These Things You Say

unobtainiumA while back in a thread somewhere on Facebook, someone was conversing about science fiction stories, and I popped up with a return comment, saying something along the lines of, “If you ignore the handwavium, it’s fantastic!”, or some such thing. I don’t remember the actual comment because it was Facebook, and I don’t usually remember too many things that are said there. I do, however, remember being told that, “You should write about those things,” said things being the term ‘handwavium’ and other words commonly used by science fiction writers and fans alike.

Personally, I think the term ‘handwavium’ is a no-brainer, probably because I’ve heard people using it over the course of several decades. I’m guessing many other sci-fi enthusiasts will be familiar with it as well. Then again, I shouldn’t assume that because I’ve been proved wrong many times before, and I’d rather not risk slapping another notch in that particular plus column.

So, for the benefit of those of you who don’t know what “those things” are, let’s review some common-ish terms that all science fiction fans should know, but may not.

 

Handwavium

This is probably the easiest one to know, since it’s used all the time in science fiction, written and visualized. You’re waving off the fact that your story is waving off a basic tenet of physics, and you’re saying, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” and accepting that your tiny one-person ship can not only travel faster than the speed of light, but can cross the galaxy in a few hours.

Break any of Newton’s Laws, you’re handwaving. Break any of Einstein’s laws, you’re handwaving. Break any of Heisenberg’s laws, and you’ll get blown up in a nursing home—oops, wrong Heisenberg. You get the idea, though: if you have FTL, or a reactionless drive, or a cloaking device, or any one of a hundred things that writers have employed over the decades to make their story more interesting, you’re using handwavium.

Handwavium is usually applied when the writer needs a big setting for their story, and realizes that this spoiled sport we call “physics” usually rendering The Rule of Cool null and void. You want to write about a galactic empire, but that’s a little hard to do when it takes your message twenty-five years to reach your nearest world, and rebels on that planet have thirty years to prepare for your invasion. You want certain people to have incredible psychic powers, but they need these things in their blood to be able to channel the energy to make those powers go. You want pirates in space to sneak up on ships, but damned if their heat doest make them visible all the time. Handwave that stuff, kiddo, otherwise you can’t have cities that cover entire planets cause damn that heat again, Sparky.

Good science fiction will limit their handwavium to one or two things, and make sure the rule of their universe make sense within the confines of said handwavium. Though you could write the great non-handwavium novel and show us how to have a great interstellar empire without the warp drive . . .

 

Unobtainium

These days everyone know what Unobtainium is, because it’s become its own punchline. Unobtainium is the one thing that you need to make something work (usually your Handwavium Drive) which otherwise doesn’t currently exist in the known universe. Kilogram-sized chunks of antimater are the unobtainium of many novels where it’s used to power spaceships; likewise you have minerals that are used to make that same ship travel faster than the speed of light. You build all your space elevators and gigantic mecha from this stuff. It’s all things that think could exist, but you really have no idea how they would—ergo, unobtainium.

Like I said, it’s become a punchline of sorts. It was the mineral humans were mining on Pandora in Avatar, and it was worth kilotons of money because we had no idea what it did. The movie The Core was so damn tongue-in-cheek about the word that the creator of the good earth-drilling ship Virgil named the hull material Unobtainium, and laughed whenever the subject came up.

By the way, this didn’t start out as a science fiction term: it was actually created by aerospace engineers during the 1950’s. There is even mention in a NASA paper that a group of engineers, in 1957, decried the lack of “superior high-temperature material” which was dubbed unobtainium. See, even tech geeks know they need something that doesn’t exist. Plato also talked about orichalcum, or “mountain bronze,” which found its way into Atlantis and, later, several anime.

 

Technobabble

Without even explaining this, you know what it is. It’s the reversed polarity of the neutron flow; it’s the flux capacitor; it’s a Heisenberg compensator interfacing with the material pattern buffer. It’s any ten dollar word used to indicate something happening in a story that has no real meaning outside that story. It’s literary BS meant to sound deep, because it’s suppose to be important.

Star Trek has become so well known for its use of technobabble that the subset “Treknobabble” was created. Doctor Who has used more than its share of technobabble, with the aforementioned “reversed the polarity of the neutron flow” the signature move of the Third Doctor. The Lensman Series is so full of technobabble it could fill its own universe. It’s pretty much a given that the softer your science fiction, the more technobabble one will have, though that’s not a set rule. And while technobabble can be used without sounding forced or ridiculous, that’s not always the case. Consulate with your doctor before you jack into the consensual hallucination that is The Babble of Tech.

