How You Can Make Anything Sound “Science Fictional”

Be descriptive and detailed, yet vague. For example:

“The transparent portal slid open and the creature, radially asymmetrical, used its ambulatory stalks to cross the threshold. The creature, covered in keratinous extrusions and small, dead plates, swiveled its perceptual array, hoisted on a third stalk, and used its electromagnetic sensors to locate what it was searching for: the anti-entropic chamber. It spotted the chamber and moved to it. Using yet a different stalk, which divided into smaller stalks at its terminus, the creature defeated the magnetic field employed to seal the chamber.

“Therein it found its prize: A pressurized cylinder of carbonic acid, mixed with bonded ethyl and hydroxyl groups. The stalk that defeated the chamber’s magnetic field acquired the cylinder and carefully manipulated it open. It placed the contents in a staging area, where cursorial perceptual tests were conducted, before conveying those contents to a connected cavity, designed to chemically process cylinder’s former cargo.

“There, in the humid dark, the desired reactions commenced.”

Shorter version:

“A person opened a sliding glass door, walked through, located the fridge, opened it, got out a beer and drank it.”

Thank you for coming to my writing workshop.

55 Comments on “How You Can Make Anything Sound “Science Fictional””

  1. Basically, Post-Roddenberry technobabble: Tech the tech with a techized tech, but don’t tech the tech because the tech will tech your ass.

  2. Hmmm… good, but could it at least be a ‘space beer’ that he/she opens in the shorter version? Because nothing says sci-fi like putting ‘space’ in front of any mundane thing.

  3. If you weren’t already having a pretty good career in science fiction I’d say you could do very well as an aide drafting government reports.

  4. I have a fondness for the ‘Shortest S.F. Story’ though I don’t remember its title.

    “The last human was sitting at their desk. They hear a knock at their door.”

  5. I recall in one of Oliver Sacks’s books about people with brain lesions, he wrote about a man who couldn’t come up with nouns. In particular he called a glove a sack with five “outpouches.” That’s an impressive alternative to stalks and shows how weird our brains are.

  6. This SO reminded me of a Mark Twain paragraph that has stuck for all these years, perhaps due to its subtle (or not so subtle) snark: “It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October. The lilacs and laburnums, lit with the glory-fires of autumn, hung burning and flashing in the upper air, a fairy bridge provided by kind nature for the wingless wild things that have their home in the tree-tops and would visit together; the larch and the pomegranate flung their purple and yellow flames in brilliant broad splashes along the slanting sweep of woodland, the sensuous fragrance of innumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere, far in the empty sky a solitary oesophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God.”

  7. Are refrigerator doors held closed with magnets? I always thought it was just the seal of the rubber gasket. But maybe I’m wrong!

  8. Ah, if only they still published stories written like that. That is some old old school writing.

  9. Wrote a short story once in a creative writing class about an alien that found a lead pencil. He was deterred from conquest of Earth by the evident high technology of an instrument with no moving parts that could dispense graphite. Teacher’s comment was “don’t know what the heck you’re talking about”. Gave me an ‘A’ though.

  10. The best Science Fiction (in my opinion) is not all the techno talk like 1984 or Neuromancer, It’s the ability of the writer to take you into that world, letting the reader to connect to that world, and tell the store from the point of the characters IN that world. Prime example of that is the rant Jane Sagan has when describing what it’s like to be 6 years old in an adult body and not being able to cope with the adult feelings they have forced upon them by the world. No technobable in her speech, just a science fictiony messed up situation you can see happening given the circumstances.
    10% actual science fiction 90% dealing with the repercussions of that 10%.

  11. Since someone asked: Yes, the refrigerator door is lined with a longgggg flexible magnet (sometimes modern little colourful fridge magnets are flexible too) My sister removed a door magnet. Then she had a long swirling decoration on the inside of her bungalow’s (metal) front door.

    I’m old enough that even today I am mildly surprised when a fridge door doesn’t go click. (no need with magnets) As a child I thought it was cool how our refrigerator had a round handle on the inside. This was so that if a child was playing and got locked in, with the door clicked shut, the child could escape. No, I never got locked in: Too much stuff inside as we had six kids. Mother would ration the food like a quartermaster.

