Monday, May 6, 2019

A Word on Technobabble

Technobabble. Good thing? Bad thing? Neutral thing? What is it anyway?

I've been thinking a good bit about this lately because I'm writing a sci-fi. And sci-fi tends to have a lot of technobabble.

Merriam-Webster defines "technobabble" this way: technical jargon. And then goes on to say: Technobabble was formed by combining techno- (meaning "technical or technological") with babble ("continuous meaningless vocal sounds"), and unsurprisingly suggests language which sounds highly technical and is incomprehensible to the listener. Basically, it's technical/sciencey sounding words that in actuality usually mean absolutely nothing.

Should you use technobabble in a sci-fi? I'd say that depends. Are you writing hard science or speculative sci-fi?

People who like hard science fiction (plausible, technical-based sci-fi) aren't going to want flux capacitors or sonic screwdrivers. They're going to want the stuff that could actually happen. But you know what? If you're writing speculative science fiction, who cares if the hard science people think it's stupid? They aren't your audience. You don't need to pander to them.

Let's think about it. Does any Incredible Hulk fan care that in real life an accidental overdose of gamma radiation would have actually killed Bruce Banner, or at the very least, given him cancer?

Does any Doctor Who fan care that "reverse the polarity of the neutron flow" means absolutely nothing?

Does any Back to the Future fan care that the flux capacitor has no science whatsoever attached to it?

If anyone does legitimately complain about the science or lack thereof in any of these, my response would be to say that they're watching the wrong movie/show.

Fake Science Rules

That said, the science of your technobabble should make sense. Which sounds like an oxymoron. But what I mean is this: it should have rules and you should follow them 100% of the time.

For instance, we may not know how the flux capacitor works, but we do know some very important things. It requires 1.21 gigawatts of power to work, and you have to be traveling at 88 mph. It may not make a lick of sense in actual science, but that's how time travel works and they stick to it. 

Sonic screwdrivers do all these magical things with sound waves, and it's not super clear how that works. I think you think the number of the setting you're using and then point and push the button. It does pretty much everything you could ever need it to do. But it can't do anything about deadlock seals, and it "doesn't do wood." And they stick with that. Now, in "The Day of the Doctor" they do try to get it to develop a setting for wood, but you don't know if it worked because before they try it, Clara opens the door—which was unlocked the entire time.

There's lightsabers. No one knows all the science of how to make a real lightsaber. (If you do, I want one, and so will billions of other people.) But we do know that you need a kyber crystal to power it, and it was a problem with the flux aperture that caused Tru's lightsaber to short out, causing the death of Darra Thel-Tanis. Still not over that one.

The best time travel I've read was Margaret Peterson Haddix's The Missing series. She developed an intricate system of time travel rules and idiosyncrasies, like tracers that show what would have happened without any time travel interference, and time hollows. No, none of it could ever happen, but sticking with her system of rules made it very believable.

Establish rules and stick with them. That's how you make it make sense.

Make it Sound Real

Sprinkle in real science and real science terms as much as possible. Like how Madeleine L'Engle talked about mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell. Yes, she invented farandolae, but she made it sound good by using real science and jumping off from there.

Or like Margaret Peterson Haddix using "telomeres" for de-aging in Turnabout. No, lengthening telomeres wouldn't actually de-age you, but the only people who get mad about that are the people who shouldn't be reading that kind of science fiction anyway. (And yes there are reviewers complaining about that. So what, she wrote it when the discovery of telomeres was recent and we know for sure that couldn't happen in real life? It's sci-fi.)

I'm sure there's barely any real science at all on The Flash, but they throw in real things like DNA analysis and satellite monitoring and stuff like that that it makes it sound legit. Plus they use dark matter a lot, and people don't really know a whole lot about dark matter. Did you know particle accelerators are real? I just kinda doubt one exploding would give people super powers. But you know what? I don't care. Any more than I care about the gamma rays.

Own It

I consider this one of the most important parts of sci-fi technobabble. Imagine the Doctor saying, "Maybe we should, um...reverse the polarity of...the neutron flow?" Would anyone buy it? Maybe a three-year-old. But when he says it like he means it, you don't question.

If you don't believe it, your readers/viewers won't either. If you say it like you mean it, they're more likely to suspend disbelief.

Make it About the Characters

Technobabble/fake science is a plot device. People want good characters and good stories. We go to speculative sci-fi because we want imaginative stories about people we can care about, not because we want infodumps on imaginary science. Don't overload us. Because honestly, the reason people suspend disbelief on all the way-out-the-window science on Doctor Who is because they love the Doctor. They suspend disbelief on radioactive spider bites because they love Peter Parker. People suspend disbelief on flux capacitors because they love Marty and Doc. It's all about the story. The characters. Creating something that stretches the imagination, and still gives us something relatable. (Like The Incredibles. World's most relatable family.)

So go ahead and use technobabble in your speculative sci-fi. Don't use it for deus ex machina, because people will get mad about that, but you're writing to please the people who love the Avengers and Marty McFly. And those people will buy just about any fake science if they love the story and characters enough.

I know, because I'm one of them.

Speaking of, Endgame was amazing! I love it so much.

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