A recent story on BBC's Newshour centered on the question: How much science should be in science-fiction movies? Newshour's Claire Bolderson asked this question of two guests: Emory University physicist Sidney Perkowitz and science-fiction writer John Clute. Using the movie Starship Troopers as an example, the trio discussed the necessity of including accurate science in science-fiction films.
Basically, Perkowitz argued that the giant bug aliens in Starship Troopers are scientifically impossible due to their size, and that this kind of blatant disregard for physics is too much suspension of disbelief. According to Perkowitz, the "bugs" would not have been able to move well, and would have easily become stuck on their backs, making them a much less terrifying adversary than depicted in the movie.
I'd like to open up the question to all science fiction and not just movies. As a writer, a reader, and a science-fiction movie fan, I disagree with the notion that science fiction should not be fantastical, lest it go too far to suspend disbelief. The whole point of reading or watching science fiction is that you escape to another world. The word fiction tells us right up front that the audience should have no expectation of truth about anything included in the story. Science fiction is rooted in science, but it is the fantastical stretching of known science that makes it fun. If what you seek is true, accurate science, watch a documentary. Even better, take one of Professor Perkowitz's classes.
It's not like entertainment media has a great history of accuracy. Forensic crime shows are currently one of the most popular types of television shows, yet real forensic science has very little in common with the farcical fabrications shown on TV (IT security doesn't hold up well on TV either). For that matter, there is no scientific proof that ghosts exist or that demonic possession really happens. But if you take ghosts and demons out of entertainment media, there could be no The Amityville Horror, no The Exorcist, and no Paranormal Activity. In short, many advances in entertainment and film could never have happened, purely because we didn't extend beyond proven science.
That's not to say that proven science has no place in science fiction. By all means, pack the physics lessons in -- just don't expect that the audience will recognize it as scientific fact right away. Science fiction has historically sought to introduce new ideas to the masses, though it often takes the masses more than just watching a movie to understand the presented concepts. I do not see a problem with combining the two. After all, make-believe is rooted in reality but takes us further than reality allows us to go. It's not about what is; it's about what if.
- Listen to the BBC Newshour science vs. science discussion (it starts at about 44 minutes)
- Science vs. science fiction: The Podcasts
- Sci fi tech will kill TV science fiction
- Three Films That Would Make Einstein Blush: Read more about Dr. Perkowitz's inability to suspend his disbelief.
Nicole Bremer Nash is Director of Content and Social Media for HuTerra, where she uses SEO and social media to promote charitable organizations in their community-building and fundraising efforts. She enjoys volunteering, arts and crafts, and conducting science experiments at home. Nicole has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Transylvania University, and has experience in copywriting for education, print, business, and the web. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter via @HuTerra.