Bad Science, Good Science Fiction: Hitting a Nerve

On Friday I wrote about how good science fiction (at least to my tastes) often relies on bad science. I was glad to see my ravings triggered a lot of responses over the weekend, both here and abroad at sites like Science Made Cool and io9 (see the comments to their first and second posts). There’s no way I could respond to all the comments, but one in particular stuck in my memory–

Tim Bryon wrote:

I think Carl has a fundamental misunderstanding of what science fiction is – it’s not fiction about science per se, or necessarily fiction with accurate science (what about Jurassic Park?It taught me as an 11 year old about raptors) but fiction about the way advances in technology and knowledge might influence our lives (well, it’s more complicated than that, but anyway). In my mind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the perfect science fiction movie. It’s vaguely plausible that neuroscience will advance to a state where the memory deletion in that movie is possible, and the ramifications of the technology are central to the story and well thought out.

I liked Eternal Sunshine too, and just fired it up on Netflix’s instant viewer to recall why. (Dangerous…must stop watching movies during working hours…) I don’t want to ruin the movie for those who haven’t seen it; suffice to say that the crux of the movie involved Jim Carrey going to a doctor to have memories of his relationship with Kate Winslet erased. But midway through the procedure he changes his mind and tries to hold onto his memories.

Tim thinks that I just don’t understand that science fiction is supposed to make us think about how advances in technology may alter our lives, and that Eternal Sunshine makes us consider the dangers of letting neurologists wipe out targeted memories. I just can’t see the movie that way. The “science” is intentionally silly–a low-rent doctor’s office filled with a bumbling dysfunctional staff. It’s just a way for the movie to get inside Jim Carrey’s head and create all sorts of wonderful images of how we assemble our lives from memories, and how terrifyingly sad it can be to forget them. Watching Winslet fade out of Carrey’s life reminds me of deep losses of my own, and offers the consolation that movies at their best can offer. I’m glad that the people who made Eternal Sunshine were able to produce such a wonderful story by riffing on neuroscience, but I’m also glad that they didn’t get hung up about the science itself.

0 thoughts on “Bad Science, Good Science Fiction: Hitting a Nerve

  1. I have to agree, the science is incidental (but amusing). All you need is to know someone with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, and even the fiction is not required.

  2. The science may seem contrived and outlandish, but such technology truly isn’t so far off. There have been experiments on rats that suggest that some memories may in fact be able to be “erased” with the use of drugs. If my memory serves (and quick research is accurate), Joe LeDoux was the head scientist on the experiment. Here’s a link to an article that published when the story broke back in 2007.

    Here’s another version of the story (and an intriguing radio show):

    At any rate, this is only one instance in which the science may not be quite as fictional as it seems. But to be honest, I don’t have a huge problem with the credibility of Hollywood’s story telling. Virtually all scientific advances seemed crazy, outlandish, even science fictional at one point in time.

    Even though things may never play out as they do in the movies, I like to think that the science part of science fiction hooks a few people here and there. Those people may be the ones to dive into the science, ask the silly questions and investigate the stranger sides of things. Or perhaps the process can work in reverse with science inspiring creativity. These may be terribly idealistic and romantic thoughts, but that’s what happens when Hollywood gets involved.

  3. You kind of dodged the statement there: Tom stated that he thinks you have a flawed concept of what ‘science fiction’ is.

    Your response went off on how one particular film’s portrayal of a particular technology appeared silly to you.

    You never addressed whether or not you actually do have a flawed definition running around in your head.

    Tom was basically trying to say that science fiction stories are ones in which the intersection of science/technology and its effect on people/societies is examined.

    In that respect, the film in question meets the definition – regardless of what may have been a cheesy attempt at portraying the technology in question.

    This of course brings about a discussion of the wider question – why is so much SF on film so awful? (and so much that’s in print absolutely fantastic…) – but that’s a discussion for another day.

  4. Steve–The cheesiness was intentional and funny in the movie. It wasn’t a failure. It was a frank acknowledgment that the “science” was just a portal into another world. Tim may want to define science fiction as examinations of the effect of science on people, but the one movie he uses as an example seems to me to completely fall outside his definition. So I don’t think I dodged anything…

    I agree, however, that the difference between SF movies and books is huge.

  5. I hate this movie with a passion that is deeply entrenched. It is two hours of special effects and forced perspective all to wrap up with a very simple moral. I don’t find it funny in the least, either. Maybe I’m just wierd. I’m one of the few people who thought “I (heart) Huckabees” was a decent film, at least parts of it. I find the two movies to be basically on the same wavelength, so I’m unsure of why I like one and can’t stand the other.

  6. I think you have rather answered your own question. Science fiction has a long reputation of introducing the inquisitive young to science. Eventually this inquisitiveness leads them to actually study science and they discover the wrongs in the fiction. In a sense this is how science is, perpetually accurate only until superseded by something more accurate. As such science fiction and science are actually congruent.

    Of course, there are those who never go on to not study science but they will not be greatly bothered by what is inaccurate in science fiction. Most of what they will know will be of that condition.

  7. Hulu won’t show the video to me 🙁 Something about “Only within the USA”… I’m reading from Sri Lanka.


  8. There was an article in TIME magazine from 1977 where the producers of STAR WARS said it was not science fiction. They called it Space Fantasy. I knew that it was not sci-fi when I first saw it but I had started reading SF in 1961.

    I think that because of the added dimension of complexity that science adds to SF that it should be rated with at least two sets of stars if not three. One rating for the entertainment value of the story and another for the quality of the science. Maybe a third rating for the depth of thought provoked by the story. A story with bad science can have some really serious things to say. I think the science in The Matrix trilogy was utterly implausible. But it is the most thought provoking set of movies I know of. People who like the first one and not the other two are hilarious.

    Of course the nation that put men on the Moon but can’t think to ask about the distribution of steel in collapsed skyscrapers is too dumb for words. Shouldn’t even be talking about SCIENCE fiction, it lives at the Star Wars and Harry Potter level.

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