Sunday, November 05, 2006

There's Science, and then there's Science

Some weeks ago I posted in part about the proper use of science in science fiction. Noah and I have discussed it a bit in the meantime, and he's made a good point that I eventually wanted to address on this blog. Namely - that science is really the engine of science fiction, by definition, if you think about it. There's nothing wrong with having a science fiction story driven by the implications of a particular bit of scientific speculation. What is science fiction, after all, if not that? And so I think I gave the wrong impression in my original post. That is, I think I gave the impression that I was opposed to any detailed use of science in science fiction - which I am not. What I'm opposed to is treknobabble in particular, and an anal obsession with explaining every detail in general. I think it's OK for science fiction writers to use artistic license and leave out the details of certain technologies (or events) in their stories that they might not want to explain. What concerns me about Star Trek, mostly, is that it doesn't seem to recognize the importance of what Flannery O'Connor used to call "mystery" (as opposed to "manners").

J Michael Straczynski is on record saying that the "sense of wonder" is what science fiction is properly about. I completely agree. Granted, there are all the usual caveats when making claims of this kind. Not all the stuff we call "scifi" is about any kind of "sense of wonder" (lots of it is dry science, dystopian, techno-fetishist, what have you) - and there's no problem with that. He's just saying that, to him, that's what scifi means - that's what makes it good. And for me too. Even if our narrow definition will not capture the point of all scifi (just as it will not capture the point of all mystery stories to say that they present an ordered world, where just by keeping your wits about you you can remain safe from crime - though that is certainly true of mainstream mystery stories), it captures enough of it to be workable.

Star Trek started out, I think, dealing with exactly this. There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. The adventure was that it was mind-expanding. And for the original show, that was mostly true throughout its three-year run. Many of the original stories did indeed deal with the implications of some new piece of technology, or moral conundrums, or just expansive speculation about the future and the nature of man for the sheer joy of it. This was TV worth watching (however goofy the execution - though I don't mind saying that I also really like the goofy execution. I'm a nerd; can't help it! As an essay on Reason Online aptly put it - even if we don't believe in their tinfoil props, it's clear they do, and there's something charming about that.). However, by the time Next Generation had finished its run, Star Trek had been watered down into a tedious, politically correct, cultural tolerance lecture about people who spend most of their time playing on a (totally implausible) invention called the holodeck and moonlighting as diplomats. Oh yeah, and they also solve cutting-edge scientific and engineering problems as fast as they're thrown at them, probably the most annoying feature of the show. There was no longer any sense in which the universe was bigger than the characters. They were, at all times, completely in control of their environment, never seriously threatened by anything that I could see. I'm also not aware that they faced any real moral challenges. They were always so sure of themselves and their principles that they simply swatted these away like flies. The only way you knew anyone was having a "difficult time" with something or "struggling" with it was when the background music changed. I liked the first three seasons well enough, I guess, but in retrospect most of TNG's original charm came from the strength of the actors (who are top-notch, all of them) and the fact that Roddenberry still had a foot in the door when it was created. Deep Sleep Nine was an abomination of a show, and what anyone ever saw in Enterprise is completely beyond me.

As I said, although a great many things about latter-day Star Trek are annoying, I do think the biggest problem with it is this slavish devotion to scientific plausibility. The Star Trek universe became so ordered that not so much as a molecule was out of place - and it's simply not possible to have drama and stories in such an environment.

Well, yes, but science fiction is about science, right? If we completely throw plausibility out the window, then it's no different from fantasy, right?

Absolutely. And I don't, as I said, want to come across saying that hard science has no place. Scientific speculation is the foundation on which the genre is built, no doubt about it. So I thought I would do a comparison with a(n "infamous") show from the 1970s that actually got it right: Space: 1999.

