Welcome to my guide on how to write technobabble! Every post will start with one letter of the alphabet, from A to Z, and cover tips and ideas for all you writers of sci-fi. Whether you’re writing about near-future science fiction, far-flung alien worlds, or historical steampunk adventures filled with advanced technology that never was – these posts are designed to help you write convincing and unique tech for your story!
G is for Genre
What is “genre?” Dictionary.com defines it as: “a class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, or the like.” Science-fiction is of course a genre of fiction, but even within sci-fi, there are numerous sub-genres: steampunk, dieselpunk, raypunk, technothriller, military sci-fi, science fantasy, and many more.
Within each genre come certain expectations. Not rules, per se, but fans of specific sub-genres tend to have certain preferences for their chosen categories of sci-fi, and expect their books and films to meet certain standards. A lot of these genre standards or expectations come in the form of storytelling style and pacing; and emphasis on themes such as political espionage or large-scale war or exploration or social commentary. The types of tech, and the importance of tech, also differ from genre to genre. Therefore, the degree of explanation given for the science behind the tech can vary greatly. You can read “E is for Explanation,” where I discuss the difference between the science-heavy technobabble of Star Trek versus the lack of explanations in the science fantasy world of Star Wars.
Genre can also help set parameters for how you describe your tech and what sorts of words or terms you create. Words like “ion,” “neutrino,” and “quantum” are used a lot in science-heavy futuristic sci-fi like Star Trek or even Stargate. These are geeky-sounding, highly scientific-sound words that are appropriate for a genre where the tech is based on real-world science.
For a steampunk story or a retro-futuristic alternate history story, it may not be appropriate to use terms like “quantum.” In a steampunk-style story, it may be better to use more old-fashioned terms, or keep the names and words used in technobabble appropriate to the level of scientific knowledge of your world.
For example, in the steampunk-esque world of His Dark Materials, old-fashioned terms are used for many things. The term “aeronaut”—literally, “air sailor”—is used for characters who fly airships; aeronaut is an accurate but outdated word, that in modern times has been replaced by a term like “pilot.” Using the older word fits with the historical feel of the story, despite the world’s advanced technology.
Similarly, the alternate history novel The Difference Engine features a world run by computers, algorithms, and movie projectors—in the mid-19th century, before any of those things were actually invented, at least to any usable degree in the real world. It is a world of highly-advanced mechanical (not digital) machines, and thus uses more old-fashioned and pre-digital terms. The computers are called Engines. The “kinotrope” (essentially meaning “organized movement” or “moving metaphor or theme”) is the word used for the equivalent of a programmable LED screen or a film projector.
Do some research and some reading of other stories within your sci-fi genre. Become familiar with words, phrases, and common themes that your potential readers will likely enjoy or expect. Military sci-fi should feature lots of weapons and related terms, long-term space exploration stories will probably feature ships designed for long-term living and thus use difference words and technobabble from the military war stories. Do your research, get creative, and have fun!