Writing Excuses 9.8: When is your Handwavium Good Enough?

Eric James Stone and the Wilhelm Scream join us for a talk about “handwavium,” that stuff that you use instead of through-and-through hard science. It’s that part where you wave your hand and say “don’t pay too much attention to this bit.”

When does it fail, though? When is it good enough? Like so many other things, this hinges upon whether or not the reader is knocked out of the story by implausibility. We talk about post-trans-uranics, reversing the polarity, inertial dampeners, and internal consistency. We also talk about how we, as writers, make our decisions regarding handwavium.


Writing Prompt: Write some technobabble that explains how turtles have hyperspace.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Incrementalists, by Stephen Brust and Skyler White, narrated by Ray Porter and Mary Robinette Kowal

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13 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.8: When is your Handwavium Good Enough?”

  1. Wow: Unlike many misguided misogynic minions among my felllow Breaking Bad fans, I really love Skyler White, yo, but I had no idea she has actually co-authored a novel 😉

    More to the point: One major problem with certain uses of “Star Trek style technobabble” is either inconsistency – e.g. in one episode a vessel that goes into hyperspace can no longer be traced at all, like a submerged submarine in 1915, in another episode it can be chased with care and dilligence, like a submarine in 1945.

    The other major problem is lack of authentic engineering feel – engineer explains why something doesn’t work, commander delivers uplifting speech, engineer solves the problem by sheer willpower …

    Modern crime shows with lots of forensic science and data mining often run into similar issues: Sometimes my beloved NCIS makes me cringe about this.

    I love it how Howard keeps both his handwaving consistent – we know how the Teraport physics work – and his engineering authentic, e.g. the discussion of engineering tradeoffs in shipbuilding and weapons technology.

    Another good example of handwavium that does not have this problems is the Out Of Gas episode from Firefly. I appreciate and admire Joss courage in letting our beloved Kaylee fail at repairing the whatever-the-name-of-that device-was, and letting her whine in self-deprecation about it, even if it’s clearly the captain’s fault, since he did’t authorize buying a replacement part when she predicted this very problem way back …

  2. Long time listener, first time commenter: In my opinion you guys kind of missed the mark in terms of technobabble and star trek. In my opinion, things like the heisenburg compensator or the intertial dampners aren’t technobabble, they’re handwaving. The difference in my view is that handwaving knows what it’s waving away, it doesn’t try to go into detail but it at least shows that the writer knows what the issue they’re handing is.

    Trek [tech] is odious to me in a few circumstances. First is when it’s how an important problem is solved. The episode gets built around an issue, then someone pulls a nonsense solution to it out at the dramatically appropriate moment and resolution happens.It’s like a detective story where the reveal of who did it introduces a new character for the role.

    Second is when the [tech] is trivially wrong or patently nonsense. In my opinion this got especially bad in Voyager where they liked slapping words like ‘interferometric’ or ‘chromodynamic’ into their [tech], words which have meanings but were wildly mis-used. It’d be like if Howard’s post-transuranics were replaced with ‘resonant polymers’ or something. It means that the more you know about the subject, the harder it gets to suspend disbelief about the story. In my opinion proper handwaving does the opposite. Returning to the inertial dampners, the author in that case is giving me the nod that they know about the problem and are telling me that it’s handled and doesn’t matter. [tech] generally says to me that the author doesn’t give a damn and I need to turn my brain off for the next few lines.

  3. There’s a comic that captures the essence of handwavium: http://desource.uvu.edu/dgm/2740/IN/steinja/lessons/08/images/more_explicit.gif

    Handwavium deals with getting the reader to accept the impossible.
    Technobabble deals with the impossible by hiding it in a black box. Technobabble breaks when the box doesn’t hide all the impossible, or creates new impossible while trying to attach to box to everything else.

    There’s also humor in handwavium, which you guys didn’t have a chance to go into. A good example would be Othar Tryggvassen (Gentleman Adventurer) from Girl Genius. Othar always survives. You can drop him down a spike pit, push him out of an airship, doesn’t matter. He’ll be fine. And it’s funny, because there’s no possible way he could do what he does, but he does anyways.

    This is what cartoons like Looney Toons and Animaniacs run on. How is he hiding behind a stick? It’s funny because it’s impossible, but they do it anyways, and it works because you expect them to be able to do it.

  4. I’d say that there are many different kinds of technobabble, each with their own benefits and drawbacks. To use the writing prompt as a way of demonstrating the differences:

    Clearly, turtles have hyperspace capabilities because of the berragundium paraduction fields generated by the convellacated shape of their shell.

