Friday, November 30, 2012

Guest Post - Ted Mendlessohn

I write primarily fantasy. Even then there are times, especially in my urban fantasy, where I need to refer to some technological marvel that doesn't yet exist. There's an inherent tension between flash and comprehensibility when technobable creeps in. And to round out the cyber-shopping week, I've asked my friend and fellow Musa writer, Ted Mendelssohn to talk a bit about writing technology into stories.

Take it away Ted.
Ted Mendelssohn

There's an inertial surge in the soliton matrix!
Stabilize the meson beam with a lithium resonator!
Reverse the polarity!
Reverse the polarity!

Like we haven't heard that before. Am  I right?

Welcome to the world of technobabble - made-up jargon, fake terminology intended to give the impression that something terribly high-tech and science-y is going on.

Technobabble is a long-established tradition in science fiction, but it drives me crazy. Even ordinary readers will be irritated by too much of the stuff, and for good reason: It is literally meaningless. (The writers of ST:TNG (* Nancy Note - that's Star Trek: The Next Generation for all of you who aren't Trekkies) would actually write "TECH" as a placeholder in dialogue for which they hadn't yet made up new technobabble. (The tech lifts right out, you see.) As a reader, I have a limited amount of time on earth. The time I spend reading shouldn't be wasted on even a couple of meaningless sentences. When that happens, I know the author isn't doing his job – and he is wasting a tiny bit of my life.

Why do writers use technobabble in the first place? For the same reason, I suppose, that some fantasy writers use archaic, pseudo-historic language for their characters: They think it sounds cool. "Cool" means scientific for the purveyors of space opera; it means "ancient" for the fantasists. To me, it means "sloppy." It indicates a fundamental lack of respect for science and technology…which just might be the wrong attitude for a writer of science fiction.

If you don't get why technobabble is offensive, no worries. Some people like it. Head on to the next post and ignore me. I am now – at Nancy's request – going to talk about how to get rid of the stuff, and you wouldn't want to waste your time with this.

So. How to reduce the amount of technobabble in your story...Well, let's be honest. You have to decide to make the stuff up and put it in. It's not as if it just sprouts in your prose like mushrooms. It isn't something you catch with a spellcheck. To write technobabble, you have to actually create it, and know, while you're writing it down, that you yourself don't have a clear idea of what it means.

So it's not about making sure you don't unintentionally technobabble. It's about writing a story in which technobabble is unnecessary. You do that by understanding your tech from the beginning, and by making sure that your characters' conflict is never technical, even if the obstacles are.

"But, but, but-" you stammer. "I'm writing about immortality and FTL travel. That doesn't even exist yet. It may never exist! How can I understand tech that hasn't been invented yet?"
(* Nancy Note again - FTL is Faster Than Light)

 Meet technobabble's arch-enemy, the Theory of Operation. A ToO is a mental model of how a device or technology is supposed to work - and that device doesn't have to exist in the real world. For instance, it's impossible to go faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, but let's say that we really, really want our characters to take weekend trips to Procyon. Enter the FTL drive.

 There have been dozens of FTL drives dreamed up in the fertile brains of SF writers, the majority of them variations on the themes of hyperspace, wormholes, and warp space. Never mind that they're all (probably) impossible, and that they all (definitely) require a level of technology far beyond our own. What makes them fictional technology instead of straight-up technobabble was that they have at least a limited ToO – which means that they have clearly defined advantages and problems.

The classic example is the Alderson drive, named after Dan Alderson, the JPL scientist who helped writer Jerry Pournelle work out the science and use it as a fictional device. The Alderson drive is a fundamental "wormhole" drive: Ships vanish at one point of "equipotential thermonuclear flux" and reappear at another. The two points are connected by a hyper-dimensional "tramline." The limitation is that you have to look hard for those "Alderson points," and not all star systems have points that will take you where you want to go. That has implications for interstellar travel, trade, politics and warfare. It helps shape the CoDominium, Pournelle's fictional universe. It makes the story solid.

If you don't want to play with a ToO, your other choice is the Star Wars option. In the original Star Wars, there is no ToO for the hyperdrive. In fact, at some points it even seems like the hyperdrive is no more important for FTL travel than the nitrogen afterburner on a race car. But there is actually remarkably little technobabble in that original movie, because the characters' problems and triumphs are ultimately non-technological. Luke will save Leia whether he's using a light-saber, or a sword. Everybody has hyperspace, so it's not an advantage for any one character over another; it's just part of the background. It works.

