Tuesday, 21 February 2012

More Science in Movies

I my last posting I tore a strip off Star Trek, and while I think in most respects it does deserve it there are other shows that are worse with respect to science. Now the reason I'm going soft on Star Trek is simply because under a number of different definitions of Science Fiction it doesn't fit. Why? Because dear reader many people who have gone and bothered to define Science Fiction say essentially that it is fiction where  science is a major necessity in the plot. Or as Theodore Sturgeon says: "A good science-fiction story is a story about human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, that would not have happened at all without its science content". And due to the lack of science content, or rather all the liberties taken in writing that have been disguised as science I don't believe it should qualify.

Now because I've given Star Trek a rather good beating, it's time to point out that this same problem exists with virtually every "science fiction" movie that has been made for many years. In fact this is the case with most movies and television shows that come out now-a-days (not just the science fiction ones). The lack of an understanding of basic science (either willfully, or simply through sheer laziness/ignorance) by the writers, directors, and many other technical staff that contribute is simply astounding. I'll go into these details in a later column, but for now I'd like to point out that this disregard for science is not wholly a problem with television and movies. Many books suffer from this same problem. And as a writer of Science Fiction stories I feel that this is important (otherwise I probably wouldn't be writing this - go figure).

So what's my beef?

Why do many science fiction authors seem to make no attempt (or very little at least) to incorporate science into their stories, and when they do why do they frequently get it wrong?

Okay, so the first thing you might say is "well it is fiction!". Okay point taken, but if you aren't going have any science you might as well call it a fairytale, and not science fiction. Back up in the first paragraph I quoted Theodore Sturgeon, here are a few other quotes that define science fiction:

Robert J. Sawyer: "Science fiction is the mainstream literature of a plausible alternative reality."

Barry N. Malzberg: "Science fiction is 'that branch of fiction that deals with the possible effects of an altered technology or social system on mankind in an imagined future, an altered present, or an alternative past'."

Sam Moskowitz: "Science fiction is a branch of fantasy identifiable by the fact that it eases the "willing suspension of disbelief" on the part of its readers by utilizing an atmosphere of scientific credibility for its imaginative speculations in physical science, space, time, social science, and philosophy."

John W. Campbell, Jr.: "The major distinction between fantasy and science fiction is, simply, that science fiction uses one, or a very, very few new postulates, and develops the rigidly consistent logical consequences of these limited postulates. Fantasy makes its rules as it goes along... The basic nature of fantasy is "The only rule is, make up a new rule any time you need one!" The basic rule of science fiction is "Set up a basic proposition--then develop its consistent, logical consequences."

Likely the best definition of those above is the one from Campbell, which seems pretty simple to me. Unfortunately it seems to slip the minds of many science fiction authors. Now granted there are various sub-genres of science fiction such as "hard-science fiction" which usually does a very good job of getting it right, but it's not these authors that I'm whining about. Its the author who says "I write science fiction", but who has no idea what science is.

I've already talked a lot about Hollywood and how it's famous for this and maybe this is where these authors get their ideas. Now if a person had never seen anything from NASA, had never read Scientific American, or seen Discovery Channel, etc., and was basing all their science on "Star Wars", "Star Trek", "Jurassic Park", and any number of 1950s & 60s "B" movies you'd probably have to cut them some slack, but I doubt there are many of these people around. A couple of prime examples from this era are "Them" (1954) and "Attack of The Fifty Foot Woman" (1958). Sorry folks, but neither the ant's nor the lady's legs would have been able to support their respective bodies, bone simply isn't strong enough. In other words some of the science that is violated is so simple as to make the authors essentially look like fools (or worse).

The written word however is vastly different, after all how many times have you read a book, then seen the movie and thought it was crap? That's because the written page can contain so much more detail, and because of that the author has to do that much more research (or they should at least). Now granted compressing a couple of hundred pages of text into a movie is no mean feat, but still …

I'm going to continue on with this theme next time and give you some illustrations on some of the problems and maybe even how to fix them if you're interested.

TTFN

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