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“Is it just me, or do my balls itch?”

March 27, 2011

A little departure from the realm of coding in favour of the realm of fiction. I like Science Fiction. Really I do. It’s just that I don’t consider many things to be Science Fiction that are typically gathered under this banner. Star Wars isn’t SF, it’s cowboys, knights and wizards in space. Star Trek couldn’t possibly be more pathetic from a purely scientific point of view. Planet Of The Apes? Darwin would spin in his grave so quickly it would destabilize the orbit of the Earth (to loosely borrow from Douglas Adams). Independence Day. Fun? Sure. Science? Bollocks.

source: John Berkey

These are of course all examples of Science Fiction made for the silver screen, print has produced far more worthwhile SF to date. I can count the number of good SF movies I’ve seen without risking double digits, while the number of good SF authors alone runs in the dozens. So what makes good Science Fiction? Well, since the term is composed of two words, let’s tackle them in order.

Good science. We know an awful lot about an awful lot four centuries after the start of the Scientific Revolution. Sure, we also know that what we know is only a very small part of all the things we could possibly know and we know that some of the things we know are wrong or at least partially incomplete. The science part of any SF story does not need to adhere to what we currently know, I’m not arguing that at all. But being blatantly at odds with what we know today requires at the very least a decent explanation and/or justification. Faster-Than-Light travel for example is a common theme in many SF sagas, and it is a perfectly valid fictional concept. Though I have to admit that the best movies and books (in my humble opinion) do not break this tenet of current scientific orthodoxy. It is not beyond imagining that one day we’ll figure out that it is possible to beat those darn photons.

A lovely example of being blatantly at odds with what we know is the common idea in earlier SF works that a gas lighter than Hydrogen could be used to solve all the lifting and travel needs of humanity. One author (who shall remain unnamed, I’m not on a vendetta here) even went as far as to suggest that the higher the pressure of this magical gas, the more lift it generated!

Greg Bear is an example of an author who is exceptionally good at the hard science part of SF. The science in his work tends to be novel and unexpected, yet almost never unbelievable. In Eon he describes a group of humans who have left Earth in search of another planet. They travel there inside a hollowed out asteroid where they’ve build cities and landscapes against the rotating inner walls. Since it takes such a long time to get to their destination (generations, centuries) their own grasp of technology advances as they travel, enabling them eventually to construct a secondary universe inside the asteroid. Take that magical gas! There’s a lot more to the story of course, but you’ll have to read it to find out, and I highly recommend you do. Moving Mars and Blood Music are other examples of Greg Bear books that shatter all of today’s scientific understanding but do so in a highly believable fashion.

Good fiction. By this I don’t mean good story telling. Obviously that is an important factor in any book or movie in any genre. By ‘good fiction’ I mean that the created reality is internally consistent. It does not need to be realistic, just believable. The society we live in today is profoundly affected by scientific and technological advances. We are not just medieval people with cell-phones and fire-arms. The way we spend our days, the way we see the world and even ourselves is in large part due to the shifting scientific perspective. So when one introduces new science into an imaginary world, one must also take the indirect effects into account. This is one of my main complaints with Star Trek; for all this cool new technology (warp drives, transporters, universal translators) the humans (and even the aliens!) are basically the same as we are today.

Isaac Asimov was a master at making believable societies. The science employed in his stories was rarely explained in great detail, but the effects of that science on societies at large were always brilliant. The same goes for many Arthur C. Clarke stories.

source: 2001, A Space Odyssey


I mention all this because I just watched The American Astronaut by Cory McAbee. If you haven’t seen it, I’m not surprised. It’s particularly difficult to get a hold of. As far as I know there are no DVDs on sale for Region 2. The American Astronaut is a fantastically clever and well made movie and it’s the first time I’ve been left in confusion as to whether I consider this Science Fiction or not. The story itself is wonderfully ludicrous: Samuel Curtis —an inter-planetary trucker and roughneck— is on a mission to get rich. In order to achieve this he must return to Earth with the mortal remains of Johnny R, which are currently being held hostage on the planet Venus —the planet of beautiful women— until a suitable replacement breeding male is delivered. This new boy can be found on Jupiter —a mining planet inhabited by men only— where he is currently employed as a morale booster since he’s the only one who has ever seen a women’s breast. The man in charge of Jupiter will trade the boy for a ‘Real Live Girl’, who is apparently still in the process of being cloned as we never see her, but only the suitcase in which she grows. Through it all, Curtis is hunted by Professor Hess, who wants to kill him. Professor Hess is a psychopathic murderer who kills for no reason. But the catch is he only kills for no reason. If he’s got a reason to kill you, he won’t.

The movie is littered with musical pieces (the director and author is a professional musician) that only add to the bizarre atmosphere. It also contains the world longest bad joke, which is surprisingly funny because the audience consistently manages to laugh at the inappropriate times.

In summary; ten years ago, a crack unit of creative artists made a surrealistic sci-fi/western/musical movie. If you want to watch something that pushes the boundaries of weird, if no-one else can help, and if you can find it, maybe you can watch… The American Astronaut.

One Response to ““Is it just me, or do my balls itch?””

  1. visose Says:

    I always find Gattaca included in these sorts of lists (enjoyable mainstream scifi movies that get the science right). Any reason you didnt include it?

    Most of the movies you mentioned and scifi movies in general have the same theme: There’s an awesome new technological breakthrough but then comes the horrible societal/personal unintended consequences asociated with it. At some point of the movie the new technology becomes the vilan.

    (spoiler below)

    I saw Limitless a couple of days ago I’ll dare say it’s the best sicfi movie ever just because of the ending. It started off as if it was going to follow the same old theme, but in the end the side effects of the awesome new technology are gone, the benefits are intact at no hidden cost (besides the hero’s cockiness), the new technology is still scarce, no moral lesson for the hero to learn.

    Unfortunately, the science is as wrong as always: “We only use 20% of our brain…”.


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