaceflight?  Sure.  But while no one has yet (alas) offered to put me on a spaceship, I use Ziploc bags every day.  Sometimes it’s the small everyday innovations that do the most to make our lives easier.

When we’re developing the setting for a science fiction or fantasy story, we may focus on big showy stuff, like the Ringworld or light-sabers.  But whether we’re dealing with technology or with magic, we also need to think through how the principles embodied in those big inventions may affect more mundane activities.

Making Bathrooms Unnecessary

Inda, book coverIn Sherwood Smith’s world of Sartorias-deles, magic has been known for thousands of years, and is used in some form by practically everybody.  For example, as soon as possible, at about four years of age, a child is taught the Waste Spell.  As the entry in the glossary explains:  “these few syllables, whispered when a human being lets go of waste, gets rid of it.  Waste includes vomit, and with a syllable attached, menses.”  Babies have to have diapers changed, as usual.  But once the child learns the Waste Spell, it’s no longer an issue.

Imagine the implications.  No latrines, no chamberpots.  No scenes in which women go off to the bathroom together to compare notes on their dates.  No sewer systems.  Less disease.  That single innovation could make significant changes in the story mechanics.

Smith’s simple magics also include enspelled water buckets that clean and sanitize anything dipped in them, and “cleaning frames” through which clothing and such can be passed to cleanse them instantly.  The work of medieval-style drudges who might otherwise spend hours rinsing clothes in rivers and beating them dry on rocks just became vastly easier.

Then there’s the other end of the alimentary canal.

Neutron Star, book coverLarry Niven’s Known Space stories include teleportation in the form of “stepping discs.”  Step on one of these sidewalk spots and you’re instantly transferred a block down the street, or to the vestibule of a friend’s home.  That’s the snazzy futuristic effect.

But in one story (“Flatlander,” in the collection Neutron Star) Niven’s character Beowulf “Bey” Shaeffer visits the home of a new buddy, “Elephant,” who happens to be one of the richest men on Earth.  Elephant hands Bey a drink—in “a glass which would not empty.  Somewhere in the crystal was a tiny transfer motor connected to the bar.”  The motor teleports more beer into the glass as the original supply is consumed.  Bey dryly observes that the gizmo “must have tricked good men into acute alcoholism.”  The same trick appears courtesy of Dr. Strange, using magic rather than technology, in Thor:  Ragnarok.

Missing the Implications

On the other hand, if a writer fails to recognize that some invented technology can be used in ordinary but life-changing ways, we may end up with a plot hole—what TV Tropes calls “Fridge Logic,” the kind of problem you think of half an hour after the show is over, while you’re getting something from the fridge.  “Why didn’t they just—”

We might wonder, for instance, why they don’t have personal-sized force shields in Star Wars, to protect individuals the way the ships are protected.  They had them in Dune.  A nice personal force shield would not only change the whole nature of blaster and light-saber combat; it would also make umbrellas unnecessary.  (Not that umbrellas are much needed on Tatooine, to be sure.)

Actually, I haven’t come up with a lot of examples of this kind.  That might be a testament to the thoroughness of writers, but it’s probably also got a lot to do with the vagaries of my memory.  Anybody have a good case study where there’s a technology or magic that ought to make a major difference in how people live, but that difference is missed in the story?


There can also be good explanations as to why an innovation doesn’t affect daily life.  If a magic or technology is rare, difficult, costly, or dangerous, it won’t be used casually for everyday things.  In the Niven story, the fabulously wealthy Elephant has these self-refilling glasses, but the well-traveled Beowulf Shaeffer has never seen one before; we can infer that they’re hideously expensive.

Similarly, if the necessary equipment is bulky or consumes a great deal of power, it may not be feasible to use the technique in small-scale applications.  That might explain the absence of personal force shields in Star Wars:  perhaps the generators, like steam engines, can’t readily be scaled down to belt-buckle size.

Foundation, book coverThis is actually a plot point in Asimov’s Foundation series.  The grandiose Empire had massive force-shields, but only the Foundation’s emissaries have personal versions.  “We have force-shields—huge, lumbering powerhouses that will protect a city, or even a ship, but not one, single man.”  (Foundation, part V, “The Merchant Princes,” ch. 10)  The nascent Foundation, working with severely limited resources, had to invent smaller shields—just as American satellites in the early days of the space program developed miniaturization techniques that the Soviets, with their larger boosters, didn’t need.

Real Life

There are plenty of real-life cases where mundane innovations make possible noteworthy changes in lifestyle.  Modern business life, with its exact schedules and appointments, would not have been possible before the invention of the wrist- or pocket-watch—and in a form that was not only portable, but inexpensive enough for the average person to own.  Only the invention of the elevator, and its nearly fail-safe operation, made skyscrapers practical.

Consider the smartphone.  All of a sudden, almost everyone in many sectors of society has with them at all times not just instant voice communication, but also a flashlight, a calculator, an up-to-date map with position location—and access to a world-spanning library of information.  If these were separate devices, they’d require Batman’s utility belt to carry.  As it is, one simply slips this electronic Swiss army knife into a pocket.

We’re still getting used to the consequences.  But one thing that’s clear is that the ubiquitous smartphone makes for changes in how stories have to be written.  For example, when I wrote a story in which a teenage girl runs away from home, I had to establish that while she had her phone with her, she’d accidentally left the charger at home—so that by the time people thought to locate her by her phone, its battery was dead.  In another ten years, ubiquitous facial recognition might make it even harder to go on the run.

