Writing Right with Dmitri: The Patina of Science
EMH-II: The secondary gyrodyne relays of the propulsion field intermatrix have depolarized!
Doctor: In English!
EMH-II: I am just reading what it says here!
Star Trek: Voyager.
Ah, technobabble. Also known in some circles as trekolalia. Where would we be without it? Trying to explain Science to a bunch of bored readers, that's where. If you're writing a science report, better avoid it. Your professor's going to catch on. (He's seen The Wrath of Kahn more times than you have.) But if you're writing fiction, you need technobabble. It's the shortest route between two points – those points being, where your characters are, and where they need to be. Your job: to get them there by making the reader forget about the unjustified leaps in logic it just required.
From Magic to Science
The role of science in most science fiction is – let's face it – just a substitute for magic(k). Yeah, yeah, purist critics natter on about how they love 'hard science' in their sci-fi, but they are mostly talking through their hats. The same people who claim this often adore Lovecraft and Robert E Howard. There is zero science in those gentlemen. No, folks, science is a magic wand, wielded by a certifiable nutcase with funny hair. And behind Oz the Great and Terrible lurks the sci-fi writer, who knows darn well he or she is just making it up. Take this example, which I am paraphrasing from an old book of German folktales from the century-before last:
The great Paracelsus was a magician, scientist, and Primary Care Physician in the 16th Century. He could out-diagnose House, MD, and what he didn't know about chemistry hadn't been invented yet. He called spirits from the vast deep, and they showed up – on time, too. Faust had nothing on him.
According to the legend, one day Paracelsus was in a dark conifer forest, of which there are many in Germany, when he heard somebody calling his name. (His reputation had preceded him.) On investigation, the supplicant turned out to be a spirit trapped in a tree. If Paracelsus let him out, the spirit said, he could have anything he wanted. See that seal? Remove it, and I'll give you the Philosopher's Stone. Okay, good deal, said Paracelsus.
When the mad doctor opened the seal, a nasty spider crawled out of the knothole, then turned into a nastier-looking fellow. True to his word, the spirit creature gave Paracelsus the Philosopher's Stone, thus funding his research for the next 50 years. However, Paracelsus became alarmed at the spirit's expressed intention of going back to Freiburg to exact hideous revenge on the so-and-so who had imprisoned him in the tree in the first place. Paracelsus felt collegial responsibility.
'Hey,' said Paracelsus. 'Before you go, could you maybe demonstrate for me how you got into that tree?'
'Sure, pal, anything for you…'
You can see the rest of this coming. The spirit gets back in the tree, Paracelsus plugs up the hole, with extra spells for good measure, and goes on his merry way, leaving the spirit to learn the lesson: Never trust a human.
The story? How to get something for nothing, and make up some excuse for why it's 'ethical'. The rest is technobabble.
Paracelsus lived during the transitional period between reliance on 'magic' and belief in 'science'. He was a first-rate chemist and physician, but he had nothing against what Terry Pratchett calls Headology: he supplied his patients with amulets to ward off the evil eye and such. Stories about him contain two flavours of technobabble, isn't it fun?
Flux Capacitors and Lateral Sensor Arrays
'Explain all that,' said the Mock Turtle. '
'No, no! the adventures first,' said the Gryphon in an impatient tone; 'explanations take such a dreadful time.'
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.
Lewis Carroll was right. Nobody cares how it works. As one of the Star Trek producers said when asked how his gizmo worked, and he answered, 'Very well. Next question.' They want the adventure, not the explanation.
Personally, I don't, which is why my taste in fiction runs so much along minority lines. For every story in which the writer has taken the theory seriously, there are literally hundreds which don't. Guess which ones sell?
Have you read Time and Again, by Jack Finney? Probably not. You may have seen the film Somewhere in Time, which was inspired by it, vaguely. If you watch the film, you might get the mistaken idea that Finney's novel is a pure romance. You'd be wrong. You might also have heard of the urban legend about the man run over in the street in the 1950s, who turned out to be wearing clothes and carrying papers, money, etc, from the 19th Century…also inspired by a Jack Finney story. But Time and Again is a very thoughtful novel without a scrap of technobabble. Just real speculative science.
Finney's time-travel story – it's an 'illustrated novel', because he uses public domain photos and art – is based on the idea that a human being's orientation in time is related to consciousness, memory, and the perdurance of material culture. Finney builds this premise up carefully, taking a long first section of the book to bring his character to the point of time travel. No, 'Hey, Doc Brown, what's that, a DeLorean time machine? Gee, can I borrow the keys for a spin? Sure, I'll be back by suppertime…'
In Time and Again, the protagonist, an artist, visits museums, studies the period. He dresses in the clothes. He moves into the Dakota building, on the edge of New York's Central Park, and lives the age when the building was new. He gets his daily newspaper and his food delivered in butcher paper. He waits. Then it snows…the world goes quieter…he walks out, into snowy Central Park. It's night, but he hears sleighbells, sees a horse-drawn sleigh…he walks back into the Dakota…
The next day, he insists to the skeptical science team that he did, indeed, travel back in time. They're not sure. How can they prove that a time slip actually occurred? The artist's memory helps. He draws the scene he saw as he looked at the Dakota building. The others are astonished: from where he was standing, he could see a museum building…but that building was no longer visible in his present time. It was obscured by a highrise…
That piece of revelation took over a hundred pages to reach, and it was monumental. That's not technobabble: that's real thought experimentation. Finney worked hard at that novel, you can tell. Is it as popular as Back to the Future III? Er, no.
In conclusion: don't worry about the science. It's just a gloss placed on events to say, 'It happened, because we wanted it to.' It's all double-Dutch, anyway. Make it up as you go along. The audience will love you for it. Make snarky jokes about how foolish people are to care about such things.
Alternatively, study a novel like Time and Again, and think long and hard about the logic of your inspirational idea. But don't expect anybody to thank you for doing it. You'll garner a small cult following, perhaps, and have the satisfaction of solving a puzzle. Then you'll join everyone else in the guilty pleasure of chuckling over Marty McFly's Western get-up.