I’m not sure who originally came up with the term “technobabble,” but I first encountered it in reference to Star Trek. Technobabble is a staple of a lot of science fiction: the “babbling” on about fictional science and fictional technology to get characters into and out of their fictional scrapes.
So what makes for good technobabble? It needs to be believable and convincing within the fictional world you’ve created, so here are some ideas:
Use real science
One key element that makes science fiction different from fantasy is the science. Not that every sci-fi story has to be as full of real chemistry and mathematics as, say, The Martian. But science, and along with it, logic and a degree of realism, is part of what makes sci-fi different from magic-based fantasy stories.
Even if your story is set in the far future or in a different universe entirely, learn some basic scientific concepts that will feature in your story. If you’re writing a space adventure with lots of ships traveling around the galaxy, then familiarize yourself with the difference between a red giant star and a quasar. Even if the plot doesn’t hinge on that detail, you’ll likely have readers who do know the difference and might be upset that you have a colony of people living on a planet orbiting a quasar (hint – quasars aren’t stars, to begin with).
Use real words
Just like using real science as a jumping-off point for your sci-fi, use real words as your base when you’re inventing names or technology. For example, a hyper drive is a standard sci-fi term, usually referring to an engine that can make a ship travel at faster than light speeds. Real words with real meanings: hyper – over, above, in excess; drive – engine, propelling, movement.
The most believable technobabble is based not only in real science, but on real words, and is therefore relatively easy to figure out the meanings. If your story calls for lots of technical explanations of how things work, that’s fine – which is all the more reason to use a lot of real words (as opposed to completely made-up words like you might use in a fantasy story).
This is perhaps the most important. If you write technical explanations, or use specific technobabble terms for specific things, then by all means don’t switch things up mid-story or mid-series. Using Star Trek as an example: did you ever notice that the Enterprise always flies with the warp drive, not a standard sci-fi hyper drive? First of all, there’s a scientific explanation for this – in the Star Trek universe, ships don’t go at a hyper (faster) than light speed, the engine actually warps space to shorten the distance between two points. But that detail aside (yes, I read all the Star Trek Technical Manuals when I was a kid – I’m a geek), the Star Trek universe is very consistent. Geordi doesn’t flub up one day and call the engine the hyper drive. Your readers will be more forgiving of some scientific inaccuracies as long as you’re consistent with the big stuff.
And, for more examples of how to make your sci-fi full of believable science, technology, and other geekiness, enjoy this video featuring technobabble from the sci-fi show Stargate: