Comic-Con: Science, Even if It's Fake, Can Make Fiction Better

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | July 23, 2010 3:40 pm

300.comic.con.logo.052708Yesterday evening we held our third annual Comic-Con panel on the science of science fiction. And in our unbiased opinion, it rocked. (Attendees said the same, but then they probably wouldn’t have told us it was lame, would they?)

One theme that emerged from the panel was that skillful use of science could make stories better. But being Discover, we needed some evidence. And how better to present this evidence than as a scientific publication:

The Enhancement of Dramatic and Aesthetic Qualities of Fictional Works Through Application of Authentic or Apocryphal Scientific Theories

Abstract: Anthropological evidence suggests humans have engaged in storytelling since at least the birth of complex culture. Over the past century, these stories increasingly take the form of science fiction, in which advances in science and/or technology figure prominently in the story. Here we present evidence supporting Carroll’s Hypothesis: that clear, consistent use of rules corresponding to real-world or even imagined scientific theories increases the artistic value of fictional works.

Methods: A panel of science-fiction experts was assembled at the San Diego International Comic-Con. Experts showed clips from films where successful use of scientific rules enhanced value and where unsuccessful use decreased value. The moderator was Phil Plait (Bad Astronomy blog), and the panel comprised Sean Carroll (Cosmic Variance, CalTech), Kevin Grazier (Science Not Fiction, JPL), Jamie Paglia (Eureka), and Zack Stentz (Fringe).

Results: Plait showed a clip from Armageddon in which rain falls on Bruce Willis as he stands on an asteroid. (We leave it to the reader to surmise the feasibility of this type of event.) Grazier showed a clip from the same film illustrating the effects of a massive asteroid impacting Earth, and pointed out inaccuracies in the depiction. He also showed a similar but much more scientifically accurate clip from Deep Impact. Plait argued that Armageddon is “the worst film ever made”; Grazier agreed.

Paglia showed a clip from Eureka in which tiny robotic “nanoids” self-assemble into human forms. The protagonists of the show use a speaker to broadcast powerful infrasound waves at the nanoids’ communication frequency,  shaking the human-shaped nanoid collectives into dust. Paglia asserted that assuming the existence of the as-yet unrealistic nanoids, the internally consistent logic of their destruction led to a strong climax of a strong episode.

Stentz showed a scene from the film The Arrival, in which a radio astronomer who is fired from his job becomes a professional antenna installer and cleverly coordinates the antennae to operate with the power of a much larger one, much as the Very Large Array does. Stentz said the implausible aspect of the scene was actually not a scientific point: Charlie Sheen’s casting as a brilliant radio astronomer.

Discussion: An entirely subjective regression of the anecdotal data presented shows a strong causative connection between adherence to scientific rules (even imaginary ones) and artistic success of fictional works. Stentz pointed out one potential explanation for the connection: “Drama comes from a struggle–from characters not being able to do something they’re trying to do.” The rules of science can provide those obstacles–and also methods to circumvent them. Crucially, the science invoked should be internally consistent within the work. If writers use scientific-based miracles to advance plots, “that’s not science fiction, that’s science magic. That’s the line we try not to cross,” said Paglia.


Comments (12)

  1. JohnD

    With all due respect, Armageddon was NOT the worst science fiction film ever made. That honor belongs to Starship Troopers. Not only did it lack the wit to understand the satire on which it was based, it lacked the ability to mock it properly. Bugs that fart fireballs across teh galaxy? Soldiers who take turns firing on the enemy (while riding them like a bucking bronoc)? A military that has seriously regressed in capability from that of the 1990s (when the film was made)?

    Now *that* is true crap!

  2. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    I see your point, JohnD, but I have a thing for Starship Troopers. I love it. I mean, yes, it’s pretty dumb. Yet it’s so awesome. (“A bug that can think? Frankly, I find the idea oh-fensive.”) I guess you have to let go of it as true sci-fi and accept it as… really dumb sci-fi…

  3. Oh come now, you gotta love Starship Troopers for the trashy B-film that it was. It was enjoyeable precisely *because* it was ludicrous.

  4. This is interesting, a friend of mine and I have often had discussions about the “Heisenberg Compensators,” that are referred to in Star Trek as being a necessary part of the transporter. We think the beauty of this “device” is that the writers are giving the audience some credit and throwing a bone to legitimate physics; they know that the uncertainty principle would likely cause a problem with any conceptual transporter design, so they have given us a line of dialog to “explain” this technology. Joss Whedon was brilliant with this on Buffy; he violated the rules of his universe constantly, but he would ALWAYS give us a reason the rules were able to be violated in that case, be it a ring, an amulet, a spell, the device didn’t matter, what mattered was that he was showing respect for the audience and being consistent to the internal rules of his universe. While I’m sure that isn’t the whole reason for Joss’ success, I imagine it’s a part of it.

  5. magetoo

    “Armageddon was NOT the worst science fiction film ever made”

    More evidence to the hypothesis tested then, since it really does come off as the worst. :)

  6. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @Rhacodactylus: If Whedon constantly violated the rules of the Buffyverse, doesn’t that kind of cheapen the rules? Shouldn’t those be special occasions, not weekly occasions?

  7. Mark Kawakami

    Yes, Armageddon has huge flaws, but believe it or not, I think it’s the better of the two “Asteroid hits earth” movies that year (the other being “Deep Impact”). Of all the things that stretch credulity in Armageddon, none stretches it so far as a character haling a cab on the day earth is to be destroyed in Deep Impact. That’s one dedicated cabbie!

  8. I’m generally in agreement that accurate science, even imaginary science if it is self-consistent, can make or break a film or series. HOWEVER… Although Firefly is one of my all-time favorite shows, Whedon seemed to pretty such say, “Science? Never heard of it.” The “science they ended up using was in some cases not even consistent within itself.

    No one on Serenity knew that guns fire just fine in a vacuum, since the charge contains its own oxidant.Not even the merc or the trained assassin. And where were the gas giants that so many of those terraformed moons orbited? In one episode, the engine breaks and the ship stops, instead of obeying Newton, but in another they use the idea of inertia by aiming the ship, getting the speed they want, and shutting down the engines. I could go on…

    The series still worked despite all that, but it would have been much better with better science.

    Loved Farscape, too, and at least when they screwed up science (like having the crew shrunk down), they hang a lantern on it by having one character point out the science issues, than another character chides her for thinking she knows it all.

  9. We like this info given and that has given me several sort of inspiration to have success for some cause, so keep up the good work.


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