The Science in Science Fiction

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Since the release of Interstellar, I have been asked repeatedly what I think of the science in the movie (I study black holes you see). So I decided to write a short-ish rant about the science in sci-fi.

So, what do I think of the accuracy of science in science fiction? In short — I don’t care! It is like asking “Is this imaginary flying unicorn anatomically correct?”

As a possibly late disclaimer— I have not watched Interstellar, as of the time of writing. If I do, I’ll write about that specifically later and update here.

The role of science fiction

So as a scientist, I don’t really care about how science is shown in sci-fi movies? Yes.

I don’t look to science fiction to present the most accurate scientific facts. Stories are an art-form. The purpose of science fiction is the same as any fiction — to tell us something about ourselves. Sci-fi uses a currently impractical, maybe improbable or maybe impossible, science-y trope to explore the human characters around it. Be it time-machines, mind-reading, warp-drives, aliens, wormholes, the point of any of these is to act as the cause for the effect they have on humans; inspiring our ambition, our fears, our awe, our kindness, our hate.

Sure, the trope has to sound reasonable within the construct of the story. But it has absolutely no obligation to be scientifically accurate; in fact by its very nature it can not be! A time-machine can’t be depicted in a scientifically accurate manner because time-machines do not exist. Aliens can not be depicted with scientific accuracy because we have no idea what aliens are like!

Every good science fiction story uses its trope as a cause of all the fun, trouble, mayhem in its human characters. Just to prove a point, here is an unordered list of sci-fi stories and their trope-human motif:

  • Back to the Future uses time-travel to cast a teenager’s life into chaos where he ultimately finds self-confidence, courage and yes, love.
  • Minority Report looks at a cop’s defiance on being pre-accused of a crime he has yet to commit.
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind portrays the utter anguish of two people who keep coming back to each other despite having a “scientific” medical procedure to forget.
  • Star Wars is set in space and… well let’s skip this one.
  • Ghost in the Shell depicts crime and crime-fighting in a future where a majority of humans have cyberised brains and bodies, along with all the plethora of philosophical questions that go with it.
  • Primer challenges our sanity with the twisting, turning, mind-bending effects of time-travel as no other movie.
  • E.T. shows a child’s selfless affection for a completely foreign, unknown alien being; revealing the innate “humanity” in us all.
  • The Matrix is… err… not a good example.
  • The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov has a galactic-scale human civilisation dealing with the consequences of its behaviour predicted by the “science” of psycho-history.
  • Inception deals with how unravelling the complex threads of the mind can in turn affect out minds.
  • Moon throws the desperate isolation of a man living on a moon-base straight in our faces.
  • Avatar has blue people in 3D.
  • Artificial Intelligence is a classic Pinocchio story about an android searching for his humanity (definitely Spielberg’s masterpiece in my view).
  • Transformers has robots and…; ah shoot!
  • and no story explores the Deus ex Machina quite like Asimov’s The Last Question.

Perhaps the most extensive example is the comic book series Transmetropolitan written by Warren Ellis. It explores the human consequences of every sci-fi trope under the sun through the eyes of a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, self-centred, Gonzo-journalist Spider Jerusalem.

And, contrary to all of those, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series takes place on a flat-disc world support by four elephants, in turn supported by a giant turtle The Great A'Tuin! Talk about “unscientific”!

The charm of all the good ones is that they don’t try to explain the “science” and focus on the plot, the characters, the human element; the stuff that actually matters in sci-fi. The audience (at least me) doesn’t care if the deLorean could actually travel through time with 1.21 jigowatts, or how Dom Cobb entered into his target’s minds. Tell us what happened after that.

I have been told that maybe more accurate science in movies will help educate people about science. But again, “Is this imaginary flying unicorn anatomically correct?” Once you get the audience to accept your unicorn how scientific is it, to profess the accuracy of its horns? Get people to accept a pseudo-scientific or even scientifically wrong idea and then justify aspects of it as “accurate science”. I think it is obscence, as a scientific practice.

What about inspiring people to take up science? Star Trek reportedly has done that plenty, but scientifically, warp-drives are not possible, sorry. I want to say that the part of Star Trek that inspires people is not the scienctific accuracy or futuristic technology, but the human characters and their stories. As a personal example, my first inspiration to become a scientist was a cartoon series I watched as a kid — Dexter’s Lab! I knew that a “shrink ray” is impossible. I liked the short, smart kid who toiled in his secret lab for no reason but to have fun with his science. He kept at it, fighting off his fun-loving sister, his evil science nemesis and sometimes, giant sea monsters. Oddly, it turns out that is pretty close to actually doing science.

The role of the scientist

If science fiction really wants to inspire people to do science, then they should do so with their characters. The most awe-inspiring sci-fi piece I have seen recently is the one I wrote this note about:

I actually can not recall any sci-fi movie that does not reduce its scientist to be a stereotypical, crazy-eyed, wild-haired, anti-social person. If you can “consult” scientists to dream up your unicorn, why not consult them on how real scientists work, play, socialise, relax, stress; to make a believeable, genuine character? If actors in science biopics can do research for their characters, why can’t fiction actors? Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Hawking, Andy Serkis as Albert Einstein, Russell Crowe as John Nash; all played great scientists (maybe not true-to-life, but real scientist-characters)— why can’t writers and actors who portray fictional scientists do their character research? Maybe because all the money and effort is spent on the special effects to get the “science” just right…

I am in no rush to watch Interstellar, though its media-hyped claims of being scientifically accurate have left a bad taste in my mouth. I mean, how anatomically correct can Christopher Nolan’s imaginary flying unicorn be? If it starts with a wormhole then none of the other facts can be in dispute, right?

In any case, if I watch Interstellar I won’t be focussing on the accuracy of the science, but on the brilliant cinematography and the twisted non-linear timelines that Nolan, inevitably, brings to his movies and maybe not so much on his recent (horrible) penchant for in-character-exposition.

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Vaibhhav Sinha
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Nice post. I was rather pleased with the examples you threw at the reader. Science-ficition has often been about exploring the human condition and is usually a reflection of our tendencies in an impractical/fantastical backdrop. It’s often been about telling the story by assuming the conditions and then letting our familiar notions creep in to see how we take it. As you said, it’s ridiculous to depict aliens correctly since we don’t know what they look like! It reminds me of a clever bit in Sagan’s Contact, where they’re trying to determine the motivations of aliens and they admit that it’s not something we can understand. It’d be silly to watch Sci-fi for the Sci and not the fi.