If you think about it, a lot of the impossible (to science as we know it, anyway) concepts in sci-fi are never really explained.
There's a very good reason for that: if we had a good explanation then it probably wouldn't be science fiction - we'd be doing it!
As a rule, the more far out the idea, the vaguer any "explanation" will be. Something that's close to existing capability will likely be grounded in plausible science with only a slight extrapolation. But faster than light travel, for example, is usually founded on one of a few basic ideas (such as wormholes, or hyperspace) plus a whole load of hand-waving. Did Star Trek ever really explain warp drive? Or phasers? Or transporter beams? Nope. All they did was throw in a few techie-sounding terms to hide the fact that they honestly had no clue how these technologies worked.
And I think my previous post was, amongst other things, a rant against gratuitous hand-waving. Especially that where the sole aim is to make the writer look sciency and clever.
So, on the past post, Mooderino brought up the example of Asimov's three laws of robotics.
I say this is an outstanding example of exactly what I'm trying to illustrate - and not in a bad way.
The way I see it, Asimov's three laws deal exclusively with the real-world effect of the technology, stuff that people around the robots would be aware of and which underpins everything they do. What they don't do is make any attempt to explain how robots work!
In fact, for all its hard sci-fi edge, most of Asimov's robot stories are a fascinating delve into an alternate psychology. The plots revolve around how the three laws interact with the real world in sometimes unforseen ways.
This is 100% in keeping with the theme of my last post: show me how the technology is used, don't blind me with the science of how it works.
In this case, understanding the three laws is fundamental to understanding the story, so they are quoted repeatedly to keep them top of mind. Where I think Asimov strayed a little (Gasp! Heresy!) is when he talks about the robots' positronic brains.
To the world at that time, anti-matter was a cool and happening thing in science. So dropping a term like "positronic" into the text probably sounded a good idea at the time.
But my scientifically-literate mind now wonders why positrons are such a big deal. As far as we know, they are nothing more than electrons with a positive charge, so why would a positronic brain be any better than an electronic one? Apart from sounding marginally cooler. OK, maybe science will uncover some new property of positrons, or some way of using them, that offers real advantages, but until then the term nowadays dates the story.
Worse, I can't think of anywhere in those stories where the positronic nature of robots' brains was in any way important to the story. In other words, the term was dropped in there to no good purpose.
OK, Asimov didn't belabour the point, so although I think he shot himself in the foot I say it was only a flesh wound. But if he'd gone further and tried to dazzle the reader with details of how these brains worked, and how they actually implemented the laws (something I always wondered, knowing how difficult it is to program computers to do anything remotely non-stupid) then I suspect he'd have fallen flat on his face.
Other comments made me realise that my qualms about explanations apply mostly to technology that is well-established in the sci-fi world. There may be good reasons why some sop to intellectual curiosity might be appropriate.
(1) To keep your reader engaged. If the idea is so barking mad that simply dropping it out on the page and expecting your reader to accept it ain't going to fly, then you need something to stem the intellectual gag reflex. That might include some hint of explanation to bring the idea back into the realms of sanity.
(2) The technology is ground-breaking even in your speculative world. So the characters themselves are either going to have a hard time buying it, or be overawed by its sheer awesomeness. Then a bit of preening and showing-off of kick-ass cleverness might be natural.
(3) You may actually be writing for the kind of audience that says "I'm only reading the crummy story to get at all the cool tech stuff." In which case, I guess my only defence is that I'm not that kind of reader, and that is not my audience.