    (Technobabble of this form ideally strives to be somewhat Lewis Carroll-esq, giving technological sounding syllables that feel like they have meaning but which neither lay reader nor expert would recognize. I’d argue that, to do this well, one actually needs a first grasp of poetics and language. I’d also argue that you don’t see this one used too often because it is so hard to do right. The benefit of this highly babbly version is that it’s almost post-singularity: there is no reason that humans two hundred years from now [let alone in the 31st century] would use terms that, even if translated into modern language, would hold any recognizable meaning for us. It’s a bit like the “sufficiently advanced technology=magic” axiom, although in this case, sufficiently advanced discourse on a topic will sound like a magical incantation. The drawback is that it is hard to get the words right so that they sound science-y but not made up, and that it intentionally presents something that the reader is never supposed to understand.)

    Or, at least, that’s one school of thought. Others would propose that a turtle’s capabilities stem from the hypogonadatropin Y-linked paricortex endocrine-secreting-hormone receptors in the Arcuate Nucleus.

    (Technobabble of this sort relies on real word, but words taken entirely out of context, often unrelated to the subject matter at all. Old comic books did this a lot, such as turning Bruce Banner into the Hulk using Gamma Radiation. The advantage here is that these phrases have the feel of real science-y words because they are real science words. If they are particularly popular science words, a reader might have heard of them, but not understand them, so that adds an air of credibility. Unfortunately, knowledgeable people are easily put off because the author isn’t really putting in the effort to get it right or to obfuscate their deception.)

    Alternately, the unique geometric designs of their shells could tap into the underlying structure of our particular universe’s side of our p-Brane, which creates a naturally occurring distortion in space akin to a gravity well. When bombarded with higgs-boson particles, this distortion intensifies and created a hyperspace rift.

    (At this level, technobabble is starting to leave the “babble” aspect behind and is moving towards technojargon. Someone versed in the respective field probably understands most the words and could even piece together what the text is trying to communicate, but it is still just ultimately silly. The above two categories function, at least in part, by creating a language barrier between readers and the text, whereas here accuracy is starting to lead to a knowledge barrier instead. Often times knowledgeable individuals are a little more forgiving of this type: yeah, nothing makes sense, but at least there was some effort put into it. For the lay reader, this level hides behind a knowledge barrier, but for the expert, it hangs a lantern on it.)

    That’s all tosh, of course. Everyone knows that turtles are capable of what acolytes falsely call “hyperspace travel” via a process not unlike that inherent in the creation of a “Boltzmann brain”: namely, stochastic fluctuations in a high-entropy universe “create” turtles at their destination, and “destroys” them at their origin.

    (At this level, we are approaching a “real” “scientific” explanation. We might be firmly entrenched in jargon, but only because [when done well] we are so deep in a field that jargon is a necessity. Often times the concepts are “real,” at least in a hypothetical sense, although modern humans haven’t figured out the details. It takes a lot of effort on the author’s part, but this sort of technojargon, when done right, satisfies both the lay reader and the expert.)

    But all these definitions are circling around the central issue of WHY would a writer use technobabble. I’d say that Arnau de Vilanova’s use of this nicely illustrates that ultimate goal. Arnau was a 13th century physicians and he used it to con patients into trusting him enough so that he could actually practice medicine. As writers, we use technobabble to convince readers to trust us enough (aka, suspend their disbelief) to allow us to work our magic.

    To illustrate, back in the 13th century there were no guarantees that a medical practitioner had any real knowledge. The first task of a doctor, then, was to make the patient trust that they (the doctor) was actually skilled and wouldn’t kill them. Arnau argued that doctors should use a particular system of technobabble to play into patient expectations, and so gain their trust. For example, Arnau recommended that a doctor immediately provide a diagnosis to a patient upon seeing them (even before examining them): say, by claiming that their liver has overheated (the medieval variation of technobabble). He goes on to illustrate how a doctor can then tie real symptoms back to the originally stated technobabble in order to build trust (oh, you have a headache? Of course that means you have an overheated liver, it’s boiling your blood and exerting undo pressure on your skull: everyone knows that warm things rise).

    So we need to not only ask what type of technobabble we prefer to write, but also how that technobabbly connects with the reader (and thus we can then change our technobabble as we write to different audiences).

    As a final sidenote, I always thought that hand-waving was more plot-oriented then “technobabble” oriented. How do Luke and Obi-Wan get the droids off a planet being searched by the Empire? Magic. Obi-Wan’s explanation doesn’t even really reach the level of technobabble. To put it another way, an author uses handwavium, whereas the character uses technobabble (or something else, as appropriate).

  5. What a pity that I can’t find this webcomic installment- probably from Legostar Galactica or something similar:

    Chief Engineer to the Captain: “We need to replace the influx capacitor, the hyperwave transducer and the probabillity matrix compensator coil!”

    Captain: “Replace them with what?”

    Chief Engineer: “Components with more believable names.”

  6. To me, the biggest problem with Trek’s technobabble is that much of it sounds like the writers are just grabbing techy-sounding words and stringing them together completely at random.

