ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION #7: “Bad Science in Science Fiction”

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

Happy Quatro de Julio, everybody!

Science Fiction has “Science” in the title, right? Hence it should be rather “Scientific,” right? Stuff should at least theoretically behave according to the known laws of the universe, rather than contradicting them, or just making stuff up willy-nilly, right? I mean, how hard is it to grab an encyclopedia and find out whether or not comets radiate heat (They don’t. They’re snowballs) like Lost in Space didn’t bother to do? And how hard is it to look up “Quadrant” in a dictionary before you use it in a script, just to find out whether it’s a unit of distance or not? (It isn’t. Star Trek, I’m looking at you!) How hard is it to figure out that you can’t build a city on top of a field of Neutronium for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that no planet’s crust could support that Neutronium in the first place? (Stargate: Atlantis…oh, for shame!)

Seriously, how hard is it to check up on this stuff? If you’re too lazy to do it yourself, just ask a geek - *Any* geek!

So, unfortunately, in most modern Science Fiction the “Science” end of the equation tends to be whispy-thin-unto-nonexistent. So it seemed only fair that we’d discuss the phenomenon of “Bad Science” in SF. With us today we’ve got Tessa Dick, who’s excellent current novel, “The Owl in Daylight” is available here
http://tessadick.blogspot.com/ ; also with us is Burt Cottage, who’s time travel novel is available here http://www.amazon.com/Lost-Time-Legend-Garison-Fitch/dp/1594578966/ref=s... and finally as a first-time guest commentator today we’ve got Chip Haynes, who’s current book is “The Practical Cyclist” from “New Society Publishers,” which you can find out more about from their official site here www.newsociety.com . So we’ve got three - count ‘em, three - published authors on the panel today, and in addition Republibot 2.0 and myself will function in our normal idiotic fashion:

Question 1: What’s your favorite example of “Bad Science” in the genre? Something that they get wrong again and again and again and again?

Burt Cottage:
could have many answers here, but the first that comes to my mind is that if you’re going from an evolutionary standpoint, how come almost every sentient creature is bi-pedal? I know why they have to be bi-peds for movies (the actors are) but even in a lot of books “alien” races seem to bear way too much similarities to us.

Also, the “science” (again, I am speaking primarily of movies & TV because while I have read some sci-fi I tend to remember what I have seen better) is very often settled. Like Al Gore saying the “science is settled” on global warming, they ignore the fact that science is about continually challenging what we believe to be settled to see if it really is. i.e. I’ve read many scientists in the last ten years who are challenging the notion that the speed of light is a constant (and, as I understand them, they make sense in saying it’s not). That’s science and someone should (and probably is) challenging and refining their findings.

Republibot 2.0 (AKA “R2“):
The list boggles the mind
-Going anywhere near the speed of light without relativistic effects
-Going past the speed of light
-People exploding from being shoved out an airlock
-Explosive decompression
-Assumptions about the plenitude of life on other planets, or even the possibility of same...
-Hackers who are able to get into systems without hours/days/months of work.
-Pilots who are able to fly alien spacecraft expertly with little to no preparation
and so on...

Tessa Dick:
Velocity. Star Wars -- a parsec is a distance, not a velocity. Star Trek -- what the heck is warp 6, anyway, and how in the world could it create a worm hole?

Republibot 3.0:
For me, personally, I think it’s the way evolution is continually misused in SF. I actually *Believe* in evolution, just to set the record straight, but I am so sick and tired of people who just spontaneously evolve to “The next stage of evolution” all at once. That’s not how evolution works, not at all. I’m also annoyed that “The next stage of evolution” is always, always, always some hokey glowing energy blob that rattles off a bon mott or two, and then disappears. Why is “The Next State In Evolution” never something like an extra working finger on each hand, or a more efficient esophagus that’s less prone to asphyxiation and SIDS? Or maybe someone with an actual reasonable sixth sense, like “The ability to sense magnetic waves like a turtle?” Or “The ability to taste things based on their smell, like cats and dogs do?”

