I need a new word

Or possibly an old one, because I’m sure this issue has been discussed before. Something like “MacGuffin,” but with a different meaning. I want a word for “pseudo-scientific rationale that allows science fiction writers to get past known scientific problems with a story.” You know, like positing wormholes to account for FTL travel?

I blame the First Reader and his penchant for watching episodes of old TV series after dinner. Right now he’s hooked on a truly lousy sf series from some fifteen years ago, and he likes me to watch it with him because it’s entertaining to listen to me yelling at the TV. However, he has now issued a blanket ban on my shouting, “And exactly why do these people conveniently speak English?” because that is an issue with every darned episode, every new contact.

I was particularly impressed by the one where an alien survivor who’d been in suspended animation for ten thousand years woke up, was perfectly at home with the current technology (he pushed buttons real well) and, yes, spoke English – a language that hadn’t even existed until thousands of years after he went into his coma. I thought they couldn’t top that one, but last night we saw the episode where somebody time-travels back ten thousand years for a chat with the legendary “Ancients” (I dunno, maybe 10,000 is the only big number the scriptwriters know?) and yes, the Ancients also speak English.

Look, I’m not asking that every SF book or movie give a serious scientific exploration of the problems inherent in learning alien languages. That’s material for plenty of stories in itself, but if it’s not what your story is about, fine, move on. All I ask is some tiny, tiny fig leaf to cover up the nakedness of the hypothesis, a casual wave of the hand in acknowledgment that people who’ve never been exposed to a language are unlikely to speak it without some kind of crutch. A universal translator: “Major, activate the Babel Reverter.” Telepathic transmission/translation. A magic pill… even a magic apple! Come on, writers, it can’t be that hard!

And while they’re at it, could they maybe do something that reassures me the computers of the future aren’t all running Windows 10?

And given the speed with which interface technology has changed just in my lifetime, how about an excuse for how present-day people get the hang of new/alien tech so fast? I’d think that pushing lighted buttons on a piece of far-future equipment might be about useful as trying to physically turn the pages of a Kindle.

Lots of fig leaves wanted here.

I expect the very knowledgeable readers of this blog will be able to supply the word I need. Until then, I guess I’ll use “Figleaf.”

49 thoughts on “I need a new word

  1. Oh, thank you! Handwavium with a dash of unobtanium – I was driving myself crazy trying to remember those!

  2. Clicked through to also ask if “handwavium” was OK, or it had to be more along the lines of the buy-in/one-free-broken-rule thing, like when stories do “K, we figure out how to combine cats with humans to make cat people, and do it enough that there’s a population big enough with the right characteristics for my story.”

    Sometimes folks only want to use handwavium to mean a more broad thing, so you might’ve wanted unobtanium but for at specific theory/rule.

    And thus I find you already got ’em both!

  3. Stargate actually had an explanatory bit of tech for “Everyone speaks English” but it was a one-liner early on, and soon entirely forgotten. And it didn’t work once we got outside the sphere once controlled by the Ancients (eg. aliens encountered by Destiny). Indeed, I cannot remember what it was, but it made as much sense as any handwavium.

    1. Hmm. Maybe that was in the original series? We started with Stargate: Atlantis and I don’t recall having heard any handwavium on the language issue. Though to be fair I could have missed a one-liner while yelling at the TV for some other annoyance. And I really do not think I can bear to go back and watch the original. I am beginning to suspect that Steve’s trying to soften me up to the point where I’ll agree to watch another depressing war series after we get through with this season of S:A.

      Ha. I’ll agree to another WWII series if we can alternate it with episodes of Mansfield Park.

      1. Maybe aim him at Foyle’s War? Murder mysteries in WWII! And Inspector Foyle generally catches the bad guy… or in one case where said guy is untouchable due to the war efforts, reminds him that “wars end. And I will still be here.”

    2. Crossoverovercreativechaos tends to use ‘the gates actually modify the brain with languages spoken around the receiving gate’ in her fanfic these days. I’m not sure what the canon explanation was. I had the impression that they had spent time learning some common languages. The goa’uld empire obviously had a common language of some sort, and maybe all the other former goa’uld colonies retained that?

      I like SG1. Recently watched the first movie, and the pilot for SG1, and they did a really nice job extending the movie’s assumptions to make the show. The movie is much weaker as military sci fi.

