Science Fiction isn’t about Science.

I was talking with John and my in-laws about “Lucy” yesterday. None of us had seen it and John doesn’t want to because the fundamental premise of the science fiction is painfully wrong. Here’s the trailer:

The premise seems to be that some sort of trauma triggers this woman to be able to use a rapidly increasing percentage of her brain, which gives her crazy superpowers, because, dontcha know, normal humans only use about 10 percent of their brains. I understand John’s objection: that 10 percent thing is complete and utter nonsense, nonsense which is easily dispelled by reputable sources if you take 0.35 seconds to Google it.

But the myth persists and has enough appeal for a movie founded on it to bring in big names like Morgan Freeman and Scarlett Johannson. Why?

Let’s wind the clock back to the mid to late 1800s. Meet Jules Verne. He has been hailed as one of the founders of modern science fiction and admired as a futuristic prophet, many inventors crediting him for inspiring their work, including submarines and helicopters. As a kid dreaming of being a science fiction writer, I would daydream about what magical invention I might concoct that would inspired some young scientist to change the face of technology as we understand it.

As a practicing writer, however, I’ve discovered something about science fiction and the process of a responsible writer: research is a pain in the ass.

Jules Verne did his research, and it made his work great. He kept up with the scientific advances of the day and tried to extrapolate what would come next. And because the world was really only just starting to have enough science for specialization to be a thing, it was possible to gain a pretty thorough picture of a wide variety of fields without yourself being a scientist working in that field.

Let’s talk about the singularity for a moment. Personally, I think Ray Kurzweil and his ilk are guilty of bad science, bad math, and generally warping reality to fit their cockamamie dream of becoming robots instead of dying. But underlying their assurances that we will all be uploaded to the cloud within the next few decades (snort) is a notion that is useful for the purposes of considering the state of science fiction: exponential growth.

Do a quick image search on world population growth. See the curve that dominates the charts? That’s what exponential growth looks like. Now do the same search for growth of computing power. Pretty similar, although I would be wary of charts that extrapolate into the future–they make the curve look much nicer. The basic idea with exponential growth is that the larger X gets, the faster it multiplies, and I think the same principle can be reasonably applied to science thus: the more we know and the more people who have access to resources to act on that knowledge, the faster we will discover new things.

What this means for science fiction is that even if I can read an article in the latest quantum mechanics journal about a new discovery that might have implication Z, by the time I write a story about it and get it out into the world, Z may very well have been disproved or replaced with an updated notion and if the technology is carrying the story, I will have egg all the hell over my face. And that’s a best-case scenario. In actuality, I’m not even really capable of going that far: the edges of research are so wildly specialized that I can’t actually read the latest articles on quantum mechanics because I’m at least ten years of education short of having the math chops to grok anything more than the abstract and discussion…and I can often only get that much if the author is a particularly lucid writer. I have to rely heavily on second-hand interpretations of the math, which creates its own minefield of possibilities for Getting the Science Wrong.

So how do we write science fiction if the future is too close to comfortably predict, and if the coolest science is incredibly difficult to understand?

The blockbuster nature of “Lucy,” with its egregious crimes against plausibility, points to a question that I think science fiction writers need to ask. What draws the audience in? Because clearly, it ain’t good science.

The science fiction that I have generally found to be the most compelling is the stuff that says, “Let’s pretend scenario Y is true. Let’s throw this set of humans into the plot and watch how they react.” I think science fiction shines the brightest when, instead of being hung up on shiny toys, it asks interesting questions about human nature, psychology, and posits other possible ways of being. In that case, the popularity of “Lucy” makes perfect sense: of course it’s appealing to imagine that we all have potential superpowers locked away in our skulls, ready to be awakened by a little trauma. Of course it’s fascinating to imagine how the world would react if this were discovered to be true and we had no way of predicting how powerful one individual might become if that potential were unlocked.

The best of the genre, in my mind, is more and more about accepting a given “what if” as true, no matter how implausible, and thinking through the human consequences that will result from that set of circumstances. Which means, in turn, that writers who are up to their elbows in history and the study of human nature may end up praised by future generations not for their foresight of being able to travel quickly around the world, but for their discovery of elegant or useful approaches to problems like preserving cultural identity while easing the transition away from harmful practices within a specific cultural heritage (which is another fascinating conversation for another day). What is good culture building if not a sort of qualitative metanalysis of human behavior?

It’s not the easiest mental transition for me to make, reading a lot more history/philosophy/psychology and a little less of the MIT Review. I am, however, comforted by the knowledge that if my proposition is correct, I can at least get the really cool science wrong and it won’t matter much because only maybe a dozen people out of 9 billion will have good reason to be grumpy at me. :)

6 thoughts on “Science Fiction isn’t about Science.

  1. Had a fun conversation about this with Pavlina on the way to the village.

    Believable characters are more important than believable space-ships (because how many people have seen a person? How many have seen a person?).

    But there are still sci-fi authors who are really using science
    and making an attempt to predict the future. Some of them even succeed!
    Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End was written in 2007 about 2025, and now (in
    2014) whatever hasn’t come true in the book looks like it’s about to.
    Okay, so we’re not going to war with China, but Vinge absolutely hit the
    nail on the head with how jobs, education, and entertainment are
    evolving (…into the same thing).


    1. Glad this sparked a fun conversation. :)

      I haven’t read Rainbows End yet. Are Vinge’s accurate predictions based around science and tech? Jobs, education, and entertainment sound like they could be more people-oriented predictions, depending on the angle he takes. If he’s looking at those from a math/computer science perspective, that makes sense, since he has an academic background in those fields. Do you know of any sci-fi writers with humanities backgrounds who do well at predicting the development of tech and science? I would definitely be interested in reading about their research processes.


      1. Vinge is all about how increasingly ubiquitous and powerful computing changes society. I agree with him (and so does the past 7 years of reality), except for the bit about average people gaining more destructive power.
        Hm. Come to think of it, my favorite futurists (Vinge, Stross, and Sterling) are all comp-sci people. It may just be they’re working in the field that defined this part of our history.
        I’m trying to think of social science people who’ve written sci-fi…oh! The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russel! She was an ethnobotanist in her first life, and just like you said, she’s much more concerned with exploring theme and with gadgets and toys. That being said, though, all of her gadgets and toys work. The “photonics,” the hollowed-out-asteroid-accelerating-at-1G, the ecology and evolution of the aliens (once you get past the fact that they are somehow tetrapods on Alpha Centauri’s planets). It’s all believable. So you can do both.
        I think the issue is to tell the reader up front: I’m assuming there are mammalian aliens in the Centauri system, okay? This book isn’t about that, I’m using the aliens to talk about something else, and it’s something you’ll like, so just accept the aliens and let’s move forward.
        That’s my problem (and I’m guessing John’s) with Jane. The thing about 10% of the brain is SO old and SO wrong that it’s just hard to suspend disbelief. It would be better to say: “it was magic. One day she woke up and she had superpowers. Moving on.”
        Sometimes pseudo-science babble just causes problems.


      2. The Sparrow is a great example of what good balance looks like in sci-fi–human concerns in a richly developed world with plausible technology. And for all my preference for the human aspect, I groan at the obviously old and bad science too, so I can’t deny that there’s wisdom in avoiding lazy, badly researched explainers. :)


      3. That’s the thing. I don’t know any humanities authors who ended up predicting the future. I’m sure there are some. though.


      4. Maybe. I would have more faith in their ability to predict social and political development though, at least as a general trend.


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