Does the Science of Science Fiction Matter?

I love Neil deGrasse Tyson, so believe me when I say upfront that this isn’t a criticism of him–it’s just something that has made me think.

For the past couple of years, whenever a science fiction movie has had some buzz about it (Gravity, Interstellar), Tyson has often written about the realism of the science on social media. Would the aspects of the film happen that way in real life? It’s definitely not hard to find things to pick apart, especially for a world-renowned physicist. Fiction is full of make-it-work moments.

While I genuinely do appreciate the push for science literacy (we all can use a little more, certainly), I’m always conflicted. There’s a little voice bubbling up in my brain that says, yes, yes, that’s nice but is that really the point?

Great science fiction has its roots in literature. Some people, such as writer and editor Brian Aldiss, think that Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first true work of science fiction–though by a scientific yardstick, it falls pretty damned short. The science of the novel is unimportant in this case; the story isn’t about science, it’s about hubris, and God, and alienation.

Looking at sci-fi through the ages, you can see that these stories aren’t about technology or science. Science fiction is a mirror held up to humanity. Asimov’s robot stories show us human weakness and triumph as glimpsed through a machine. Philip K. Dick steeped his work in the sociological and the political. Bradbury took on some of our darkest human traits, and Butler tackled a wealth of issues including race, class, gender, and sexuality. In this sense, the science of science fiction doesn’t really matter; it’s a tool through which to draw out various human themes. Whether you’re using lasers or robots or space travel, sci-fi is about people, and that’s the only equation that needs to work for the story to come alive.

On the other hand, I still think the science does matter. Sorta.

I’m thinking of the hundred times or so I had to sit through the trailer for the film Lucy, in which ScarJo unlocks more than the 10% of her brainpower people normally use and becomes some kind of superhuman, or something. This trailer made me roll around on the ground in pain because I already knew the premise was total bollocks; scientists have images of people using 100% of their brains to do various bodily tasks like processing information and regulating neurochemicals. I couldn’t bring myself to go see the movie because I knew I’d just be thinking “this is bullshit this is bullshit this is bullshit” the entire time.

(Of course, a lot of people still believe the 10% myth. They probably enjoyed Lucy. I’m glad for them, I just couldn’t.)

For me, I think the science of science fiction needs to be something that isn’t easily disproven. Even if it’s something that almost definitely couldn’t happen (like Frankenstein’s monster), I need a sliver of doubt. I need for the science to be something that humanity could potentially grow into, even if the chances are almost nonexistent. It’s like when I read stories that feature magic; I know that magic almost definitely does not exist, but I can’t prove it. That sliver of doubt leaves me room to suspend my disbelief.

So, does the science of science fiction matter? Yes. And no. Mostly no. But yes. Sorta.

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