      Late Atlantis I gather suffers from the fact that they had near exhausted the premise of the original series, and they as an organization were obviously having difficulties extending it.

      SG1 has ten seasons, and the last two have a slightly changed cast, and a not as excellent replacement enemy.

      The first two or three seasons of Atlantis I followed, and gave me a lot of what even the late seasons of SG1 gave me, so I liked them. I never got into the last seasons of Atlantis. I don’t like some of the summaries I have read, so I’ve never repaired that shortcoming. Apparently, that is when they brought Scalzi on as a creative consultant, who is allegedly part responsible for the third live action series. I watched the last few episodes of the third series, and am happy seeing no more of it.

      I do think I am more crotchety these days.

      I’ve rececntly tried to argue that Cold Equations deserves a little credit, on the basis that I read it in that magic period before I had learned the proper analytical habits and information that would make me unable to avoid seeing through it.

    3. For all the faults of the Enterprise TV series (Alien Nazis and the entire Xindi season, Dear Lord, no!), they managed to apply the backgrounds for various pieces of treknology, such as phasers, the transporter, and IIRC, the initial stabs at the universal translator. OTOH, I’m a sucker for the history of technology, and future history of handwavium technology isn’t that far afield.

    4. For Stargate, we can assume many of the worlds in the Milky Way speak Goa’uld and that the team has learned that (But wait! Why do they need Daniel to translate everything? Shut up!). On Atlantis, the planets of the Pegasus Galaxy probably spoke Ancient, so their modern languages would be descended from that. Probably.

      But maybe it’s best not to examine that too hard.

      1. Which is why ‘Ancients made the gates able to manipulate the language centers of the brain’ is such an attractive fanon. It is consistent with what they are later established as capable of, and if it only provides the language as currently spoken, Daniel has a basis and a reason for translation shenanigans.

  4. There’s also “bolognium,” but according to Orson Scott Card, you’re allowed only one piece per story (FTL doesn’t count any more because that’s become a convention, not a bug.) Readers will accept one slice of bolognium per story, but after that whatever you do has to have a reason that fits with the science or magic or whatever of the story, and that you or your characters can explain within the rules of the story.

  5. I think I’d actually accept more than one slice of bolognium per story if the story is interesting enough. I’m not really that picky, but the more bored I get with a story, the more I grumble about things like “Oh, here’s yet another pre-industrial culture with a wealth of inexpensive textiles” or “If these people don’t have any others to go to war with, how come they’ve got a flourishing military subculture?”

    Maybe it’s just the crotchetiness of old age. I’m afraid to go back and watch the original Star Trek because it’s probably full of stuff like that and I just don’t remember the stupid bits any more.

  6. — And while they’re at it, could they maybe do something that reassures me the computers of the future aren’t all running Windows 10? —

    Look, it’s either that or DOS 15.8. You pays your money and you takes your choice! (:-)

    1. Windows died the last death in the late 30’s. 3D UI’s completely took the field as HUD and Augmented Reality systems in implants (which grew out of failed attempts to create true AI) became the norm in Next World economies in the latter part of the century as humanity took their first tentative steps into their own solar back yard.

  7. Windows 10 is the apex of GUI design, so it makes sense that all computers would use it forever. In a setting whose computer science is interpreted through the lens of Hollywood writers.

    1. What happened to the original Terminator then? His hud was running a Apple II version of a Hex editor, just the thing for cracking a disk.

    2. Never used Win2K, huh?

      Yeah, I know. But so much after that (and even before) was “Really? You Fisher-Priced the UI? WHY?!?!?”

      1. In all seriousness, one of the first things I do with a new to me install of XP/7 is configure the GUI to more closely resemble 2k/95. Haven’t yet figured out how to do that with 10.

        1. Have you tried “Classic Shell”? It’s a free utility that can make Windows 8/10 look more XP or Windows 7.

    3. I’m open to using Linux. Made some choices with a newer system to make that possible, but the tech has changed since the last time I’ve worked with Linux, and there is some research to do to make sure I don’t break something.

      1. I have a Win 10 laptop, and it looks like it will get used every tax season until/unless I get some way to make Acrobat fillable forms to work properly in Linux. (They used to work, but somebody Made Improvements to the forms. Sigh.)

