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Background

I am currently working on a small science fiction story (as referenced in a previous question of mine). The main protagonist of the story is an autistic biologist who gets stranded on an alien planet when his shuttle's landing system is sabotaged, and has to use his wits and knowledge of ecology to survive until the main ship can find him. The plot is heavily inspired by The Martian and uses a lot of similar science concepts, i.e. he figures out how to chemically produce water from shuttle fuel and grows plants for food from the seeds that his crashed shuttle was carrying.

However, the story does take place in the distant sci-fi future, a la Star Trek, and there are some bits in the story where characters use science-specific lingo or "technobabble" in dialogue to explain things that are happening on the ship, i.e. referencing the concept of ion acceleration to explain how the ship's ion propulsion works and why it went wrong in the protagonist's crashed shuttle (I referenced this NASA webpage). The protagonist is also a scientist and references biology and chemistry concepts frequently in his inner monologue.

The problem

I've received some criticism from my beta readers that I use too much of this unfamiliar lingo when I'm describing the science of the world, and that not everyone will understand the chemistry concepts that the protagonist explains to the reader through his internal monologue, such as the chemical reaction he uses to make water from jet fuel. I worry that some parts are coming across as too information-dense and want to make it easier on the reader as a whole.

I've been trying to solve this by making the explanation more casual and conversational, and avoiding using specific terms, i.e. instead of using the word "ion," the engineer could just say "charged particles." But I'm not sure that is the right approach, hence my question today.

What is the best way to avoid or mitigate dense "technobabble" and scientific lingo in a science fiction setting, and make it easier on the reader in general? How should I explain a possibly unfamiliar science concept to a general reader in a way that's engaging to read?

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    Harrison Ford (ca. 1980?) : "Well, it's a fantasy. It's not science fiction so much as it is 'space fantasy'. And it's about people. It's about... It's finally about people, and not 'finally' about science." – YouTube – Mazura Feb 12 at 4:02
  • A common technique is to incorporate the technicalities in dialogue, where the clever guy has to explain it to a lay person. – j4nd3r53n Feb 12 at 9:43
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    You do understand that there is a science fiction niche where plausible use of science and correct technical language is highly appreciated, right? – lvella Feb 12 at 14:24
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    @Mazura OP is not trying to write science fantasy, though. I'm unsure how your comment is relevant. This story seems to be science-focused, which is a subgenre of science fiction. – user91988 Feb 12 at 17:40
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    Using 'charged particle' for 'ion' is clumsy and inept. Any scientifically and technologically knowlegeable reader would regard that as silly, if not stupid, & mark you down on your scientific comprehension. The problem may be with your beta readers. Choose beta readers with some knowledge of science-fiction and/or science. If you're aiming for a readership similar to The Martian expect them to be SF and scientifically aware. They don't want to be written down to. You need better beta readers. – a4android Feb 13 at 3:15

10 Answers 10

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Remember that 100% of what is in your book is there because you want it to impact the reader in one way or another. Nothing absolutely has to be in there except what you choose. If it isn't serving the story, and your aims as a writer, yank it out.

With that in mind, let's examine what you're trying to do with these problematic sections:

  1. Maybe it's misplaced worldbuilding: It's good to have all the science worked out for your world, and to know all the explanations, but does the reader really want all that? Why? Science is in the background for most of us, most of the time, it doesn't need to be foregrounded just because this is a science-fiction setting. When you go about your day, you use a lot of advanced technology - elevators, smart phones, a laptop, smarthome technology, et cetera. You don't go through a long internal monologue about how each one works every time you use it, you just use it. The same can be true of your characters, and the more familiar they are with this technology, the less they will consciously think about it.

  2. You want the reader to be confused, because...: Sometimes it's good to confuse the reader, because that's the effect you're aiming for --as when, for instance, you want to put the reader in the mind and POV of a confused character. But it sounds like this character is on top of the science, so that can't be the motivation here.

  3. It's there to give the flavor of the setting: That's not bad, but all flavors should be used sparingly, so they don't burn out the taste buds. A little judicious salting with the technobabble will go a long way.

