“Engage the flux carborator and fire up the proton cannons! We’ve gotta starburst the draz outta here!”
Nothing says sci-fi like a mouthful of technobabble, fictional jargon held together by the linguistic duct-tape of scientific buzzwords. As the tension reaches climax and a scientist explains a deus-ex-machina with words that are incomprehensible to the audience, a military type barks “speak English!” and we all have a good chuckle. But how does technobabble actually work? And do we really need it to tell good Science Fiction stories?
What Is Technobabble?
Sci-Fi is peppered with fantastic, futuristic technology, as scientific innovations we can barely dream of blast our heroes into space, ricochet them back through time, or conjure up a steaming cup of coffee from a bunch of atoms. We may not understand how this technology works, but the characters do. Thus, technobabble is born.
This may seem like a fairly superficial part of storytelling, but having a functional lexicon is actually essential for worldbuilding — you need to have words that describe how things work, or you can’t tell stories about them. For example, we need to know how a spaceship travels through space. What powers its immense FTL engine? A nuclear fusion drive, explains the fictional scientist, and it’s on the fritz right now because there’s a bug in our operating system which is causing the core’s shielding to fluctuate, and we have to turn the engine off or the ship will be flooded with radiation.
That scenario uses simple technobabble to explain the situation in terms that the audience can understand, making it clear what the problem is, giving a hint of resolution (fix the bug in the operating code, or construct a temporary form of radiation shielding), and raising questions about how the problem came about (did someone upload a virus to the ship’s OS?)
Technobabble allows us to tell stories about technologically advanced worlds, communicating the characters’ knowledge without the audience having to take a crash-course in fictional technology. However, there are plenty of pitfalls for writers to stumble into when creating futuristic jargon — and thanks to a ton of nonsense littering science fiction movies and TV shows, technobabble has quite a bad rep nowadays…
Bad Technobabble Is Lazy Writing
At its worst, technobabble is dreadful: it’s a lazy way for writers to fire a bunch of buzzwords at a situation, hand-waving a solution that doesn’t actually make sense, and hiding behind the fact that the audience doesn’t know how the fictional technology works either. Bad technobabble is cheesy, it’s laughable, and it’s just begging for that “speak English!” joke that, honestly, was outdated by the ‘80s.
Doctor Who relies on this very heavily. Because the technology is so fantastical and aeons ahead of ours, the writers treat it more like magic than science, and often don’t even bother with technobabble, instead using phrases like “timey wimey.” This can be endearing… or it can come off as condescending to the audience. Of course, sometimes the writers can be tongue-in-cheek about it, with the Doctor inventing technobabble on the spot to cover up the fact that he doesn’t understand something either.
- THE DOCTOR: Looks like a spatio-temporal hyperlink.
- MICKEY: What’s that?
- THE DOCTOR: No idea, just made it up. Didn’t want to say “magic door.”
Here we can see the combination of physics terminology with computer science: “spatio-temporal” would refer to something that manipulates space and time, while “hyperlink” is well, a way to click through to another page on the internet. Smushing these terms together is jarring (deliberately so), though you do get the idea of a passageway through space and time. “Spatio-temporal portal” might have been a good phrase if the writers weren’t ridiculing technobabble.
Lazy technobabble has lead to a bunch of parodies, with even sci-fi shows themselves poking fun at over-reliance on nonsensical scientific jargon:
However, when it’s done right, technobabble invites the audience to understand this sci-fi world, building a logical narrative on a strong lexicon that can be used to develop plots.
Technobabble Done Right
A franchise known for its technobabble, and often mocked for it, is Star Trek. Certainly a lot of the terms used in The Original Series (which dates back to the 1960s) make very little sense, and even The Next Generation (‘80s – ‘90s) misuses simple computer terms like “uploading” and “downloading.”
But when it comes to in-universe technology, Star Trek is surprisingly consistent with its jargon. The linguistic roots of certain terms are often clear, and it makes full use of established terminology when creating plots. For example, tachyon particles might not be real, but a seasoned Trekkie will know from multiple episodes that when there are tachyon emissions floating around, this is caused by a cloaking device, transporter or time travel.
Except, tachyon particles might exist. In real science, tachyons are a hypothetical subatomic particle that can travel faster than light. Although not yet proven, they have been the subject of experiments for decades. This is an example of good technobabble — taking something from particle physics and incorporating it into a sci-fi universe.
Trek’s use of tachyons is probably bonkers, but by using this term consistently the realism of how tachyons work doesn’t matter, because the fictional logic has a solid lexical foundation. That way, the writers can create new technobabble to explain a situation, and the audience can infer what it means.
In fact, Trek’s technobabble is so effective that it can even fire off fake technobabble, like this scene in which Riker confuses the Ferengi antagonist, Morta.
This joke works on two levels, firstly on a meta level to poke fun at the show, and also because the audience usually understand Trek’s technobabble (to an extent), and can therefore realize that Riker is deliberately misleading Morta.
Does Science Fiction Still Need It?
Nowadays, with audiences becoming more and more technologically savvy, our tolerance for bad technobabble is very low — and our understanding of good technobabble is getting better and better. After all, technological jargon is integrated into our everyday lives: When was the last time you confused your grandparents by trying to explain that all your photos exist in the Cloud? Or that your Google accounts are synced?
However, because technobabble has been so often used and misused, there has been a trend away from it in recent Sci-Fi. Battlestar Galactica was so averse to technobabble that we never got any explanation of how the FTL drives worked, and some of the finale’s main plot points (Hera being “mitochondrial eve”) had so little explanation that fans were left feeling unsatisfied. In this case, a lack of technobabble created some pretty large plot holes.
Star Wars is also pretty bad for this, and The Last Jedi annoyed fans when a ship traveling at hyperspeed sliced through the hull of a Star Destroyer — even though in previous movies, as soon as you accelerate to hyperspeed you descend into the sub-dimensional hyperspace. Perhaps there is a way to make this make sense, but the writers, shy of technobabble, just didn’t bother. (And don’t get me started on how a parsec is a unit of distance, not time…)
A Glossary Of Worldbuilding
For a world to be believable, it has to have rules: fictional science as a foundation. And there must be terminology to explain that science. Technobabble may seem dumb, but it is often necessary for plots to work. When it’s done well, the audience accepts the logic of the world and things make sense, but beyond that, the storytelling is shown to be artful and thoughtful. And it’s not like Sci-Fi is the first genre to do this — after all, JRR Tolkien created entire languages for Lord of the Rings.
But as with any writing tool, balance is important. Yes, your terminology must make sense, but it must also be understandable and used sparingly, as there are some sci-fi stories, like the movie Primer, which laden their scripts with so much technobabble that audiences turn off. You can also be clever with fake technobabble — the “flux capacitor” in Back to the Future might be an oxymoron, but many things in this universe are (like the town of Hill Valley) in order to be reminiscent of the oxymoronic title itself.
So don’t be afraid to add in some technobabble now and then to your sci-fi stories! Hunt through some scientific Wikipedia pages to find the terminology, then mix it up and create new terms to your heart’s delight. Just don’t overburden your dialogue with it and remember, you can still have fun with it.
- BONES: Let us through! This woman has immediate post-prandial upper-abdominal distension!
- KIRK: What did you say she had?
- BONES: Cramps.