        Beyond that, Linux on all the systems.

    4. Hit moderation somehow:

      I have a Win 10 laptop, and it looks like it will get used every tax season until/unless I get some way to make Acrobat fill-able forms to work properly in Linux. (They used to work, but somebody Made Improvements to the forms. Sigh.)

      Beyond that, Linux on all the systems.

  8. And, now, it’s time for another non sequitur!

    I’m reading MGC on a Windows laptop. In the top right of the screen, there is a bell icon.
    I’ve never seen that before; more precisely, I’ve never ATTENDED to that before.
    The icon was red, because there were messages which were unread. So I read the messages, and the icon became unred. (Sorry, I just had to do that. I don’t mean anything by it.)

    Is this a new feature? Is it everywhere on WordPress blogs?

    1. I vaguely remember seeing the “bell icon” but I usually read just the emails from the WP Blogs.

    2. Mine has a high-arc-of-ringing bell icon (white) with a big orange balanced, naturally, on the top curve of the bell.
      Click on it, it turns into a black bell, with a list of replies or ‘likes’.
      Unclick, and it is a white bell again, though lacking in an orange. Until I get another alert.

      Maybe it’s a theme thing? I do tend to choose ‘dark’ themes.

      1. Oh, hey! Lookie there! A bell thingie way off on the far right corner of the screen where I never look because the blog is in the middle.

        Wow. Maybe if my screens weren’t so wide…

  9. Perhaps a bit of applied phlebotinum would suit your desire? A dash of handwavium, and poof! The McGuffin’s now a more refined substance through the miracles of alchemy!

  10. The word you seek is: Explainium! One grain of this explains anything.

    Can’t figure out why your werewolf from another plane of existence speaks English? You need to sprinkle some explainium on that.

    1. Oh, I like that! Nearly everything I write needs a bit of explainium.

    1. And the unfortunate scriptwriters of SG: Atlantis have Major Whosis toting around a huge paperback of War and Peace because he wanted to bring a long book for this long journey… I really do feel sorry for them about that; they couldn’t have known that the Kindle was just around the corner.

  11. Pre-dawn Jeremiad begins. Proceed at your own risk.

    While this is fun stuff — a nice humor break in the midst of a metric megaton of irritations, nuisances, and assorted inchoate fears — I do hope you’ll all remember that SF is not “about” the scientific and technological elements and motifs it embeds in its settings. Those things, while they can be intellectually stimulating, exist to create a new situation in which new problems will arise to bedevil people — where “people” can include non-humans, as long as they’re sufficiently limited that they can’t solve their problems merely by saying “let it be so.”

    Science fiction, like all fiction, exists to take the reader on an emotional journey. The rocket ships, ray guns, matter converters, et cetera ad nauseam infinitam, are merely means to that end. Chekhov’s Law applies here as it does in all fiction. (Anton, not Pavel.)

    Pre-dawn Jeremiad ends. You can now readmit the kiddies.

    1. Francis, that’s why I asked only for a dash of handwavium instead of a serious exploration of language problems.

      1. Oh, I noticed. When we get to the serious language problems, most of them will be about the differences among “their,” “there,” and “they’re,” and where the apostrophe belongs in a contraction.

        Apropos of the original subject, I’ve encountered two notable uses of “unobtainium.” One was in David Brin’s “Startide Rising.” The other was in the movie “The Core.” So this legendarily rare and questionably stable element (326 protons, 517 neutrons, and 1024 morons; alloys well with Administrivium) already has a pedigree of sorts!

      2. I knew you would understand, Margaret, but you might be surprised — you’d definitely be appalled — by the number of aspiring writers who don’t. Allow me to recount a tale from the not-very-recent past.

        A friend I’ll call Mary was approached by a friend of hers, who shall be called John, to critique the just-completed manuscript of his brand-new novel. Mary, a literary writer who specializes in Christian themes, found herself unable to read the MS; it just “wasn’t her thing.” She passed the opening segment of it along to me, suggesting that “it might be the kind of thing you’d enjoy.”

