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. :)