Monday, 20 October 2014

RECOIL! Science vs. technobabble in military sci-fi

An article by NSFWG member Tim C. Taylor

In the early 1990s, in Star Trek The Next Generation, Geordi LaForge became famous for figuring out that a quick reconfiguration of the ship’s equipment — in a way no one had ever considered before — would solve the impending crisis. Realizations along the lines of: if we reversed the polarity of the shield generators and channeled the resulting feedback into the Jefferies tubes, we can slip back in time a few seconds: just far enough to escape the enemy missiles.

The term technobabble was born. But the idea of stringing together clever sounding words to break the laws of the universe whenever convenient was old long before Geordi’s phase generators.

The Doctor, reversing the polarity
of the neutron flow
Twenty years earlier, for example, Jon Pertwee hated the nonsensical pseudo-science jargon in his Doctor Who scripts, notably his Doctor’s catch phrase: ‘reverse the polarity of the neutron flow’. (Of course, neutrons don’t have any charge, hence their name).

Doctor Who and GeordiLaForge: these characters are powerfully popular. Somehow, talking nonsense had become an endearing eccentricity, rather than a failing of the writing team (although I felt Star Trek’s technobabble was used a little too often to get the Enterprise out of trouble).

I think the explanation for this acceptance is that with a TV show, you can see and hear the actors portraying the character. It’s much easier to believe that they are real people, to identify with them, and — crucially — trust them.

I mean, take Jon Pertwee’s time lord. He might talk nonsense about the charge on neutrons, but who could possibly fail to trust a craggy old man dressed up like a stage magician, and driving the same yellow toy car as Parsley the Lion?

But when you tell your story through the written word, winning trust and empathy from your reader is much harder. And technobabble is one aspect of storytelling where I believe readers are less forgiving than viewers.

Authors, don’t do it!

(Me included!)

I’m reading a lot of military sci-fi at the moment. I’m reading it because it helps fuel my mindset to write it.

And, let’s face it, I love reading it.

I’ve read stirring tales of great wedge-shaped fleets of spaceships crashing against each other like charging heavy cavalry squadrons, flashing pretty beam weapons at each other just before the front lines make contact, in the same way a cavalryman of the 18th century would fire his pistol. Having made shattering contact, the ships swoop into a confusing space dogfight.

A space marine with feet firmly planted on the planet’s surface raises her super-advanced combat rifle to her shoulder, and lets rip with 500 shells per second at the enemy gun emplacement she can see in her HUD.

UFO attack.
This is a wonderful image,but the physics is wrong in
so many ways.
image (c) mik38/
Now, sometimes, I have problems with these descriptions. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want lots of science and technical data in my military sci-fi. I want action, adventure, and how-do-they-going-to-get-out-of-that? But what I also don’t want are technobabble and lazy, improbable physics, because that takes me out of the story in just the same way as spelling errors and clumsy wording.

When the advancing space ships close to beam weapon range, what is that exactly? What range? In the vacuum of space, why is a laser, or other beam weapon, any less effective at a distance of, say, 10,000 miles, than it is at a distance of 200 yards? There’s no atmosphere to scatter the beam in a vacuum. In fact, there is an answer: diffraction, meaning the longer the range, the wider the beam’s cross-section when it hits the target. But effective range for lasers and other directed beam weapons is much greater than some authors depict. And spacecraft cannot ever swoop around in a Star Wars style dogfight because there’s no air to redirect your momentum.

And as for the space marine letting rip with a gun that has the fire rate of a 20th century heavy machine gun on fully automatic, how can they possibly aim with all that recoil force? Even if they could aim, if they’re in heavy armor, and are firing from the shoulder, wouldn’t the recoil topple them over and pound them into the mud? It would be like pushing on the end of a lever. For that matter, where is all the ammo stored? If you look at classic HMGs, they’re typically tripod mounted with belts of ammo folded into boxes. And they aren’t normally fired at full speed because that makes them difficult to aim accurately and the ammo runs out real fast.


I don’t pretend to be any kind of weapons expert, but I’ve fired guns and my shoulder tells that the bigger the bang at the business end of the barrel, the harder it kicks back at me through the stock.

If you look through reviews of military science fiction, one of the most common complaints is that the author doesn’t take account of recoil.

So when I wrote the Human Legion books, I thought I’d better follow my own advice: talk to some combat professionals and get my research in. Once I’d gotten my facts straightened out, hopefully I could feed that naturally into my military sci-fi writing without needing to dump indigestible lumps of exposition onto my readers. I’m going for believability rather than complete accuracy, and I’m prepared to bend physics a little if it serves the storytelling. But I don’t want to get the science blatantly wrong because I haven’t bothered to research it.

One of the most surprising answers I found was with railguns. I’ll explain that in more detail in a future post.

This article originally appeared on Tim's blog here

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