So Easy a Cowboy Can Do It

Went to see Cowboys & Aliens over the weekend with some friends, all of whom had various takes on it given their own particular backgrounds. Personally, I thought the movie was enjoyable as all get out while I was watching it, and while I did think of any number of criticisms and questions afterwards, none of them had any particular influence on my appreciation of the film after the fact. There's fridge logic here, of course, and some really shockingly weak characterization, but on the whole the movie offers up exactly what the title and trailers promised, and since that's what I paid to see, I'm happy with it.

One thing I was particularly happy with, as a science fiction aficionado, was the noted absence of that great scourge of television and movie scifi, technobabble. No deflectors were modified, no pulses were inverted, there were no tachyons to be seen and nobody had to spit out a single six-syllable bit of made-up science. The reason, of course, is that it would've been completely wasted on the in-universe audience, the titular cowboys, who wouldn't know a phaser from a blaster or, come to that, a cell phone from a telegraph by the looks of it. There was only one character in the film who could possibly have spouted such lines, and they were thankfully mute on the subject, preferring just to give both the Americans (cowboys, saloon owners, preachers, cattle owners and the like) and a group of Natives the sorts of answers that would make sense. The creatures wanted gold, and no particular reason was given (though a technologically advanced civilization could have any number of uses for the material), they had flying machines and guns, and they were kidnapping people to try and figure humanity out. Nothing there that any resident of the American West wouldn't have been able to understand and appreciate, at least once they'd seen the flying machines in question in action, and nothing there that would've been improved by the addition of a half-dozen lines in the script about anti-gravitic propulsion or the desperate need for gold to make inter-stellar Whatever Drives go.

Because of course there's no way a preacher, a doc, an outlaw in love with a 
whore and their associates could ever really master advanced technology.

It's not that I don't appreciate a writer who's done his homework. I'm a great fan of Jack Campbell and David Weber, both masters of the 'fill the page with numbers' school of space fight writing, and some of the best stories from whatever Golden Age of science fiction anyone might care to name have shown that, properly used, a bit of factual infodumping not only doesn't hurt a story, but can actually help the reader's understanding of a predicament. It's one thing for the Enterprise to have to remodulate the deflector to fire an inverse tachyon pulse to stop a subspace anomaly, and quite another for the ship to be in a deteroriating geosynchronous orbit, in danger of entering the upper atmosphere and burning up when the friction of an uncontrolled re-entry heats the hull of the ship beyond human tolerances. The former is meaningless, and essentially no different from not particularly well-constructed fantasy magic systems; the heroes need to do This Thing to stop That Thing, Because. In the latter, however, the audience can start to participate with the heroes in trying to resolve a dilemma; if you need to generate X amount of thrust to push the ship into a higher, stable orbit, and you have options A, B, C and D, you can make a good guess as to what they'll try and, even better, you might even be able to come up with an entirely different answer of your own that the heroes (which is to say, the writer) didn't think of at the time.

Although it might seem to promise infinite freedom for the writer, the ability to make whatever situation they want obtain to best drive the drama of the moment, technobabble is an essentially limiting aspect of science fiction writing. It can be necessary, and it can even be interesting, of the underlying principles have been thought out and the technology has actual limits and specific abilities. But rarely is it interesting enough to warrant pages or minutes of time devoted to it, and unless the technobabble really has been concretely laid out, it's little more than a way to take the reader entirely out of the running for coming up with a solution of even understanding the proposed plan of attack.

Which, in the case of Cowboys & Aliens, was as simple as it was predictable; don't worry about what planet they're from, or what crystals their ship runs on, or what kind of energy waves their wrist-blasters project.

Just shoot the heck out of them.

 Can't argue with what works. 

And I think we can all agree that that's a strategy no amount of technobabble could improve on.

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