1. JJ_Maxx
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    JJ_Maxx Banned

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    The 'art' of science-fiction language balance discussion...

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by JJ_Maxx, Oct 22, 2012.

    Okay, so we've all read the sci-fi stories...

    "Captain, did you just clargraff the quantum port trandells?" she said as the captain took a drink of his steaming shwazz.

    Ugh... Granted this is an extreme example but it is a difficult balance between making the future sound different and making it easier for a reader to paint the scene in their minds.

    My work is usually in the future, where there is space travel, and muiltiple worlds and space ships, etc... So I have to come up with a few new things but when I find myself writing a scene, I will stop and decide what to do. We all know the future has technological advances, but in my opinion, not everyone will have them and not everyone will be able to afford them. So what do we do?

    So maybe my character has a shotgun pointed at him, on a rusty, scrappy outlying planet. Does it have to be a ray gun or a blaster or a phaser? Even if technology evolves, maybe guns still shoot metal bullets? Or some other kind of material, but you don't want to stop and explain to the reader that this model of gun uses unobtainium bullets, and uses fusion powder instead of gun powder.

    Also, I like more realistic sci-fi like Firefly over, say, Star Trek, where everything is shiny and polished and you never see where Captain Picard uses the futuristic space toilet and you never see the maids vaccuming the carpet after Riker comes back from a dirty away mission.

    So I just want to get some discussion on this topic to see how people feel about this both in their own writing and maybe in books you have read, as well.
     
  2. littleshoe
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    littleshoe Member

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    Hi,

    I believe the main problem about science fiction is the fact that most literary “savants” think of it as class B literature (Not worthy of a serious analysis). It makes harder to readers and writers to approach science fiction in a technical way. I would start dividing science fiction in three genres:

    Hard science fiction
    Futurology
    Technological choreography

    In the futurology genre, you try to speculate about a “What if?” (What if we met aliens?, What if we travel faster than light?, What if we clone people?). In this genre, technology is a tool to overcome constrains that negate the “what if?” It does not matter if you meet aliens through a portal, a spaceship or they come to Earth. It does not matter if you travel faster than light using a wormhole or a warp engine. It does not matter if you clone people using cells, DNA, a holographic device or a brain copier.

    In technological choreography, you use technology to amaze people, like the “Cirque du Soleil”. For some people, a battle looks much better with spacecrafts and lasers than horses and swords. Technological choreography has an effect similar to magic (An anabolic for imagination). It is also helpful for screenplays (Avatar is pure technological choreography. GATTACA has just small amounts and can be considered hard science fiction).

    In hard science fiction, you speculate about science. Good examples are the creation of human-like robots or space stations. Here, the important thing is that you have scientific basis for your speculation.

    Most science fictions works do not belong to a unique genre. “1984” and “A Brave New World” are rather speculative. Nonetheless, the beginning of “A Brave New World” could be considered hard science fiction. The author got it all wrong but based on the knowledge of his era (Huxley had some background in biology and extrapolated plant cloning to human cloning), it was appropriate. Isaac Asimov is considered a hard science fiction writer. He had good academic background in sciences. However, his stories are also “what if?” based. I consider Flash Gordon (very) good technological choreography.

    The example you give is techno-babbling. It is the lowest class of technological choreography. It has no meaning and (often) no purpose. It is one of the reasons people consider science fiction class B literature. However, depending on the talent of the writer, techno-babbling can be very useful for irony, humor or character development. Many authors abuse of techno-babbling because they are paid by word count or have no technological background. It is the same problem when you read a novel and it is full of useless descriptions or unnecessary metaphors.

    Your question is similar to how many metaphors and descriptions do I use in my novel. The answer can be a lot for "choreographic reasons" (Think of Harry Potter and the magic-babbling) or almost none (Recommended for hard science fiction)
     
  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Using a sprinkling of invented terminology is not the problem. The problem arises when a never previously technology is dragged out to save the day. That kind of technobabble is the modern deus ex machina.

    The way to avoid the problem is to make sure the behavior (NOT necessarily HOW it works, just how it behaves) is well understood by the reader before it is used as a resolution.

