Technobabble can be your friend

We’ve all read it.  We’ve all seen it.  And I’m guessing a lot of us have written it, probably not on purpose.

“Oh, Professor, how does this reticulating infundibulator work?”

“Well, I’m glad you asked, Little Timmy.  You see, the wave manifold interface is tangential to the antiprotonic Q-stream, which as you know is what runs our stardrive, but in this case…”

…and garble garble garble, ten pages of reticulating infundibulators and science that would make any follower of the discipline in question weep quietly into their coffee.

Because I write fantasy, I don’t add so much in the way of technobabble, but I do have quite a bit of arcanababble: the myths that I’ve used to underpin the story and that need to be understood for the story to make any sense.  Which means if I’m not careful, I end up with something along the lines of:

“Oh, Great Sage, how may we use this Crepuscular Artifact of Vorpallitation?”

“Well, I’m glad you asked, Little Grignr.  You see, the Artifact’s power draws from the deposed Demon Lord Khar’tryuse, who as you know was friend to all living things before the Woven Corruption…”

…and garble garble garble, ten pages of Demon Lords and lost weapons and theomachies to shake the heavens.  Now, some people read for the technobabble, and I confess I like reading for the arcanababble, particularly when it’s based on actual myth.  Heck, I’ll sit through several pages of tenuous connections between obscure philosophers and alchemical symbols and ancient cults, if I have the sense there’s something to it (which, frankly, depends more on the writer than on the theory in question).  If it turns out to match what I know, then I’m likely to love the book even more.

But a lot of readers don’t like techno/arcanababble, and for good reason: it’s exposition, and like all exposition can become an indigestible lump if handled poorly.  Even when the myths are well-researched and accurate (inasmuch as myth can approach accuracy) or when the science is spot-on and peer-reviewed, if it’s presented as a lump of exposition then the technobabble filter will kick in for a lot of readers, and they’ll skim past it like a freshman English student skipping the whaling chapters of Moby Dick.

Leave it out entirely, though, and you’re missing the vital information that your story is built around, the scientific key or mythic reference that holds the whole thing together.  And, very possibly, you’ll have left out the Cool Idea that got this story started in the first place.  And, let’s face it, technobabble and arcanababble can be such fun to write.

So what are some ways technobabble can be more than just a lump of exposition?

Make it inaccurate.  In the same way that a working hyperdrive engine is less interesting than one that’s just broken down, technobabble that’s partly guesswork can do a lot to show not just the underpinnings of the world and the frame of reference the characters use to interpret it.  Helen Narbon’s explanation of her time-travel rescue attempt might not be even close to the real explanation, but it’s got enough juice to pass for real, particularly in her discipline of mad science.

The question then becomes what you want to remain accurate.  If your characters will accept most of this explanation, what won’t work later on?  Too much, and it’ll call into question all of your explanation so far; too little, and it’s just been another lump of exposition.  I used this in Spiral Hunt, where Sarah, Evie’s source of exposition on quite a few interesting mythic developments, gets a whole lot right — and the most important fact dead wrong.  (And when the person who corrects that is someone whom Evie has no reason to believe, the whole question of truth becomes that much more unstable…)

Saturate the story with it. This is a tricky path.  Charles Stross’ Laundry novels are full to bursting with this kind of exposition, but I hesitate to call it technobabble because 1) it’s very well written, 2) I’m pretty sure substantial parts of it are accurate (okay, maybe not the bits about computational demonology and eldritch horrors), and 3) it’s really damn fun.  Some people to whom I recommended the books shied away from them for just this reason, but even though I could only understand about one term in four I was carried along by the sheer momentum of it.  Tim Powers’ books tend to be so steeped in myth that you can’t go two pages without tripping over another reference — but he doesn’t bother to stop and explain everything, which means that not only does the story keep flowing, but on a second reading the references will make even more sense.  (I actually smacked myself on the forehead when I finally got the Art Hanari joke.)

I actually enjoy doing this when I’m plotting: rolling up all sorts of woo and myth and crackpot theory into something resembling a Katamari.  Overdo it, though, and you’ll end up with a story groaning under the weight of its world, a plot that depends on the reader knowing twenty pages of backstory for a two-page payoff, and characters who are there just to provide more detail of the myths.

