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How I talk about science in fiction.

The science of Aquaman. How deep is Rapture? The ecology of Middle Earth. Here at Southern Fried Science, we love taking a hard-science detour into some of our favorite works of fiction. It’s good practice projecting known phenomena into hypothetical universes and figuring out how the mechanics of those worlds shape and are shaped by the principles of ours. And it’s darn fun, to boot.

But diving into “The Science of…” series comes with some pretty huge pitfalls. Not the least of which is the wet blanket nature of criticizing a work of fiction for scientific inaccuracy. Push too far in one direction and you’re left with a dry dissertation on why an obviously fictional world couldn’t work. It’s like being the kid in the room pointing out that professional wrestling isn’t real. No kidding?

There’s a craft to commenting on the science in fiction. After walking this line for a few years, here the simple set of guidelines I use when constructing a commentary. 

1. Remember the goal.

I don’t write about the science of Aquaman to talk about Aquaman to scientists (trust me, I don that enough without a prompt). I write about the science of Aquaman to talk about science with comic book fans. There’s a big difference between the two approaches and it shapes how you discuss a topic. My objective is to focus on a specific scientific concept and draw from the deep Aquaman cannon to illuminate that concept, not get mired in the vast cannon (seriously, comic books are amazing and ridiculous. You can find just about anything to prove any point in Aquaman’s 75 year history).

2. Respect the central conceit. 

This is where a lot of “Science of…” articles get hung up. All fiction makes conceits to reality in order establish the rules of the universe. Martian storms don’t rip through like they do in the Martian, but without that conceit, there is no story (and the Martian is an incredibly science-positive story). Those conceits can be reality breakers. But here’s the thing: The central conceit of a piece of fiction is the Ultimate Truth in that universe. If magic is real, magic is real. If vampires are real, vampires are real. If an ancient giant shark emerges from the ice to fight an ancient giant octopus, than an ancient giant shark emerged from the ice to fight an ancient giant octopus. Without the central conceit, there is no story. If your “Science of…” criticism breaks the story, then it’s not a good critique.

The one glorious flip side to this is the “what if?” discussion: What if Batman had to follow the rules of physics? What if Aquaman were a real marine mammal? These cases explore a new central conceit: what if, suddenly, X fictional character has to follow the same rules as we do.

This, incidentally, is why I encourage scientist to spend a little time writing science fiction: the better you are at crafting a story, the better you are at recognizing the difference between bad science and a central conceit.

3. Play by the established rules.

Fictional universes, at least well-built ones, have relatively clear rules that characters follow. Even if they’re scientific mumbo-jumbo, if the rules are established, those are the rules. T. rexes can almost certainly see you when you’re standing still, but that rule was explicitly established in the universe. Does that make it right? Well, yes, in the fictional world of the story, it does. Does that mean you can’t point it out? Of course not (pro-tip: you can actually do whatever you want when critiquing a piece of media), but in doing so, you’re staking a claim that you want the fictional world to function under your rules and creeping dangerously close to challenging the central conceit.

Consider this masterpiece by Craig McClain: How may people does a Kaiju need to eat every day?

Look at how elegantly Dr. M embraces the central conceits of the story, and then projects the natural extension of those conceits into the unspoken features of the Pacific Rim universe. The story isn’t “Kaiju can’t really be that big.” The story is “ok, given the central conceit that kaiju are real giants from the Mariana Trench, what else need to happen to make that work?”

4. Distinguish between ‘typos’ and bad science.

There’s bad science and there’s typos. Bad science doesn’t just embrace world breaking central conceits, but generally ignores fundamental aspects of the way the world works, regardless of its impact on the story. We’re good at spotting bad science. Typos aren’t bad science. Just like in writing, typos are natural oversights. Getting the stars wrong in Titanic was a typo. And while yes, sometimes it’s fun to point out the typos, especially when they’re glaringly obvious, the problem with hanging a critique off of typos is that there’s no where else to go. There’s no way to dig deeper into the story, to project forward into the natural consequences of these new rules, or to weave a new narrative around it. It’s just pointing out a detail that’s wrong.

And that’s boring.

The real fun in all this is using the conceits of a fictional universe to discuss phenomena in our universe, to bounce concepts between two worlds and emphasize how they fit together and how they fall apart.


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