One of the most exciting parts in science-fantasy is coming across some complex piece of alien technology, or an ancient artefact of unknown power. Describing something completely incomprehensible by our standards can be challenging, but it’s these concepts that really add colour to the world. 

In Phoenix, the ‘Astrolabe’ is a device integral to the storyline. Let’s see how it is first introduced.

It was a thick black disc, blacker than black, like a chunk of outer space. It was made from some kind of metal that looked like it had fallen from the sky. It felt cool to the touch, and though it was as big as both his hands cupped together, it was very comfortable to hold.

There were no words on it. But around its circumference were faint markings, intricate patterns. Twelve symbols, like a long-forgotten alphabet, carved into the black.

He couldn’t take his eyes off them. He didn’t recognize them, but just looking at them made his skin tingle. They looked ancient. They looked mystical. They looked almost alive.

And within this circle of symbols lay other, smaller circles. A series of dials, like wheels within wheels, tracing elegant arcs and crescents, describing a geometry as precise as it was mysterious.

This description communicates that the device is complex, mysterious, somewhat magical and completely alien.

How do you describe something truly alien? Notice how the astrolabe is described in a way that is both precise and vague.

  • Precise: thick black disk, as big as both hands cupped together
  • Vague: ancient alive-looking symbols, dials that trace elegant arcs and crescents

This is a useful pattern—give us just enough physical detail to paint a picture in our mind, and then use vague qualities and judgments to make us fill in the blanks with our own imagination.