Clarke’s Third Rule: Applying Science Fiction Mechanics

I tend to write more fantasy than science fiction, mostly because I don’t have enough of a technical mind to explain everything. Of course, that also means that my magic systems won’t be at the same level as Brandon Sanderson’s, but that’s a different blog post altogether. As far as science fiction goes, I feel a little guilty trying to do it. You see, I have ideas for stories, but I don’t know how to make it work without technobabble, and yet I also don’t want to just shrug and say, “What’s the big deal? It works.”

Let me explain. I have one world, or one set of worlds, that is, since they’re canonically linked, that includes the concept of time travel. I’ll deal with time travel and its ramifications in a different post, but what I have here is a distant future with technology that is so advanced humans have stopped being humans for the most part, but have split into various post-human races. Two of these groups end up getting sent back to the far distant past and continue to war against each other, thereby creating two alien empires across the galaxy. By the time that Earth comes around to what we are, there has been intervention by both groups, resulting in individuals with extraordinary powers from the alien technology. In addition, whenever time travel happens, that is to say, whenever someone arrives in the past, then the laws of physics change temporarily as the universe rewrites itself, and anyone caught in the vicinity is altered, mutated, often given strange abilities. Yes, I just explained the premise of a superhero world.

Arthur C. Clarke, writer of (obviously) Clarke's Three Laws.

Arthur C. Clarke, writer of (obviously) Clarke’s Three Laws.

You see, I didn’t just want to say, “Oh, they have powers. Why not?” or “They’re just evolved mutants.” I wanted some origin to them, as well as the ability to explain futuristic technology in today’s society. To that end, I decided to actually bring the futuristic technology to the present day, but in the end, even the tech, which can change what we know of as the laws of physics, is so advanced it seems magical, as per Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Rule.

Clarke’s Third Rule of scientific prediction states, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What this means is that, if we are presented with a technology that uses scientific understanding that is beyond us, then it would look like something that breaks the laws of physics. For example, if you show a pistol to someone in Ancient Sumer, they would have trouble believing that such a small thing can kill a man from such a distance as you claim, yet if they were to see you do it, then they would think it akin to the divine power over life and death. Computers, with their hidden components that rely on electrical impulses, would seem to be strange machines to someone in the time of Archimedes. Sure, given enough time and backward engineering, someone like Archimedes might be able to figure out how to build a computer, a Tesla coil, or a motion sensor camera, but to most people of the time, it would seem to be magical, even divine.’

That said, if someone from a distant future, or from a distant and highly advanced alien culture, were to approach us today with a technology that uses an understanding of the universe that we don’t have, then it would seem to break the laws of physics. In an age where we’re beginning to understand quantum mechanics and physicists theorize the existence of more dimensions than our viewable three, there is still the possibility that there are things about the universe that we won’t understand for thousands of years.

Currently, most scientific understanding scoffs at the idea of ESP, clairvoyance, or other psychic phenomena, but it’s almost a standard in science fiction. What if there is some technology that would allow humans to tap into a currently unknown portion of the brain that would access those abilities? To some, it would seem like magic, but to those who accept Clarke’s Third Rule, it would be, well, sufficiently advanced technology. That said, I want to add a few rules of my own:

  1. Gaps in scientific understanding can be passed off in a story as sufficiently advanced technology.
  2. Whoever cites Clarke’s Third Rule as an explanation should explain it before being allowed to continue.
  3. Whoever cites Clarke’s Third Rule to justify technobabble should just put down the mouse and step away slowly from the keyboard.

Now to justify Tom Austin’s Not-Pretentious-At-All (no really) Rules for Applying Clarke’s Third Rule.

Rule 1: Gaps in scientific understanding can be passed off in a story as sufficiently advanced technology.

We can’t know the future or what technologies will come from it. As early as the 1200s, Friar Roger Bacon, also known as Doctor Mirabilis (Latin for “Wonderful Teacher”) predicted flying machines and horseless carriages. Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci actually designed a few flying machines. Five hundred years from now, we might be able to predict what would be possible. Eight hundred years, it might be a little more wild. What about stories that take place thousands of years in the future? We can’t know what technologies are going to be around in the year 20,000, no matter how much we’d like to predict. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the ensuing sequels show how far technology can go with Hal 9000. Heck, even Star Trek, famous for the writer’s bane that is technobabbleshowed it the first full movie, where we saw how the Voyager space probe turned into a sentient godlike being known as V-Ger.

(The movie’s been out since the 80’s. It’s as much a spoiler as knowing that Vader is Luke’s father.)

Basically, if you want to write a science fiction story, like I’m doing with my superhero world, but you don’t want to have to write out the wild, unexplainable stuff, go for the copout and say that it’s “sufficiently advanced technology.”

Rule 2: Whoever cites Clarke’s Third Rule as an explanation should explain it before being allowed to continue.

2001: A Space Odyssey, possibly Clarke's most famous work.

2001: A Space Odyssey, possibly Clarke’s most famous work.

Okay, here’s the kicker. You can’t just throw it out there and say, “Oh, but Clarke said…” No, I’m sorry. It doesn’t work like that. In what way is the tech advanced? What is the field that we’re talking about more advance than we currently understand it? You see, there are a few areas of the world that are fairly well understood. Sure, there are things that scientists are always needing to learn, but the mechanics of them is pretty much down. Biology, chemistry, and Newtonian physics. It’s when you get to the deeper stuff that you can start playing around with things.

I realize I’m not a scientist, and I’ll probably tick a few of them off with this, but here are some ideas. Subatomic physics are pretty well understood by scientists, but even so, they’re still learning about them, and that’s actually how they consider the possibility of more dimensions. Atoms might disappear and reappear somewhere else. Yes, they can teleport atoms, but only atoms at the moment.

Another thing to consider is the theoretical concepts that haven’t yet been shown to be verifiable, such as the existence of wormholes. Some may think it’s an outdated and cliché concept, but I think there is some validity to including it in a science fiction story…if it’s done right.

You see, I’m not saying just make up some kind of unknown quantity such as dilithium, even though that’s exactly what I did when I came up with the Østergard Singularity Drive to provide near infinite power and gravity to a starship. I’m saying that using Clarke’s Third Rule is a copout, but it’s a copout that you can use if you know how to properly b-s it.

Rule 3: Whoever cites Clarke’s Third Rule to justify technobabble should just put down the mouse and step away slowly from the keyboard.

Hal 9000, the super-intelligent computer from "2001: A Space Odyssey".

Hal 9000, the super-intelligent computer from “2001: A Space Odyssey”.

Okay, I take back a bit of what I said. No, not really. I want to clarify. Using Clarke’s Third Rule to explain why your tech isn’t comprehended today can be done right if you know how to properly b-s it. Technobabble is not doing it right. Trying to sound all scientific in order to convince your audience that you know what you’re talking about doesn’t work. Here’s a case where this is done right: Battlestar: Galactica. In the remake, they didn’t use technobabble. In fact, they made a point of avoiding it. FTL worked. We didn’t need to know why. AI was sentient and could communicate over light years. We didn’t need to know why. It was a technology on a level that most people today cannot understand. Given enough time and enough genius, someone today could possibly reverse engineer it (if it was an actual, real thing, that is), but most people would see it as magic.

Really, you don’t need to lean on technobabble to solve the day. Let your characters do that. If you think that falling back of sufficiently advanced technology is too much of a hand wave, then go ahead and write your hard science fiction. Enjoy. I’m going to stick to saying my superheroes can fly because of technology from the distant future.

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