Another aspect of this that annoys me to no end is the ’de-evolution’ episodes where Commander Koening and Dr. Russel turn in to Neanderthals, or Mr. Barkley turns in to a spider. Again, that’s not the way evolution (or even De-evolution) actually works, but leaving that aside: even if you could somehow turn the clock back for individual people, it still makes no sense. I mean, Neanderthals our own Homo Rhodensiensis ancestors were two separate species, so what they’re saying is that we had to evolve all the way back to Homo Eidelbergensis, then go forward again along another rout to Neanderthals. Gah. And as for Mr. Barkley - there is no point in human evolution that people were in any way related to spiders. Gah!

Chip Haynes:
Noise in space. ANY noise in space. Oh, and the idea that the space ship will always fly right side up, horizontally across the screen like an airplane.

Question Number 2:
What is something that’s scientifically impossible, but which you’re willing to tolerate because it adds to the story? (Example: Faster than Light Travel, time travel, etc)

Burt Cottage:
Almost all of them, if they fit well into the story. I think of it as “logic fiction”. For instance, I don’t believe time travel is or ever will be possible, but I obviously have used it in many of the books I have written (and someone is currently buying on Kindle! [if you know who, please tell me {and if you know how to get more people to do so, tell me louder!}]) and have striven to keep the use of time travel logical within the stories. i.e. You can’t have time travel be based on a view of infinite realities in one part of the story then treat it like there’s only one reality later on. This was the fatal mistake in Crichton’s “Timeline”.

R2:
Oh, all of the above... If it's a good story. Heck, I'll even allow psychology.

Tessa Dick:
I have to go with time travel. Well, I did love the original Dr. Who series, even though time travel is supposed to be impossible. Come to think of it, the Doctor also travels through space in his telephone booth. The Star Trek method of speeding toward a star and then pulling away has its own problems, as does the concept of warp drive. The worst is probably that 1960s TV series The Time Tunnel. It looked like a bowling alley (it probably was). Murray Leinster dealt with time travel very well in his novel The Time Tunnel, which formed the basis of the TV series. In Leinster's novel they needed a piece of metal which had been heated up in the time that they wanted to visit. They found an antique cannon, and off they went.

Republibot 3.0:
Thing is, I’m willing to accept all that crap assuming it’s done in some kind of thought-provoking fashion. I mean, the ’ancient astronauts’ thing is complete nonsense, but the Stargate franchise has made it work for them, and produced an extremely good, fun franchise. Trek used space and planets instead of the sea and island to follow the basic Swiftian hook of using broadly described nonexistent societies as a way of exposing the shortcomings of our own society. That involves a whole lot of willful disregarding of science to make it work, but it’s basically a cool idea until you do it 700 times and it becomes hopelessly preachy and tedious. I guess what bothers me is the lack of underpinning lack of imagination and exoticism in these shows - every world is just like earth, every society is monolithic, getting from here to there is just as easy as driving to the mall. Boring, since drama is created by limitations - you *can’t* go back in time, or you *can* travel faster than light, but it’s hard to do because blah blah blah blah - so it serves no dramatic purpose and as Lem said, these stories have no relationship whatsoever to the real universe, they’re simply fantasies. As a result ‘bad science’ and sloppy storytelling add up to a ‘get out of thinking free’ card, and the whole concept ends up feeling less ’real’ than an episode of NCIS or JAG.

Chip Haynes:
The idea that aliens would ever look anything like us at all- and speak English, no less.

Question Number 3:
What aspect of pseudoscience is overused to the extent that you just sort of loose interest in the whole thing from the getgo? [Examples of Pseudoscience: moon hoax conspiracies, ancient astronaut nonsense, telepathy, psychic powers, atlantis and leukemia, alien abduction, etc]

Burt Cottage:
Quantum realities. Even if it’s true that there are multiple realities out “there” (which I doubt), it seems to be used too often as a way to get the author out of trouble. “Did I kill that character off? Oh, well, I forgot to tell you that he only died in THAT reality. In THIS reality, he’s still alive … and his mother was smarter, too, so now he knows French!”

R2:
I don't know if it's an aspect of pseudoscience or not- but post-apocalyptic settings are a big turn off for me- I prefer my futures a bit more hopeful. That and the idea that there would be enough usable fuel after the kind of nuclear holocaust that would produce a "Road Warrior" type existence is worthy of ridicule. Gasoline does denature- it does go bad. There's your pseudoscience- Gasoline with an indefinite shelf life.