  4. The character is deliberately being presented as boringly nerdy: If your story isn't being presented from the main character's point of view, then you might want to give the reader the experience of being subjected to mind-numbingly long and detailed technical explanations, because that's the experience of the people around him. But if that's the case, think about what that experience would actually be like. You'd only really listen to the first few words. After that, you'd just tune him out.

    Roger rushed up to me, overcome with excitement. "The ion decoupler turned out to have positronic contamination!" he shouted. "I figured it out when I defibulated the electrostatic diode with the stacktracer." I subtly rolled my eyes at Frank as Roger kept on going. He discovered something like this every single day of the week.

  5. The technology is the point of the story: As @terdon mentioned in the comments, some readers love long technical explanations. But even in that case, it still needs to work in the context of the story. If the story is here primarily to illuminate the technology, you need to come up with a compelling reason why, which means you'll need a POV character who (a) is not familiar with the technology and (b) desperately needs to understand it deeply for some plausible reason. A good example --although using a magical technology, not a scientific one --is Lyndon Hardy's Master of the 5 Magics. The reader doesn't mind detailed descriptions of the book's multiple magical technologies, because the hero needs to master them in order to save the world (and because there are dark forces trying to prevent him from learning them, which gives them the added appeal of forbidden knowledge and secrets).

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    +1 for (1): people will use "short" words to describe even the most complex inventions and never care about how they work, only about the effect. This is, i fear, the greatest failing of many science fictions authors: they are so engrossed in describing the world they came up with, that they forget basic human behavior. – Matthieu M. Feb 12 at 13:41
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    @MatthieuM. that's a fair point, but on the other hand, there are readers (myself, for example) who are really, really into the technical explanations found in "hard" scifi. It comes down to who your audience is, but there are times when detailed scientific explanation will be welcomed by the right audience. One of the greatest pleasures I get from reading scifi is the when the author takes the time to present a technology (real or imagined) in detail. It takes all sorts :) – terdon Feb 12 at 18:28
  • @terdon: Oh sure, I'm just saying there's a time and place for everything. I don't mind the explanation (although I'm disappointed when it falls short), however it just breaks my suspension of disbelief when in a stress situation the hero screams "load the warp-enabled laser-beamed ion-thrusted torpedos". – Matthieu M. Feb 12 at 19:09
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    Point #1 reminded me of "If all stories were written like science fiction stories" by Mark Rosenfelder, which is a deliberate example of misplaced worldbuilding. (Could use a better title though...) – MJ713 Feb 13 at 4:31
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    Point 3 you can see at great work in 2001: a space odyssey. Ranging from Dr. Heywood Floyd explaining how artificial gravity works on flight to a space station to Frank Poole wondering about AI during a chess match against HAL 9000. What makes it good is that it isn't solely "tech", it's describing the effects of various things on the persons. – paul23 Feb 14 at 5:04
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If you watch enough Star Trek (at least the good series... the bad ones tend to do groan worthy stuff that makes no sense) you'll find that the "Royal Smart Person" will rattle off a string of technobabble and immediately follow it up with the "For the dummies in the back" analogy to something that's a bit more common for the people to understand. In the 24th Century of TNG, the audience would be lost when Geordie says that they could find the Romulan ships with a beam of charged tachyons transmitted between multiple ship's deflector arrays. Calling this a "web" or "net" helps the view understand what this is going to do as it will basically detect a cloaked ship crossing the beams and allow them to "see" the invisible ship. The original TOS episode that Introduced the Romulans basically explained cloaked ships as akin to "submarine warfare" which the viewers would instantly get.

The trick then isn't to explain what is going "under the engine" of the Ion Thruster, but rather that it will "spin the wheels of the space ship" in a mannner of speaking to help them visualize the concept. I have to admit, I'm a NASA fanboy and probably could tell you a lot of boring technical specs for the shuttle as a sixth grader, and I'm having a hard time with understanding what's going on with an Ion engine.

