Memo to central casting
June 28, 2011 5:27 PM   Subscribe

Help me construct a typology of fictional (but familiar) technological epochs -- along with the genre-conventions and stock-elements that characterize each.

Here are some technological epochs that really did exist: stone age, metal ages, dark ages, age of rail, electrical age, nuclear age, computer age.

Each of these technological epochs, as portrayed in fiction, carries with it a large array of tropes and stock characters. For example:

cavemen, the invention of fire or the wheel, a tribal shaman with fancier fur clothes than anyone else, volcanoes, maybe some fights with dinosaurs, end on some portentous moment that heralds a bright future for humanity.

feudalism, knights, chivalry, princesses fair, the high king, maybe even wizards and goblins.

coal-streaked London urchins, river-powered mills owned by fatcat industrialists, ironic contrasts between high society and the Cockney unwashed.

steamer chests full of banknotes, Bowie knives, Civil War veterans, the realization of manifest destiny, unnamed heroes who ride into the sunset, Mark Twain, pince-nez glasses, panning for gold, it turns out the narrator was a young Theodore Roosevelt all along.

spies and counterspies, hornrimmed pocket-protected Manhattan Project scientists, starving Muscovites huddled against the cold, good-hearted rough-hewn blue-collar Joe Everydays from someplace like Pittsburgh, main characters who glopehop among exotic third-world locations that serve as backdrops for chase scenes or honey traps, scheming Soviet commissars, the femme fatale named Svetlana who smokes one of those long cigarettes.

I am interested in compiling a list of purely imaginary technological epochs -- preferably with their own analogous sets of instantly-recognizable tropes in fictional portrayals. Crucially, I DON'T just mean specific imaginary technologies: "rail guns" isn't the kind of answer I have in mind. I mean entire recognizable settings in which multiple technologies have all been imagined around the same core aesthetic or motif.

What I have so far:

laser guns, faster-than-light spaceships, exploratory excursions to the surfaces of uncharted but conveniently-inhabitable planets, intergalactic diplomacy, plucky jumpsuited itinerants with improbably cool names like "Zip Zilligan" or "Captain Archer", intelligent robots, recognizable military-esque hierarchies, evil alien space emperors.

great bronzed automata bristling with steam valves and beautiful external gears, H.G. Wells, wondrous wooden submersibles, monacles and top hats, widespread zeppelins, the Royal Science Society.

lead-and-gold-and-mercury, poorly-understood elements, astrological predictions, untrustworthy viziers, demons summoned into magical circles on the floor, smoke-spewing braziers.

endemic body modification, dubious slang, dystopian society, hacking into the global mainframe, unexpectedly sentient supercomputers, teenage protagonists who are pathetic or thuggish in the real world but terrifyingly competent online.

enormous walking doom robots, remote-control wars, robots which detach from or combine with one another, personal jetpacks with which to mount one's mech robot.

The following two types of suggestion are are equally interesting to me:
- established tropes that have been taken up by many authors
- original and creative entries unique to a specific author.
But it's not sufficient that it just be the idiosyncratic vision of some single creator. I'm looking for examples such that -- once you had listed a few of the associated tropes -- people steeped in modern culture would understand exactly the setting you had in mind, and would be able to supply additional details more or less correctly.

For bonus points, list a few of the tropes associated with your answer so we know we're on the same page?

(My ultimate goal here is to write an academic paper about the real-world conditions during which these now-universally-familiar settings first emerge.)
posted by foursentences to Society & Culture (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
TVTropes is your friend. Specifically, the "Settings" category and the "Hollywood History" list. Some examples:

Scavenger World

The Dark Times

Crystal Spires and Togas


Raygun Gothic


Not to mention exaggerated, historically-inaccurate pastiches of real eras: Ancient Grome, Mayintec, Spexico, Far East, Scotireland
posted by Rhaomi at 6:03 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

(Time of Myths might be better than Dark Times, btw)
posted by Rhaomi at 6:04 PM on June 28, 2011

it seems to me that you've split the good part of the first industrial revolution off into steampunk (essentially, the enlightenment elements), while leaving the bad there. I'm not sure how helpful a suggestion this is, but you could think about merging them together.
posted by nml at 10:05 PM on June 28, 2011

Not exactly a technological epoch, but if you look up and see a zeppelin, you're in an alternative history (or maybe a parallel universe).
posted by mhum at 10:19 PM on June 28, 2011

Post-Singularity Era (lasts somewhere from 1/10 second to 1 gigayear.)
posted by General Tonic at 7:28 AM on June 29, 2011


Urbane and multicultural, with tech levels somewhere between Dark Age and Early Steampunk. It's a level of technology that needs a name.

