Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

What Happened to the 'Science' in Science Fiction?

By BJ Steeves
© 2006,
BJ Stevees


If you look up the term science in a dictionary, you will find a definition similar to the following:

a : a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study  b : something that may be studied or learned like systematized knowledge
a : knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method b : such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena                  (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)

The definition clearly states that there are rules for the way things work, the way different things interact with each other, and the way things develop and grow.  Without these rules, these "laws of nature," there would be total chaos.  There are times when we feel that things are out of control, in chaos, but that doesn't mean that there are no reasons for these chaotic episodes of our lives.  It is just that we don't know the reasons.

Let's take a look at a typical definition of the term science fiction, which is:

a : fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component
(Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)

This definition implies that science fiction is a fictional story based on a set of scientific rules, or laws of nature.

Much of today's science fiction, which is being produced in movies, television and writing, is more reliant on special effects and bad science than on a good story.  Let’s look at the Star Wars universe.  Star Wars showcases some of this bad science with multitudes of fighters buzzing around in tight, circular loops, in direct defiance of the laws of Newton.  In reality, any vehicle traveling in space cannot make this kind of diving turn.  It looks great and exciting on the screen and/or the page, but science just doesn’t work that way.

Another movie with a lot of silly so-called science is Independence Day.  Large alien ships the size of a small city move in, floating over most of the largest cities around the world.  If an alien race had the technology to build such craft, travel untold distances to reach the Earth, and stabilize the craft in place over large cities, why would they build nothing more than a conventional fighter type plane to engage the U.S. Air Force fighters? I would think with that kind of advanced technology, the aliens would just use some kind of force field and simply disable any attacking force.  Doesn’t make sense, does it?

There is much "silly science" in movies, television, and many of the science fiction/fantasy books on the shelves.  In the next sections below, you will find a list of some of my favorite computer-related examples.

  •  Super-intelligent computers that blow up when the hero confuses them

  •  Super-intelligent computers that get confused when the hero says to them "everything I say is a lie" or some other paradoxical statement

  • Computers that can be programmed by someone who has no knowledge of the computer's operating system

  • Computer terminals that display the current operation (e.g., "UPLOADING VIRUS") in huge, flashing letters

  • Computer security protocols that can be overridden merely by saying "override" to the computer

  • Computers that, when shot, explode as if they had been stuffed full of Roman candles

  • On-board computers that always know exactly how long it will take for the malfunction to blow up the ship

  • Computers that can work harder or faster when their power supply voltage is increased

  • When a computer is working on a difficult problem, the increased power requirements cause the room lights to dim or flicker

  • AI software that has unique properties that prevent it from being copied or transmitted like any other data

  • AI software that is able to bypass the security protocols of the operating system in which it runs

  • Computers that exist in the far future or are alleged to be 'cutting edge,' but demonstrate less functionality than a Commodore 64 or an Apple II

  • Increasing a computer beyond a certain level of speed, memory capacity, or complexity causes it to become self-aware

Will the real Captain James T. Kirk please stand up?  It seems that the original Star Trek can’t stop using these "scientific" plot points, as they appear in more than just a few episodes.  There are more than a few in the list which can also be seen in the later Star Trek series.

  • Space vessels that lack fuses, circuit breakers, and surge suppressors, so that the control panels explode when some distant portion of the ship is damaged

  • Spacecraft that, when shot, blow up as if they had been packed with gasoline and liquid oxygen

  • Spacecraft that have no seatbelts, even though the crew gets tossed around like rag dolls on a regular basis

  • "Reversing the polarity" is the solution to virtually every engineering problem

The medical field is not immune to the "silly science" syndrome. From Dr. "Bones" McCoy’s bag of tricks:

  •  Untested medical treatments that are 100% effective and have no side effects

  • A medical condition that will be fatal in an amount of time expressed to the tenth significant digit; the cure is found and applied in the nick of time, enabling a 100% recovery

  • A large dose of radiation results in super powers instead of super tumors

  • A large dose of radiation causes an individual creature to "evolve" into a more advanced form

  • When a character is aged prematurely, hair that has already grown turns gray

  • When a prematurely-aged character is cured of his condition, hair that has already grown turns from gray back to the youthful color

  • Somebody lifts a car (or some other heavy object) with his bionic arm, even though the rest of his body is normal flesh and bone and couldn't possibly support the load

  • Creatures capable of changing their shapes can alter their mass while they're at it

  • Extras and minor characters instantly die when shot; major characters, when shot, either linger for a while before dying, or suffer a dramatic but non-lethal wound

I know that I have been picking on Star Trek, but it doesn't have a monopoly on silly science.  It can be found in other stories, too.  I simply used Star Trek as it appears to be a common frame of reference, because almost every one knows these episodes.

