Monday, May 10, 2010

The 'Science' In Science-Fiction or "Does It (Really) Matter How It Works?"

Ever wonder why stuff works in your favorite comic book or sci-fi movie? Have you ever thought "how does Captain America's shield always come back to him?" or "how are the Jedi able to move things with the Force?" I think about this stuff a lot. But when you read as much as I do and work a job where you are alone for hours ata time, you'd think a lot about this stuff too. Or about whether or not 'LOST' will make any sense at the end. It won't.

 A good friend of mine once explained that there are two scholls of thought on this and he did it using Star Trek and Star Wars. The science in Star Trek is explained using theoretical but explainable physics, like the Alcubierre drive mathematical model that provides the basis for the warp drive of the Enterprise. Now Star Wars goes the other way with it's science. It works because it does. No more, no less. Hell, flying in space is pretty much the same as flying in an atmosphere. How is this possible? Because it looks cool, that's why!

I personally subscribe to the Star Wars method: no explanation necessarily needed.  I like to think that such answers don't matter as long as the desired effect or outcome benefits the narrative by making the action seem that much more exciting. Why is Captain America able to throw 'his mighty shield' with such pinpoint accuracy that it can knock out every bad guy before ricocheting back to him? Because it goddamn does! What causes the Millennium Falcon (and every Star Destroyer in the Imperial Fleet) fly safely thru space and stop on a dime? The hyper-spatial framinflatz, for all I know. My point is that every Batarang thrown by Batman need not be explained. Suspension of disbelief not withstanding, whatever 'deus ex machina' or 'macguffin' is thrown at me doesn't matter, as long as it doesn't seem too unbelieveable.

Now, there are others who would argue that the science should be explainable. This line of thought says that the adamantium on Wolverine's skeleton should be breakable, as there is no such thing as a truly 'unbreakable' alloy. Using real science, there is no way to explain how Chewie or Han could fly their ship with such precision and NOT fly into a meteor storm. The science behind such popular concepts in fiction should be explainable, no matter how theoretical or fanatsical. Which is probably why Star Trek wins out in this particular arguement.

Who's right and who's wrong? Who can tell the difference? I can't. It either works or it doesn't. I just think that if looks cool, it doesn't seem too outlandish and makes some kind of sense (common or otherwise), it's all good! And, in the end, Captain America throws his shield like a pro, Spider-man swings like a monkey on a vine and the Falcon makes the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. Does it make sense? Hell no! But it sure looks cool, though!

                                                                                                      -- Phreak711


  1. I couldn't agree with my esteemed colleague more. I must say, I am a scientist at heart and I love when Star Trek gets all geeky and starts explaining itself; but as a writer and a fan of fiction, I love it even more when someone asks Doctor Who how his T.A.R.D.I.S. works and he just says "Because I'm a Time-Lord and I'm smarter than you." We don't need to know how he's going from place to time to place, he just does!
    -big G-

  2. I dunno. I think a balance helps. So long as there is a simple, basic explanation for things, it's good enough. Even in the examples you gave, like adamantium--it's in and of itself an explanation. NO, you don't need to explain WHY adamantium is indestructible, but the very mention that it is, (along with the detail that it can only be manipulated in liquid form) sells you enough to believe. Like Obi-Wan's explanation of the force in Episode 4--it's simple but believably explained (It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together). But when you get too technical (as with midichlorians) I agree it's a bad idea. But some form of simple scientific explanation should always be at the heart of good science fiction, to ground it, and make it semi-believable.

    Also I thought the swipe at LOST was pretty lame. I'm sure you're just being funny, but it has made sense for the entire series to those who paid attention.

  3. "But some form of simple scientific explanation should always be at the heart of good science fiction, to ground it, and make it semi-believable."

    That is all I ask, that there is an explanation, complete or otherwise, to explain what is goign on. And, yeah, the LOST joke was pretty lame. It seemed funny at the time.
    -- Phreak711

  4. Phreak711 Stop misquoting me ;)
    My issue with Capn's shield or Adamantium's unbreakableness is it splits the line between Trek & Wars. It's not good science like Trek delivers and it's not a push-button explanation like Wars. Instead you get the messy fly-like hybrid where it doesn't 'just work' like a mcguffin but when they try to explain why Adamantium has those properties they come off sounding like 6 year old scientists with down syndrome :P And yes, Goldo, The Doctor always lives on the Star Wars side with his awesome Sonic Screwdriver and "Heart of the Tardis" :D And that's just fine with me :)