Tag Archives: Hand waving

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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