Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Mapping Science Fiction in Three Dimensions

I think it is helpful to think of mapping Science Fiction in three dimensions.

The first is science truth. At one extreme, all of the science agrees with we now know about science, and no science is violated in the telling of the story. This hardly ever happens in Science Fiction movies, except in science docudramas, like Apollo13, or The Right Stuff. Which you should watch if you haven't yet done so.

Even the hardest of Science Fiction cinema almost always contains some dramatic license.

At the middle of the range, there's speculation about science that isn't obviously impossible, and if the story presents some speculation as fact, the story respects the logical conclusions from the speculation.

At the other extreme, the story completely contradicts what we actually think we know about our universe. For example, the story proposes that all of Earth's plant life is extinct, except in greenhouses in space.  Just outside the orbit of Saturn.  Yes, Silent Running, I'm looking at you. Or yarns in which radioactivity creates giant ants or web-slinging superheroes.

The second dimension is science relevance. If the story assumes that science will somehow allow us to make artificial people and that has an important impact on the narrative, that's one end of the scale. For example, Bladerunner.

If science allows us to make blasters that are remarkably similar to modern firearms except for the pewpewpew and the bright bolts of light, that's the other.

The third is narrative quality. Is it a good story, or not?

Sticking to movies, you can have a film that is excellent at science truth and science relevance, but mediocre at narrative, such as 2010: a Space Odyssey.

Or the reverse, such as the first two Star Wars movies.

You can also have a movie in which the science truth has gone stale with time, like Destination Moon.

A strong enough narrative can carry a story with poor science truth and science relevance. A Scanner Darkly is essentially a story about 1970s drug culture with some very speculative Science Fiction chrome bolted on. It's still a good movie.

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