Posted by: Matt Q. McGovern | December 17, 2014

PhilCon 2014

This year was the 78th anniversary of the world’s first and longest-running conference on science fiction, fantasy, and horror. The panels cover literature, art, television, film, anime, comics, science, gaming, costuming and cosplay, music and many other topics of interest to fans. There’s an Art Show and Auction, a vendors’ room full of books, t-shirts, jewelry, and other assorted merchandise. There is also a Masquerade Ball and Costume competition. Lastly, there are several writers’ workshops featuring professional authors and editors.

Every PhilCon leaves an effect on me that is genre related, whether it be from the panels leaving an impression on me or the discovery of a new genre/sub-genre in the book dealers room. Usually one will lead to the other.

Each year I’ve come to expect the unexpected in that I never know what genre it will be. This year I was pleasantly surprised to find that sci-fi was the one that got my attention. I was a fan of sci-fi short stories in high school, but that was the only time I read the genre. I’ve always drifted towards horror and fantasy primarily, mystery/espionage thrillers second.

The panels that I was drawn to really seemed to lean towards science fiction, and as they left me in a good place I will summarize them here. This is my paraphrasing of the panels as I heard and internalized them.


* Would you believe?

-Sharon Lee, Dianne Weinstein, David Walton, Peter Prellwitz

Fiction is true. Period. We tell you the truth by lying to you.

Stretch it out until the reader has no choice, but be consistent. Keep away from elements that break the spell, anachronistic stuff, or activity not consistent with the character, etc. There’s a balance – the more baloney there is, the more there needs to be even more believable activity. Disguise the stuff that you pulled out of the hat to finish the story, or the reader will cry foul.

You have to suspend belief and manipulate the reader. Go with the story, not where you thought it was going. Don’t force it, or it’s not believable. How do the characters believe in their story? A comic book character once stepped out of the pages and pulled a magic trick that wouldn’t work normally…don’t do this a lot. You get one of these per story. Don’t abuse this power.

You can tease the reader. It’s believable for the character to do one thing at a time where the reader knows that the story will end unless the character does something else. Challenge the reader by going towards the edge, then bring the character (and the reader) back at the last minute. Does the movie play in your head? If not, it’s not believable.


* All I learned about Science in SF came from a bottle of Scotch.

-Darrell Schweitzer, Robert Corry, David Walton, Jack McDevitt, Peter Prellwitz, L. Hunter Cassells

Balonium: an isotope of hand-wavium. An element to describe made up science in fiction.

Balonium needs to exist for the story or plot. How much science you need depends on the story and audience. You’re writing a story, not a science textbook.

Watch for the stuff that can’t be explained by balonium. Sometimes, especially SF, you have to know better. There are levels of believability in each genre. Know the basics, at least. Einstein only added to Newtonian physics, which will not change any time soon. If you think you can write a story 1000 years in the future that challenges our science, do it but you better address the science.

You can only have so much balonium. Don’t trust yourself. Call a physicist and do it right. You do the reader justice by addressing the sort of questions that would come up if you posed the question on a forum of scientists that are helping you with the science. There are many examples of scenes with elements that could never really happen. But when they do, it’s fun to watch.


* The Next Extinction

-John Monahan, Lisa Adler-Golden, Lawrence Kramer

There have been 5 mass extinctions so far (of various species). There are pros and cons with each one. Clear out the bad, start over, etc. Anything that gets rid of 25% to 33% of a species is an indicator to watch for.

The theory behind the dinosaurs’ extinction is that a meteor hit the earth and caused a disruption in climate change, atmospheric poisoning, cataclysmic fires, etc. Plants emitting too much oxygen or any kind of climate change can start the chain of events that would eventually lead to a species extinction. Skies darken -> plants die -> herbivores die -> carnivores die, etc. Phytoplankton is responsible for the largest percentage of the world’s oxygen, so anything that might affect phytoplankton negatively could theoretically threaten our species and many others.

Species have to adapt quickly or die to changes in life. There were some references to punctuated equilibrium (Darwin?). Sometimes life changes in a targeted area can be be positively affected as well. Bringing wolves back to Yellowstone Park changed the ecology there for the better. Balance is important, but it’s important to remember that many species are involved and are affected by any fluctuations. What is good for some is bad for others. There is always a background rate of extinction going on for some species. We, as a species, are directly or indirectly responsible for much of it, and there are many arguments relevant to this subject.

Having just a few strains of a species is usually a bottle-neck that results in a very low possibility of rebound. There is a great opportunity for writing something in the cyberpunk genre, particularly where the opportunity is there for creating something to help reverse our current paths. There is a great deal of resistance to change in our current world, and in the far future (particularly for a futuristic cyberpunk world) eating more jellyfish and insects will be necessary. Finally, some discussion was reserved for what species would have the best chances of survival under extreme circumstances: roaches, foxes, raccoons, crows, badgers, otters, etc.


* How to make techno-babble sound interesting

Rock Robertson, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, John Ashmead

This panel added more to the subject matter of balonium. Aim for a good balance or the reader will hate it. Kryptonite is perfect. It gets the job done and can’t be argued with.

There is both a need for scientific plausibility and a psychological one. There is a skill to writing technobabble. The transporter is good as long as you don’t try to explain it. The more attention you give something the more you have to address the science of it. It’s okay if only those who understand quantum physics can see your baloney.

Technobabble is like harmonious jazz in that you identify the theme, become well-versed in it by mining it. For magic (which is by itself a technobabble) you have to establish a framework and structure first, then make sure you’re consistent. Steampunk has gears, which gives the readers confidence that it can be taken apart but no one has the time for it so the reader trusts the technobabble. Some genre audiences are tougher than others to pass technobagbble off on. The younger set will call BS on you fast as will much of sci-fi.


* Researching Science-Fiction

Jack McDevitt

This was one of the rare times at any PhilCon where it’s a small audience around a single panelist. Jack McDevitt is one of the best to have run a panel of this nature. He has a wealth of writing and experience that he loves to share and we ate it up. He was in some of the panels I mentioned above, as was this subject matter so I won’t repeat material that came up before. There a few profound quotations from him that would be good for me and anyone else to remember:

Don’t just tell a story; give an experience.

Any return to reality is bad; bad science will do it.

Don’t trust yourself; call an expert or just push the damned button (technobabble/balonium button). Besides, experts like the attention and frequently love to share it in fiction so they’re happy to help.


  1. Thanks, Matt! Glad that you enjoyed the Technobabble panel! That was fun…and challenging. I think I was the only one without some kind of science background 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • The technobabble/balonium theory is applicable to so much more than Sci-Fi, and very helpful for a writing perspective. I’m glad I went to so many panels covering Sci-Fi this year.


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