From warp drive to hyper space, “techno-babble” is a major component of Science fiction. The “science” part of Sci Fi is a sliding scale, with extreme adherence to current factual understanding at one end (the Martian), to a simple flavor text facade on fantasy magic (Star Wars). Many prefer sub genre terms to denote the different types of sci-fi, such “hard sci fi” versus “space opera”. The latter being fantasy stories of wizards and warriors set on alien planets. Interestingly, one of the founders of space opera is E.E. “Doc” Smith, author of the “Lensman” and “Skylark of Space” series. Smith was an engineer and explained the science of his stories in great detail. The only problem was that smith wrote before the invention of many basic electronics and in time when “outer space” was believed to be filled with a strange substance called “ether”. His complex descriptions of laser battles and faster than light travel are superbly written and painstakingly thought out, yet completely wrong. Reading them today, its strange to know the science of these stories is discredited, and in many ways absurd, but they still completely work for the story. How is this possible? Why does some techno-babble work, some pull the audience right of the story, and some just grind a story to a halt.
Guide to Techno-Babble
Let’s examine a famously successful micro budget hard science fiction movie, Primer.
Here’s what Patrick “The Engineer” had to say:
From a technical perspective, I thought the techno-babble at the beginning of the movie was pretty good. They don’t give you enough context to understand what they are really talking about in any detail, but the fragments of dialog seemed to at least be using the terms correctly in relation to each other. And for most movies, that’s about all you can really hope for. But after the first five minutes, it went downhill.
1. They are handling toxic chemicals when one of the team walks into the garage. The main character tells him to get a mask, but the mask that the main character is wearing is a dust mask. What will a dust mask do to stop chemical fumes? That’s right, nothing. Don’t call out something like this in the script if you aren’t going to be accurate about the thing you are calling out.
2. When they are building the machine and say something like, “Charge it with 0.05L of argon.” They just open a tank valve (that happens to look like a propane tank BTW). There’s no measuring. Just turn on the valve and magically get 0.05L of gas?
3. When they are talking about achieving stable operation of the device, they slip into this discussion about the batteries. What they are implying is that the device is an over-unity device. It produces more energy than it consumes. There’s a whole slew of technical issues with this part of the script.
a. They say they are putting 24V of power into the device. Voltage isn’t power. Nor is it a measure of energy. You see this sort of thing all the time in movies. It’s also pretty common to hear things like “pounds of pressure.” A pound isn’t a measure of pressure, it’s a measure of force. I mean, really, any high school kid with a basic course in physics could fix these script issues.
b. The device is supposedly receiving 24V of “power” (uggg) using two car batteries. Aside from the fact that these batteries don’t actually put out 12V each unless they are mostly drained (they normally put out 13.2V at full charge, which they should be if the device is really putting out more energy than it’s consuming), they would only show 24V if they were connected in series. But the next 2 minutes of the movie shows the batteries being disconnected as if they were wired in parallel.
c. This over-unity device apparently can’t continue to run indefinitely without the batteries connected, even though that’s exactly what it should do. I think they decided it couldn’t run indefinitely because they needed to power-up/down the device at other points in the story.
Time travel in general: You just can’t get too involved in the physics/theory around time travel in movies. Just go with it and accept that the movie isn’t about time travel. It’s about a philosophical discussion of the morality of choices, power, sacrifice, etc. But the one issue I had with this movie is that a critical turning point happens when one of the character’s cell phones intercepts his double’s phone call. They then announce that they’ve “broken symmetry.” But I call BS. They broke symmetry the moment they went back in time. And they sure as hell broke it when they started trading stocks based on future knowledge. What they were really saying is that intercepting the phone call broke the continuity of motivations of their prior timeframe selves. But paradox isn’t constrained to humans. If you go back and affect a particle of dust that would have landed on your clothes and traveled back with you but now it can’t because you affected it in the past, you’ve created a paradox. The universe doesn’t care that this won’t make for a good movie concept. So, this sort of thing is why we have to generally suspend disbelief in a time travel movie. I just dislike it when time travel movies make a big deal about somehow creating a paradox only when a character somehow influences another character directly.
Really, script writers should just make friends with scientists/engineers and then give them the script as say, “Make this technical stuff not sound stupid.”.
From this analysis and looking at successful techno-babble, we’ve come up with some guidelines for adding the science to your fiction.
