Technology, especially future technology, is some difficult stuff. When even our modern EMP technology could wipe us out with relative ease, it’s a bit hard to conceptualize what aliens capable of traveling to our planet (traveling capabilities which are far beyond our own) can do. Weapons, transportation, communication, culture – all those things like iPods to microwave ovens to Slinkies… all of it has to exist even if it’s not in your novel. I’d recommend that, unless your aliens are big, bad, one-dimensional monsters (and maybe even then), you flesh out the extra-terrestrial world with a particular eye towards technology. How it’s actually in your story is up to you and who you choose for your audience.
Let’s go into the audience first. The hardcore science fiction readers can be uptight bastards, and I say that with a large degree of respect. They’re the ones who will only grudgingly suspend their disbelief and even than easily be pulled out of your universe by errors and gaps. For these readers we all might be better off outlining the bulk of alien technology, even if it never appears in the story itself, just to make sure the story stays straight. Just like all the writers saying you should fully develop characters with details that will never appear in the text, the relatability and sensible (ish) nature of your technology can make or break a book.
Also, never use anything you don’t understand yourself. Or, better said, never explain or describe anything you don’t understand yourself. I’m not saying don’t have a character flee in mortal terror by speeding down the highway in some hot-wired Jeep; I’m saying leave the hot-wiring off-camera if you’ve never done it or seen it done yourself. Of course, I’m not advocating you go out and necessarily gain this experience (this applies double to nuclear technology). Just know what you’re saying, because it’s likely a good chunk of your audience does.
It’s also important to keep in mind what kind of book you’re writing, and the writing style you have in non-technology matters. When you’re aiming for different audiences, it’s fairly easy to self-direct. For kids, too much explanation is boring. But for some adults, the more technical the better – you only have to type ‘star trek manual’ into Google to see how detailed these things can become. Really, the choice is up to you.
In an alien-invasion novel, you also need to different weapons and warfare for the different stages of an attack. Transportation and communication, then perhaps a massively effective weapon, then things suitable for either guerilla warfare or terraforming.
On the flip side (the human side), you can either use modern technology (not that we all know what we have even now) or future technology. Whatever side of the war you’re currently detailing, all of the parts of that side have to be similar to some degree. A good example of this interconnectedness is in Ender's Game, written by Orson Scott Card. In this first book, the protagonist leads a war against an alien species humans had fought intermittently for over one hundred years, eventually using a world-destroying weapon humans adapted from formic (the aliens) technology. And to those of you who have read Ender’s Game and Ender’s Exile, I apologize for that summary, since it skips the really cool themes. In the sequel, Ender is told that the light-speed travel humans are capable of is also formic technology, and that the devastating weapon he used in the first book is a derivative of this technology. The technology connects. It has similar themes and concepts, even though the purposes are different. It happens again (more in the sequel then the first): the formics, essentially telepathic bug-like aliens that have a social structure similar to that of bees, genetically create telepathic bugs with lower-intelligence that eat metals and can be refined.
But, whether you go with organic technology, quantum physics, or mechanics (the basis of our earthly weapons for millennia), there has to be a common train of thought. So that same idea of plotting out an entire culture, however sparsely used, applies again: try planning out a systematic, complete invasion, down to the bitter end and beyond, and have the weapons either fit together, or have a logical chain of evolution.
So, three basic things to keep in mind for technology as a whole:
1) Plan out a whole world with all aspects of technology. The aliens aren’t just aliens in the same way we’re not just aliens.
2) You can have things you don’t understand (though I’d hesitate to use technology as an almost magical fix, without explanation or basis) but don’t explain them.
3) Have all the technology fit. The same sorts of minds that created a super-bomb probably created, influenced, or were influenced by minds that created the hand-held weapons.
Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter and Facebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.