One of my biggest annoyances with science fiction is exposition-dump technobabble: meandering, meaningless jargon that seems to enjoy itself for its difficult sounds rather than its actual utility in the story. Technobabble doesn’t have to be bad: the most iconic example I can think of off the top of my head comes from Back to the Future, which lightly satirizes big science words by introducing a nuclear-powered “flux capacitor” that requires “one point twenty-one gigawatts of electricity” to induce time travel. It’s funny when blabbered out by Back to the Future’s kooky, mad-scientist parody, (especially because the old man came up with the idea after knocking himself unconscious by falling off a toilet) but only so because so much science fiction uses so much use-less jargon unironically. (Please, use less!)
I don’t really have an argument this week. However, I did notice a few interesting comparisons in the use of exposition technobabble in the three three science fiction anime I’ve picked up this fall 2018 season (Sword Art Online: Alicization, Akanesasu Shoujo, and RErideD: Tokigoe no Derrida). With nothing better to do during some office downtime, I thought I would scribble down some spare impressions.
Of the three series, Sword Art Online: Alicization probably has the most frustrating jargon. It starts out innocently enough, with the expected glossary of silly fantasy words that describe the virtual world like Taboo Index, Integrity Knight, Axiom Church and Divine Object. Of course, as an isekai anime set in a video game, the series then wraps the fantasy elements in a second layer of clunky video game terminology like Object Control Authority, System Call, and Generate Luminous Element – Adhere. But oh, if only it stopped there! Alicization goes above and beyond the other entries in the Sword Art Online franchise with some barely comprehensible technobabble about consciousness, artificial intelligence, and… souls? It’s so confusing! On my initial viewing of the first three episodes, I had no idea what sort of premise Alicization wanted to establish (Also, what does “alicization” even mean…). Only after digging through a raw subtitle file to confirm spellings did I develop a basic gist.
Let’s take a deep breath… … …
A company called Rath has invented “Soul Translator technology,” a system that syncs virtual reality worlds with a “Fluctlight,” which Kirito defines as a human soul bundled into evanescent photons and distributed through “microtubules” in the brain. Unlike the Nervegear, Augma and Amusphere, the “full-dive” headsets from earlier in the franchise, this new device writes directly into memory via “mnemonic visual data,” with the additional affect of “Fluctlight Acceleration,” a feature which allows the user to experience time in the game far faster than in real life. To top it all off, Rath blocks Kirito’s memories and has some nefarious connection to the Japanese and American military-industrial complexes, which comes with further nebulous hints pointing to the development of sentient AI using “copies of the souls of newborns.”
… … … Erm, alright? Exhale?
So, I think I have an effective summary of the premise as presented in the first three episodes. But to be honest, I still don’t understand it. What’s all this about souls? In our era of bleak, modern materialism, I assumed that mainstream science, well, assumed that souls do not exist. For such a massive philosophical breakthrough as discovering that the “fluctlight” contains the human soul, Kirito seems weirdly matter-of-fact when explaining the situation. And then to turn around and use the souls of newborns to potentially develop an AI with shadowy connections to the military in a virtual reality high fantasy game… erm. Alright?
Apparently, Alicization has drawn inspiration from genuine hypotheses predicting quantum consciousness in the brain. However, at the present such research seems light on empirical evidence and far too complex for non-specialists to approach. For example, I challenge any readers to make sense of this summary of the field on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, including a section on microtubuli (no mention of souls though!). Is it confusing? Don’t worry! In episode 2, Kirito says “It’s hard to believe, but there’s no other explanation.” I laughed out loud at his unskeptical confidence. I’ll guess I’ll just have to take his word for it since I’m not a neurophysicist! Jumping back to the realm of Alicization’s fiction then, perhaps you can forgive my inability to understand the premise after my first viewing, what with the idea that human souls consist of microtubules carrying packets of photons through a brain that acts as a quantum computer.
However, the complexity of Alicization’s science fiction jargon does not frustrate me so much as its tendency to hold back the narrative with redundant, over-long exposition dumps. The 11 minute cafe dialogue in the first episode especially sticks out in this regard: Kirito talked on and on and on about the Fluctlight while Shinon and Asuna became clueless, audience-surrogate Sagredi and Simplicii to ask questions and gasp after dramatic pauses before the silly English buzzwords. Though the later episodes never reach the extreme length of the cafe scene, they are littered with similar “tell, don’t show” moments which explain the fantasy and science fiction concepts with precise terminology but little meaningful clarity. All of that exposition… well, it’s just kind of boring, isn’t it? Why not tease out the jargon as a mystery for the audience to solve alongside the characters during the normal narrative progression? Even though the show has already aired for around 90 minutes, I still feel trapped in the prologue. Please, Kirito, stop talking and go do something!
By contrast, consider the use of jargon in Akanesasu Shoujo, one of fall 2018’s sci-fi original series. The series premises itself on a group of crystal radio hobbyists that discover a method to open rifts between universes with special tuning frequencies, an idea about as obscure and implausible as Alicizaiton’s. However, Akanesasu towers over Alicization in one regard: it actually shows how the science nonsense works within the universe and wastes relatively little time on exposition. A quote from the alternate-dimension Asuka is illustrative:
“As I explained yesterday, Fragments continue to come into existence. They are also continuously destroyed. It starts with those little tears in reality, like the one you just saw. After that, those beings called Clutters begin to violently consume and erode at the Fragment.”
Did you notice the “you just saw” part? Akanesasu takes advantage of its audio-visual medium to actually depict its science fiction elements. Asuka can say “those” because the show has already shown a Fragment, a Clutter, and the apocalyptic result when the two mix.
In another scene, Asuka literally sits the cast down in a classroom to diagram the parallel world premise. She does not simply present a theoretical lecture to the girls like Kirito did with Asuna and Shinon; she physically draws out the concept to help the audience understand. And best of all, at only two minutes, the scene is short! Akanesasu delivers the exposition quickly and then moves on to more interesting narrative or character building moments like the girls exploring an alternate dimension or Nana connecting with her distant step father. Meanwhile, Alicization tells and tells and tells without so much as a cut-away or flashback to show what Kirito was even talking about.
Comparing the two series, can I draw any conclusions about the use of jargon in science fiction? Eh… not really? This sample kind of sucks. Though Alicization has meandered through far more exposition than Akanesasu, it will also run a full four times longer all the way until September 2019. With that insane length in mind, the slow start might pay off later once Alicization has better established itself. But then again, I am bored now and for that Akanesasu’s short explanations satisfy me far better than long, repetitive exposition dumps.
However, short explanations can become too short. Consider one of the other sci-fi originals this season, RErideD: Tokigoe no Derrida (…RErideD… good start on the nonsense words). Derrida manages to absolutely eclipse even Alicization in its use of jargon, to the point that the series itself seems confused about just what science fiction concepts it wants to explore. But unlike either Akanesasu or Alicization, it scarcely even bothers with exposition. Stuff just happens. For example, in episode one the protagonist runs through a forest to escape a corporate hitsquad that for some reason does not pursue him (?) and then happens to fall into a ventilation shaft hidden in a forest (?) into an apparently abandoned (?) cryofreezing facility (?), where he inexplicably decides to lay down in an automated (?) cryotube for a quick 10-year (?) rest. It all occurs in the space of maybe five minutes. With nothing to explain any of those events, I burst out laughing when the credits rolled. What’s happening? Who cares! Just laugh.
Maybe then, that’s my conclusion. Though Derrida quickly becomes a barely comprehensible mess of dubiously related science fiction tropes loaded with unexplained jargon, the “stuff just happens” approach often results in unintentionally hilarious sequences that descend into “funny-bad” territory. I don’t care how a series explains it’s military AI-powered, radio-dial operated, soul-outputting interdimensional time-travel machine. I just care that the characters actually use it, that the show actually shows it, and that something happens.
Spare me the lecture, spare me the jargon. Just do something!