For the third year in a row, Discover hosted a panel on science in science fiction at this year’s Comic-Con. This year’s edition was moderated by Phil Plait and featured a great lab-meets-film panel: Jamie Paglia (creator of Eureka); Kevin Grazier (JPL planetary physicist, Science Not Fiction blogger); Zack Stentz (writer for Fringe, Thor); and Sean Carroll (Caltech theoretical physicist, Cosmic Variance blogger).
The conversation was good and lively, with a nice mix of funny and interesting bits. But don’t take my word for it:
Ray Bradbury is the last living of the great early titans of science fiction, now that Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke have passed. He said he’s attended every Comic-Con since the first one, when he went to the El Cortez Hotel and spoke to a few of the 300 attendees that year. These days, 125,000 people turn out for Comic-Con every year, and I had to wait 30 minutes to get in to see Bradbury speak. He’ll be 90 in August, and he’s hard of hearing, but he’s still sharp, and he’s forgotten nothing.
The Bradbury panel featured Bradbury talking to his biographer, Sam Weller. I’m just going to share select quotes from his remarks. These are in order, but incomplete.
“The Internet to me is a great big goddamn stupid bore.”
“I got a call from a man who wanted to publish my books on the Internet. I told him, prick up your ears and go to hell.”
[Bradbury has met most, if not all, of the Apollo and Gemini astronauts.]
“All those astronauts had read the Martian Chronicles. When they were young men, they read my books and decided they wanted to become astronauts.”
Carla Speed McNeil writes the Finder graphic novels, a work that in many ways blends science fiction and fantasy. With a hybrid work, she’s had to confront some of the definitional questions of the genres:
• Superhero comics are not SciFi. They’re stories of emotion and character embroidered with these scientific ideas.
• Fantasy and Sci-fi are both speculative fiction, but approached from different angles. Where Sci-fi builds on physics and chemistry and the laws of nature, fantasy, when done well, draws from the “softer sciences” (McNeil’s phrase) like sociology and anthropology. When I think about the fantasy novels I’ve read, at least the good ones, I think she’s spot on. Also, by this rule, superhero stories like Spider-Man and Superman are works of fantasy, not works of science fiction.
• I asked her thoughts on the question of breaking the rules that I raised in yesterday’s post. She pretty much admitted that one of the big problems is that a lot of sci-fi and fantasy writers simply don’t know the rules of science well enough to know when they’re breaking the rules. But she also agreed with Zack Stentz, in that she said she obeys “the rule of cool”: If it’s cool, you can break the rule. The art of the writing is making the rule-breaking not off-putting or boring.
A quick note for McNeil fans, she recently signed with Dark Horse Comics after years of self-publishing. She said the relationship is great so far, but still new. It’ll be interesting to see how or if the books change.
Spring boarding from Amos’ post on Thursday’s Discover panel, I want to delve into some unexplored tension. The panel focused on how science could make storytelling better, and it included a mix of scientists and TV writers.
Jamie Paglia (Co-creator of Eureka) conceded that sometimes he’s had to “stretch the boundaries a little thin for my comfort zone,” and he was somewhat abashed thinking of those moments. But Fringe producer Zach Stentz threw down the gauntlet.
“Sometimes you have to break the rules to tell the story you want to tell,” he said, and ran a Fringe clip in which Olivia and Peter realize that Bell has extracted memories from Walter’s brain by removing actual pieces of Walter’s brain.
“He literally had his memories removed,” Stentz said. “We knew when we wrote it that memories aren’t stored in a discrete portion of your brain.”
Which I thought was a pretty direct challenge to Kevin Grazier, Sean Carroll, and Phil Plait, all scientists trying to make the case that accurate science can ratchet up the tension and provide a more satisfying resolution.
Alas, the argument never got going, and it left me wondering: where’s the line between acceptable and unacceptable scientific rule breaking?
Sure scientists enjoy the first Iron Man movie. They’re human beings after all, and that was a pretty decent movie. But I would never have expected scientists to love it for…well, for its approach to science.
“Our favorite part was the testing,” he said at the panel. “You know the part where he tries out the rocket boots, and he turns them on at like 10% and gets thrown onto the roof of car? We cracked up because that’s exactly what happens.”
Obviously, Street was joking, but his point was that Iron Man was one of the few movies to offer a smatter of realism in how science gets done: Have an idea, test it, have it not work right, try again.