Grand-scale innovations, whether magical or technical, are the meat and drink of F&SF.  Everyday innovations are the humble bread and water.  But the plausibility of a story may depend on the minor as much as on the major applications.

Posted by Rick Ellrod 14 Aug at 01:52
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Responses to this blog

Harpalycus 14 Aug at 09:07  
I can't help but add a rider to your ever filled glass motif. It must be a popular idea as it occurs in Thor's visit to Utgard as recounted in the Elder Edda, where he is challenged to drain a drinking horn and is unable to do so. The mechanism here is that the horn is connected to the ocean, the level of which was visibly lowered by his mighty draughts.You would have thought he would have noticed the salty taste! Good blog.
Blandcorp 14 Aug at 11:43  
Aye, them cellphones are a plotkiller alright. Thankfully, the plot can afflict them with a case of battery depletion, loss of signal, or simple loss

On there being few examples of stories where an obvious plot hole results from not considering the consequences of a technology, I'm not sure it's so much that authors are usually thorough at figuring these things out, rather than us humans being very bad at figuring out such consequences in general. I mean, we obviously do figure out these consequences eventually — that's why they appear. But they appear because a mass of people, all pursuing whatever makes them tick, blunder about in the world and suddenly one of them notices something is OP, then the others copy. It's much harder to deliberately discover these.

As an example of a universe with unexplored consequences, I'll give the Might and Magic series of games. The basic "light magic" spell, available to any cleric, is Create Food. A-ha, say the authors. We thought of that. Peasants know of this spell, but surely food gained by magic won't be as tasty and filling. Ok, whatever.

Might and Magic has another spell called Fly. It can lift a party into the air and make them cross great distances with alacrity. It's great for traveling in any of the game's regions.

To travel between regions however, you have to use a horse carriage, a ship, or walk. Hm.

It gets worse. There is a spell called Town Portal, which works about as you'd expect, and one called Lloyd's Beacon, which can teleport you to locations not constrained by them being a town. And no entrepreneuring mage decided to ever offer his or her conveyance services? There be dragons, sometimes literally, on them roads in Might and Magic. Being able to just pop from one place to another in complete safety must be a great source of yellow metal.
Blandcorp 14 Aug at 12:03  
But-but-but, and I'll take this opportunity to also shill for my WiP , another interesting example is H.G. Wells' story The First Men in the Moon.

Wells wasn't that interested in scientific plausibility as he was in social commentary, so perhaps he's low hanging fruit (the Invisible Man must have been blind, for example), but I'm going there nonetheless.

In First Men, Wells uses the conceit of "cavorite" as an instrument to get his heroes on the Moon. Cavorite is a substance able to insulate whatever it covers from gravity. Very cool. Suppose then you have a ball covered in cavorite, and there's a door which you can open and close as you wish to reveal ordinary matter inside (much like Cavor's ship actually). You've just made a perpetual motion machine; good-bye energy problems. Putting a man on the moon is the least such cavorite can do. It can power megastructures we can barely imagine, and create an economy of no scarcity at all.

As an allegedly thorough author in considering implications of tech, my version of cavorite is a bit different. Rather than insulating from gravity, it locks gravity field lines in, a bit like superconductors do for magnetic fields. You need to expend energy to shift where in a gravity field a piece of cavorite "prefers" to sit, but once there you don't need to keep expending energy, even if the place where it sits is miles in the air. Would this be plausible? Of course not; gravity doesn't work that way. I just kicked the can a bit further down the road into consequences I can't see.

Still, it's fun to imagine.

Rellrod 17 Aug at 01:56  
Harp — good point. The concept of the ever-filled vessel is as old as the hills. There's a never-emptying jug of oil in the Biblical story about Elijah (or was it Elisha?), for example. But as long as these are one-off incidents (presumably the giants never thought of connecting their drinking horn to a fresh-water lake for a permanent supply of potable water), we can roll with them. It's the mass production aspect, so to speak, that begins to have unforeseen consequences. Anybody remember the George O. Smith Venus Equilateral story where they invent a matter transmitter that turns out to be a matter duplicator, crashing the Solar System economy?

Bland, I like your potential-energy Cavorite. The perpetual-motion aspect of the original version must be linked to the criticism made of the Wells material by somebody — Arthur C. Clarke, I think — yeah, it's his story "What Goes Up," in _Tales from the White Hart_. I once thought of a material that could be "charged" with negative gravity, so you could build a Barsoom-type airship around it and have it float — but I haven't thought through the physics ramifications very thoroughly.

Jaramsli 17 Aug at 15:47  
One added feature of the smartphone is that now Big Brother can really see us everywhere we go.
Of course, we could always remove the battery ... oops. That was a couple of years ago already.
Good blog.

Rellrod 21 Aug at 02:15  
Jaramsli — good point. Useful new things generally bring some downside disadvantages with them. It's rare to find a rose without thorns.

Giglio 23 Aug at 14:01  
Good post.

Caller ID is the best. Hands down.

Dougp 26 Aug at 02:45  
As a sci-fi writer who avoids fantasy, I'm still wondering about the "Waste Spell". Once spellbound, where does this person's food and water go? Direct conversion of mass to energy would mean 1 gram or less of food would power a lifetime. And what about breathing? Isn't expelling water vapor and CO2 the very definition of waste?

Bemusedly confused. Which is why I don't read fantasy!

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