Fairly sophisticated civil engineering (aqueducts, sewers, roads, some concrete) and some mechanical engineering. Steel. Marble. May include crude steam engines and mechanical analog computers (e.g the Antikythera mechanism) but expect these to be rare, possibly indistinguishable from magic (e.g. automatic steam-powered temple doors). Explosives and/or smoothbore firearms may be nonexistant, rare or commonplace.

Professional scholars exist. There is some empirical science. Think Aristotle, but that level of science is better than you might think. You could have a character who's pushing period science in interesting directions, and he/she might get pretty far. Crude but empirically grounded medicine.

Densely populated urban centers are a distinctive feature of togapunk. (e.g. the rickety multistory apartment buildings of plebian Rome are a possible setting). An organized civil service and professional military. Semi-regimented class structure, possibly including slavery (an option: enslaved scholars). Class conflicts possible but mostly kept in check. Long range trade and travel by land and sea, but sailors are mostly sticking to the coasts. At least aware of other cultures, typically multicultural with some degree of state toleration.

Religion and Magic:
Mythology/religion/magic are taken seriously by most people including the educated, but there may be some philosophical atheism and/or elite apathy toward religion. This could be run realistically, or if you're inclined to magic you could take the period mythology seriously. Example: Romans believed that the gods were real and would often manifest themselves, for example through dreams. These manifestations were taken to be an empirical matter of fact (see Pagans and Christians by Robin Fox if you can get a copy).

Details would vary wildly from place to place. If you're not making a homebrew, here are some options in very roughly the same technological/intellectual ballpark.

Roman Imperial

Late Antiquity (Roman Empire in decline, rise of Christianity incl. Taliban mobs, barbarians at/inside the gate)

Various Chinese Dynasties (Southern Song for gunpowder, Ming might be ideally togapunky)

Islamic Golden Age (Babylon, Al-Andalus)

Tokugawa Japan

Mughal India

Ottoman Empire circa 1550

Variant: City States
(somewhat lower technology, crazy social/political experimentation, hothouse politics)

Warring States China (really neat, with roving political theorists writing constitutions. My favorite: the Moists, utilitarians and pacifist Green Berets who traveled from town to town spreading the technology and tactics of defensive warfare)

Greek city states (open class warfare, you could go a little beyond empirical Aristotelian science in interesting directions)

I'd be interested in what you could do with this era if you stay away from alternative history. Ankh-Morpock is togapunk (especially the clacks towers). It's a fun tech level that's been underexplored. More please.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:33 AM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Late to the party here, but I thought I'd add some that occurred to me.

Cowboys in space: rogueish smuggler captain with a heart of gold. Privately owned interstellar vehicles, often in a state of disrepair. Operating under the radar or on the edges of the existing authorities. (Star Wars, Firefly, cowboy bebop). There's always a scene in a disreputable bar, and fleeing from authorities.

Panopticon. Technology allows big govt/corporation to constantly monitor everyone, watching actions and thoughts. (1984 and probably others).

Tech utopia. Technology allows everyone to create/experience whatever they want. Yet, somehow the species moves forward (star trek, culture).

Age of space sail. Multi star empires clash with fleets of ships. Transit between stars takes weeks or sometimes no time at all via wormholes. (honor harrington, other david weber, vorkosigan saga).

transhumanism. People genetically modify themselves to have wings or diamond teeth or gender change. Or they upload themselves to a computer. (culture, something by stross (probably halting state? the one with the cat)).

Fall of man. The fall of civilization leaves us with barely functional technology, scavenge and cannabalized from the remains of our golden age. There's the occasional firearm, but mostly it's human powered weapons. (mad max/road warrior)
posted by jefftang at 4:34 PM on July 5, 2011

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