 

MacGuffinite

This comes to us via Winchell Chung and his Atomic Rockets site. Based upon Alfred Hitchcock’s “MacGuffin”, it’s a commodity that is really, really needed by the people in a story (Humans or otherwise), and it can only be found out there. The magnetic monopoles that Larry Niven used to create his Belter society is one form of MacGuffinite; the unobtainium on Pandora and the reason Humans are wearing gigantic Na’vi catsuits is another. One of the biggest MacGuffinites is the old hat that “Earth was used up” and that made it necessary to move everyone to another solar system, ‘cause our own Solar System feels a little to ghetto and who doesn’t want to trade up to new digs?

Whatever the MacGuffinite, it gets people off Earth and into the Big Black. You also hope that said MacGuffinite has no other unintended consequences to your science fiction universe, but we all know how that works.

 

With that out of the way, let us look at a few laws that you may not be all that familiar with, but you’ll recognize them the moment you read them.

 

Rick Robinson’s First Law of Space Combat:

An object impacting at 3 km/sec delivers kinetic energy equal to its mass in TNT.

Take a one kilogram rock and throw it at something at three kilometers per second. When your rock hits said object, the object will suffer damage as if it were hit with a kilogram of TNT—which, if you’re interested, is 4,500,000 joules. If you want more damage, you could throw a bigger rock, or you could throw it faster—a lot faster . . .

Rick Robinson’s Second Law of Space Combat:

For every kilogram of handwavium you remove from a setting, you add about ten cubic meters of impossible to maintain plumbing.

You have a Death Star, and you want to blow up planets. Blowing up a planet takes a lot of energy, and that energy produces heat. So if you wanna “keep it real,” you spend about two hours pumping up your energy weapons, and when you kick those suckers off you pray the hundreds and hundreds of kilometes of radiators you have attached to your Death Star are able to bleed off the heat before you and your crew cook to death.

Suddenly the “They shoot; they score!” primary Death Star weapon looks a lot cooler when you handwave it . . .

Ken Burnside’s Zeroth Law of Space Combat:

Science fiction fans relate more to human beings than to silicon chips.

Vipers in Battlestar Galactica, Starfighers in Buck Rogers, the Starfury in Babylon 5, and the Peregrine class in Star Trek: all examples of smaller one and two man ships that are launched into space to take the battle to the bad guys. Star Wars is probably the worst for this, as a quick Googling found a list of two dozen fighters that have appeared in various movies and stories, and I’m certain that list expands further when you start looking at variants.

Fighter pilots have always seemed cool, so when we go into space we’ll continue having cool fighter pilots. If you have people flying ships remotely, as they do with drones today—and as they did in an episode of Stargate SG-1—that would be boring. So would turning your pilot into the ship, like those crazy Cylons did. And the most boring of all would be computer-run fighters—or worse, none at all—so we won’t go there, ‘cause we all wanna do cool Starbuck stuff . . .

This law also works in any setting where someone is needed to run the Magical Fusion Torch Drive, which is a propulsion system that is little more pure unobtainium. This is also known as The Schrödinger Drive, since it only works right when someone is there to watch it work. The FTL drives used in any of the Known Space stories needed someone to watch the mass pointer, hence the reason for pilots. And in the Dune books the Guild Steersmen are the drive, more or less: without them to figure out where you’re going to jump, your FTL systems are so much overpriced equipment that goes beep.

The Kzinti Lesson:

A reaction drive’s efficiency as a weapon is in direct proportion to its efficiency as a drive.

That goes part and parcel with these laws:

Jon’s Law Part 1:

Any interesting space drive is a weapon of mass destruction. It only matters how long you want to wait for maximum damage.

Jon’s Law Part 2:

Interesting is equal to “Whatever keeps the readers from getting bored.”

Lets say you have a torchship, one of those incredible vessels that can go anywhere in a solar system in a matter of days because it has some kind of handwavium fusion drive that, on a bad day, could allow you to hit a quarter of the speed of light if you’ve got the room to run.