  12. “Thank you for coming to my writing workshop.”
    I think I just found my new signature file.

  13. Applying highly parallelized optical processing algorithms via a neural network, I was able to hierarchically synthesize a narrative hermeneutic from this sequence of stylized cryptograms (for technical details see Dehaene 2009).

  14. @Paul Wiley: Space beer is tasty but it’s addictive. I know writers who have to hit the space bar after almost every word they type.

  15. Linnen:
    Forrest Ackerman did an even shorter story. The title was much longer; it was something like “Report Card for Humans of Planet Earth, as Assessed by the Galactic Council”. The entire text of the story was: “F”.

    (Ackerman noted that, since the work was copyrighted, all he had to do was write 25 more such pieces and he would hold copyright to the entire alphabet. This would put him in a powerful position with respect to all other writers.)

  16. That was brilliant, and so funny! And @Lars Eric Holm, is it bad that I actually like that paragraph? (I have a soft spot for purple prose, and that is actually quite well done.)

  17. Use the Star Trek Rule of Three: two things you’ve heard of and one thing made up. E.G. great astronomers of history: Copernicus, Kepler, and Maxon I.

  18. @Lars Eric Holm – In one of those very weird coincidences, I just came across that Twain paragraph two days ago. Like noticing a new word and then seeing it everywhere.

  19. @gwangum: I would argue that it’s *not* an example of “tech the tech with a techized tech” technobabble, because our host’s paragraph rigorously avoids any fictional or theoretical concepts. It’s funny (though likely to be painful after more than a couple of paragraphs) because it sticks entirely to familiar and widely-used technologies. It’s not a Roddenberry-esque “Eh…let’s say the tachyon field did it.” Our host made a typo when this was first posted and described an ingredient as carbolic acid instead of carbonic; he had to correct it because we’re not just “teching the tech”–the words actually mean something.

  20. I understood everything in that Space Story except I supposed it was soda, not beer.
    I want a medal.

  21. I was also pretty sure it was for the Coke Zero. Also, BOO voidampersand BOO. (that was a good pun)

  22. Lacks a discussion of the weird economic system that leads to the carbonised fluid appearing in the anti-entropic chamber. Maybe that’s a little more Silver Age, though.

  23. It read just like some of the more awful Sci-Fi I have read.

    To me good Sci-Fi sounds like “normal” literature, but show cases “one big idea” that is “science fictional”.

  24. Hurm… unless popular thought has shifted since my college days (20+ yrs ago)… wouldn’t it be photosensors/photonic detectors/etc? (admittedly, electromagnetic detectors would be awesome to have)

  25. Dear Linnen,

    Correction– it read:

    “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door …”

    which was actually the setup for a longer story called “Knock.”

    Ron smith improved on this by one letter:

    “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a lock on the door …”

    pax / Ctein

  26. Lawrence Block, the mystery writer, has a similar discussion in one of his “how to write” books (can’t remember which). Basically, he warned against overloading the reader with detail for the sake of “realism” or whatever: the character starts by opening his eyes, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, walking to the bathroom, rubbing his face, shaving (in two or three paragraph detail), and so on, until he walks out the front door, down seven steps to the street, to take the subway to Harlem. Block’s point was, unless you needed that level of detail for some reason, you were better off just saying, “[Character] woke up that morning and headed out to take the A-train to Harlem . . .” or something like that. At most.

  27. Hilarious! Wonder if “science-fictionese” is a distant cousin of what a woman friend calls “mansplaining.” That makes me think of a short essay I read recently by Ursula K. Le Guin. It suggested that when she first started publishing sf women hadn’t yet been “invented.”

  28. “Anti-Entropic Chamber” belongs on the band name list, IMO.

    Also it’s funny (to me, at least) that as the Coke Zero comments show, the short version actually has information that isn’t in the long version, namely, the identity of the beverage. (Unless “bonded ethyl and hydroxyl groups” was intended to specifically mean ethanol, not normally present in Coke Zero. But I don’t think the description excludes the ethyl and hydroxyl groups belonging to separate molecules, and there are very likely some of both somewhere in a Coke Zero.)

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