I just read How would a physicist explain this starship engine?. I actually like the question, but I wonder if it's opening a bag of worms?

The Cons I See

  • When I asked the community about the "technobabble" tag created for one or more questions, the community responded with a resounding "NO!" Questions of the type "how would X explain Y?" touch on this issue, because explaining a fictional concept in terms of physics is still technobabble.

  • The question type appears to be intrinsically primarily opinion-based in that there is no possible way for the OP to determine which is the best answer. He/she must either depend on popular vote to identify it or we must accept that the "best answer" will only be the answer the OP believes best meets the narrative necessity of his/her story.1

The Pros I See

  • I could easily imagine this becoming a popular question type. Most authors lack the expertise in some if not many of the professions and vocations represented in their stories. Help from people that "speak the lingo" to describe a world rule or system is a fundamental necessity.

  • The challenge of trying to crowbar fiction into science piques my interest.

Question: Should "how would X explain Y?" questions be on-topic or off-topic?

  • Please justify your perspective within the Stack Exchange framework. Because, at the end of the day, if we can't support the idea via SE, it's moot.

1If the OP had the credentials to actually pick a best answer based on the the science, why bother asking the question? This harks back to the "Only Three Books" questions wherein it was impossible for the OP to make a rational "best answer" decision.


3 Answers 3


I think asking this kind of question is not a problem. It's just a poor way to ask "I have this concept, does it sound ok?". This kind of question goes well with tags related to magic, science and/or reality-check.

I don't like the example question, but I don't see any reason to downvote it or VTC.

After all... In the process of building a world, there is the process of coming up with how reality works in it, and there are processes of:

  • explaining it to others
  • Making sense of how the people in the world see their reality.

As long as the question focuses on the logic and consistence of the world of the two points above, and not on how to deliver it to a reader, it is on topic here (and probably off-topic on Writing.SE).

  • $\begingroup$ sounds very much off-topic for writing.SE! $\endgroup$ Commented May 22, 2019 at 4:37
  • $\begingroup$ Strong +1 for your "Making sense of how the people in the world see their reality" point. $\endgroup$ Commented May 29, 2019 at 16:15

Given Cons are Non-Issues

  • I really don't see how the community not wanting a "technobabble" tag bears any relationship to responses that may or may not contain actual technobabble. That's a non-issue for me.
  • All (or nearly all) queries asked in WB.SE are to some degree seeking an opinion. The broad array of answers bears out this observation. Generally speaking, unless an OP is literally asking for opinions, I don't VTC on that basis.
  • Narrative necessity might not be the best term in this instance. Narrative Necessity is the some person, event or object that must exist in order for your story to happen. Asking about how that some thing might be explained in world is, I think, just marginally better than asking permission to put that some thing in one's world in the first place. (Because the answer to that, obviously, is "yes, you may, on account of Narrative Necessity". The starship engine itself, for example: that's needed to move the story from place to place.)

Pros are Really Good Reasons to Allow

  • Ultimately, this kind of question, when viewed and answered from a strictly in-world perspective, are obvious geopoetical queries. They are of the "systems" type of question.

I'd Suggest a New Con, However

  • You may notice that I've been dancing around the narrative aspect of such queries. My concern is that such questions will very easily fall into the trap of being too story based. When framed or asked poorly, this kind of question becomes more a matter of character development and plot points than a question about world systems or the nature of sciences in an other world.

My answer therefore is:


These questions are on topic. Notice that the OP in the quoted question does a good job of steering away from falling into a story based trap. They don't outright seek a merely technobabble answer, but seems to be seeking a deeper explanation. Opinion is part and parcel of a WB related answer, but the OP I think gives sufficient information and sufficient restrictions on respondents that a series of reasonably non-opinionated opinion based answers could be provided, from among which the OP can decide which does the best job of answering all conditions.

I'd actually consider the quoted starship drive query to be something of a model of this type of question, to be frank. The OP gives a bit of background, a number of required and optional conditions, points considered crucial to the formulation of an answer, and a pre-emptive clarification in order to avoid "impossible" answers.


I myself asked a question which I reformulated in the text as "How would biologists explain such or such gene incidences observations?"

The question was well received, and arguably would still have if formulated in that way. In that case at least, asking for a specific point of view is only a way to stress that everyone's opinion is not equally valuable because the answer requires technical skills.


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