1. Stay consistent: A basic of screenwriting is to adhere to rules you create. With techno-babble this becomes even more critical. On the staff of all Star Trek television shows was a “science consultant”. On the surface, its sounds like this person was in charge of keeping the science accurate, but in reality their job was to write pseudo-science techno-babble that served the narrative and stayed consistent with all the previous techno-babble from past episodes. Staying consistent is key to earning the trust of the audience. In Ghost Busters, we as an audience are lead down a carefully constructed pseudo science road that starts with an experiment in telepathy that closely matched real experimental designs and ends with a giant Marshmallow man rampaging New York. We accept this without evening noticing because of the effort that Dan Ackryod and Harold Ramis put into the techno-babble consistency.
Disclaimer: This doesn’t mean to never break rules, but that when a rule is broken, it has to be earned, make sense, and be a big deal. “Didn’t you say crossing the streams is bad?”
2. Its ok to be mysterious: When E.E. “Doc” Smith wrote Galactic Patrol, the first of the Lensman series, he translated a 30’s gangster story to space. The center piece of the story was the “Lens”, a device that bestowed the hero with powers like telepathy. The origin of the lens was not explained, but its powers and limitations were clearly established. The “Lens” would inspire the silver age Green Lanterns and a myriad of others. If you read Galactic Patrol today, you’ll see the origin of the Lens is completely fleshed out as well as the history of the aliens who created it. This is due to the author going back and adding a backstory. A modern versions of this tactic is the infamous Mideclorians of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. The lesson is, its ok to be somewhat mysterious. The “Lens” and The “Force” were explained in ways to invoke wonder, adding to the joy of the story. Explaining every aspect of a science fiction element can suck all the joy right out.
3. Know your sub genre, hard or soft: Technical knowledge is an amazingly elastic thing. The more a subject is examined, all the complexities become apparent. To launch a ship into space is a fantastic challenge with all manner of specific variables that must be addressed. Apollo 13 thrillingly portrayed astronauts and engineers trying to get a space ship safety back to earth after an explosion. In contrast, Star Trek shuttle crafts were constantly crashing, because of warp coil problems and such, but generally the entire problem and crash landing occurred in the cold open. In the Last Star Fighter, flying a space ship is literally just like a video game. All these instances work on the screen because the amount of attention to the technical problems and discussion of those problems matched the tone of the movie. From the hard edged specifics of reality to the soft serve simplicity of cartoonish adventure. Problems happen when the tones are inconsistent. The low budget movie Dark Space is a great example of this problem, it starts with complex space ship problems and highly specific dialogue about approach vectors and all sorts of hard science language right out of Apollo 13, then half way through the movie, Power Ranger(ish) space marines appear complete with space katana swords.
4. Know what sounds good on paper versus spoken out loud: Watching the screen test of Mark Hamill auditioning for Luke Skywalker highlights how strange the techno-babble dialogue of Star Wars really is. Saturday Night live did a great spoof on this fact. Harrison Ford reportedly commented on how the techno-babble of Star Wars can sound good on paper but doesn’t work at all when spoken out loud. Terry Farrell who played Dax on Star Trek Deep Space Nine supposedly cornered the science consultant at at a party to plead that techno-babble be limited in scenes that need strong emotionality because trying to remember the techno jargon pulled her right of the moment (and probably the audience along with her). The best remedy is one that a standard for all screenwriting, read dialogue out loud after writing it. Some authors find great success recording scenes and listening back to ensue that they work.
5. Make techno-babble add to the story: Techno-babble is part of the fun of science fiction and should bring something special to the story. Why does Doc Brown build a time machine out of a Dalorean? Because of the stainless steal construction, something about the flux capacitor, and its awesome. Every line of technical dialogue in Back to the Future serves the story by adding to the fun. Dialogue’s job can be to move the story forward or provide knowledge about characters, but ideally both. Techno-babble that also provides insight into the characters and themes can vastly elevate a story. When James Bond gets a tech briefing on all his new gadgets, the audience is all ears, because each item is really an examination of Bond himself, a seemingly simple (high end) item that is actually a lethal weapon in a ludicrous disguise. Techno-babble is a great opportunity to establish motifs, build themes, and reveal characters.
We hope this guide to techno-babble helps, tell us your thoughts.