Use it as a tool to establish another part of the story. In these panels from Gunnerkrigg Court (full strip here — minor spoilers for some cool early scenes), we get to see technobabble from the point of view of someone who’s totally and utterly lost.  This not only shows us one of the major differences between Annie and Kat — Kat and her mother understand and connect on this level, but Annie’s trying to interpret it through a different frame and so is left in the dust…which explains why, in a couple of panels, she’s going to space out entirely and do something she’s more familiar with, something  a bit unwise.

To take another example from my own work (man, I’m getting egotistical these days), here’s a bit from a short story that won’t be out in Beneath Ceaseless Skies for several months:

“No,” Marten said, tracing the cable from the — engine — to the cannon and back, remembering his master’s drawings, the illustration of speiric theory. “No, it makes perfect sense.”

Gerda flicked a glance at him. “Really, now?”

“Yes. It’s basic theory — the speiric power is inverted from compulsion to repulsion and thus provides both combustion and motion, but instead of a conscious control you’ve got the regulator here.” The words — his master’s words, the jargon of a life lived in theory — felt both familiar and strange in his mouth. “I’m not sure how that converts, given that the directive force is inanimate rather than mentally focused, but at the very least it explains how they’re capable of altering course so smoothly. And the preservation impulse, that’s a given after a certain amount of speiric infusion . . .”

Abruptly he realized Gerda was watching him, the five-eighths Beaton dangling from her hand. “Maybe you are better suited for this division than I’d thought,” she said, a crooked grin rising.

What’s important here isn’t the speiric power or repulsion or anything else.  What’s important is that Marten is totally geeking out over this, and that’s not something he’s used to.  His reaction here is the same one that I’m sure many of us have seen when a friend discovers something that’s so amazingly cool that they have to share exactly why it’s so cool!

Make it a joke. A couple of the examples above are webcomics, and that’s not an accident.  Technobabble is something we’re all familiar with, and it’s easy to poke fun at.  The thing is, even while you’re poking fun at it, the explanation has slid into the reader’s mind.  Humor eases the way, and if it’s good humor, the reader will remember it later on, just when you need that vital information.  You might not remember what the Doctor’s “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey ball” means in terms of temporal manipulation, but you will remember that the timey-wimey ball “goes ding when there’s stuff.”

For example, in Soul Hunt, I’ve got a small and frankly juvenile gag involving the contents of a minor character’s hip flask.  It’s a little throwaway joke that gets mentioned later when the character in question — who does love to lecture — gets a chance to go on about it.  Still the same gag, but it’s not there just to be gross.  By this point in the story, it’s established a certain form of magic that seems to work for at least one character in this world, and that may come in useful as the book goes on…

I’m sure I’ve missed a number of other ways technobabble can be put to good use, so give me more!  What are some of your favorite examples of technobabble or arcanababble?  Why did they work for you?


15 Responses to “Technobabble can be your friend”

  1. November 4, 2010 at 2:00 am

    I bet technobabble/arcanababble could be used like a stage magician’s banter: to distract. If the sage/geek is using lots of big words that the reader is trying to make sense of, maybe the reader won’t pay as much attention to the seemingly mundane things in the scene. Then it turns out that something sneaky was going on without the reader even thinking to question it. If the story is reread, the reader can have the revelational joy of spotting the smoking gun hidden among the transpository processor units.

    I can’t think of any books that use a twist like that, but now I’d really like to read one.

  2. 2 mlronald
    November 4, 2010 at 7:39 am

    Heidi, that’s a great idea. I tend to think of so many of the tricks writers use as stage magician banter — misdirection, focusing attention, making the reader believe for just a moment that there is such a thing as magic.

    …and now I’d like to read one like that too. You know what the only cure for that is. One of us is going to have to write it.

  3. November 4, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    I’ll put it on my To Do list!

  4. November 24, 2010 at 1:41 am

    The best example I’ve seen of merging arcanababble and explaining elaborate magic systems in a logical and seamless manner is in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. I cannot recommend it enough on a technical level as well as a great piece of fantasy fiction.

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