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Science In Fiction

It seems the more you learn about the nature of reality the harder it is to suspend your disbelief in fiction. People who spend a lot of time around guns can find it jarring when a character in a story fires one with no recoil. Anyone who knows the least bit about physics facepalms at the plot to ‘2012’. The alien ancestor story in ‘Prometheus’ flings people from the story because they can’t see a mechanism for it being possible… but sometimes Spider-Man just has to use web-shooters, because we’d rather not see the other story. Do writers of fiction then, have an obligation to get the science right? In places where it doesn’t fit, do excuses have to be made? How far can we suspend our disbelief? Well, I don’t have the data to the last question but I have some ideas about the others.

When you’re writing, sometimes it’s hard to bring yourself to go check something out, especially if you’re writing fiction and double especially if you’re on a roll. Most big names however, do a fair bit of research on the parts of their stories they don’t understand. If this is done right, it can make the story not only more believable, but more compelling (The Fault In Our Stars would have been a lot different if the characters’ diseases were written poorly. Some stories skip this step however, and in some cases it appears as though they’ve considered taking it and then completely ignored what turned up when they saw what should be happening (case and point, Prometheus and 2012). The thing is, that if these movies are written well enough, people can usually look past the impossibilities; that’s why suspension of disbelief is a commonly used phrase, because we do it all the time. Even so, there comes a point when the flaw is so glaring and the writing around it so poorly weaves it in to the rest of the story that suspension of disbelief breaks. Then we’re left with the ‘why can Edward Cullen get an erection?’ question. (In short, the blood from a feed would have to be a hell of a lot to build up that much pressure. Then again, why am I picking holes in this when at least the author sort of tried to explain it?)

To me, the amount you need to get write in a story depends on how involving an element is in a story. For example, if a character looks up at the sky and sees the wrong set of stars (because he/she is in a different hemisphere to the one the writer is used to, for example), that’s an easily forgiven error (unless you’re an astrophysicist, then it’s probably a facepalm moment, but I’ll get to that in a moment). If the story revolves around the moon blowing up and its effects on the earth, you’d better look up what would happen and not write a scene where the moon is just hanging there with two parts hanging slightly apart. Gravity exists, which for that idea is unfortunate.

But this responsibility depends on your audience. If your audience is larger, you’re likely to capture more people and therefore multiple backgrounds and professions. This becomes a problem with high-budget movies, because they can’t really afford to be lazy. At some point, somebody’s going to see the movie who knows more about the field you’re writing about than you do and they will see the holes in the storytelling. Simply put, the more you know, the more mistakes you notice. Although I might watch a movie where the stars in the sky are wrong and not notice an error, Neil Tyson likely would. Does this alone mean that movies have an obligation to get the science right? Well, no, but with the huge budgets that summer blockbusters tend to get, the screenwriters and directors can probably afford to shed a little money hiring some consultants to make sure they get that right. And if they do, they might get enough praise from their accuracy to make that money back, or make a profit on top of it.

It’s not that big budget storytelling has an obligation to get the science right, but that it doesn’t really have any excuse not to. With lower budgets it’s different. Books, you may have noticed, tend to garner a lot less attention than movies, so even if there are egregious errors, less people are going to read it and it follows that less people are going to notice it. This is not to say that authors are exempt from this. Accuracy is king, and if authors have access to the sorts of people who can help them along, then why not check the science of fiction against the science of reality? But if people want a fee, it’s a lot easier to pay that on a movie budget than a book advance. The key is that everyone should at least try to get their facts straight, and if they don’t succeed the first time… well, you can always fix it in post.

[image credits: Hhenken.deviantart.com, thepunchbowl.net]

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Cat Strickson

Cat Strickson

Cat, or Elly, or Eddy, or whatever name they're going by these days, is a British palaeontologist and fantasy author. It's a pretty awesome skill set, but it doesn't pay much right now. They enjoy science, history, vidyagames and all things SFF.

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