One of my friends/fans, Joel Arellano, asked me to talk a bit about technobabble in sci-fi, so here we go.
Oxford defines technobablye as “incomprehensible technical jargon.” Basically, in sci-fi, it’s when a writer throws in a bunch of high-tech words to make their story sound all sciencey and shit:
Jelyk pulled the thromb-whistle to spin the arkensphere up to speed. Somewhere in the guts of the Hawkthorne, the mighty raction engines powered up, ready to thrust the massive ship into hyperspace.
See? I really know my technobabble. I bet you don’t even know what an arkensphere is, but now you’re dying to, right?
When done right, technobabble can add spice to your story, along with a sci-fi gloss that readers crave. But it can also go horribly wrong.
In my example above, I used three examples of the technique: thromb-whistle, arkensphere, and raction engines. I would probably have been better off with just one. A switch is a switch – why confuse the reader with something that makes no sense in context? And an engine is an engine.
But an arkensphere? Oooh, I’ll bet it’s round and silver, but silver like mercury that ripples when activated, giving off purple bolts of static electricity, and it makes this really cool humming sound you can feel in your bones throughout the ship. Pure technobabble coolness. 🙂
In a similar vein, my sci fantasy worlds often include a lot of made-up names for plants, animals, food, and other worldly and cultural details.
The general rule of thumb here is that, if it’s a horse, call it a horse. If it’s truly something different – like the three-legged drafting beasts in my WIP The Dragon Eater, then use a different word for it. Once again, the key here is not to overwhelm the reader with weird, unknown words. Add them in slowly over the course of the story, and re-use them to reinforce their meanings with time.
Descriptive words are great too – when you think of a flop tree, you’ll probably picture a tree with oversized, floppy leaves.
Finally, make them pronounceable wherever possible. Too many zylchs, mflligms and jxllntys and you’ll lose your reader.
So yes, by all means, throw in the technobabble and alien words in your own work. They have the power to add a gloss of mystery and epic speculative fiction coolness to your work. Just be aware of how much and why you are using them, and don’t go overboard.
And then beta reader the heck out of it.
To my writer friends – how do you employ technobabble and made-up words in your work? What do they add/subtract, in your opinion? What are your tips and tricks?