Republibot 3.0:
Wus! We're getting off track here, but I have to point out that "The Road Warrior" took place within five years of the fall of civilization or nuclear war or whatever, and the basic plot revolves around the bad guys trying to take over the last facility in the world that can still make the stuff. Also, "Beyond Thunderdome" - which was a very bad movie - takes place 10 or 15 years later on, and there's clearly no gas left. People are using steam engines and horses and alcohol-powered rotary engines. Your feelings are sick and wrong on this subject, as is your misguided attempt to say Road Warrior is anything other than totally freakin' rad.

R2:
'Totally freakin' rad."???? Fer shure....
Believe it or not, gas turns to petroleum jelly (roughly) in a matter of months--even faster than your Eighties lingo--- if not stored correctly. I stand by my ridicule of your Mighty Angry Max. They should all be riding donkeys, as a not inconsiderable length of time has obviously passed betwixt the fall of Civ and George Miller's wannabeacowboy Car Wars.

Republibot 3.0:
Yeah, I suppose if I was storing my gas in a butter churn for some reason, I'd be screwed, but I've stored it in these amazing inventions called "Gasoline cans" for years at a time, and it's fine. Also, gas stations have the capacity to store gasoline for years in large underground things called "Tanks" from whence they sell them. And that's when you, the consumer, take it home and enjoy it. Not to mention every oil company in the world keeps MILLIONS of gallons on hand for emergencies and distribution shortfalls. Not to mention that this movie we're talking about - which I'm pretty sure you haven't actually seen - is all about the last *working* refinery in the world, so most of your jelly-baiting concerns are moot.

R2:
I've seen it... not all in one sitting, mind you. Couldn't make it all the way through in one sitting. Tell you what... You go see Star Trek and I'll strap myself in a chair with an airsickness bag and watch it.

Republibot 3.0:
Ofortheluvof…you can’t do that. You can’t say “That thing I didn’t see them do in that movie I didn’t bother to watch doesn’t work based on my second-hand knowledge about petroleum storage practices in Australia.” You can’t pass that off as a learned opinion. That’s cheating.

R2:
I'm also rather 'meh' on psychic phenominology.
And psychology and sociology

Republibot 3.0:
That’s the second time you’ve taken a dig at psychiatry. People are going to think you’re a scientologist. Anyway, let’s stick a pin in R2’s issues for the moment and get back to the question at hand: “What aspect of pseudoscience is overused to the extent that you just sort of loose interest in the whole thing?”

Tessa Dick:
When one piece of evidence for the Moon hoax theory is shown to be bogus, or one line of reasoning in support of the Moon hoax is shown to be faulty, the proponent moves on to the next without skipping a beat (or stopping to breathe, for that matter). The theorists seem to think that if they can present one piece of evidence that doesn't get shot down, it proves their entire theory. The worst piece of evidence for the Moon hoax theory is the Van Allen belt. Yes, radiation is harmful. Yes, I really would like to know whether any of our astronauts fathered any children AFTER they came back from the Moon. However, I do not doubt that they went to the Moon. Some of the photographs might have been taken on Earth for publicity purposes, but that does not prove that nobody went to the Moon.

Chip Haynes:
Oh, man- all of the above. I prefer my science fiction a bit more factual.

Question Number 4:
Conversely, what is a pseudoscience that you don’t think gets used nearly enough? Is there any particularly illiterate non-scientific claptrap that you’d like to see a series or story based around? [example: people were made by machines, the lower dimentions worship us as supernatural beings, “The Gap Theory”, etc]

Burt Cottage:
Trek has so co-opted the transporter beam that we really don’t see anything about teleportation being explored (other than “The Fly” and, arguably, “Stargate” [though it’s a different sort of teleportation than what is commonly meant]). For instance, if one’s molecules are digitized, sent somewhere else, then reassembled, what happened to the original molecules? From a Christian standpoint, would the soul go with the molecules? Could you beam a person somewhere but leave the cancer cells behind?