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  • This is actually a really funny and cool way to solve the problem of overexplaining. I can completely imagine my protagonist rattling off a bunch of confusing science stuff, and then remember that not everyone knows what he's talking about and hastily backpedal and give a layman's explanation. Great answer! – Sciborg Feb 11 at 16:09
  • @Sciborg: Thanks. Used to run Star Trek RPs and this was the advise given to my players when playing a "Royal Smart Person." Give us the babble, but then turn it into a concept we can relate too (as a GM it also helped with how I described the damn thing working on success and failure). It also helped that Trek does have a glossary of technobabble that is fairly consistent. Tachyons typically have to do with cloaking devices, chronotons were time travel related, dilitium was used in the warp cores, ect. – hszmv Feb 11 at 16:23
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    @Sciborg Another good example of the babble and analogy is in the 2009 film when all the ships jump to warp except the Enterprise. Sulu punched it but the ship didn't go anywhere, causing Captain Pike to quip "Is the Parking Break on." Sulu then identifies the problem as he had the inertial dampeners engaged... which among their many uses in Trek, being the ship's "parking break" is one of their functions (they also keep the crew from going splat against the bulkhead when they accelerate or decelerate from FTL speeds. A running gag is no one writing the show knows how they work in series) – hszmv Feb 11 at 16:28
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    The simplest way to illustrate this from Trek is from Roddenberry himself. If you want something to sound "legitimate" in a science fiction story, just use it. He said (approximately) "In a detective story, the policeman doesn't spend a lot of time explaining how a gun works. It just works." Adopt the same concept here. The abject refusal to adhere to this concept was exactly why so much of TNG was bathed in really lame, groan-worthy "treknobabble." If you have a tech device, it just works. Don't explain it. The harder you explain it, the more you don't believe in it. – David W Feb 12 at 16:18
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    @O.R.Mapper: Right... the analogy need not be perfect... few analogies are perfect, but it's a way to explain the gist of the concept. The Damperners don't work exactly like a car's break and no one is saying that, but they do a functionally similar equivelent (stops the vehicle from going places you don't want the vehicle to go when the engine is not on). It's not stopping the ship from any required movement... it's stopping it from undesired movement. You can actually scale this down, as a parked car still "moves" as the earth rotates. – hszmv Feb 14 at 13:52
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I, personally, hate one of suggested approaches of "following it up with for the dummies in the back", which seems to be very popular in US-made works. It just screams: "Hey, reader, me, hero is smart and you and all those other characters around me are dumb, allow me to explain my brilliance to you, troglodytes!" It is especially painful if it follows with explanation of some trivial concept from middle-school.

First, make sure that your technobabble-loaded solution of problem IS actually necessary - i.e. it is entertaining to see that your protagonist will figure it out. Then identify what parts of it could be "unknown" for general reader. And then start slowly introducing them into hero's musings or observations with explanations using general enough terms. There are many different ways to do that and you can use different approach for each separate piece of technobabble: for one piece, hero will remember something from his past, for another he will see something going around him on planet that will remind him of important properties of second piece, make him solve a minor task with third piece in a way that is a simplified version of what he will do later, etc.

Ideally, thanks for this slow foreshadowing and building up, savvy reader should figure out hero's solution just along with him or a bit earlier without any heavy all-in-one-page infodumping or treating reader like an idiot. And people who already knew details would be happy to see them used properly as the story goes on, have their Genius Bonus and warm feeling of being right when figuring where all this going in advance.

(Personal anecdote: I know I was happy when hero of ΛLDNOΛH.ZERO faced mech with full-body impenetrable force field and I immediately thought: "but if no kind of radiation, including light can break through, then how does it see at all?" and then through the episode hero asked same question and figured out that it uses remote drones that can be blocked in several ways and that there should be a weakpoint where receiver can get transmission from those.)

For some examples you could read Jules Verne books or Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories - there's a great deal of physics and chemistry-based story points in many of those that are seamlessly explained.

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  • Great answer! Welcome to Writing! – Weckar E. Feb 12 at 0:01
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Technobabble is in the eye of the POV character.

TV shows have a limitation. They mostly can convey what happens by showing it happen. Sometimes they can convey stuff by having characters talk about what happen, but you still have to listen to them talk. Very rarely, mostly in comedy, will the narrator just talk over characters and explain something more briefly.

In books though, the writer has full control. Lines like "Spock went into the technical details of the plan, but by then Kirk had completely blocked him out focusing on the cute alien women" are always available to you. You can easily cut out any part of the conversation you don't think the reader needs, while still indicating that it happen.