Lets also say, and why not, that it can land on planet, ‘cause that means you can go just about everywhere in your little universe and you never have to worry about hitching a ride with someone else if you wanna go dirt side. This means you probably have a secondary system for take-off and landings, but that trusty torchdrive could be used once your in atmo, because that’s the way this universe works.

Now, you’re never use your trorchdrive to take off from your Friendly Neighborhood Spaceport, ‘cause lighting that sucker up would be like bringing the Tsar Bomba to a knife fight, but . . . you could.

And once you’re in space and you got that drive going hot, pumping terawatt seconds of energy out the back, nobody in a shinny new ship better come along and make rude comments about your old heap, ‘cause it’d be a shame if something happened to that shinny new ship . . .

The Kzinti learned the hard way that a photon drive can cut apart a ship from a ways off. And if your ship is using an Orion drive—which uses nuclear shape charges for propulsion—you just turn your pusher plate toward the bad guys and start chucking propellant.

Interesting propulsion systems get your characters from Point A to Point B quickly. Uninteresting propulsion systems work well, but tend to get you from A to B in months or years. While those stories are far more realistic, they don’t carry the same sort of excitement where one covers a couple of light hours in a couple of real hours.

If you’re flying one of those bad babies, you’ve got your hand on the stick of a weapon of mass destruction. Hope the spaceport harbor master doesn’t piss you off, ‘cause that’s a really nice spaceport.

Some writers think there’s a way to get around those last three laws, but that runs right into this:

Burnside’s Advice:

Friends Don’t Let Friends Use Reactionless Drives In Their Universes.

Reactionless drives are the Holy Grail of Space Flight. Power goes in, your ship moves because of any number of reasons: gravity control, manipulating lines of the solar wind, unicorn farts . . . It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that your ship produces no exhaust, therefore you can probably land that sucker anywhere, because it’s handwaving physics already, so it can probably float right down to a planet and not worry about burning everything in sight.

What this all means is that it’s not a weapon of mass destruction—

It’s something much worse.

If you never have to worry about mundane things like thrusting until you run out of fuel—which is how a lot of spaceships work—then your reactionless drive keeps going until you run out of power. Unless you have some very particular rules about how that drive works, the chances are you’ll run out of the speed of light before you run out of power, which means your ship is no longer a weapon of mass destruction, it’s a relativistic planet cracker. It means you can probably put a drive inside something the size of a naval destroyer and slam it into a planet at ninety-eight percent the speed of light, and a few thousand tons of ship is going to make a big boom.

So now you are proficient in the lingo. There are others, maybe of them well known tropes, and you may use those in place of these.

But never forget the basics

Never forget your origins.


Article by Cassidy Frazee

Many thanks to the Atomic Rockets website for their invaluable service to getting it right.

Visit Cassidy’s blog at http://wideawakebutdreaming.wordpress.com/
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  • Gabriel

    Unobtainium in “Avatar” was meant to be a room-temperature diamagnetic substance, i.e. repels a magnet at both poles, therefore allowing static magnetic levitation. Graphite sheets are the closest things to that. They can support their own weight over a neodymium magnet and they are real. However, neodymium magnets are much stronger than Earth’s magnetic field and for something like unobtainium to levitate, let alone levitate entire “floating islands”, Pandora must have had a very strong magnetic field, which means all lab devices should be designed to work properly in that field. If that is the case, this raises a second issue: Unlike the “floating islands” on the planet, the Unobtainium sample seems to levitate inside a special device and does not levitate when taken out of it. Possibly the lab is isolated with a ferromagnetic cage, which is part of the heavy shielding.

    For the fun side: Assume Unobtainium is real: It can revolutionize space travel (less power needed to lift-off), architecture (Imagine whole floating structures), aviation (Of-course!), medicine (disabled people will have easier time walking, gradually shaping-up), and when land prices are getting too high, I can at-last build my house in the clouds…

  • The reason Unobtainium floated in the fields in the base, but the island floated by themselves, is that the movie was running on BS. I recall the Unub was in the ground (“Under that big tree we need to blow up, Sir!”); if it was floating about then there would have been little conflict. Of course, then we could have–and should have–remained the mountains Mt. Upsidasium, and left them for Moose and Squirrel.

  • So, is the Unobtanium of Avatar both Handwavium and McGuffinite?
    Does that make it some kind of super Fictanium alloy? Or should we call it Unobwavinite, or Unguffavium?