Another set of pet peeves for me occur in stories which deal with clones.  There are several "silly science" plot points that appear a lot more often than they should.  Have a look:

  • Clones that grow to match the cloned person's state of physiological development in a small fraction of the time

  • Clones that think, act, and speak in a manner indistinguishable from the original person

  •  Clones that come out of the cloning vat with the same haircut as the individual cloned

Have you ever known or have friends who were twins, or maybe triplets?  Even though they are raised in the same environment, and they generally will act similarly, they each have their own personalities, likes and dislikes, and their own views and opinions.  Clones would act the same way, with each one growing and developing a separate personality. 

Vehicles and weapon systems are also included in "silly science."

  • Patently obvious design flaws in a vehicle or weapon system that go uncorrected during the entire life cycle of the system in question

  • Vehicles and/or weapon systems that are totally impractical for the environment in which they are deployed (e.g. the forest chase scene in Return of the Jedi)

  • Spacecraft with features that have been pointlessly carried over from water-borne designs

  • Hand-held weapons significantly more complex to engineer and costly to build than a twentieth-century firearm, but not noticeably deadlier, longer-ranged, or more accurate

  • Heroes/ships that can dodge laser beams because the beams travel so slowly

  • The hero who knows how to defuse the bomb, but can't remember which of two wires to cut

Many other technologies, current or future, suffer from the "silly science" fate:

  • A robot is shot and bleeds oil

  • An item of technology is quickly reverse-engineered by a far less advanced group of researchers

  • A group of aliens is smart enough to steal someone else's technology, but too stupid to make any improvements on it

  • A technological development progresses from half-baked theory to useful implementation in fifteen minutes instead of fifteen months

  • Nuclear weapons which have an effect well out of proportion for reasonable yields (like throwing the moon out of its orbit, etc.)

  • Two-way viewscreens which work between two races which have never contacted each other, cannot speak each other's language, and cannot possibly have worked out compatible protocols for transmission of image and sound

  •  Lasers that are visible in the vacuum of outer space

  • Advanced robots that have difficulty negotiating stairs

  • Tactical systems that can only deal with targets visible to the naked eye

  • Alien artifacts that still work after being abandoned for a million years

  • Spaceships that make a whoosh as they go by

  • Huge, expensive spacecraft that are used to transport inexpensive goods in tiny quantities

  • Stars go shooting past the spaceship as it flies through space

  • The solution for a problem solved four weeks ago is thrown away and never seen again

  • A space vessel is sent out on missions before its systems are fully operational

  • Robots that despite their size and function are designed with exactly the same features as a human (two arms and legs, ten fingers, two eyes, same joint system, etc.)

  • The plans for a complicated device can be downloaded onto a 1.44 Meg floppy

  • Nebulae that are as opaque as an equivalent volume of fog

I can come up with a lot more to add to this list, such as Adam and Eve variations, but you get the idea.  What does this mean to the prospective writer of a science fiction and/or fantasy story?  Scientific rules need to be followed.  And a writer must decide on what the rules for the world/universe are, whether based in science or in fantasy, and stick to them throughout the story.  These rules must be described in some way to the reader, as an integral part of the story.  This can be extremely difficult if the subject matter is very technical.  As long as the rules, real or made up, are consistent and faithfully followed, then the reader will have an easier time believing the premise of the story being told.

Before you consider writing a great blockbuster novel, consider the plot of the story.  Look at it from an editor’s point of view.  If it seems like the same old stuff, then the automatic rejection slip is guaranteed to be in your mail sooner or later.  Sooner, most likely.  This is not to say that an original story could not be written from one of the listed examples, but I would bet that any editor would think, "Not another one!" and toss it.  So, when you start your next work, I hope that you will avoid these devices.  Your readers will thank for it.

Star Trek is & © by Paramount Pictures

Star Wars is & © by Lucasfilm