Bad Science, Good Science Fiction: Hitting a Nerve

By Carl Zimmer | December 8, 2008 1:57 pm

On Friday I wrote about how good science fiction (at least to my tastes) often relies on bad science. I was glad to see my ravings triggered a lot of responses over the weekend, both here and abroad at sites like Science Made Cool and io9 (see the comments to their first and second posts). There’s no way I could respond to all the comments, but one in particular stuck in my memory–

Tim Bryon wrote:

I think Carl has a fundamental misunderstanding of what science fiction is – it’s not fiction about science per se, or necessarily fiction with accurate science (what about Jurassic Park?It taught me as an 11 year old about raptors) but fiction about the way advances in technology and knowledge might influence our lives (well, it’s more complicated than that, but anyway). In my mind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the perfect science fiction movie. It’s vaguely plausible that neuroscience will advance to a state where the memory deletion in that movie is possible, and the ramifications of the technology are central to the story and well thought out.

I liked Eternal Sunshine too, and just fired it up on Netflix’s instant viewer to recall why. (Dangerous…must stop watching movies during working hours…) I don’t want to ruin the movie for those who haven’t seen it; suffice to say that the crux of the movie involved Jim Carrey going to a doctor to have memories of his relationship with Kate Winslet erased. But midway through the procedure he changes his mind and tries to hold onto his memories.

Tim thinks that I just don’t understand that science fiction is supposed to make us think about how advances in technology may alter our lives, and that Eternal Sunshine makes us consider the dangers of letting neurologists wipe out targeted memories. I just can’t see the movie that way. The “science” is intentionally silly–a low-rent doctor’s office filled with a bumbling dysfunctional staff. It’s just a way for the movie to get inside Jim Carrey’s head and create all sorts of wonderful images of how we assemble our lives from memories, and how terrifyingly sad it can be to forget them. Watching Winslet fade out of Carrey’s life reminds me of deep losses of my own, and offers the consolation that movies at their best can offer. I’m glad that the people who made Eternal Sunshine were able to produce such a wonderful story by riffing on neuroscience, but I’m also glad that they didn’t get hung up about the science itself.

Here’s a clip from Hulu…


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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