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Expert Voices

Beam Me Up, Scotty: Technobabble's Role in the Arts (Op-Ed)

Star Trek's Warp Drive: Are We There Yet?
Star Trek's Warp Drive: Are We There Yet?
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Peter Clines has published short fiction and articles on the film and television industries and is author of the new novel "The Fold"(Crown Publishing, 2015). Clines is author of the "Ex-Heroes" series and the thriller "14" (Permuted Press, 2012) and worked for many years in the film industry on such films and shows as "Psycho Beach Party," "Beastmaster III," and "Veronica Mars." He contributed this article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

I'm not sure, but I think it was watching "The Amazing Colossal Man" on Creature Double Feature as a kid that gave me my first, foul-tasting dose of technobabble. The doctors were trying to tell Glenn Manning's wife why his uncontrolled growth was causing him so much pain. You see, they explained, the cells in Glenn's body were multiplying at an extreme rate, causing him to get larger. But the human heart is made of only a single cell, so it wasn't growing at the same rate and was under enormous strain.

Author Peter Clines.
(Image credit: Colleen Cooper)

Even in sixth grade, I saw the holes in this.

If you've somehow dodged the term until now, technobabble is when the writer fills up some space with, well, stuff. Usually some half-understood scientific term or fact or maybe just total gibberish that sounds neat and fill s a plot hole or two. It's kind of a bluff — I'm betting the reader (or audience member) won't know if this is true or even plausible, and the pseudo-explanation will carry them right over that questionable spot and back into the story.

It's easy to spot technobabble in older books or movies. The one-celled heart I was just talking about. The "Creature from the Black Lagoon" as a missing link between man and sea life. Even Isaac Asimov's famed positronic brain, named after a recently discovered sub-atomic particle, seems more like fantasy today than science.

Granted, technobabble tries to keep up as audiences become better educated and more knowledgeable. "Doctor Who" saved the day all through the '60s and '70s by "reversing the polarity of the neutron flow" (an amazing process that solved pretty much any problem). "WarGames" used real computer terms to show how easy it was to hack into NORAD (and play games). "Star Trek" started using antimatter injectors and containment fields in starship warp cores. One of my favorite bits of technobabble is the device that sidesteps any scientific implausibility. The uncertainty principle makes transporters impossible? Well, that's why we have Heisenberg compensators. How do we push a DeLorean into the fourth dimension? With the flux capacitor — it's what makes time travel possible. ['The Fold' (US 2015): Book Excerpt]

Of course, at its worst technobabble is the arrogant belief that the readers or audience are ignorant. I know, because I encountered a lot of it while I worked in the movie industry. Communications satellites that passed behind the moon. Satellite phones with no antennas. Granted, I was usually just the prop master or assistant prop master on these projects, but when I'd point out how wrong these things were, I'd get a faint smileor an eye roll, followed by some variation of "Well, who's going to know?" 

"The Fold," by Peter Clines.
(Image credit: Courtesy of Crown Publishing)

Often I'd point out that I knew, and I was just some random guy. As I tried to explain to one producer, we were making a sci-fi series — a show for the most nitpicky, well-educated audience out there. "The West Wing" and "ER" didn't have to worry about screw-ups as much as we did. That earned me another eye roll and then our show was canceled a few episodes later.

Ah, well....

The flipside of technobabble in writing is the hard-science approach. Every fact is carefully researched and verifiable. A fantastic example of this is Andy Weir's "The Martian," a book that's become famous for its attention to detail. Actual astronauts have praised Weir for the realism of his story. You can also see it in Mira Grant's "Parasitology" series or Jonathan Maberry's "Dead of Night." These writers did their homework, dug through books, talked with experts, and created stories that were all-too possible.

The downside to taking the hard-science route (there's always a downside) is that when you get something wrong, people won't let it slide. Weir's taken some good-natured ribbing for his chosen landing site on Mars (since revealed as one of the worst places you could probably pick to land a spaceship). Neil deGrasse Tyson called out Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity " for several of its larger science-related issues (although he admitted he liked the film overall). So, if I'm going to go the hard-science route ... well, I just better be prepared to commit. As I said earlier, one of the most nitpicky, well-educated audiences out there. [Our Favorite 'Gravity' Movie Moments: Astronauts, Spaceships & Space Junk (Oh, My! )]

There's a third option, too, and it's one I tend to take. I did it in my new book, "The Fold." If there's a name for it, it's probably the "lulling you into complicity approach" or something like that.

What I like to do is start with everything as grounded as possible. The science, the world, the people. I want my readers to see characters like Mike, Jamie, Reggie or Bob and see something familiar in them. The science that's laid out is very basic, although I don't shy away from more advanced stuff as long as I can explain it in simple terms. In "The Fold," this means talking about basic physics, computer limitations, electromagnetic fields, power needs — concrete, proven things we can all understand and acknowledge.

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(Image credit: SPACE.com)

Then, once everyone's comfortable and invested in the story ... I start to bend things away from reality. Just a little. Not too much too fast. My physics may get a little soft. It might even touch its toes against the surface of the technobabble pool. But I still try to keep an internal logic and stay true to the world I've created.

Writing this way means, rather than asking the technobabble to support the story, I'm asking the story to support the technobabble. That's a much stronger position to be in. Once readers believe in the world, it's easy to accept things that are happening in this world. Since I've earned their trust, they're usually willing to suspend their disbelief more than they would if I just dropped something on them right at the start. And I've found writing like this makes readers willing to believe in some amazing things.

But I still wouldn't ask anyone to believe in a one-celled heart.

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