So the question then is when do we need techno babble? How much should we keep? We should ask ourselves why do we have it. I am going to go to two quotes here.

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic in a satisfying way is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic - Sanderson's Laws of Magic

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -Arthur C. Clarke

So this is where technobabble usually comes in. The writer needs to create an almost deus ex machina solution, so they feel like they need to explain it. This is usually just bad writing, no matter how much fake science you introduce. The solution of the problem should come from the characters, not the technology the reader does not understand. If you do want to use tech like this, you need to spend lots of time ahead of the climax explaining to the reader what tech exists in the world. Make sure they know what it can do, explain it in simple terms and then use it later.

The other source of technobabble is character building. We often want to show characters as technophilic or finding it hard to relate to average folk, or the opposite simple minded and spoken. In this case writers use technobabble to alienate characters from each other and sometimes the reader. If you want to do this, you don't need a lot. Just a few sentences of as much nonsense as you want will do.

So in conclusion, use your POV character to filter noise. If he likes technology, show that through some technobabble, but don't focus on it for too long. If he hates other characters for using it, show that. If the reader must know how something works, have them explain it in simple terms.

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  • @AmaiKotori Thank you, I fixed it – Andrey Feb 11 at 16:05
  • This is a great answer, thank you! The POV character is a scientist and that's been part of my struggle in reducing technobabble, since part of his character is that he's a giant nerd and loves tech stuff :p but I'll take this advice! – Sciborg Feb 11 at 16:07
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Maybe you shouldn't mitigate it. Maybe your readers like it.

In the movie "The Martian," they didn't mitigate the science. They highlighted the science.

If you're going to write science fiction, go ahead and make it sciencey.

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    I'm afraid "Don't" is hardly an appropriate answer to "How do I X?" The asker seems to have encountered a problem and is looking for a solution. I'm happy for you that it is not a problem for you, though, and I'm looking forward to your future questions and answers. – Weckar E. Feb 11 at 23:59
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    @WeckarE. Au contraire, mon ami. The question is based on the proposition 'I have a problem'. This does mean that others will examine the proposition and its circumstances, and decide no you don't, you only think you do. Ignore it and go ahead. This is a valid answer. In other places, it would be called a 'frame-challenge'. Good job in welcoming the poster to Writing SE. – a4android Feb 13 at 3:24
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I think mitigation of technobabble in a good science fiction comes from technical language being used meaningfully. Using a string of fancy scientific language to make a character seem smart is generally the kind of technobabble people hate; it pisses off non-technical readers by making them feel confused, and pisses off technical readers even more because they know the scientific jargon is meaningless.

A good exercise is to watch how genuine scientists speak. They will use technical terms when it's the most efficient way to convey an otherwise lengthy concept, but generally speaking unless they're the most egotistical, pretentious scientist in the world, they don't like to fill the room with jargon-based hot air. There's science to be done and ideas to be conveyed, after all; they need to be understood ASAP. Hence when a technical term isn't required, most scientists... speak like normal people.

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"What is the best way to avoid or mitigate dense "technobabble" and scientific lingo in a science fiction setting..."

hszmv and Andrey both have great answers. I was also thinking that you could gloss over some of the stuff you consider to be babble and focus on the key features.

"...and make it easier on the reader in general?"

If you don't want to gloss over, and you want to show your protagonist doing their super-cool-smart-science-thing, then maybe you could use simpler terms for all of the gadget titles. I don't just mean "charged particles" instead of "ions". What about nicknames? You briefly introduce the technical device towards the beginning of the story (or whenever it becomes relevant), explain to the reader what it does, and coin a simple nickname that points to its function. Do that for a few of them, and the ones that matter will stand out and the reader will have a stronger connection to them. The others may not matter as much and could fade to the background.

"How should I explain a possibly unfamiliar science concept to a general reader in a way that's engaging to read?"

As for the engagement for the general reader, you could use metaphors or comparisons to show how things work. I'm no experienced writer or tech person, but I do know that metaphors can often click on figurative levels that stick with you better and that you can understand then the literal version.

Hope this is at least a bit helpful. Have fun with your sci-fi story.