I realize that will have been a controversial thing to say. Most criticism of Space: 1999, in fact, deals with its supposed lack of plausibility. After all, the central plot device involves the Moon being hurled out of Earth orbit after a massive nuclear (waste!) explosion on the dark side of the Moon. In real life, no such explosion is even possible, nor would the moon be hurled out of orbit if it were (it would skim by the Earth - it's orbital momentum barely saving it from colliding - probably permanently damaging both bodies), nor would the Earth or the Moon easily survive such a catastrophe - and more to the point, the moon would certainly NOT be travelling fast enough to reach the far corners of the universe, as it does as the series runs. Goofy premise? Undoubtedly - but I think there's (a lot) more going on here than meets the eye. Isaac Asimov was mostly right when he said that most of this should be chalked up to "dramatic necessity." But I have some more to say on even this.

I should also add that I am only interested here in defending the first season - which is, in my opinion, the best season of television in any genre ever aired. The second season was a disaster - hardly even the same show, really, after all the frustratingly unexplained changes in cast and format - and I will not try to apologize for it.

Now, science fiction inherently involves scientific "inaccuracy" in the sense that the subject matter will of necessity be to some degree divorced from established scientific consensus. Nothing is "speculative" if it has already been proven, after all. I think where Star Trek goes wrong and Space: 1999 gets it right is in where each show chooses to do its fudging. The best aphorism about a "scientific" mindset that I have ever heard comes (not-so) ironically from an episode of Doctor Who, where the Doctor tells his companion (I think it was Sarah Jane, but I can't really remember - it was the Fourth Doctor) that "to the rational mind, nothing is inexplicable, merely unexplained." I guess I would have a bone or two to pick with that (as a Kantian, I believe there are inherent limits to what the human mind can know), but the basic idea is right: just because something seems mysterious is no reason to suppose it is mysterious. Good science fiction exploits this loophole; Star Trek fails because it ultimately cannot bring itself to trust the viewer to know this.

  • Space: 1999 doesn't cheat on the little things; Star Trek does. Now, Space: 1999 isn't perfect. We still get some limited sound effects in space, and lots of aliens do (irritatingly) seem to speak English. But for the most part, it is the universe as we know it on the ground. When the characters leave Moonbase Alpha, they do indeed float in gravity that appears to be about 1/6th that of Earth. When they land on planets, they do so in spacecraft, not with transporter beams - and the planets are very seldom Earthlike. More often than not, they have hostile environments of one kind or another, requireing the Alphans to suit up. Nothing like this ever happens in Star Trek, though. Episode after episode the crew of the Enterprise (or Voyager, whatever) beams down to identical Earth-like planets with human people living there. They have space battles (at warp speed!!!) complete with sound effects. We've as good as never seen them put on space suits. Though the transporters frequently fail due to atmospheric radiation at dramatically convenient moments, the universal translator has never done so that I can recall (and of course the one time that might qualify, Picard was able to "figure out" the important aspects of the aliens' language. Yeah, blow me.), nor has any of the medical equipment, etc. Whereas the Alphans on Space: 1999 are frequently concerned about local plant and animal life being poisonous or in some way harmful, I don't seem to remember any member of the Enterprise crew ever having been worried about brushing up against strange plants or taking precautions against microbes or whatever else (not that they ever even saw any strange plants). There was even an episode of Voyager were the crew sat down to eat dinner with a species they had just encountered (humanoid, of course) and even got into a discussion about the dangers of smoking! It's too damn much.

  • Space: 1999 cheats on the big things; Star Trek does not. And see, this is what I think is exactly backward about this. If you have to cheat somewhere, why not cheat in the areas no one is really sure about? It's galling that things like inverse phase-induced tachyon fields come across as plausible where the Moon blasting out of orbit does not. Or that it's somehow OK for things like warp engines to exist on space ships, but we just can't imagine a planetoid being caught in a space warp (the Moon on Space: 1999). The truth is, all of this is cheating to some degree. But Star Trek doesn't seem to understand that. It seems to think it has to explain things like warp drive (warp drive!) in terms that a scientifically vain TV audience can greenlight. And this from a show that has never felt the need to have its characters suit up before beaming down to a new planet. Please!

