T is for: Technobabble

Inventing science from scratch isn’t fun.

Well, ok, it is, but in an if-I-play-this-wrong-the-ridicule-will-be-both-deserved-and-endless sort of way.  All the science fiction greats seem to have mastered it, however, from extrapolation based in real science of the author’s time to a rush of invented jargon meant to sound so technical that the reader chooses to believe it for ease of operation. The latter is what I’ve always heard referred to as “technobabble,” and it’s something I partake in on a regular basis. So, in honor of this great tool, I thought I’d share some tips for writing it that have gone over well with beta readers thus far:

Everything sounds better as an acronym

You could throw five syllable words at readers all day long to create the illusion of science, but they’d be justified in getting frustrated with you, and, much of the time, they’d skim over those word-monstrosities from the get-go anyway. There is a way to have the best of both worlds, however, and keep your readers’ attention while jargon-ing your little heart out. Everyone who’s ever worked in government or science–or tried to read a textbook concerned with either of the two–can tell you that acronyms are everywhere in the real worldAnd the glory of an acronym, in addition to its realism, is that you then only have to type out your five syllables invented mangling of Latin roots and cool nouns once, when first introducing it. (Always spell it out at lest once–A.C.E. sounds like something you made up to sound cool, but Academy for Cosmogenic Engineering sounds like an actual institution that happens to have a cool name. The sense of happenstance takes away the artifice.)

This is an especially sound method if you’re referencing an institution or instillation, military mission or establishment, or material item which might have a shorthand title for practical purposes.

People use slang for everything, why shouldn’t your characters?

To use another government example, keep in mind that just because Central Intelligence Agency is easily acronymified to C.I.A, doesn’t mean that individuals in the bureaucracy–and especially the security infrastructure of the United States–will say that. The Agency is common shorthand in fiction as well (so far as I can tell) reality. Similarly, your characters will have slang terms for the technologies and institutions they work around that aren’t at all technical or specific and might even be confusing to the outsider looking in.

For another example, how many dedicated gym-goers do you know who say “I’m going to repeat my bicep curls thirty times each arm, three times in a row” who could just as easily say “I’m going to do three thirty rep sets of curls?” Allow your characters to do the same thing, and then allow their actions, or questions from un-initiated cast members, fill in the blanks for readers where they’re needed.

A solid foundation goes a long way

That said, having at least a Wikipedia article’s worth of understanding of the science, or type of institution or machinery, etc. etc, that you’re inventing, is a necessity. A little bit of Googling and your local library can give you the beginning vocabulary on which to build the nonsense of your choosing. Timespace, for example, is a real term. Manipulating timespace is vague, but sounds like it utilizes realistic actions on an existent, scientifically recognized medium. Whether or not you can dig into the grimy details of how one might do such a thing is often a non-issue so long as the building blocks you start with sound legitimate. Plus, once you have that realistic technicality behind you, even if mentioned in passing, in many cases (ahem, Star Trek, Star Wars, Avatar, Mass Effect, to name a few big names even the non-sci-fi reader might recognize) you can mention it once and then never explain further without your audience caring. If you’re writing in the vein of Michael Crichton or Carl Sagan, that might not work so well, but if you’re running in the direction of Karen Lord, for example, over-explaining is often more likely to bore readers than anything, which hurts your credibility as a storyteller . . . if not as a scientist.

Theoretical science is harder to argue with

If you should be in a position where skimming the background information isn’t an option, science which is under debate is easier to tweak into jargon you created and functions you designed than something concrete. Gravity, for example, is hard to argue with. What going to a black hole would feel like, or how a grandfather paradox might be resolved, are much bigger sandboxes. If you need to skim and technobabble, save it for the theoretical and less concrete sciences, and not the things that any sixth grader with a textbook and the internet could fact check.

You will always have critical readers who see through your technobabble. You will also find readers who you could tell anything without them every questioning a word of it. These aren’t techniques designed for any of those people. These techniques are for building an atmosphere for your story that the layman will be willing to accept as possible and reasonable without dismissing the science underlying science fiction entirely. Here’s hoping they work well for all of you!


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