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    While I do agree it might be helpful to "skip" the technical explination, the spiritual influence of the Martian worked because 99% of the science checks out (the storm that caused the whole problem is the one big scientific inaccuracies... there isn't enough atmosphere on Mars to create a storm that severe). Additionally, its very in character for an autistic person to assume that the audience has the same level of interest and knowledge of the babble that he wouldn't immediately see a problem with overly technical explanations. – hszmv Feb 11 at 16:17
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    Okay, thanks. Also I didn't know there was autism involved - I guess that changes things – Tasch Feb 11 at 16:24
  • Just realized it says autism right in the question - my apologies! – Tasch Feb 12 at 15:22
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To someone who doesn't read SF, this may seem like a very highly focused technical question about one tiny issue in writing SF. But to me, as a lifelong SF reader, this seems impossibly broad. This is sort of like asking, "I want to learn to do oil painting. How do I use brush-strokes?"

To narrow things down more, I would suggest you start by narrowing down the style that you're trying for. From your question, it sounds like you're trying for something like hard SF along the lines of Hal Clement. If so, then I don't think the answers using Star Trek as a model are at all helpful. I love Star Trek, but (a) it's TV, and (b) it's not hard SF. Star Trek ToS is Horatio Hornblower with the stage dressing switched around so that the scenery going by the ship is stars rather than waves. In some of the later spin-offs, the technobabble so awful that it's useful as a model of what not to do.

Once you've narrowed down the sub-genre, read work written work by masters in that sub-genre and study how they accomplish what they want to do. I'm not actually a big fan of Hal Clement-style hard SF, so in order to come up with a good example, I'm going to revert to a style that I actually have read a lot of, which is exemplified by Robert Heinlein. Heinlein's style could probably be described as "social science fiction" -- a term that was used in a somewhat ill-defined way by critics at one time, but that I'll use here to mean basically that the topic he's interested in is human beings, and the science is secondary. Heinlein knew his science pretty well (he was an aerospace engineer), and his work does sometimes involve exposition of science and scientific puzzles. But his goal was to talk about anarchism, personal fulfillment, mother-son incest, and ... well, stuff like that. So the science serves his purposes. For example, I just re-read The Puppet Masters (1951), which is the original presentation of the SFnal idea where alien parasites take over people's minds. He does have some actual science in there, like discussions of mathematical epidemiology, but it's basically all secondary to (and usually in order to serve) the main point of the book, which is an explicit extended metaphor for totalitarian communism. So if this was the genre you wanted to write in, then the thing to do would be to read work like this, and analyze how the technical thing you're trying to do is accomplished.

If I was trying to glean from The Puppet Masters some specific help with the technique of doing science in a way that's appropriate to the subgenre, then an example would be the following. The protagonist is a superduper secret agent who can kill with his hands, but he's also an intellectual generalist who has an open mind, treats expert opinions with skepticism, performs experiments (well, personal and violent ones), and has a strong background in math as a foundation. This set of personal characteristics make him an appropriate person to interact with others in interesting ways in fighting a battle that has scientific contours. So if your story was meant to be in this genre (which it isn't), then maybe a lesson to learn from this artistic example would be that you should have chosen different characteristics for your protagonist, or you should have given him ways to interact with someone who has more suitable personal characteristcs. Your protag is unsuitable for story purposes (in the social-sf subgenre) because he's an expert, knows too much, doesn't have other people explaining things to him.

You refer to beta readers, but this raises the question of whether your beta readers know what they're talking about, and whether or not they're your target audience. If they're people who like Andre Norton novels, and you're trying to write in a Hal Clement style, then you could be doing an awesome Hal Clement, and they're still going to give you negative feedback. If you're writing hard SF and you want feedback from someone who actually likes and understands hard SF, then you need to solicit feedback from that specific type of person. One such type of person is the slush pile reader at a magazine like Analog. When they reject your ms, possibly with no specific comments, then go down the list of hard SF venues to less and less selective markets. Start collecting rejection slips. While story #1 is out making the rounds, start working on story #2. If your work is at all serious as an attempt at story-writing, then the editors at the lower-end markets will almost certainly sometimes give you a sentence or two of feedback along with a rejection.