        The only adequate short description of John’s book would be “gun porn.” John had started from a moderately interesting plot concept — a Serbian general condemned as a war criminal escapes from NATO custody, seizes power by assassination, acquires biological weapons from a Russian lab and long-range missiles from North Korea, and uses them to blackmail the rest of Europe — and had larded it over with dozens, nay, HUNDREDS of pages of interminable technical descriptions of weaponry and its uses. It was about 200,000 words long, and consistent to the very end. Unreadable, and certainly unmarketable.

        Now, that’s a case of a would-be thriller writer who thought that the main ingredient in a military thriller is the weapons, what they do, and how. Yet John was certain it would be published because, as he said to me in a “sub rosa” kind of way, “I know someone who knows Tom Clancy.”

        The story goes on from here, but the rest of it is too painful for me even to remember, much less to regale you with. Let it suffice to say that through a series of unctuous blandishments and appeals to my writerly vanity that are illegal in most states, John persuaded me to rewrite his book. The ordeal enmeshed me in the least productive undertaking of my life: a rewriting job that consumed all my free time for nearly eight months…for no compensation whatsoever. But I was one-and-twenty; no use to talk to me!

        Anyone who’s read any bad SF, where the writer believed that the technicata is the point of the thing, will grasp the parallels.

    2. Still, Fran, the basic science needs to be reasonable, given the parameters of physics/biology. I’m fine with some bending of what is established, given that engineering (proper and redneck both) can use duct tape and WD-40 to rig up hacks. But, too many of the futuristic novels and shows seem to have little understanding of how actual people act and interact.
      Don’t even get me started on the Wokeness of modern Star Wars.

      1. And, for that matter, what delights me about Tom Clancy novels (his, not those abominations that have sprung up since his death) is the Human Element. If he’s going to kill off a character, he generally gives enough information about that person to make me regret that death. Even his relatively minor characters have the breath of life. They are not just placeholders.

  12. Stargate, the film, had a pretty serious take on the language problem that was part and parcel of the plot and character development.

    Stargate SG1 TV series had to brush over the language problem after the first few episodes of season one or lose viewers. Despite that kludge, it remains one of my all time favourite TV shows.

    My books are what happens when you cross Starship Troopers with Stargate, but because I’m not writing a TV series I can use the language problem as a plot device, and even if I run to the seven to nine novels I think I will write, I can’t see this aspect being the burden it was facing the producers of SG1.

    1. I think they realized that dealing with language all the time would be tedious. It’s the same reason for Star Trek’s universal translator, which works perfectly on every series but Enterprise, where it usually takes a whole sentence or two before the aliens can speak perfect English.

      Me, I’d have more fun with the translator. “Captain, the alien ship is hailing us. They say . . . their shuttlecraft is . . . full of eels?”

      1. Oh, yes! I agree that dealing with language issues all the time would be tedious and an unwelcome distraction from the stories they actually want to tell… but it would be great to have some fun with the unobtanium and explanium on the way to the story.

        I used to enjoy the mixed up metaphors of Ziva on NCIS.

      2. I did something similar in my second book…

        “The translation began: “Between the time when the oceans swallowed the land, and the rise of the first ones, there was an age now unknown.” A note said “an age now unknown” could also be translated as “lost in time,” or “a golden age before the fall.”

        Percentage probabilities were assigned to each, along with a caution that the margin of error for each was high.”

  13. The current series I’m reading (which is apparently a series of series, we shall see) has friction in space – if you stop accelerating, you slow down – and is very “iffy” on acceleration vs velocity in other ways (e.g. top speed). Space battles are also WAY too close together – they can see each other (not to mention the idiocy of windows on a space ship; if nothing else, it creates a seam). I’m doing my best to overlook that.

    This one is also too fast, but has decent handwavium around construction automation and large work crews (although sadly lacking on the source of the needed resources – even fabricators need input material). I do feel sorry for the characters: Bounding from action to action with only time to sleep between must be incredibly exhausting after a couple of weeks.

    Since the first few books in the series are also the author’s first few books, I’m optimistic the pacing vs calendar time issues will get better. Not much can be done about the physics of the universe, though.

    This is why I wait until I finish a series to review the first book. That seems super-harsh as a review, but they’re actually pretty good. I’m on number four and plan to read them all.

  14. My favorite example is the Ansible, a device that allows instantaneous communication and exchange of information even across entire galaxies. How does it work? Reasons.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: