7 Common Sci-Fi Terms That Don’t Actually Mean A Damned Thing/

Science fiction is full of its own vocabulary. Warp speed, mother ship, transporters, lightsaber...These all show up over and over again. Some of them are self explanatory, but some are just bullshit terms that somehow happened to get included.

Just The Facts

  1. Yes, a lot of these are from Star Trek.
  2. But they're not ONLY from Star Trek.
  3. That's the point.

7. Quadrant

Everyone in sci-fi loves throwing around the word "Quadrant." "Warp hole to the gamma quadrant!" "Prisoners escaping from quadrant 96, sir!" Etc.

This word just means 1/4 of something. Hence, the quad- prefix. Somehow some writer's thesaurus from sixty years ago said this was synonymous with "sector" or "area" and the term's been in use ever since. But when anyone says Quadrant X and the number is 5 or greater, they are using the word incorrectly.

"He's in possibly EVERYWHERE between Y and -X!"

Even when it's used correctly, it's a useless division. The crew of Voyager were trapped in the Delta Quadrant. Star Trek divides the whole galaxy in four quadrants. If you think about this just from a mapping perspective, this is as stupid as...well, as mapping the whole galaxy by dividing it into just four quadrants. There's literally nothing that quite equals the stupidity of this. There are billions - billions - of stars in the galaxy. One-fourth as many is not an effective astrocartigraphical tool.

6. Life Signs

Everybody traveling to a new planet gets excited when there are life signs.

And no kidding. That's crazy exciting! Remember how batshit insane everyone went for two minutes when we thought there might actually be just a few bacteria on Mars?

NASA said the pictures were too blurry to draw any definite conclusions.

But that's the problem. The people who use this term are usually rugged space explorers who find new life every week. And they're not being specific.

Is it life that shows an ability to communicate? Is it intelligent life? Is it life that seems otherwise intelligent except it buys Lotto tickets? Is it just insects and spiders? Can it even move? A few shrubs would technically be life signs. As mentioned, these are hardened cosmonauts who find excitement and love in the stars on a routine basis: they would not be excited by viruses and plankton.

For that matter, an oxygen atmosphere is itself a basic life sign: all evidence suggests you don't get air like ours without plants around to create it. If you have an M-class planet* and NO life signs, THAT is worth pointing out. That means something killed all the damned life!

"Sensors show life signs" in this circumstance is a bit like saying "Sensors show indications of color." Unless you specify what kind of life signs, you're just wasting everybody's time.

*(M-class does not make the list. Star Trek defined it. It means something. It's something way too vague to have much meaning, but it does have meaning nonetheless.)

5. Interference

Often communications fail due to "interference." This is the same way that airplanes don't take off on a bright sunny day due to "weather."

There are all sorts of things that can interfere with transmissions. Ionization, solar flares, background radiation, and the constant EM field of a planet itself. But the people in these shows and books regularly communicate in real-time with planets hundreds of light years away, which has all of that in between plus other ships and planets and ten thousand billion miles of vaccuum to boot.

You know when your cell phone drops a call because you went outside the call area? Well, a starship in orbit is basically a satellite that's hundreds of years more advanced but somehow far less reliable.

Even if there were some magical element that completely neutralized your communications, that starship up in space also has nifty sensors that can pinpoint a single human being on the surface below and beam up ever atom to create a seemless duplicate back on the ship. Surely they would scan for traces of said mineral while still in orbit and suggest the three regulars and one redshirt going down avoid that area? You mean to tell me Superman doesn't take a nanosecond between every new encounter with Lex Luthor to x-ray him for Kryptonite?

Meanwhile, if you're back home on Earth and sending people in to investigate and communications freeze up, it means the same thing that it means right now: pull out, because someone either the comm guy is asleep or someone is blocking communications.

Basically, "interference" can mean anything from "actual plausible scientific problem if we were still using AM radios" to "holy shit we're being jammed and should probably be concerned" to "god damn but these writers are lazy." When what it should mean, all the time, is "if we do not hear from them in five minutes we must assume they were eaten by a space lizard."

4. Positronic

This is word that gets thrown into almost any advanced computer or robot-based story, and it means precisely nothing.

Honest. Go look. The term was invented back in the '30s by Isaac Asimov because it sounded kinda futuristic. The positron had just been discovered and positronic became a buzz word that made everything more science-y.

"The First Law: A robot will not harm a human, or through inaction allow a human to come to harm, or make fun of my sideburns, and if asked will tell me they are very pretty."

Asimov did not write hard science fiction; his stories were always about either how people reacted to robots or how the robots would react to their simple 3 Laws, not about the nuances of programming software for facial recognition or the mechanics behind their movement. He needed a way to make people who had never even conceieved of the idea of mechnical humanoids before somehow accept that a toaster could think. He appropriated a meme and every generation of science fiction readers since has unconsciously accepted that a positive polarity somehow imbues artificial intelligence with sentient cognitance. So sort of like how we use "quantum" now, anything "positronic" is basically powered by magic. Except there is an actual meaning behind "quantum," whereas if Asimov had decided robots were powered by an electronicium interface we'd never hear "positronic" again.

3. Phase

"Phased light," "Phase space," "phased state." Yeah...

"Phase" means "a state of change." The moon phases, for example. Teenagers go through phases of development. But just because something has been altered does not mean it has phased.

Phased light, for instance, is the basis for Star Trek's phasers. Well, actually, the chance to make a portmandeu out of phase and lazer is the basis for Star Treks' phasers, but never mind that. The light is "phased," which somehow makes it slow enough to dodge and capable of knocking people out without killing them. That is not the correct use of phase. Nor is a person trapped in a phased state, unless they are appearing back their regular state at regular intervals.

Thanks to sci-fi, "phase" has come to mean "prefix for when something is turned into something other than what it is." In which case, there's almost no point in even calling it that at all. Although, ironically, with this new definition the meaning of phase has itself phased.

And speaking of phasers...


Sci-fi writers want their characters to be able to shoot people, because it's awesome. But they don't want their characters killing people, because that's something only bad guys do.

And you can't use too many of these, as it has been scientifically proven that too many lightsabers in a confined space can create a black hole of sheer hells yes.

So some smarty developed the idea of a weapon shaped like a gun that knocks people out of a fight but lets them wake back up later. This is called a blaster or stunner or phaser or needler, but the effect is always the same:

They're "stunned."

Except they're not.

"Stunned" is usually just used to mean "shocked" or "overwhelmed." Even when you're hit on the head and stunned, you don't really pass out, at least not for very long. It's basically a really powerful distraction.

To clarify, the weapon this ensign is holding would not be what stuns you.

Whereas even today we have nonlethal weapons that make people lose consciousness and wet themselves to hilarious YouTube videos. They are called tazers. "Stun" does not enter into it.

Sci-fi would have you believe the term means "knocked completely unconscious in a way that won't make you snap your neck when you collapse in a heap and by the way your body disappears temporarily so the set isn't littered with extras pretending to be comatose."

1. Any term relating to FTL speeds other than FTL

Hyperspace. Subspace. Transwarp. Phase gate. Hyperlight. The list goes on.

It's those damned laws of physics. You can't go faster than the speed of light, let alone get around that pesky time dilation, but five years travel to the nearest star makes for a boring story. Writers need a way for their characters to go exponentially faster than the speed of light, and every single one of them is a complex way of saying "magic."

Hyperspace is the fourth dimension (fifth if you include time), so you'd go into a higher dimension. Realistically that would be faster, but not that much (consider travel time following a path vs. how the crow flies, then remember that it still takes about 4 1/2 hours for sunlight to reach Neptune and it just has a few asteroids in the way). Subspace is an area of space below this one which by hyperspace logic should make things move even slower. Transwarp is redundant. We talked about phasing already. The only sort of person who could say hyperlight with a straight face would probably confuse parsec as a measure of time instead of space.

Sometimes writers will explain how these things work, but the solutions area always far more improbable than the idea of going beyond the speed of light in the first place. Ironically, terms that are actually simply descriptive do far better at describing what they are. Jump Drive hops you from point A to point B, FTL engines are just that, a Stargate is a gate between stars, Slipstream is a path through space where you travel faster. The point is, the more scientific credibility writers try to give their FTL engines, the less science winds up getting involved. Whereas the Infinite Improbability Drive fully acknowledges how impossible the whole idea is, but does it anyway, no science required.