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June 2, 2009 | by  | in Features |
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Science in fiction: please stop doing it wrong

Don’t you hate it when you’re totally absorbed in a TV show, movie or book, and a character says something so annoyingly stupid that you’re ripped right out of the story and back into reality, fuming at the writer?

This is particularly a hazard when it comes to sci fi.

You’ve got intergalactic space travel, robots, time travel, and aliens who travel through time and space to fight aliens, cyborgs, and time-travelling alien cyborgs (with nothing more than their trusty sonic screwdrivers and plucky human companions). There’s advanced medical technology, teleportation, and people with all sorts of biological enhancements. Some of this stuff is unlikely to ever happen, some of it could happen, some of it is quite likely given current science and technology, and some of it is pretty much already here.

At its best, the ideas, technologies and science in science fiction will not only be plausible given the science of the day, they’ll actually be pretty good predictions about the future of science. Take Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. At its core, Brave New World, like most other stories about a dystopian future, is a warning from the author about how society’s going to go down the plug-hole if we keep certain things up. But in among his characters’ pages-long monologues to lecture us about the perils to humanity of everything you’re doing right now, Huxley constructed a world with pretty accurate predictions of where technology was heading. While some aspects of his world haven’t eventuated (like movie theatres with sensation as well as sight and sound so that you can feel the fur of a bearskin rug and the heat of a fire), Huxley was impressively prescient when he wrote about helicopters, in vitro fertilisation, readily available mood-stabilising drugs, and birth control in pill form.

The purists will argue that if the science in sci fi (or ‘speculative fiction’ as they sometimes loftily like to call it) isn’t predictive or plausible, then it’s not really sci fi—it’s just fantasy where the wizards with magic wands have been replaced with white-coated scientists wielding teleporters.

Plausible and predictive are fine goals for science in fiction, but probably rather difficult to achieve. I would personally be happy if, every time there was some science in fiction that is explained by a character in a way that’s so inaccurate and outlandish to be laughable, that line was removed and replaced with the perfectly correct “a wizard did it” (as Lucy Lawless put it in The Simpsons).

Here’s what I mean: in Battlestar Galactica, the characters travel vast distances across the universe in alarmingly short spans of time. How do they do it? The jump drive, of course. What’s a jump drive? It doesn’t matter. All the audience needs to know is that it moves the ship and its crew from A to B in space really really quickly.

In Doctor Who, characters are always standing in for the audience by asking the Doctor annoying questions about things. Why is there so much room inside the police box-shaped TARDIS? Easy: because it’s bigger on the inside. Explain again how we’re travelling back and forth through time and not mucking things up? Well, that’s because time is not linear but more of a big ball of timey-wimey stuff. Done.

And let’s not forget the flux capacitor in Back to the Future. As Doc put it: “it’s what makes time travel possible”. Well, there’s that sorted then.

A great benefit of this approach is that it gives the writers a huge amount of freedom with their sci-fi objects. Example: “Oh no, we need to jump away from those Cylons, but the jump drive’s been flooded with radiation and it’s affecting the jump coordinates!” The audience can readily accept this. Because no one’s tried to explain what a jump drive is to us, we’re not going to have inconvenient thoughts like: “Wait a minute! Radiation wouldn’t affect the jump drive because [blah blah blah]!”

I’d be happy with less explanation rather than more when it comes to science in fiction if it avoids painful inaccuracy. It’s kind of unfair to pick on the 1995 movie Hackers because it’s one of those so-bad-it’s-good kind of films, but you’d think that in a movie that’s supposed to be about 1337 h4X0rs, they’d at least try to get their computer terminology right. But in Hackers one of the characters amazingly has an Apple Mac with a Pentium chip, and leet is pronounced “elite”.

If you’ve taken a couple of psychology or biology papers, watching Joss Whedon’s new show Dollhouse probably makes you want to stab out your own eardrums every now and then. Don’t get me wrong, I love Buffy, Fray, and Firefly, and I’m sticking with Dollhouse in the hope that it’ll get better any episode now, but every now and then I find myself screaming at the screen: “Get a better on-set science advisor!” In Dollhouse, people can have their memories and personalities ‘wiped’ so they can be imprinted with new personalities (and memories and “muscle memory”) so that they can undertake different assignments. Yeah I know, it already sounds pretty wacky. But, unwisely, instead of just saying “a wizard did it”, or “thank God we invented the flux capacitor”, the characters are forever trying to explain just how their wondrous technology works with perfectly acceptable pseudo-science peppered with totally inaccurate real science. It honestly makes me want to find the nearest fork to jam into my ears.

