‘Ah, remember the good old days … when there was actual *SCIENCE* in science fiction? I do …’
… I thought to myself as I watched the new Transformers: Age of Extinction trailer yesterday with my 7-year-old Geekling. Immediately, I felt compelled to explain that there is no such thing as a ‘molecularly unstable metal’ and why this would matter. His patiently listened to my explanation and then moved on to explain how he was discovering new ways to defeat Megatron.
I’m glad he’s working so diligently on such a burgeoning problem (The Decepticons are everyone’s enemy, after all) but it made me realize (with a sense of sadness as an elder geek) that the popular science fiction of 2014 is doing a massive disservice to the young minds that come to it both for entertainment and information about the world around them.
Where is the science in science fiction?
That’s what I keep screaming at the movie theater and at the television screen! Production after production … show after show … Con after Con. Dippy eye candy that sits on the dais at SDCC because she mouthed words of more than 4 syllables on a movie screen at one point in her life. She could pronounce the words and therefore she, too, understands science and technology! Intelligent actors reduced to tears acting against green screens. The stunningly beautiful, thoughtful and evocative ‘Alien‘ series reduced to a cheap carnival haunted house ride. After Avatar, I had to do a quick five-minute lecture on how the major plot device of the entire movie, this ‘unobtainium’ metal they were looking for, doesn’t actually exist. IT SHOULDN’T HURT THIS MUCH TO BE A GEEK.
And don’t get me wrong: I understand that creative license is necessary in science fiction. After all, I’m part of the generation that was officially okay with tachyon beams, lightsabers and Flynn getting sucked into the grid. We can be okay with the science being fudged occasionally, but only after the story demonstrates some respect for our intelligence. I don’t get that sense from modern popular sci-fi any more.
Some movies actually get this right without making a big deal out of it. For example, Holly Hunter did a totally wicked job of learning radio protocol for her part as Helen Parr in The Incredibles. The Matrix Reloaded showed Trinity using Nmap to find a vulnerable SSH server.
Additionally, some movies like Real Genius or Wargames, got away with their massive technological inaccuracies because we as the audience didn’t know any better. The technology of the Internet, computing or virtual reality wasn’t well-understood at that point. Later on, when we did put it together how laughably wrong some of the technology sequences were, it felt like a badge of honor to participate in that discovery. What are we discovering when every reference in a sci-fi movie is talking about something that doesn’t exist?
This conflict was coupled with another frustration: the science fiction I grew up with and emulated in Flotilla and Iron Mountain didn’t seem to have a place in the 21st century. Then about a year ago, someone pointed out to me the answer to these problems: “Dan … you’re talking about hard science fiction.” Frankly, I didn’t see what the difference but if I need to learn the lingo to connect with people then c’est la vie.
So yes, we need hard science fiction and more to the point – kids need hard science fiction. It may not be readily obvious but these young minds are absorbing what we give them and if what we’re giving them is pure high-tech mumbo jumbo, then what they will imagine for themselves in the future will be the same. In the parlance of old geeks: Garbage In – Garbage Out. We must be giving these kids the fuel they need to imagine and create the future we’re leaving to them. That’s one reason that kids need hard science fiction. Here are five more:
- Hard Sci-Fi is Learning Without Teaching – I don’t know about you guys but one of the reasons I loved the old sci-fi is that it assumed so much knowledge. You had to approach old geeky movies like 2001 knowing a thing or two about space travel to truly appreciate it. Jurassic Park demanded that you be capable of understanding a little bit about fossils and biology before throwing you into the dino pen. Hard sci-fi builds a universe where you have to know something in order to play and if you don’t, that’s on you. That’s a very powerful lesson for anyone to learn.
- ‘Sci-Fi’ Movies Aren’t Cutting It Any More – I know I spent most of the article saying it but it bears repeating: Modern sci-fi is definitely fiction, but it is certainly not scientific. Stop that.
- Hard Sci-Fi Doesn’t You Like a Commodity – As an author, I’m constantly on the lookout for ways to introduce my work to the community, sell it and therefore to support myself. I understand that there is a reality to be honored in the space between creativity and commerce. At the same time, I want to remember and I want you to remember that it is still about the ideas. I have to believe that somewhere out there are a number of geeks for whom it does not matter how big your promotional budget is. I’m looking to unite those people because they’re powerful and they need to be treated like something other than a cash register for Hollywood.
- Kids Need to Learn How to Answer Tough Questions – Unlike Apple, I don’t believe that ‘there’s an app for that.’ Not for everything, not when you’re really doing it for yourself. Innovation is one of those sexy words people use who have never really had to figure out how to write, how to promote and how to do in this world. Having a hard problem to bang your head against until you finally solve it … you have to experience that, you can’t engineer it. It won’t happen in 30 minutes with 2 commercial breaks. Kids need stories that show how to deal with the agony and the ecstasy of a problem that needs to be solved … there are many difficult questions that need answers.
- Scientific Literacy is a Survival Skill – In a world where applied science is all around us, how can we not be teaching kids? Did you hear about that guy who survived two atomic bombs because he downloaded an app that showed him how to survive radiation? Neither did I. Did you hear the story about the high-school kid who invented a test for pancreatic cancer? Did he come up with that because he played Angry Birds all day? Of course not! It boggles my mind that not only are kids not getting the math and science education they need, the teachers and education professionals have to sell us on it. Did an entire generation take stupid pills? There is too much at stake for kids not to have this education!
Again, purely as a geek bystander – I’m not advocating that every child go into science camp never to return. I’m simply saying that they need to be scientifically literate. You don’t need to introduce education by forcing it down their throats. Just like you introduce healthy food to kids by making it look attractive and leaving it out for them to find, you do the same with science and technology. I’m heartened to see a director like Chris Nolan tackle a cerebral topic like interstellar travel and I hope other movies follow. The success of shows like Cosmos and people like Dr. Tyson prove beyond a doubt that the young people in America love learning science and technology. It would be a crime for us to ignore that and instead continue foisting sci-fi that contains no actual science upon them.
Here’s my point, for the TL;DR crowd: Hard science fiction has been making science and technology available and interesting for young people for many years now.
I’m simply saying “Don’t stop.”
Dan Haight is the award winning author of the Flotilla Series YA adventure novels and several short stories. He is a San Francisco Bay Area native known for his dark crackling narrative and highly relatable stories.