Regular readers, friends, and anyone I’ve ever cornered at a bar will not be surprised that language is one of my favorite elements of science fiction. The freedom to invent and extrapolate words and terminology at will never fails to delight me.
I thought I’d collect and share some of the science fiction terms that particularly tickle my language bone. Did I miss any of your favorites?
You know, like a gate—but with stars! So compound. Such German.
Seriously, though, it made for a great concept: that you could enter another world just by walking into it, no idea what might be facing you on the other side (although breathable air generally seems to be a safe gamble).
Yes, the show took a few odd turns (a parody sitcom episode—really, guys?), and the movie could have been less boring—but the movie did star a baby James Spader, and the show did show McGuyver on frequent fishing trips to my own Minnesota stomping grounds, not to mention Ben Browder getting all up on SG-1 like John Crichton on Aeryn Sun. (Nevermind.)
I’ll be honest, though: I’ll get a stargate when they come out with the fully programmable version. Next stop: Risa!
I wasn’t around when the classic Battlestar Galactica first aired, so I can’t possibly speculate about what watching audiences thought about the hair, the furry dog-thing, Team Apollo/Starbuck’s athletic gear, or the spangly capes—but I’m pretty sure audiences would have been mystified by the word centon.
The show was using it as a measure of time, that much was clear enough—but how much time? A minute, an hour? A hundred minutes? I mean, what the frack?
The joke continued well into the series until show creators finally let themselves in on it, allowing—spoiler alert—a bemused stranger to close a scene with an exasperated “But what’s a centon?”
(Virtual high-fives to the three people with me on this. I love you.)
OK, look. I’m going to preface this by saying that to me, there is only IV–VI, Star Wars is a trilogy, and the “new” movies (wow, I guess I have to stop calling them that now) are dead to me. YES, I AM THAT PERSON.
That said, I am pretty tickled by the term midi-chlorians (or midichlorians, perhaps—I haven’t seen the official Star Wars style guide). Yes, I know it kind of ruined the entire concept of being a Jedi and all of that. But hey, the fact that someone decided to offer a scientific explanation for something previously considered mystical or magical? Gotta respect that.
And, OK, the Darth Vader bit at the end of Revenge of the Sith was pretty cool. But that’s all you’ll get from me on I–III, Lucas, so drop it already.
It’s no secret that my favorite sci-fi author currently putting implement to recording apparatus is Alastair Reynolds. If you haven’t read his stunningly gorgeous Revelation Space and sequels, go now and read them. (Really. Go. I’ll wait.)
Welcome back! Now that we’re all on the same page, we know that medichines are a sort of biomedical nanotech that swim en masse through the blood (or similar fluid) stream, and they’re responsible for all sorts of cool things: regeneration, heightened sensory perception, advanced mental processing.
(They’re also responsible for me needing to edit the word “medicines” extra carefully any time I come across it, but he’s a nice guy, so I’ll let it slide.)
At any rate, I completely understand if you skip the rest of this list to get started on Chasm City, the second book in the series. Might do the same myself.
5. Infinite Improbability Drive
Douglas Adams’s adorably British explanation of the Infinite Improbability Drive is that it is “a wonderful new method of crossing interstellar distances in a mere nothingth of a second, without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace.” In a bonkers mash-up of quantum physics, the law of truly large numbers, and tea, Adams gives us a ship capable of exactly anything: when infinite improbability is achieved, the ship passes through every known place in the universe at once, and if your hand slips at the controls while you’re distracted by a pot of petunias outside your window, who knows what improbable place you’ll end up?
Phew—makes my head hurt just thinking about it. Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, anyone?
While I could fill this list with epic terms from Dune, suspensors is among my all-time favorites. Frank Herbert didn’t invent the word itself—Merriam-Webster’s defines it as a group of cells or a part of a fungus—but he did invent the technology behind the flying contraption that allows the Baron Harkonnen and his massive girth to blob about the room cackling maniacally whenever the urge strikes.
That’s Lynch-lore, though. In Herbert-lore, suspensor platforms are based on something called the Holtzman Effect, which involves things like dimensional forces and suspensor-nullification and holographic waves. But what I really want to know is where I can get some of this tech. For when I’m feeling lazy/massive/maniacal. Don’t judge.
No list of made-up tech would be complete without Star Trek. And let’s face it, along with Cardassians, O’Brien, and Ten Forward, the holodeck is one of the cooler things to happen to the crew of The Next Generation. (Close runner up: Guinan’s headgear.)
Think about it: in the holodeck, all episodes are possible; the budget’s the limit! Westerns, ocean crossings, mud baths with Lwaxana, dates with Geordi, Klingon pain stuff—you name it, it can be done, and well within the standard spacefaring storyline. (And it’s always fun to see Picard wander out of a program and onto the bridge in full riding gear or something.)
Arnold Rimmer bandies it about as a matter of course; Dave Lister uses it when he’s feeling riled or defensive; even Kryton gets in on the action every now and then, despite his programming—but exactly what is a smeghead, and why does the insult sound so incredibly rude?
I’m pretty sure I read somewhere around the nerdosphere that Red Dwarf creators have sworn they had nothing specifically biological in mind when they invented the term (and I for one will happily believe them, so for Cloister’s sake, leave it alone). Suffice to say that calling someone a smeghead is an insult somewhere in the realm of “dumbdumb” or “pinhead” or maybe “poopface,” with a good amount of low-class-technician sass thrown in, making it a perfect insult for the Dwarf crew.
“I, like, totally grok you, man.”
When I think of grok—from Heinlein’s Stranger In a Strange Land—I think of hippies: passing around cosmic wisdom, deeper understanding, and rolled bits of paper, transcending verbal communication and heading right for the deepest essence of understanding.
I’m sorry to say I haven’t actually read this one since high school—but that’s pretty much what happens, right?
(Note to self: Reread Stranger In a Strange Land; stick to the Gargle Blasters.)