Good luck!

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    Um, if you're going suggesting beta readers familiar with subgenres, you might want to consider that they're familiar with authors who have work less than a half-century old. Too many SF readers seem to think that no one has written anything since. Clement, for example, came up with mew interesting settings and he could get away with pretty shallow stories because it was new and novel. Thing is, those types of things aren't new and novel any more so you can't depend on the reader to overlook things like he could. – Keith Morrison Feb 13 at 5:15
  • @KeithMorrison: My answer is not about specific authors, it's about general approaches to learning technique. As examples, I used authors with whom I'm familiar and who I think exemplify specific sub-genres. In online interactions, you may want to consider whether sarcasm particles like "um" contribute positively to the discussion. – Ben Crowell Feb 14 at 2:16
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Have you read the Ender Series? And its Formic War Trilogy? The difference is fairly stark sometimes.

The original series treats most things the way we treat cars, internet, and smartphones. Just as a matter of course. It only explains just enough to develop character (often two ver charismatic characters trying to explain something to the other in a back and forth converstation rather than the author just describing it) or to let you know why something is important or its ramifications so you understand the plot.

Then in the Formic Wars there are some long sections describing the functionality and use of gear that sound like a director's screenplay rather than a book and which sucks to read. It sometimes gets into way too much detail about how the technology works and what it does (parts about a soldier describing how he is using all his gear, scopes, HUDs, and drones to infiltrate a facility) and it is just not relevant to the story. It might work on-screen where charisma and acting can carry it through, but it sticks out like a sore thumb on a page.

If you try to explain how something works, it had better be obvious to the reader fairly quickly why they should be interested in what you're saying. (i.e. it is crucial to the long term plot, etc.), and not sound like someone trying to describe something in a screenplay. That is, don't describe things that would have never had their absence noticed if you had not drawn attention to them by talking about them unless they are relevant. If my mind automatically filled in the blanks, don't try and overwrite that with your own overly detailed description or one of two things will happen:

  • I will just notice how lacking your description was compared to something in my mind or,
  • I will notice it is taking up way too much useless text if you do try and use enough words equal something in my mind.

In other words, so long as they are not important, let me take for granted the things that I take for granted.

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I've a little experience writing sci-fi, so take my advice with at least half a pinch of salt, but here's my way of looking at it:

he figures out how to chemically produce water from shuttle fuel and grows plants for food from the seeds that his crashed shuttle was carrying.

Sci-fi explains how things are done with two motives: to make it seem plausible, and to introduce an important premise for the plot. As an example of the latter, the Doctor Who episode The Waters of Mars explains how Martian geography provided the base with a water supply, but it turns out, despite purification efforts, to have an unexpected alien contaminant that causes the plot. Therefore, there's no reason to explain such former-motive minutiae as what contaminants they would expect (such as perchlorates, not that I know much about Martian polar caps), how the water is melted and pumped against gravity, and so on.

I think your problem may be you are too verbose with regards to the plausibility motive. If you're worried, "Luckily, I knew how to make water from rocket fuel" sounds too much like convenience to people who don't know water can be made from hydrazine, you can still achieve your goals with, "Luckily, the rocket had enough hydrazine left over to make water." That one sentence is all it takes to cover hydrogenesis, it only has one word in it, and a few seconds of Googling will make the reader realize, "oh, so that's a thing in fuel you can turn into water, cool". You can do something similar with growing food from seeds: the only real challenge is how you productively use Martian soil, but it'll come down to a reaction with one reagent or product you can name fast before you move on.

The mechanism is unimportant; its requirements are all you need to mention. The obvious exception is if you want to explain that A was done instead of B, which would also work, because it has advantage C. There are works that take the time to do that, quite successfully, in part because of niche readers.

characters use science-specific lingo or "technobabble" in dialogue to explain things that are happening on the ship, i.e. referencing the concept of ion acceleration to explain how the ship's ion propulsion works and why it went wrong in the protagonist's crashed shuttle (I referenced this NASA webpage).

