Saturday, April 21, 2007

Handwavium: Don't Leave Home Without It

I do not know who first came up with the term "handwavium," or even if it originally had to do with science fiction. I first learned it at SFConsim-l, the best site for space discussion that I know of.* Handwavium, and its cousins such as unobtainium, are all the materials, technologies, and new laws of physics that allow us to do fun things we cannot do now (such as travel in space for less than a fortune).

* The name stands for SF Conflict Simulation, i.e. wargames, so it is probably not a place for the confirmed pacifist, but by no means is discussion confined to futuristic ways to blow each other up.
The queen of handwavium is of course FTL (Faster Than Light, for those of you who are not SF geeks) - a shameless violation of relativity, almost universally used in science fiction so that we can travel among the stars without decades or centuries of boredom en route, and get home in time to bore our friends while they are still alive. Lesser forms of handwavium are required for such conveniences as "torch" drives, rockets that can run at full power for weeks at a time, and a host of other gadgets that make up the standard space SF kit.

As space SF subgenres go, rocketpunk gets by with less handwavium than most, or at any rate with subtler handwavium. Rockets, after all, are real enough, and writers like Clarke and Heinlein were usually pretty careful about getting things right. (Heinlein reputedly spent a couple of days doing orbit calculations - with pencil and paper - for a couple of lines in the YA novel Space Cadet.) We don't have atomic rockets, but one was ground-tested in the 1960s, at a place rather colorfully known as Jackass Flats.

Heinlein handwaved the Solar System quite a bit - by the 1950s hopes for canals on Mars or a jungle Venus had pretty much faded - but mostly what the SF writers of the 1950s got wrong was the cost. No fault of theirs; no one yet realized just how hideously expensive space rocketry would be, or how difficult it would be to spread out the costs by flying spacecraft on a regular basis. (747s are expensive too, but air travel is cheap because they can carry a full load of paying customers every day - for shorter flights several times a day.)

In one major respect, however, rocketpunk - and for that matter a good deal of space SF not intended as rocketpunk - invests in a great deal of negative handwavium. If the writers of the 50s greatly underestimated how expensive and complicated space travel would be, they even more greatly underestimated how cheap and convenient computers would be. A classic instance is Heinlein's YA Starman Jones - still one of my favorite SF novels.

Heinlein paints a vivid picture of life in a starliner's control room - including the petty officer whose job is to convert computer inputs into binary numbers, using a book of tables, then convert the computer's output from binary back into decimal for the astrogator to use. Forget scripting languages, forget C++, forget even FORTRAN or assembly code - a starship's control computer requires binary input, keyed in on a front panel. Hey, it was 1953.

The real problem for SF writers, though, isn't the guy looking up binary numbers, it's the astrogator. Even with current computer technology, the interstellar navigation problems portrayed in Starman Jones - the ship gets Lost in Space after its Astrogator dies - could surely be handled better by a computer than by weary Captain Blaine and incompetent Mr. Simes, or even by brash young Max Jones, the hero, or the late, brilliant Dr. Hendrix.

SF writers have resorted to various gimmicks to get around this problem. One fairly popular dodge is to say that computers don't work in hyperspace for some reason. That, however, is a painfully obvious bit of special pleading. (Well, so is FTL, but ....) Frank Herbert in Dune posited a distant future in which computers had been placed under religious interdict, which at least bellies up to the bar.

The need for this huge negative handwave, rolling back computer technology to the 1950s, is perhaps the biggest challenge facing rocketpunk as a subgenre. Rocketpunk isn't alone in that, however, because it is a problem that most space-oriented SF runs into sooner or later. Who would have imagined that one of our biggest literary problems would be too much technical progress?


Nyrath the nearly wise said...

Because of my love of antique mathematical instruments, I have often tried to invent some sort of plausible hand-waving that would force the astrogators to use slide-rules and nomograms. Unfortunately, every FTL method I've invented that deactivates computers would also deactivate the crew.

Rick said...

My very first commenter! :)

That's the other problem with the "computers don't work in FTL" gimmick - any demi-plausible mechanism that disables them also screws up the human nervous system.

It is also hard to come up with an alternate history that has space tech but no computers. The closest I can get with perhaps some plausibility is a world in which user-friendliness never becomes a priority, and convenient spreadsheets, etc., aren't developed.

I believe I mentioned this during the rocketpunk discussions at sfconsim-l. Think of the actual process of a ship's astrogator plotting a course. First she needs to know what she wants to do, and "go to Mars" might not be enough. What are the positions of Earth and Mars during the next year or two, and what orbits are possible for her ship?

I could see an alternate-history scenario in which her computer can spit out a course to 10-decimal precision, but only if she enters a reasonable first approximation - and, in the absence of Linux Astrogator, traditional tools such as a slide rule might be the fastest way to come up with a decent rough-cut that can be entered into the computer to refine.

For that matter, I bet naval bridge crews still use the maneuvering board. If knowledge of using slide rules, nomograms, etc. hadn't largely atrophied, I wouldn't be entirely surprised if a proficient user couldn't rough out a course as fast or faster than with existing calculators and spreadsheets.

Alas, in the real world, someone would probably come up with an intuitive graphical interface that would make rough-cut orbit plotting ridiculously quick, at least for anyone with the skills base to do it at all.

Nyrath the nearly wise said...

I'm not sure what is wrong with the blog software, but it apparently does not like Firefox. It keeps reloading the page, so I cannot make any posts or even scroll the page down unless I use Windows IE.

Rick said...

This is strange, because I use Firefox with no problem, here and at other Blogger blogs I visit. I'll take a look at the FAQ to see if there's any setting that could be screwing up some Firefox configurations.

I'll probably also set to allow anonymous replies, in case it's a glitch in the sign-in process - I really didn't intend to add any complications till comment spam forces me to.

Nyrath the nearly wise said...

False alarm, I fixed it.
I had somehow set Firefox to deny setting cookies to It's fixed now.

Anonymous said...

There is an interesting concept that is maybe a negative handwave in _A Deepness in the Sky_ by Vernor Vinge.
Vinge is a proponent of the 'Singularity' ie: that artificial intelligence &/or human computer interfaces will soon result in entities that are much smarter than human & so future societies will be incomprehensible to us.

ADitS is partly an exercise in assuming some factor prevents this from happening. So the main story which occurs a few millenia hence has STL starships & all the computers are only a bit more advance than what we have today.

In many ways it is the grandest space opera ever written.

Rick said...

Jim - probably any story comprehensible to us has to non-assume anything like a Singularity. (Just as it would be hard to write a story set after the Rapture, at least about the people who get raptured.)

I'm dubious of the Singularity myself (something I should discuss), but Vinge is definitely making a negative handwave in terms of his own underlying assumptions.

Anonymous said...

Since the Singularity hasn't happened yet, Vinge is free to explore both what things might be like post-Singularity as well as what the future might be like without it.

Both scenarios look plausible to me. We don't know enough about how intelligence works to say yet whether an artificial intelligence greater than human could be made & if so how.

Canageek said...

David Brin used Handwavium in his amazing novel "Startide Rising". No, really, the smallest moon of that planet has a high handwavium content, which is taken advantage of by one of the alien fleets near the start of the book. I missed it when I first read the book when young, but did a double take when I reread it this summer.

Rick said...

Welcome to the comment threads!

I could well imagine some unexpected, useful material being named 'handwavium,' since the term is pretty well established. And self-referential irony is in fashion!