R2:
Zero Point Energy. I'm not talking about the Stargate McGyver-MacGuffins. I'm talking about the guys who come up with whirlygigs in the basement that put out more energy than they consume...And levitation.

Tessa Dick:
I want to see Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision made into a blockbuster movie. The special effects would be awesome. An entire planet would blow up, forming the asteroid belt and the comets. Venus would repeatedly come flying past the Earth, causing huge disasters. I need to see the on I-Max.

Republibot 3.0:
I’ve always had a fondness for that stupid-ass “Hollow Earth” theory. I don’t believe it for a moment, but I think it’s really neat. I thought Burroughs’ “Pelucidar” stories were a lame misuse of a cool idea, but Rudy Rucker wrote a really great steampunk novel in the early ‘90s called “The Hollow Earth” where he was able to shoehorn the concept in to something like scientific sense, almost. Aside from him, I’m unaware of anyone who’s really done much with the idea, which is a shame. I’d love to see more of it.

Chip Haynes:
Hmmmmm…. Tough one. I’ve always enjoyed the clever application of time travel.

Question Number 5:
Do you think the trend in modern SF is for more or less rigid science?

Burt Cottage:
My limited experience in the genre leads me to say that mainstream sci-fi (what is seen on TV and in the rare sci-fi book you find in the paperback section of Wal-Mart) is getting less scientific. I think there’s a push for more scientific sci-fi among some sections of the fandom, but I don’t think that’s pushing much into the mainstream, yet (though it’s having some effect, I’m sure). Or, maybe even the mainstream sci-fi is getting a LITTLE more scientific in that it’s less outlandish than in days past. But does the fact that they throw in a couple obscure terms they read in “Popular Science” count as being more scientific?
The short answer to this question should probably be: I don’t know.

R2:
Science is hard, hard science moreso. I think the trend is toward avoiding hard science altogether. Today's s-f is heavily into the 'squishy' sciences, if it's not deep in fantasy disguised as cyberpunk. Virtual Reality and Cyberspace are an engraved invitation to hacks to write adolescent power fantasies and call them 'Science Fiction'

Tessa Dick:
The current trend in SF seems to be toward more exploration of our relationship with our machines. We have graduated from machines taking over the world to people becoming machines. How many machine parts (such s artificial limbs and memory chips) can you add to a person, before that person becomes a machine? How many organic parts can you add to a machine, before that machine becomes human (or at least a dog or a cat)?

From Asimov's short story The Bicentennial Man (1976) to that cheesy film Robo Cop (1986), the question of what is human and what is machine has been explored countless times in science fiction. And let us not forget Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which formed the loose basis for the 1982 film Bladerunner. In Phil's novel, androids -- organic beings grown in a laboratory -- look like us and act like us, bt they are used as robotic servants. We see Darth Vader in Star wars becoming more machine than human, until he must fight his own son to the death. Anne McCaffery's Brain and Brawn series presents sentient machines that might be more human than machine and people who might be machines.

SF has discovered the "soft" sciences of psychology, sociology and philosophy.

Republibot 3.0:
As long as modern SF - be it in print or video - continues to use SF as a vehicle for telling social allegories with a prepackaged moral, it’ll continue to be soft. If, on the other hand, people started to get interested in SF as a way of exploring how new ideas, technology, and lifestyles (Such as on another planet) might affect society and the way people live - you know, the way Larry Niven does stuff - then it could get harder again. I don’t really see that happening, though, because at present most SF is about marketable media tie ins and not ideas. Basically, Hard SF is for smart people who like to think, and Soft SF is for people who like to think they’re smart. Say….that’s pretty good! I should write that down…

Chip Haynes:
I’d say less rigid, but I think what it comes down to is writers feel that have to always offer up something that goes beyond that which was done before, so the offerings tend to get more and more fantastic and far out, year after year.

Republibot 3.0:
Ok, that’s all the time we’ve got for now. I’d like to thank Tessa, Burt, and Chip for being with us today, and urge all of you to check out their books. Please tune in next time when our topic will be….hm. You know, usually I say some funny nonsequiter here, but actually, I really wanna’ know what’s up with R2’s hatred of the Road Warrior. Maybe we’ll talk about that next time….

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