Where’s the Science in Your Fiction?

For a brief time as a teen I was interested in sci-fi and fantasy books. Though the two genres are usually lumped together, I always had a clear understanding that sci-fi involved robots and/or space, while fantasy was almost always something about wizards, elves, magic and realms that had not yet witnessed an industrial revolution. (Seriously, why all the swords, people? Magic up some gunpowder for chrissakes).

In other words, sci-fi involved science, even if it existed only in the mind of the author, but it stuck to the laws of physics, for the most part. Whereas in fantasy there was no science, just magic, and the laws of the physical world did not apply. If something wasn’t physically possible, a wizard could always cast a spell and make the impossible possible. Except making gunpowder, apparently.

Sometimes the lines are blurred, especially in futuristic sci-fi series and films. If science can’t come up with a realist solution, a lazy or particularly uninspired sci-fi author will disguise magic as science in the form of techno-babble. Star Trek, and its many derivatives, is one of the worst offenders when it comes to techno-babble. If techno-babble could fuel starships, we’d have reached every planet in the galaxy by now.

Here’s how I interpret at typical scene in just about every Star Trek show or movie:

First Officer: “Captain, we’ve detected a techno-babble disruption in the subspace techno-babble! It appears to be some sort of alien techno-babble!”

Captain: “Red alert! Shields up! Weapons officer, bring all of our techno-babble weapons online and prepare to fire once we lock onto the techno-babble.”

Science Officer: “Captain, if I divert some techno-babble from the techno-babble, I can strengthen the techno-babble by 63%! That might just buy us enough time to techno-babble our way out of this!”

Captain: “Make it so!”

Most fiction requires us to suspend disbelief. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes not. The best fiction requires the least difficulty in suspending our disbelief. Think about all the cheesy action movies that involve impossible car stunts that could never happen in real life. Or a hero getting shot, but “it’s okay, the bullet passed clean through. Let’s pour some whisky on it and you’ll be right as rain.” We know those things aren’t real, yet if the movie is good enough we choose to overlook the details and let ourselves get consumed with the plot.

The truth about space is that it’s incredibly boring. Boring doesn’t make good TV. Most of the time the crew of the Enterprise would be bored out of their minds as the ship traveled endless light years just to get from point A to point B. But in fiction, we don’t have that problem because the ship can seemingly instantly go anywhere in the universe in the blink of an eye at techno-babble factor six. And if that isn’t good enough, we’ll just magic up a new kind of improbability drive that lets us get their even faster. And if that isn’t good enough, we’ll just explain it away with worm-holes and parallel universes.

I tried watching the series Mars, produced by National Geographic. It’s a mashup of documentary, with interviews from current-time real people involved in the space industry, and science fiction, with a dramatized Mars landing set 35 years in the future. The problem is, it’s really boring. It turns out that you can’t create enough drama in a fictional future landing to compensate for the endless self-promotional interviews with Elon Musk. The pace of future action is interrupted by too-frequent flashbacks to the present, with engineers talking about how it’s going to be really, really hard to reach Mars. Yeah, I’m sure it was hard, but you’ve already shown us that humans will land on Mars in 35 years’ time, so it doesn’t really further the plot to flash back to the present to tell us how hard it is going to be to get there. It’s like starting a courtroom drama by showing us the verdict first. No one cares about the procedure when you already know the conclusion.

So it turns out that a little fantasy mixed with our science is necessary for good fiction. But too much magic spoils the broth. If Star Trek would avoid the lazy writer’s pitfall of inserting techno-babble jargon as a way of compensating for any semblance of scientific integrity it might actually be enjoyable. And if Mars would take a sharp editing knife to the endless boring interviews explaining why science is sooooo hard, it might actually be watchable.

Don’t even get me started on the biological impossibility of the entire zombie genre. That’s a rant for another day.

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