    Exhibit A, from an episode of Voyager: “Captain, the phase magnitude of that signal is within a few megahertz of transporter frequencies.” For those unfamiliar with the basics of sinusoidal signals, trust me when I say that this example makes exactly as much sense as the following: “The height weight of my brother is within a few months of middle-age.”

  7. I agree with David on the distinction between the two. Technobabble is annoying to me personally because it seems fake and just thrown together. For example, everything that JD Tolson posted above is the type (sorry JD) that gets on my nerves. It appears to me that someone is just stringing together words that they think are sciency.

    The best way to handle it in my opinion is to use a simple and consistent concept. Don’t throw in words like “Higgs Boson Particle” to try to make yourself sound smarter unless you really are specifically addressing an issue that you know actually involves the Higgs Boson Particle as it is currently understood by mainstream science. Don’t use needlessly long and obtuse words. Look at a book like Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson which is widely regarded as one of the most realistic science fiction books ever written. You don’t see phrases with lots of complicated technical words thrown together. You see a book that speaks using direct and normal language unless there is a concept that can only be explained using a more technical word and even then it is kept to a minimum. This is how most people in technical fields really speak and it should be reflected in writing.

  8. A nice case study is the wonderful webcomic Galaxion by Tara Tallen, see for example:

    By her own admission, “that whole eigenspace thing is pure babble; [she] won’t even grace it with the prefix ‘techno’ “, and her priorities are unmistakenly expressed by the tagline “Life – Love – Hyperspace”, but the discussion between the engineers and scientist of the crew feel very authentic. She also has her “eggheads” with very different personalities, aloof, calm, geeky, playful, excited. And they disagree with each other not because some are smart and others are not, but because faced with the unknown different people will come up with different hypothesises. (And that’s exactly why you have them on board!)

    In my opinion, consistency matters a lot even with made-up stuff: Say you use a Terafield as handwavium for FTL stuff. Now, if it’s a field, wave-particle dualism should apply, so you could use a Terafield Interferometer to measure directions, distances, etc., but you would never use it to measure Terafield flux density. That’s a job for the Teraon Particle Detector.

    My issue with “reverse the polarity” is that whatever the details of the physics postulated, it has to be somewhat similar to reversing the polarity of a battery or generator. Possible effects of that are: Works as before (e.g. electrical oven), doesn’t work at all (e.g. any system using electrical discharges), break the thing (this will happen with many elictrical or electronic systems), or reverses the action (this could happen with pumps or ventilators that suck instead of blow). “Reversing the polarity” will not increase the sensitivity of a device or make something work that didn’t. Unless the polarity was wrong to begin with. And the “reverse the action” effect can only happen if both the problem and the solution are symmetric. A receiver will not become a sender by reversing polarity, because even if the physics are symmetric the device designs are not.

  9. Midichlorians explaination in Star Wars was technobabble and even with a grade school understanding of genetics, I knew it was wrong and also kinda ruined all of the previous technobabble within the Star Wars universe, because sometimes finite is not as good as mysterious. Sometimes keeping the mystery is wiser.

    I tend to like to get my technology explanations to be correct. I even asked a physicist to calculate the probability a fairy would go splat if she is in a resting position, without a seatbelt and a space ship is moving suddenly towards the ground. (She barely makes it with a 9 foot ceiling). I gave him approximate mass, height, dimensions, etc.

    But I also used a bit of pseudo science previously established, where the handwavium is that there is no physical proof yet that the understanding of it is untrue. In that case unproven and existing means that one can play around with it, and then the handwavium is acceptable. But I still rooted it in real science, even ignoring the previous handwavium establishments pretty much in order to make fun of it.

    Anyway, I disagree that turtles have faster than lightspeed travel, since most of the time they spend their time in the sea. No, it’s the tortoise who beat the hare that has it because most people aren’t looking at a tortoise when they are moving and when you blink because you fell asleep that’s really a different instance of a tortoise while the other has moved by the same virtue that zombies have faster than light speed travel or the weeping angels, only tortoises are far more clever and exchange themselves within space so you don’t notice through quantum mechanics. Plus you would not think them that clever since by foot they move so slowly. Their relatives the turtles never had a need for it (getting into culture technobabble) because they fly through water, and thus never really needed to move that fast.

  10. Well… probably too late to get in on any real discussion on this one but…

    In my experience as an entertainer, “handwaving” is a term from the magicians. Basically, if you are about to reach into a (somewhat) concealed pocket on the tablecloth, stash a ball and grab a rabbit with your left hand, your right hand better be doing some waving. Specifically, it is going to need to perform some gesture that the human eye is trained not to ignore. The false gesture must draw focus away from the real trick.

    Thus, there is an aspect of handwavium that is not about satisfactorily explaining a thing, but rather about obfuscating it.

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