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Avoiding Inconsistent Technobabble

Posted by Charles Gray on October 21, 2014

If you’ve ever watched an episode in the Star Trek Franchise, especially after the original series, you know what I’m talking about. There’s a situation. Everything is desperate…when SUDDENLY the engineer manages to reconfigure the lateral array to emit a warp signature of 2.1 Kilorays, which re-initiates the matter anti-matter gamma ray converter. Suddenly, all is well.

What the hell did I just say?

Nothing. It’s technobabble. You’ll never hear about it again. The amazing thing the engines and engineer just did will never be referenced again. If you play D&D, think of it as the wizard pulling out his wand of wonder and rolling 00.

It’s rightly characterized as bad writing, but not for the reason many people think.

It’s not because it’s something impossible— science fiction is, after all, story telling about the impossible. Plant Benjamin Franklin in the cockpit of a jet, or the operating theater of a major hospital and he will declare that what is happening is impossible— then he’ll realize that observation trumps theory and start asking you how you did it. But the mere fact the engineer is talking about stuff we can’t do isn’t what makes it bad writing.

It’s bad writing because it is often inconsistent.

In the real world, if you figured out a way to use a piece of technology to do something useful, that would go into the Big Book of Solutions(TM) and be kept on file. That’s especially true if it did something world shaking (And in fiction, technobabble is very seldom used to describe how to quickly heat up your coffee) that saved the day.

Episodic TV shows can be especially bad at this, mainly due to the fact that you have different writer teams and deadlines that range from “you want it WHEN?” to frantically typing up the script just in time to have an intern grab the printed paper and run to the sound stage where they are shooting that scene.

But an author doesn’t have that problem or for that matter, that excuse. An author has the time to write his work and keep his technological assumptions consistent.

Does this mean you shouldn’t have wondrous, even incomprehensible technology? No. Of course not. Some of our greatest stories have made use of technology and events that were quite simply beyond our modern scientific understanding.

What it does mean is that if widget A does thing B, then absent a very good reason, it shouldn’t suddenly do something else. The engineer shouldn’t be able to short-circuit a major problem by flipping a few switches that then has the stardrive turn into force shield, unless it could already do that. Gadgeteering your way out of a problem should be avoided, unless the gadgeteering is an integral part of the plot.

To use an example from the Golden Age of science fiction, E.E. “Doc” Smith used something called a Bergenholm Drive. It’s a method of removing inertia from bodies under the influence of the drive and is used to explain how FTL works. While the effects of the drive are described and used in the story, the Bergenholm continues to do the same thing throughout the series. That consistency helps to establish the sense that this is a real universe where things behave the same way every time they’re used, rather than a world where an engineer can suddenly have a device displaying radically different properties to get out of this week’s disaster of choice.

By keeping your technological (or mystical, or psionic) assumptions consistent, you can avoid having someone who is reading your story blink, flip to an earlier chapter and ask in a mystified voice: “Why is that a problem now? Didn’t you just invert the Warp Signature two chapters back to deal with the very same problem?”


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