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Phlebotinum du Jour

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"Ah, carbon nanotubes. They are to modern half-assed science fiction what 'radiation' was to half-assed science fiction fifty years ago."
Jeph Jacques, Questionable Content

As time goes by, Science Marches On. Science fiction and science fantasy march along dutifully behind it, picking up whatever the latest "hot" science is and putting it to work as Applied Phlebotinum.

This happy state of affairs lasts only a certain period of time, however. Eventually, the general public comes to understand a certain piece of science enough that they're more likely to call BS and lose their Willing Suspension of Disbelief when they see it used in a blatantly impossible way. Or the concept simply becomes cliché once a new and more intriguing science comes along to take its place.

This can lead to readers of speculative fiction having difficulty reading works written a few decades ago and taking them seriously, because "everyone knows lightning can't do that, and neither can radiation!" They didn't when the work was created, but oh well. That's just a challenge of writing in this particular genre.

The phenomenon of outdated phlebotinum tends to dog comic book superheroes in particular, at least the Science Hero types or those who got their powers in a Freak Lab Accident. Often as part of a Reboot or Cosmic Retcon, a hero or villain will have their origin story updated to use a newer form of phlebotinum if the old one has gotten too stale for modern audiences. Compare Meta Origin.

Here is a rough timeline of phlebotinum through the ages. The decades are very approximate — earlier, isolated examples may exist. Also, the expiration date of various phlebotinum varies widely; some types wear out in a decade while others are still in use thirty years after their introduction. "Soft" sci-fi can get away with using scientific theories that "hard" sci-fi has given up on, and of course a particularly clever writer may decide to dig up some rusty old phlebotinum and put a new shine on it, just for kicks. So isolated examples of old phlebotinum in new bottles show up from time to time even though that particular type is well past its sell-by date.


  • If we decide to count all the mythical herbs granting immortality or other powers as Phlebotinum, then herbalism is probably the oldest one in the book.
  • Artisanal skills such as blacksmithing. Much like the arcane knowledge of scientists inspires notions of super-science even today, myths and legends often saw "he's a really good craftsman" as explanation enough for flying machines and the like.
  • Alchemy was widely practised in Eurasia in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Era. Alchemists tried to do all sorts of things, from turning base metals like lead into noble metals like gold, to making an elixir of immortality.

Early Phlebotinum

  • Mechanical gears and optics (E. T. A. Hoffmann, L. Frank Baum)
  • Steam power
  • Electricity, particularly lightning. (Frankenstein's Monster)
    • Jules Verne was HUGE on electricity, with some of its uses proposed by him not being realized even today; all-electric ship-sized helicopter anyone?note 
  • Magnetism
  • Mesmerism (Edgar Allan Poe's The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar)
    • Do note that as originally understood (at least by its creator), Mesmerism was not hypnosis, but rather a ritual combining mysticism and electricity to adjust what Mesmer called a person's "animal magnetism" or "life force". It was not until later that it was realized that all of his electrical apparatus and magnetism theories were wrong, and he had instead accidentally invented hypnosis in the experiments/rituals.
  • Vivisection or radical surgery (The Island of Doctor Moreau)
  • Radio waves and microwaves
    • One of H. P. Lovecraft's characters uses a cathode ray tube against an Eldritch Abomination. Oddly (or not so — nowadays, you wouldn't expect an X-ray device to kill on the spot), it fails while old-fashioned fire and acid work fine.
    • The term "aether" just meant a supposed medium for electromagnetic waves, but the word itself comes from Ancient Greek philosophy and has a vaguely mystical ring to it. Perhaps for this reason, it's milked for Electromagnetic Ghosts and every other manner of radio-related weirdness.
  • Radiation and radioactivity
    • Started with the discovery of X-rays in 1895 and the radioactivity of uranium in 1896. Got particularly popular after the discovery of radium in 1911, with various near-miraculous properties attributed to it. Very rapidly became much less popular in the 1920s when people learned what the green-glowing paint could do to you.
    • Jules Verne lived just long enough to feature this one in one of his last novels, "The Chase of the Golden Meteor", published posthumously in 1908.
  • Eugenics
  • Chemistry Can Do Anything, particularly the pharmaceutical type (Cap's super-soldier serum, Dr. Jekyll's formula)
  • Mathematical formulae (source of the original Johnny Quick's speed in The Flash, and much of the "magic" in H. P. Lovecraft's works.)