Please tell me you didn't put a hyperlink in your novel! Apart from practical reasons readers either can't or won't read it, or may even not know it's there, it means you've not narrowed down what they have to read. "All of it" sends the wrong message. The right message is the rocket uses an ion engine because it makes the ship lighter, so it's just more practical. In theory, that one fact is all you need anyone to say. In practice, why would they say it, when they're all spacefarers who know it? I suppose you could work around that with the token ignoramus who needs it explained, or the ion engine salesman who mentions these new ships are the most lightweight ones on the market; I'll let you decide which is least cliché to insert.

The protagonist is also a scientist and references biology and chemistry concepts frequently in his inner monologue.

In my opinion, this would also benefit from the light-touch approach I describe above. How you word it depends on their personality. Autistic or not, they might use a common speech style, e.g. "You've gotta work out half the day or this micrograv'll waste you away." Might. I don't know why you made the character autistic, but it presents an opportunity you likely already picked up on as a writer: part of their character development can be gradually improving the way they talk about things to other people so they won't feel overwhelmed, while his own thought processes either don't change in this way or do so more slowly. (Admittedly, the isolation in the plot limits the fraction of the story in which talking to other people comes up, but every conversation that survives must be made to count.)

not everyone will understand the chemistry concepts that the protagonist explains to the reader through his internal monologue, such as the chemical reaction he uses to make water from jet fuel. I worry that some parts are coming across as too information-dense and want to make it easier on the reader as a whole.

As I said, you can explain very succinctly. There is a way to make water from hydrazine. I can already visualize a pre-isolation scene where your character explains it in more detail, only for an exasperated person to snap they don't care how it's done. If your protagonist's first explanation of something in the story is the only one that overdoes it, you'll benefit in several ways:

  • Readers will be happy most if not all of the time;
  • "Do you know your onions?" sci-fi readers will be convinced you know them fast;
  • Your plot will dovetail nicely with your characterization. Getting snapped at like that will have an effect on your character that's bound to be obvious as it unfolds.

You know what? I owe you an apology. I keep rewriting your story. Let's make that a full pinch of salt now.

I've been trying to solve this by making the explanation more casual and conversational, and avoiding using specific terms, i.e. instead of using the word "ion," the engineer could just say "charged particles." But I'm not sure that is the right approach, hence my question today.

What's charge? What's a particle? Who can answer both questions, but was sleeping when their science teacher said what an ion was? How annoyed will "smart" readers be that you seem to think every charged particle is an ion? (I suppose you could argue an electron is a mono-negative anion of neutronium-0, but no!) You get the worst of both words with that example. You can afford one "dammit I'll have to Google that" word every 2,000 or so - just use it, then move on. As I've said, the problem is how long you explore why ion thrusters are great, not that you mention ions exist.

What is the best way to avoid or mitigate dense "technobabble" and scientific lingo in a science fiction setting, and make it easier on the reader in general?

The only response I can give consistent with the above advice is to use it a bit, but use it in a very different way from the one your beta readers have detected.

How should I explain a possibly unfamiliar science concept to a general reader in a way that's engaging to read?

OK, that's the one situation I've not adequately addressed so far. Let's take an example: growing seeds in the Martian soil. As noted here, the nutrients aren't the hard part. The hard part is (i) not having much of what else plants want - light, heat, carbon dioxide and (ii) having to leach out poisonous perchlorates. You can explain one or both of these, and you can go into a lot of detail or not very much. But it needs to be a level of detail that fits the scene. If it were a dialogue, you can imagine:

"How are you gonna make fertilizer?" "That's not even the problem." "What is, then?" "The soil's poisoned. We can fix it, but it wastes a lot of power."

The plot, personalities etc. drive the exposition. In your case, though, it wouldn't be in dialogue. There's still such a thing as fitting the scene, though, because an inner monologue will still contain a certain sequence of thoughts, just like dialogue does. So you might have something like:

"The soil seemed all right when I looked at it. Well, the scan found slightly more perchlorate poisoning than I'd planned on. Oh, well, I could fix that, it just meant sparing a bit more power for water treatment."

Again, my point isn't that that's literally what you should write. It might not even suit your character. The point is to think about what our explanations are actually for. My null hypothesis is that their purpose is adequately suited by this kind of succinct aside. It might be a wrong hypothesis, but I suggest starting in this small way, then building on it if you decide it's insufficient.

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