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Marginal Notes


This delightful word was originally coined in the fifties to describe deliberately confusing bureaucratic jargon. Since then, science fiction writers co-opted the term for the scientific background you feed your readers to explain the ways in which your world differs from reality. It’s the bafflegab that persuades your readers to suspend disbelief.

It’s most often used in science fiction, of course, but other genres use bafflegab as well. Fantasy novels require a magic that behaves according to rules – what might be called metaphysical bafflegab. Some romance novels now require an explanation of where vampires come from and how they live. Even historical novels rely on something similar. People who lived in the middle ages would probably find the world of many medieval mysteries unfamiliar, if only for the shortage of lice. But that’s not a problem as long as the world is convincing enough to satisfy modern readers. After all, in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare had Cassius say, “The clock hath stricken three,” twelve centuries before the mechanical clock was invented.

How much bafflegab you need depends on your audience. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy needs much less in the way of explanation than, say, Jennifer Wells’ Fluency. Being lighthearted lets Douglas Adams deal with alien languages by having his characters stick a small fish in their ear rather than bringing in a linguistic expert, as Wells does. If your readers are into your romance for the dark, dangerous love interests, you don’t really have to go into detail on the biology or ecology of your vampires.

Bear in mind, too, that you can often cut down on the bafflegab by using IJD technology. (How does the spaceship travel faster than light? It Just Does.) We don’t think about the details of internal combustion engines when we’re driving to work. In fact, I’m told most people never think about the details of internal combustion engines at all, though I have trouble believing that. In the same way, people in the future won’t think about how the warp drive works every time they fire it up. So a lot of your background technology can simply remain in the background.

But even where you don’t explain the mechanics of your world, you should think them through yourself. Not necessarily schematics and materials science – though if that’s your thing, go for it. But pay attention to the sociology of your technology or metaphysics, the effect it has on the people your world. If you miss things, your readers may not be consciously aware of the lack, but they’re going to feel something is subtly wrong. Remember, too, you can often create a better sense of the otherness of your world through how it affects its inhabitants than from a description of the world itself. Think of how shocked the desert people of Dune are that Paul Atraides comes from a “water fat” world, where water is so plentiful it falls from the sky.

So if you’ve given your characters instant teleportation, are there still different nations? Has the whole world finally become one big family, or do people guard cultural distinctions even more carefully because they’re under risk? If you’ve got a magic that allows adepts to create whatever they want, is there still money? Have basic crafts been lost or have handmade items actually become more valuable in a world where anyone has the ability to instantly make anything? Answering basic questions like these makes your world feel authentic, even with IJD technology.

And when you’re creating a future world, don’t forget that older technologies will always work. If you’ve wiped out all plastics on your future Earth, remember that people lived pretty comfortable lives in the nineteenth century, well before plastics were invented. I’m currently editing a story set on a moon that’s tidally locked with a gas giant planet. Most colonists live on the relatively safe near side, which is largely desert. But they have outposts on the more dangerous far side, mostly for mining. Trips to the far side are risky because extensive radiation in the upper atmosphere makes satellite or microwave communication impossible. Once you’re over there, you’re on your own.

Except . . . they strung the Transatlantic Cable when most transatlantic crossings were still done under sail. There’s no reason a future society couldn’t just run a communications cable halfway around their world and forget satellites. I pointed this out, and the two sides of my client’s world are now divided by oceans with violent and deep tidal currents.

As you create your bafflegab, resist the urge to oversimplify. Don’t fall into the Star Wars habit of creating entire planets with a single ecology (The Desert World of Tatooine, the Jungle World of Dagobah). Or if you’ve got a society divided between, say, the warrior clans and the learned mages, don’t forget that someone has to wash the clothes and cook the food. One way to avoid oversimplifying is to look at how reality does it. Learn some basic geology, so you know how the Earth reached its present shape, and your future worlds will feel more textured. If you’ve got a devastating world war in your world’s immediate past, read studies of the 1920’s to see how WWI affected Europe.

Or simply imagine yourself living for a day as an average person in the world you’ve created. How do you get to work? What do you do? How much do you get paid, relative to your neighbors? If you start stumbling over the details of everyday life, then your bafflegab probably needs some work.

The best bafflegab is inspirational. You know you’ve made it if your made-up world leads fans to explore it further – through fan fiction or role-playing games or even crunching the numbers. Perhaps the greatest example of this is Larry Niven’s 1970 Novel Ringworld, which introduced a ring-shaped artificial planet orbiting around its sun. Niven worked out his world in remarkable detail – 1000 mile high walls at the edge to hold in the atmosphere, the speed it had to move to maintain gravity, ways to deal with erosion.

It was such a detailed, interesting world that it inspired further research. One fan calculated the tensile strength of the material out of which it was built. And a year after publication, Niven attended a science fiction conference where MIT students marched through the halls chanting “Ringworld is unstable, Ringworld is unstable.” They’d calculated the giant ring’s orbital dynamics and found that, if anything nudged it out of a perfectly circular orbit, it would just keep falling until it hit its sun. The plot of the next book in the Ringworld series involved an automatic stabilization system. Since then, Niven’s written two more Ringworld books, with another on the way, continuing to explore the science and sociology of the giant structure. Essentially, Niven’s bafflegab created a world large and detailed enough that it’s still growing.

So whether you’re describing a world exactly like our own except with a new gadget, or an alien society on a methane world with slightly different rules of physics, don’t forget, your whole purpose is to fire your readers’ imaginations. Think of your alternate world as a character. Like all your other characters, your world has to be internally consistent and interesting. If your readers both believe in your world and are intrigued by it, then your bafflegab has done its job.