Sunday, 26 June 2011

On writing convincing Scifi jargon

One way to tell a scifi book from any other genre is by its jargon, the words it uses. Thanks to Star Trek most people have become familiar with the concept, and have heard 'Beam me up Scottie' or 'Klingon'. The words we write paint the future world, and if we were writing about life in 2065, the reader would be disappointed if the hero kept picking up the telephone, or entering data on his IPad. Even Apple would admit (and perhaps hope) that such common artefacts will by then be things of the past. To make the future convincing (unless post-apocalyptic, which is trickier), there should be new gadgets which are nevertheless seen as commonplace by people in the story.

I remember presenting some of my work in a non-scifi writing group and somebody complained that some of the words I used didn't exist. I replied that they didn't exist yet. But the challenge is to invent words that seem and sound reasonable, yet elicit at least interest, hopefully a small amount off fascination, and occasionally 'wonder'. They need to be understandable, crediblevivid, and smart, and then they need to be smooth on the reader's 'ears'. This adds up to a scifi writer's 'sleight of hand', like a magician, trying to weave magic for the reader without drawing too much attention to the props.

In my short story 'Galactic Barrier' there are no humans, and the story centers around a drone defending the barrier. So, it has already started - there is no galactic barrier we know of, but the reader can already conceive what a galactic barrier might be; the galaxy is big but not infinite, and there are many galaxies, and most of us have seen visualizations of galaxies. Some will know that in fact galaxies are moving and can collide (ours may well collide with another in about four billion years, by the way), and therefore, that there might be a reason to erect a barrier. So, this one is not too much of a stretch of any (scifi) reader's imagination. But is it credible? A reader might think: A galactic barrier? Around the entire galaxy? You're kidding me, right? Who could do that? So, such questions must be answered in the story. But not just by 'info-dumping', it needs to be explained (by one of the characters, not by the narrator [author] expounding on his or her pet scifi theories) in a vivid way, telling us 'why' it exists more than 'how' exactly it works. Below, the drone is explaining...

The Galactic Barrier was a genius-engineered cosmic phenomenon, aimed at maintaining the integrity of the galaxy. If there was a need to resort to something as imprecise as a metaphor, then the barrier was a membrane, akin to the ‘skin’ of the simplest form of organic life, the amoeba. It stopped matter leaking out and, more importantly, prevented almost all dark energy seeping in. It was a repulsive force, devised by the ancients using equations of energy harmonics long since lost.

Notice the metaphor of the amoeba, which is visualisable, and a reader can think of galaxy and amoeba in the same moment, it's simply a matter of scale (isn't the brain just amazing?). Note also a trick used here, since the explanation of one future concept (the barrier) is reinforced by another one: dark energy. Scientists are just getting to grips (they wish) with dark matter, and dark energy is the next logical step. The magician's flourish which wraps it up is the last sentence. Too damned right we'd have no clue how to devise such a barrier, let alone drape it around an entire galaxy, but maybe an ancient race who existed a couple of billion years ago and who reached who-knows-what dizzy technological heights, maybe they could have done it.

But to make it convincing, it needs to be vivid. In the next extract, the drone is 'looking' at the barrier:

He took a few milliseconds to study the barrier. Though invisible to organics, to his sensors it looked like a shimmering, electrified wall crackling with hostility. How could they get through?
‘Five seconds.’

So, the reader can probably visualize this (no doubt helped in the original publication of the story by the NASA artwork borrowed by the editor, Sand Pilarski, of Piker Press). I could have gone further, but at this point the pace is accelerating, as the barrier is about to be breached, and the drone Dapsilon is in serious trouble. This of course is another trick of the trade - keep the story moving with characters the reader cares about, and they will be less picky over scifi details.

So, for 'smart' and 'smooth', I take another example from the same story, concerning how to break through a galactic barrier. Again, the drone is 'talking', rather than the narrator, and this is also a trick - the drone is having a hard time, and so is a sympathetic character for the reader - he is more likely to be trusted as a source:

Eventually – several hundred thousand angts later - ways out had been found, the most popular involving polarisation of a membrane weak spot, and careful insertion of a liquid-diamond stent, opening it up using artificial black holes. But then there was another, more pernicious problem: the void itself. 

What is an angt? Obviously from the context, it is a unit of time. I use it in my novels, and I never, ever explain it, and the reader assumes (correctly) it more or less equates to a year. The actual breaking of the barrier involves polarisation of the membrane - again, I'm using the amoeba metaphor, and polarisation is a nice 'tekkie' word that does exist and can be looked up, and for scifi tekkies it will sound reasonable since they will assume that the barrier is electromagnetic in nature, and polarisation of a particular spot could weaken it. But without doubt, the bit the reader will be drawn to is the 'liquid diamond stent'. Now, it sounds cool, right? We value diamonds, and they are as beautiful as they are hard. So liquid diamond sounds, well, interesting, right? Diamond doesn't exist in a liquid state, but what if it could? Wouldn't it be interesting (going for the 'fascination factor' here)? And most people know what a stent is, an artifice used to prop open a coronary blood vessel. So, three words, two of which are known but never used together, with an adjective that raises the interest level considerably. Artifical black holes are also understandable, though they don't exist outside of scifi, and again, the plot is racing along by this time, with a hook to pull the reader along into what the 'more pernicious problem' is (dark worms, incidentally).

None of these words are clunky. I didn't use 'carbo-titanium', I used 'diamond'. I didn't use 'orifice', I used 'stent'. In an earlier section, when the drone (he's called Dapsilon) gets happy, I didn't invent a word and phrase like 'Dapsilon quobulated vigorously', I simply wrote that 'his circuits hummed.' The reader gets it...

In one of the books i'm reading right now, one of the characters keeps 'data-vising', which I've gathered means he somehow sends mental commands to a computer. It's a nice word, very tech-sounding, but a little clunky, and after reading it six times in as many pages I was irritated by it - it was getting in the way of the story. This is the danger for a scifi writer - we can get excited by our neat little word inventions, but they can end up not being smooth. The solution to this is to have non-SF readers look over the work. When they say (as Orson Scott card puts it) "Huh? I'm lost here, what the hell is going on?" you know you have some more editing to do.

To read the short story Galactic Barrier see:

Galactic Barrier is from Eden's Trial, Book Two in the Eden Trilogy, available in Autumn 2011. To read Book One in the Eden Trilogy, The Eden Paradox, see and also this website

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