    For a fantasy example, consider how Polyjuice Potion was used in The Goblet of Fire to conceal the culprit. It was magical concealment, but the "rules" of how it worked were well understood by the reader, so the reader's reaction was, "Oh, of course!" rather than, "Huh? Where the hell did that come from?"
     
  4. JJ_Maxx
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    JJ_Maxx Banned

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    Great responses! I agree that most science fiction is considered more comic book than masterpiece but there have been many great science fiction authors and they were very good at this balance.

    I think a lot of new, young writers use techno-babble because they are not confident in their writing skills and are trying to impress readers with all this new technology and terms.
     
  5. James Berkley
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    James Berkley Banned

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    i also write science fiction and can relate.

    one thing i try to do is have some of the technology leaps explained at an earlier point of just let the reader fill in the blanks. i feel like i can comment that an organism is made in a lab without going into a super detailed explanation. most characheters in the universe would not even understand an accurate in depth explanation. instead i have what they know. their are biological trade offs and that is part of what makes the organism what it is.

    a supriceing issue i have run into is people being surprised and not understanding technology we have now that has become more common in my universe. Stem cells, sap gloves, caseless ammo, thumbratic explosives. so i think the issue of having to explain technology is not just limited to Science Fiction.
     
  6. MilesTro
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    MilesTro Active Member

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    I think some writers try to make their work sound too fancy. They invent new language, create fantasy like objects, and pretty much add weird stuff in their made up worlds. Plus they overwhelm us readers with too much back story information that doesn't seem to matter in the story.

    One of the science fiction books I respect are H.G Wells'. Of course his work is old school, but the science he described in the stories are believable and very interesting. The stories I like from his work are War of the Worlds, the Island of Dr. Moreau, and The Time Machine.

    In one of my science fiction stories, I stick to modern day stuff, even if the setting takes place in the far future. It helps my readers understand my setting and my characters. I also use simple words to explain the key technology props in my stories. For example, I use "These nano bots can turn you into a robot." instead "These tiny cybernetic organisms will reconstruct you into a mechanic being."

    Writers don't have to add new language and fancy words to make their stories interesting. They just need to stick to the point.
     
  7. maidahl
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    maidahl Banned

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    "That certainly is convenient."
    — Tyrone, The Backyardigans

    Set up the problem so the resolution is satisfying and thus, publishable. New inventions work as new/fancy words. But if JK Rowling babbled on in another language, like Tolkien does as well, but never explained the foreign terms in an interesting way, then we would be reading a catechism in a language that already *sniff sniff* committed linguicide or something, so to speak.

    I heard Tolkien wrote his books, sry novels, just to show off his new language and how seamlessly he could smoothen Tolkienian linguistics with everlasting fantasy and Old English. Guy IS a major language nerd: Described the finding of a Finnish grammar book as "entering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before". IMHO that's pushing it, but whatever, man.
     
  8. Knarfia
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    Knarfia Member

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    There's also the balance of making it understandable vs. underestimating the intelligence of your readers. Explaining all of your terminology in the very beginning can get boring quickly.
     
  9. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    On a related note, I don't like having a glossary of terms. The meaning of the word should be clear based on the context. Flipping back and forth and memorizing all those words gets annoying very fast.
     
  10. B93
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    B93 Active Member

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    SF should have enough things that are not seen in today's world, and new words to describe ordinary things, to make the reader feel the difference. But as said above,

    >The meaning of the word should be clear based on the context.

    As you read some of the old, good, SF take note of how the authors did this.

    Have the shipcomp relay messages and report status of engines, and take orders for navigation. You don't have to explain that it is an artificial intelligence computer.

    Have the character pull out a Sigler 56 and shoot at the enemy. Don't explain that it is a ray gun or how it works. Just note that the bad guy got fried, or that he didn't because he was out of range of the weapon's beam.

    Several authors as far back as Heinlein called the bathroom the "fresher," the "hygiene alcove", and other names. An obvious but different name helps put the reader in a new setting.
     

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