Worldbuilding – entropy and raising the stakes: Stuff Breaks

I read a fair bit of sci-fi. Most of the time, the good guys do their thing and fight and there’s aliens and stuff and it’s all copacetic.

Considering that most of the cool wonder gadgets in the bright new future all work intuitively or with instant mind instruction, and there’s no moving parts and nothing ever breaks…

You people aren’t living in the world I live in. Consider the coolest gadgets you own.  Like… your computer/tablet/whatever that thing is called. It’s got storage of some kind. RAM, a hard drive, a solid state drive, or some quantum technology that the government has secretly suborned and killed all the creators so they can build cool stuff in the Nevada desert.  What’s the lifespan of that gadget?

And when it does go toes up, when will that event happen?

Why, it will happen when you need it the most.  People don’t have heart attacks at the hospital, they have them in a car stuck in a snowstorm during a blackout where solar flares are scrambling cell phone signals.

Same deal with your electronics.  Those whiz-bang cool gadgetry things you stuff into your pages… If it’s built by humans, ones interested in selling more whiz-bang cool gadgetry things, it’s going to break.

I’ve been thinking about my poor marines I’ve marooned on a perfectly good inhabited planet. They’ve got the best combat suits in the universe. Er, not really. They’re going to discover that the stuff they have is 50 year old technology and that the new Mark V model is streets ahead of what they’ve got.  And 50 year old technology breaks. A lot. Why? There’s a supply chain that has a lot of corrupt people in it who are taking value out every step of the way.

I read stories where the protagonists have advanced equipment and manage to keep it running in fairly barbaric conditions for long periods of time. I’m giving it the hairy eyeball by the time I’ve finished, because stuff doesn’t just keep running. If it does, you’re truly blessed because it does not just keep running.

Use this to raise the stakes. We might be able to take that hill with five tanks, but one’s got a bad reverse so he’s going back to the depot and we only have four. And we suspect the fifth tank crew of cowardice and making it all up. Equipment breaks. It wears out. It needs frequent maintenance and replacement.  Filters must be cleaned and replaced.

Guns, if not maintained, break. Some break more often than others due to design.  Troops know the problems with weapons and will sometimes try to fix the problem – for instance, the marine corps typically has had their armorers take weapon variants and create work-arounds for problems with the weapons. Weapons are produced which jam, blow up, don’t work in the mud, the rain, the snow, and any other conceivable situation.

Parts on spacecraft break We see this in the first Star Wars movie, where for some reason we keep going back to Tatoine. Why George why? The ship needs some part and without it, they go nowhere, so there’s more plot development there due to Stuff Breaks.

The next time you need to raise the stakes and make your characters just a little more miserable, have their stuff break. It’ll create all sorts of convenient conflict. You didn’t want them to have it easy, did you?

Go ahead, comment. It won’t kill you.  And, um, it’s not because I’m desperate. Because I’m not. I’m NOT! Just comment. If you comment, I’ll be your best friend!  C’mon. I’ll give you a cookie! Yeah, I love the “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” books, too.