So there you have it. If you’re writing a novel or screenplay and you’ve got a bit of science in your work that you think doesn’t sound quite right, just remember that a wizard did it, and you will never, ever go wrong.

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Comments (19)

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  1. Matt says:

    So damn true. It’s like, there’s no problem suspending disbelief, but what’s really hard is suspending disbelief in detail.
    Weird.

  2. Anna says:

    Yeah! And that no matter how outlandish the rules of the fictional universe are, they damn well had better be internally consistent. Like, I’ll buy the fact that you have talking, flying dogs, but if you say that they can’t fly beyond a certain altitude, and then one of the dogs flies beyond that altitude well then I’m never watching your show again.

  3. Matthew_Cunningham says:

    Ahhh, but too much detail can be overkill… case in point, the midichlorian debate. ‘The Force’ as alluded to by Alec Guinness in ‘A New Hope’ was cool simply because it WASN’T explained in detail… it just EXISTED. If Luke Skywalker had responded to his spiel by saying “oh, you mean that stuff that’s dictated by the midichlorian count in your DNA, yeah?”, it would’ve ruined the whole thing.

    Conclusion: George Lucas stinks like bums.

  4. Matthew_Cunningham says:

    Whoops… I just read your article and realised that was the exact point you were making. Sorry!

  5. Nick says:

    I think shows like CSI, Bones, and whatever that new one is with Tim Roth, are more science fiction than detective.

    I feel like stabbing myself in the eye every time they solve a crime by enlarging a crappy security camera shot with pinsharp accuracy, or create an entire 3d animated reconstruction of a crime using a sample of hair.

  6. Phoenix says:

    Don’t suppose you watch Red Dwarf? I’ve only seen one episode, but they pretty much took the piss out of that concept. Can’t remember exactly how it went, but it was something like uncropping a photo, zooming on a window in the photo, zooming on a raindrop reflectected from a lampost reflected in that window, zooming on a business card reflected in the raindrop on the lampost reflected in the window from the cropped part of the picture, to find a phone number written on that card… >.<

  7. Anna says:

    Red Dwarf rules. There was a similar joke in a Buffy ep (season three I think). Watching security tape, Cordellia says something like “there! zoom in”, and someone explains that it’s just a VCR, there’s only fast-forward and rewind.*

    *(it was actually funny in the episode, unlike how I’ve recounted it).

  8. P says:

    “(like movie theatres with sensation as well as sight and sound so that you can feel the fur of a bearskin rug and the heat of a fire)”

    Phenomenology of the cinema. That’s all I can say. It does exist – only advanced film critics know about it.

  9. Phoenix says:

    Indeed? What a brave new world we live in …

  10. Nick says:

    Anna, that does sound damn funny :-)

  11. Nick says:

    @P, I’m sure it isn’t just advanced critics who’ve seen John Waters films :-P

  12. Anna says:

    Oh right, the smell-o-rama experience? Yeah I didn’t think of that. Aldous Huxley’s head probably would have exploded if he saw one of John Waters’ films.

  13. Mikey says:

    What do you think of Fringe? I just saw episode 2, they pulled the last image a woman saw from her eyes. Ugh.

  14. Anna says:

    I just finished watching Season 1 – it gets slightly more “a wizard did it as it goes along” (which was nice) but it pretty much stays at the “oh yes I invented a machine that did [impossible thing] in 1981 / wait a minute I’ll just manufacture an antidote to the virus that does [other impossible thing] which you’ve just contracted” level. But meh, what can you expect from JJ Abrams?

    Such a lack of good new sci fi at the moment. I’m still sad that the Sarah Connor Chronicles got cancelled :(

  15. Mikey says:

    Yeah, I kind of got the impression (from just the first two episodes) that the format of the show is weird/freaky thing happens, team investigates, get some important information in an impossible way, use it to take down the bad guy. But I’ll stick with it for a bit.

  16. Matthew_Cunningham says:

    Fringe is OK, but I still maintain that you can’t go past Lost in terms of intricate storyline, well-developed characters, and an attitude towards sci-fi elements that provides just the right amount of explanation (without succumbing to the “midichlorian effect”).

  17. Matt says:

    Anyone seen tvtropes.org? Their term is “Phlebotinum”, a “magical substance that may be rubbed on almost anything to cause an effect needed by a plot. Some examples: nanotechnology, magic crystal emanations, pixie dust, a sonic screwdriver”.

  18. Anna says:

    Someone posted a link to tvtropes.org above.

    I’d never seen this site before – it is teh awesome! Hours of entertainment. Also, I now know how to pronounce ‘deus ex machina’ properly.

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