One of the marvels of Comic-Con is that when a panelist asks the people in the room whether they’d be willing to risk a fatal mechanical failure for the chance to go into space, everyone raised their hands. It’s the kind of place where nerds roam free, geeks can be both predator and prey, and the answer to the question, “How about going to space?” is foreordained.
The panel I’m referring to focused on the question of whether private companies are better suited to taking humanity into space, or whether NASA is doing awesome work and we, as a society, should just keep on keepin’ on. To help answer the question, the panel featured Mark Street (from XCOR), John Hunter (Quicklaunch), Chris Radcliff (San Diego Space Society), Dave Rankin (The Mars Society), Molly McCormick (Orbital Outfitters) and was moderated by Jeff Berkwits (editor and writer).
Discover has descended in force upon the unexpecting San Diego International Comic-Con, not only to host our own panel (“Abusing the Sci of Sci-Fi,” tonight, 6pm, Room 6AB) but to pore over the rest of the conference and bring the choicest nuggets back to our own SNF readers.
To that end, I just emerged from a great panel hosted by the sci-fi blog (and new Discover syndication partner) io9 about “Sci-Fi That Will Change Your Life.” The panel included some io9ers (Annalee Newitz, Charlie Jane Anders, Meredith Woerner, Cyriaque Lamar) plus some sci-fi industry folks (Marc Bernardin, Bonnie Burton, Doug Wolk, and Lou Anders). Among this big panel of very dialed in sci-fi heads, they covered a really wide range of recent work, picking out their favorite, most “life-changing” material. Here are the recommendations that sounded the most recommendable of all:
Ever watched a science fiction movie and groaned when the science is spun, folded, and mutilated? Sure, outrageous science is fun, but so is making fun of it.
In that spirit, we’re happy to announce DISCOVER’s panel at Comic-Con 2010, in sunny San Diego. If you’re at the convention tomorrow (Thursday) night, come by for a little discussion we’re calling “Abusing the Sci of Sci-Fi.” It will run from 6-7 pm, in room 5AB.
The panel will be moderated by DISCOVER’s Bad Astronomy blogger Phil Plait, who will talk with five sci-fi movers and shakers about their favorite moments in good and bad sci-fi science. The panelists include two other DISCOVER bloggers: physicist Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance and NASA scientist and Eureka advisor Kevin Grazier, who blogs here at Science Not Fiction.
These scientists will be joined on stage by three people who actually make the sci-fi happen: Jaime Paglia (producer and writer for Eureka), Zack Stentz (producer for Fringe and writer for the upcoming movie Thor), and Bill Prady (executive producer of The Big Bang Theory).
DISCOVER: The Science and the Fiction, a gallery of sublime and ridiculous science in sci-fi
Discoblog: World Science Festival: The Science of Star Trek
Discoblog: Scientists to Hollywood: Please Break Only 1 Law of Physics Per Movie
For those of you who couldn’t make it to San Diego last week, Discovermagazine.com and the National Academy of Sciences’ Science & Entertainment Exchange present our panel discussion on “Mad Science,” featuring Jaime Paglia (co-Executive Producer of Eureka), Kevin Grazier (Battlestar Galactica and Eureka science adviser), Jane Espenson (Dollhouse, Battlestar, Caprica, and lots more), Ricardo Gil da Costa (science adviser for Fringe), and Rob Chiappetta and Glenn Whitman (writers for Fringe).
Big thanks to Jennifer at SEE, to all of our panelists, and to the Bad Astronomer, who found time to moderate our panel while he wasn’t partying with Hollywood starlets (Phil – we kid because we love).
We could probably go on forever with various interesting snippets from Comic-Con 2009—until next year’s con, at least—but we have to wrap this up soon so we can get on with covering the rest of the universe. So here are the last little important sci-fi news bitties from this year’s Comic-Con:
▪ Jeff Smith, whose epic graphic novel Bone is on track to be released as a Warner Brothers movie, spent a year boning up on quantum physics fundamentals for his current comic serial RASL. “I love the new wave of theoretical physics,” he told SciNoFi. “I’m a devotee of Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, and Michio Kaku. It wasn’t a hardship to do the studying.”
The story mixes string theory, M theory and parallel universes with science conspiracy theories. “The glue between them is RASL, an inter-dimensional art thief,” he adds. “You have a guy with thermo-magnetic pads on his shoulders so he can step through parallel dimensions—add a shot of rye whiskey in his gut and he’s ready to go.”