Now consider a science fiction series that's infamous for technobabble – so infamous, in fact, that it has its own technobabble variant. In Star Trek – the later versions – they neither follow a theory of operation, nor do they keep technology in the background. It is always in the foreground, front and center; but the producers don't work out a consistent vision for it. Miraculous new substances are routinely discovered, only to vanish after one episode; incredible space obstacles menace the ship, but never seem to pose a threat to space navigation at large; and the space-time continuum malfunctions so regularly, in so many different technobbably ways, that it seems like only a matter of time before Roman legionaries are running the Federation and all the Klingons are pink dwarves. A hazy, inconsistent technology is the both the source and the resolution of a multitude of plot points. The result: Treknobabble.

Now, clearly there were a lot of people who loved Treknobabble. It could be viable strategy, if that's really the way you want to play it. But the choice is with you. Always.


Thanks Ted.

Ted's young adult book, The Wrong Sword, is now available. Even though this is YA it's a great read for adults. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

What happens when Excalibur resurfaces and her bearer is a cheat and a thief? Henry and his crew are cons. Their latest endeavor? Forge the greatest swords in history. But Henry cons the wrong knight and ends up on a quest to find the real Excalibur. If he fails, Prince Geoff will put Henry's two best friends to death.

When he actually finds the sword, he learns that SHE has a mind of her own. And she has some definite ideas about being welded by a thief. Henry agrees to find a suitable bearer for Excalibur. His quest takes them across France. Throw in a a princess pretending to be a bar maid, a royal wedding, and, well, you're starting to get the gist.
Like I said, I really enjoyed the story.


Gray sky, white ground, black trees. Sound muffled by snow, until all you heard was your own breathing, and all you felt was the cold, sharp in your ears and your nose, dull in your boots and leggings.

Or, if you were tied to a mule on your back, wearing nothing but your shirt and hose, cold everywhere and pain in everything. Henry tried to clear his throat and keep moving, even if that amounted to no more than shivering inside his manacles.

They had long ago left England behind. Now they traveled through a dismal waste, thick forests broken by ruins that were ancient before the Romans, standing stones that gave no shelter, roads that vanished under bridges leading nowhere. It was all pretty eldritch. Henry knew it from Alfie’s tales - the borth Annwn, the Door to the Land of Shadow. A stone cairn appeared through the snow, wiped clean by the wind. Brissac turned in his saddle. “There it is. How are you, thief? Comfortable?”

Henry tried to control his chattering teeth, without much success. “C-couldn’t be better. How’s the body odor? Taken a bath yet?”

The Swiss mercenaries laughed. Brissac wheeled on Henry, his sword drawn-

“Ah-ah-ah! You k-kill me, wh-what will Geoffrey say?”

Brissac turned away, but Hauptmann, captain of the Swiss, rode up to Henry and examined him.
“Ritter…he could die. Let us cover him.”

“The tower is near enough. Cover him then.”

To be fair, Brissac hadn’t shackled Henry until AFTER he’d tried to escape. But they had just landed in Southampton; Brissac was still seasick; Henry could speak the local dialect, while the Swiss were practically mute; and by then, Geoffrey would have released Alfie and the others he was holding as hostages.

Really, it had been too good an opportunity to ignore.

But as Henry had leaned over the inn’s stable roof and gently lowered himself to the ground, crossbow bolts had hissed out of the darkness, aimed so well they had pinned his clothes to the wall behind him without even drawing blood. He had been trussed up like a chicken in his own breeches-

“There it is.”

Henry craned his neck to see. Wow. It was a genuine, honest-to-goodness Dark Tower.

Black and ancient, it rose above the pines like a castle guarding a border. Beyond it the land opened out in a wide valley, shrouded in fog, indistinct except for the top of the Glastonbury Tor, a terraced hill poking out of the sea of mist. The road zigzagged up the slope and then cut through a dark wood, vanishing into shadow long before it reached the tower.

“The Chapel Perilous,” Brissac leaned down and spoke in Henry’s ear. “The key to Excalibur’s resting place. Twelve good knights have entered, never to return. My lord Geoffrey thinks you may solve the riddle where they did not.” Brissac squinted up at the high black walls. “I think he is an optimist.”

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Eleni Konstantine said...

Interesting post, Ted. I suppose technobabble doesn't bother me because I'm looking more at the characters. But I'd rather something 'sound right' and be as right as it can be.

Unknown said...

I like technobable when it's seamless. There's a really great technobable scene in Serenity. The tech is interwoven into the interpersonal dynamic and is there only because it has to be.