1950s-1970s Phlebotinum

  • Nuclear energy, including bombs, reactors, and radiation-induced mutation
  • Polarity reversal
  • Untapped mental potential
    • Heavily popularized by John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, which became Analog; he was extremely open-minded towards the paranormal and encouraged his writers to use it, and that meant most important writers in science fiction for several decades.
    • "Indigo children", coined by New Age psychic Nancy Ann Tappe in the '70s to describe children with special or supernatural traits. The idea proved especially popular in Japanese works (e.g., the "newtypes" of Mobile Suit Gundam, 1979), due to a belief that the atomic bomb blasts of World War II altered the DNA of unborn children and subsequent generations.
  • Genetic Memory
  • Food Pills
  • Psychedelic drugs. (Hey, it was the Sixties!)
    • Dune stands out as possibly the most iconic example.
  • Curved space
  • Transistors (predecessor to Nanomachines)
    • In the original 1960s Iron Man comics, the secret of Tony Stark's Powered Armor was "tiny transistors [...] so powerful that they can increase force of any device a thousandfold!"
  • Plasteel hardware
  • Polywater, a supposed polymerized form of water "discovered" by a Soviet scientist in the early '60s. Attempts in the West to replicate polywater were inconsistent, which sparked hysteria in the media over a perceived tech gap. By the '70s, polywater was proven be the result of contaminants (like human sweat) getting into ordinary water samples, discrediting the theory and the hype surrounding it.
    • A common belief regarding polywater is that it could convert ordinary water into more of itself, leading to a Grey Goo-like apocalypse scenario of all water on Earth becoming polymerized. This is the basis of the 1963 novel Cat's Cradle.
    • Star Trek: The episodes The Naked Time of the original series, and its eventual sequel The Naked Now in The Next Generation, both feature an intoxicating fluid based loosely on polywater (described as water that has somehow formed a dense chain of molecules).

1980s-1990s Phlebotinum

  • Genetic engineering and Bio-Augmentation
  • Black Holes
  • Chaos Theory
  • Antimatter
  • Superstrings
  • Eugenics made a brief resurgence during this time, with race and IQ being a popular discussion in The '90s. Also, evolutionary psychology explained everything. Often retitled as "Evolution in action", so as to try to make it seem "natural" and proper.
  • Cyberspace, in conjunction with the rise of the Internet and advancing computer technology.
  • Liquid Crystals (a minor example, but a few Soviet stories from that time feature LC artificial intelligences).
  • Nuclear fusion, particularly "cold" fusion (i.e., no need for a huge facility or containment)
    • In 1989, there was a notorious experiment which claimed to achieve controllable cold nuclear fusion. It was soon found to be faulty, but a few stories ran along with the concept. Typical premise was that a humble scientist figured out the key to cold fusion and was hunted by Big Oil, governments wanting a monopoly, or other vested interests.

21st century Phlebotinum

  • Nanotechnology. The rest of modern material science sometimes as well.
    • Carbon nanotubes
    • Nanomachines
    • Aerogels
    • Amorphous metals
    • Smart materials
  • Isolinear whatever
    • Non-linear whatever, likewise.
  • Dark matter
    • Dark energy
  • Quantum mechanics
    • Listen to a believer in some supernatural phenomenon or other explaining why it "really" is scientifically plausible and the word "quantum" will inevitably come up. Quantum mechanics has the advantage of having been around for 90 years (so everyone has a vague idea of what it is) but still requiring advanced mathematics to actually understand.
  • "Junk" DNA
    • 95-99% of our DNA is not currently expressed as proteins. Fiction likes to repurpose it as dormant superpowers, disk space for a message from ancient aliens, or the like. In reality, what we have found so far is old genes which we don't use any more (no longer being fish, proto-mammals, etc.), ancient malware (viral retrotransposons), regulatory code that indirectly controls gene expression, "introns" in the middle of genes that make it harder for viral DNA to latch on to them, and information-poor repeating sections which we still don't understand but which might be as unglamorous as physical spacers to aid the gene expression pathway.
      • Blindsight draws on this premise to introduce a vampire into a hard SF story.
    • Relatedly, epigenetics might go this way (what with the hype about it in the popular press).
  • Untapped mental potential makes a minor comeback with the progress of neuroscience, updated as the weird stuff like savant skills or subconscious conditionings rather than psychic powers or super-intelligence.
  • Pheromones
  • Particle accelerators
  • Gravitational waves
  • Wormholes, usually interpreted to allow Faster-Than-Light Travel
  • The Singularity
    • This one is a bit of an unusual case, since it refers to phebotinum that does not actually exist and is deliberately undefined. Taken strictly in separation from other phlebotina listed here, it usually refers to Sufficiently Advanced Aliens or artificial intelligences capable of altering reality at will; fiction tends to use Clarke's Third Law as a handwave excuse along the lines of "of course good enough technology can do that, humans are just too ignorant to understand how."

For specific examples of the uses of various phlebotina, see:

Alternative Title(s): History Of Phlebotinum, Hot Topic Phlebotinum