Handwavium

So, in order to distract myself from the fact that my wife is in the hospital right now, I’ve been thinking really hard about whether or not I’ve got it in me to write a science fiction story. An old fashioned space opera kind of a thing. The thing is, once you get beyond basic Newton, Browning and Kelvin, as taught in high school, my brain struggles to comprehend anything not presented in a very basic and easy to swallow “Lie to Children”, such as those people like Michio Kaku or anyone who gives a lecture at TED put out there. Not the actual truth, but a close enough lie that laypeople can pretend they understand it. With that in mind, I’ve been asking myself the question “How much is it possible to hand wave in a sci-fi, space opera style of story?” I even invented a molecule of strange matter against future plot convenient technologies , named in the title of this post.

Taking into account the Fermi Paradox it is more than reasonable to ignore the possibility of alien races, and even alien biological systems in general by taking the idea of terra-forming to its full conclusion; the problem comes when trying to hand wave the technology. While it is a plausible solution to ignore the problem altogether it won’t make for a very satisfactory story to even a mildly experienced
reader of science fiction. The problem isn’t that the character doesn’t know how things work, it’s that I don’t know how they work.

Sometimes I think to myself that in a story set in the contemporary world, I don’t have to explain how a microwave oven works to allow the protagonist to have an instant pizza. Then I realize that this is because I know what a microwave oven is and how it works- sort of. (electro-wave thingies jiggle the food molecules and they get angry about it, hence the heat. Sometimes groups of Zen Buddhist molecules group together and reject their brethren’s anger, leaving cold spots. See, easy.) I can also assume that any potential readers of my potential work have a rough grasp of what a microwave oven is and does, hence the brilliant and incisive technical data above isn’t necessary to the story.

I can probably trick a relatively lazy reader, such as myself, with a phrase along the lines of “The I.S.S. Cauto Star was powered by a mark VII sub-light Orion drive*, fitted with series nine inertial dampeners and equipped with fully functional Grav simulators throughout the inner hull.” The problems come from more technically minded readers, who would take in the above passage and immediately wonder how all that fancy-schmantzy gear actually works (theoretically) and promptly fire off e-mails asking me how it works, the only possible answer to which would be “Buggered if I know, have you tried reading Asimov instead? That bloke knows his techno shit!” and a reader is lost to me forever, just because they guessed, correctly, that I am an idiot.

Does this mean that techno dummies of a faintly scientific bent like I am should keep off the sci-fi grass, so to speak? I certainly hope not, since the fringes of a space faring society are a truly exciting place to set a work a work of fiction after all. Does the average science fiction reader worry overly much about the technical aspects of any given story that they might read, so long as the fictional technology is employed consistently throughout the story and follows the implied rules of the fictional universe? I know that I don’t, but then I don’t know that I constitute a reasonable model of an average sci-fi reader. Unless your survey is very small, with very hazy questions. (Survey all of the people in my front room called Daniel, then ask them if they think too hard about the tech stuff mentioned in any sci-fi they might read.)

* By the way Wikipedia carries a pretty good article about the theory behind the Orion Drive, or Nuclear Pulse Propulsion.  Look it up. As for inertial dampeners and Gravity simulators? Buggered if I know, have you tried reading Asimov instead? That bloke knows his techno shit!

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7 responses to “Handwavium

  1. “Does this mean that techno dummies of a faintly scientific bent like I am should keep off the sci-fi grass, so to speak?”

    This is something I’ve considered more than once myself, and while I certainly hope not, as a non-sci-fi reader and only occasional sci-fi watcher it gives me pause (Jake-speak for “It makes me shit bricks”).

    I suppose it depends on what you’re setting out to do. If you’re looking to dazzle a hardcore, tech-savy sci-fi fan then I think that might be tricky, but if you’re only interested in bluffing your way through without being pulled up over some schoolboy error as you proceed to the meat of the story then I think there’s hope.

    Beyond the obvious, i.e. research the subject matter at hand as thoroughly as you are able (there’s bound to be an idiots guide somewhere), the only advice I can give is to try and seek a little expert advice directly if you can. As a paleontology buff I know of and regularly read a variety of blogs and websites written by paleontologists and others in that field (Tetrapod Zoology, Archosaur Musings, When Pigs Fly Returns, Ask a Biologist, etc.) Based on your post I did a little Googling and came up with this, courtesy of NASA:

    Ask an Astrophysicist

    I don’t know if they have Michio Kaku on their payroll, so to speak (although he seems to get everywhere else!) but that’s the best I can come up with. Hope it’s been some help.

    Good luck to you and Tracey for tomorrow.

  2. I know you’re writing Dan, don’t know how much time you have for reading but i would recommendThe Mote in Gods Eye: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mote-Gods-Eye-Larry-Niven/dp/0671741926/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1264459409&sr=8-3 Or anything by Iain M. Banks and his ‘Culture novels’. I would recommend: Consider Phlebas http://www.amazon.co.uk/Consider-Phlebas-Culture-Iain-Banks/dp/1857231384/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1264461816&sr=8-2

    Essentially the culture is an amalgam of all races technologically superiorto anything, live on ring worlds or ships that are miles long with hilarious intelligent A.I. No one can ever really die and can be reconstructed to be anything they wanted. If you want a guide how to bluff, like the Master suggests, do some background stuff and stick to your guns throughout the story. Good luck mate.

    • The only Niven and Pournelle (as collaborators) I’ve ever read is Footfall, although of course like any good geek I’ve got a dog-eared, much read copy of Ringworld on my shelves. I keep hearing how good it is though, so I’ll check it out.

      Re: Iain (M.) Banks. The first novel of his I ever read was The Bridge, which put me off him for years, until someone made me read The Crow Road. I’ve got Feersum Endjinn knocking around somewhere, but I hear that’s a bad place to start with his hard SF work…

  3. Just found this for you as well mate, worth a good look around if you’ve got a lot of time to kill, links to itself likea spider on acid. but a good resource site for ‘getting the brain ticking’.

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HandWave

    • NOOOOOOooooooooooooooo! Link not to Troperville! I’ve only just escaped after my last visit to that place. I can feel it pulling me back, like the event horizon of a black hole made of wasted time….

  4. An alternative way of dealing with the sci-fi genre is to avoid the tecno bobbins fullstop. For example, set a story in the aftermath of some techno disaster (for bleakness) or advancement (for light-heartedness) and that way you are not responsible for the technical details. Along the lines of Cormac McCarthy (The Road for instance). You only need deal with writing about the environment your characters are in.

    Think of it in terms of your already mentioned microwave. Plenty of people can use them, but a lower percentage can actually explain their workings. They simply deal with the fact, they don’t deal with the technological know how

  5. Cheers for the comments, everyone. That’s plenty for me to check out and to think about.

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