The Magic of… Science! (2008)


From Death Ray 14. Funnily enough, quantum physics features a lot in my own fiction.

Genes that can turn the evolutionary clock back! Radiation that gives you superpowers rather than cancer! Chemical rockets that can fly to a distant star system before everyone dies of old age! SF is rammed full of such magic science, and by golly, it gets on my goat.

Science fiction does precisely what the name says, it is fiction, with some science (though if we’re talking about the likes of Greg Egan, it is science, with some fiction). Except when it doesn’t.

The fiction part means we should expect reality to be bent, or broken, especially if the author wants to explore an intriguing concept or put forward a metaphor exploring one aspect of the human condition or another. This humanist side of SF is essentially fantasy, concerned almost solely with the soul, so it’s excusable. I doubt Stan Lee really believed that Peter Parker would turn into Spider-man when bitten by a radioactive spider, or that Richard Matheson thought a man could actually shrink, but these stories are not about those concepts, the concepts are only plot devices to help the authors get to what they really wanted to talk about: dealing with power, and dealing with losing it. Such things are the giants and the magic swords of modern-day parablists, and we can forgive them that.

But SF is not just the inheritor of yesteryear’s fantasticalities, it is more than Jonathan Swift with rocket boots. Some ‘scientist’ SF deliberately sets itself up a soothsayer for modern times. And this is good. Sure, people like Arthur C Clarke got it wrong a lot (a prime example would be his lunar dust seas in A Fall of Moondust) but at least such things are genuine ‘What ifs?'; solid speculation built on the theories of the time, and, do you know, they are occasionally right.

‘Magic Science’ then, is where the story insists it is doing the latter, does not have the insight of the former, and ends up peddling technobabble nonsense in place of both. Magic SF is not as clever as the scientist variety, or as wise as the humanist. Its tricks are neither the fantastical or the logical, but manufactured from ideas spun off the real or almost real, often giving us something that we know already to be rubbish. Mostly to provide some kind of backdrop to ongoing, inter-character wranglings. SF soap, with spangly lights of fake science.

TV SF is the biggest criminal here. Take Star Trek for example, if only because, until the late series at least, one week we’d get a solid, full on SF concept, like the Borg, the next, giant flying viruses (ST: Voyager ‘Macrocosm’, season 3). Now, forgive me, but aren’t viruses weeny, simple little things, and, um don’t possess things like stingers and mouths?

The very small components of biology were the source of much sinning until fairly recently. Take another Star Trek episode, ‘Genesis’ (season 7 TNG), where another virus (made of T-cells, big stuff at the time, and the inspiration for the Resident Evil franchise’s T Virus) interacts with ‘introns’ in people’s DNA to devolve them into creatures from their evolutionary past. Interesting. Hang on though, Lieutenant Barclay turns into a spider. I don’t recall the arachnid part of the human lineage, but never mind, because after a few doses of space medicine, everyone is just fine, with no after effects whatsover. This rapid there-and-back-again of total body transmogrification is a firm favourite of 90s SF, and it is, patently, nonsense.

All SF is a product of its time, and serves as an interesting historical footnote to the holders of hindsight. By which we mean, if a certain field is hot news, then it’ll crop up time and again in SF. It’s a trend thing.

Rapid advancements in biology brought genes to the fore, replacing a fear of the power of the atom, which in turn replaced a belief in it. So prevalent was the magic atom in the 50s and 60s that Matheson turned the ambiguous fog that starts the shrinking process in The Shrinking Man radioactive for its ‘Incredible’ film outing. Time marches on, and magic genes have begun to be replaced by magic quantum physics. I’d say nanotech, like that in the new Bionic Woman is also a contender, but though claims made for this are pretty crazy, their capabilities belong to some unpredictable Vingean futurity, so I’m going to let it off the hook.

Quantum shit, however, man that’s some spooky juju. Perhaps through quantum physics we will create Arthur C Clarke’s advanced, seemingly sorcerous technology. But then, confident assertions about the nature of the world to come are usually wrong. Ford made a mock-up nuclear car, after all (its proposed reactor sat waaaay behind the passenger compartment), and I don’t see those in the Tesco car park.

Once more, we have only fallen upon the quantum as it is newish and exciting, and, um very difficult to define.

SF reflects our fears and concerns in a mirror of current science, and in this case, it is the impact of each and every one of us on the world. Quantum physics says observe the world and affect it, our fear says our presence is harmful to the planet. Like Them!‘s radioactive ants standing in for fear of a nuclear apocalypse, blend quantum with green and societal fears and Donnie Darko, Butterfly Effect, The Fountain, The Prestige and even Back to the Future, are revealed as a kind of electric environmentalism, with misplaced humans rerouting their social ecology, sometimes consciously removing their worthless selves from existence.

This is scary science, science that can unravel the fabric of the universe. Though employed intelligently in the above films, quantum SF has the capability to be used in an even more magical way than the most outrageous DNA jiggery pokery. The sciences with the loosest parameters are the easiest to magic up, aren’t they?

Expect it on a small screen near you… now actually: Charlie Jade, Journeyman, Flash Gordon feature this in one cast or another.  All cancelled, interestingly. Perhaps high-end physics just isn’t sexy. (Yeah yeah, Quantum Leap, Sliders, Land of the Giants… They’ve all the alternate reality/ time-hopping thing before, but that doesn’t invalidate my comment that right now it is trendy).

Yes, all SF is speculation, some of it knowingly wrong, and it is entirely partisan of me to imply that magic science is only bad when used as a tool in bad fiction. But this is my patch, my rules. The futuremen will laugh up the sleeves of their togas whatever we dream anyway, saying it never happened like that, just as we smirk at the Victorian proponents of steam-powered velocipedes.

Then again, I’ve never said SF was actually about the future, have I?

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