  • Pandor Unobtanium is definitely McGuffinite, otherwise there’s no reason to need such a huge presence in that star system. It didn’t seem as if there were any other reason to be there. It’s not Handwavium because it’s not bending any rules of physics that we know of. And the floating mountains are comprised of Upseedasium, otherwise known as Deanium. 🙂

  • Dan

    I always assumed the unobtainium and Eywa came from the same place. An giant advanced alien spaceship that was infected by a fungus that killed or enslaved the crew and caused the ship to crash. The unobtainum is an advanced artificial material used for alien FTL starships. Humans can only use part of it’s potential. It gradually spread into the environment causing weird gravito-magnetic effects but the site of the crash is the tree of souls. Note wreck remains there. The fungus spread through the life of Pandora, first as an enslaving parasite but eventually as a symbiote, helping the biosphere to remain in balance. The fungus infests everything causing the characteristic night glow. The Na’vi topknot is the fungus connected to the brain that stimulates the growth of a protective outer layer of flesh. Their fungus nature is masked by the Na’vi genes they absorb. My theory makes more sense than the idea that all this stuff naturally evolved. 🙂

    • Unobtanium panspermia. I like it!
      Surely Occam’s razor slices this wide open though. Why assume the material and the life-form came from elsewhere? Why and how would it occur/evolve elsewhere? Wouldn’t it make more sense if Eywa evolved as a parasite on Pandora instead?
      I do like the idea that it spread as a parasite though. Every lifeform on Pandora having this innate plug-and-play feature does stink of irreducible complexity.

  • Dan

    Like you the plug-and-play nature of Pandoran life stretched my limits of suspended disbelief ;).
    Crippled spaceships bringing alien parasites picked up from elsewhere is a common sci-fi trope. It just seemed to fit the facts. The halleluiah mountains surrounding the ‘wreck’ remains and the fungus ridden tree of souls seemed to fit a crash site with chunks of unobtainium getting scattered in a circular pattern and migrating into the rock through percolation. If unobtanian is a local product then why isn’t it available on the other uninhabited moons? We’ll just have to see where Cameron wants to go with his story.

    If Eywa is a planet hopping parasite then the defeated humans may be accidentally carrying her back to earth of course. Their children may be born with plug-and-play topknots!

  • Hmm, I see your point, Dan. And if it’s repelled by the other local minerals, or the local environment or whatever, how would it even come to be there?
    I guess there are two explanations:
    1) It arrived from space either in a ship or a meteor
    2) It formed through heat and pressure etc. after the formation of the planet, perhaps in geological circumstances unique to Pandora.

    Maybe there is unobtanium on the other moon. Maybe we’ll see that in the sequel.

  • Now if someone wanted to do Avatar right, well, I guess while their at it they can fix Prometheus. Maybe they could fix Gravity while they were at it. 🙂

    In itself, that would be awesome.

    If I were to play with a setting /similar/ to Avatar, though, I’d make the whole planet a Precursor artifact. Unobtainium could be blobs of slowly replicating nanomachines. Its diamagnetic properties merely a side effect of its system of internanite communications. They could also be part of the maintenance system of an intergalactic wormhole communications/transportation network. Or something else entirely. This is Alpha Centauri after all.

    Of course Pandora will be a meaningful name, but I suspect the scientific research on the planet got pretty short-shrift once The Company found out about unobtainium. After all scientists are either meddling treehuggers or after proprietary secrets. Sensible people would be wary of opening that box, but sense seemed in somewhat short supply, so of course they just started tearing out pieces of the machine without wondering for a moment if it was there for a reason. This could come out very much like Victorian scientists disassembling a nuclear reactor to figure out how it works. Only without the intellectual curiosity.

    If we were trying to do something like Avatar /right/, we might want to play up the wonder and intellectual curiosity and play down the inalterable-corporate-greed vs noble-savages/native-american standins element. Actually, that might make a good movie.

    Although I found the movie an immense let down, fixing the setting would be a pretty fun exercise and there is a lot there to play with.

  • Steven Lyle Jordan

    There should be a name for the “vastly improved” materials and compounds that were common to classic Star Trek: DI-lithium, TRI-tanium, QUADRO-triticale, etc, based on existing things and made better with some exotic addition (often just a prefix). One that I used in Verdant Skies was a “specially-doped crystal” that allowed for interstellar travel.

    I’d call it something like “Advancinite” or “Turbonium.”