  • Aliens are alien in Space: 1999; they are human in Star Trek. Now, this isn't to say that goofy humanoids don't show up - just that they are in no way presented as being "like us." But in Star Trek aliens are always "like us" - or at least very damn similar. There's a formula to it, in fact. Add some facial ridges here and there - maybe fuck with the ears a bit. Then exaggerate some characteristic of a known human culture and call it "their way." You know, the Klingons are all about battle and hunting, the Ferengi like money, the Tellarites are rude, blah blah blah blah BLAH. The various little "alien" cultures in Star Trek are actually anything but. I guess it might be fair to say that Space: 1999 goes overboard the other way. Aliens are universally creatures or mysterious entities - usually vastly superior to the human crew of Alpha. But if you have to err in one direction or another - I find erring in the "mysterious other" direction a lot more plausible than the "all look same" direction.

  • Humans are human in Space: 1999; in Star Trek they are Democrats. While this isn't directly a question of scientific plausibility, I suppose, in Space: 1999 we see people as they actually are. Granted, these are professionals, and the cream of the crop (it is strongly implied, though never stated) - so they don't behave exactly as we would. Further, they live in a society that is not ours (a point that a lot of people - including Asimov in the article linked above - miss is that the Earth presented on that show is not our own. The hints that this is the case are very subtle - but they are there - such as Cmdr. Koenig's offhand mention that the Sahara was terraformed in 1975, or the fact that though characters have different accents, the subject of national identity is never once raised in conversation - clearly implying that there are no more nations, or even the idea that there would be a Moonbase by 1999 (looking from 1975), etc.). So there are differences to be sure. But they are recognizable as humans. They have hidden motives, buried resentments and desires that only occasionally (and subtly) surface in moments of tension. They are flawed. More relevant, they recognize that life on Alpha is artificial, and it takes a slow psychological toll. In Star Trek, characters are mostly defined by their hobbies. When they have conflicts at all, it is usually the subject of an entire episode, and there's always a pat solution that the audience can see coming a mile away (because they previously read it on a self-help pamphlet somewhere). The only sort of opinions we really hear are all politically correct. They don't like smoking (drinking is OK, though), racism is ignorant, profit is bad, women and men are equal but men have characteristic weaknesses and women don't, culture is identiy but it's always really shallow and usually confines itself to rituals and foreign words, and so on.

  • In Space: 1999 science is just science; in Star Trek it's a fetish. I guess for most literary critics "magic" in fantasy is meant to be a kind of poor man's science. At some point along the way, someone pointed out that technology must seem like magic to primitive people. Lacking the capability to explain things like cigarette lighters, a caveman coming across one might indeed think it scary witchcraft. Well, I think Star Trek never really gets past this observation. I've seen so many "inverse tachyon phase inverters" swoop in at the 42nd minute to save the day on that show that I start to wonder whether it is just the standard plot escape hatch it's often criticized for being. But the thought that fans might actually live for those moments gives me a kind of sick feeling. What could be more boring? It's sort of like with Ultraman. I had some friends in Japan who liked this show, so I made an honest effort to get into it. But as far as I could tell the monsters were just an excuse for Ultraman to hit the button on his belt that made him bigger. This was the whole point - what Ultraman fans seemed to live for week after week. Once I asked one of them directly, and she just admitted it, and then added that seeing the different monsters was also cool. (!!!) So I gave up on it at that point because it was obvious to me that this wasn't a drama, just a fetish. Well, sometimes I think the same way about Star Trek. Treknobabble is just a fetish, and fans, or at least a certain subclass of them, tune in week after week just to watch the crew operate some scientific-looking instruments and pronounce the names of new particles. And just like Ultraman's belt, science never fails the Enterprise crew. It's never the case that something that needs doing can't be done at the last minute, or that something they thought they understood turns out to be more complicated than previously known. Science is very much just magic - the universal problem solver and plot mechanism. Now, I freely admit that "puzzle stories" are entertaining. This is what I would consider the scifi version of a good mystery story. There is some problem to be solved, there's a trick to solving it, and all the information the audience needs is right there - if they just do a bit of scientific thinking on their own they'll see it before the characters do. I wouldn't necessarily mind a show of puzzle stories like this. But Star Trek science so rarely turns out to be anything like a puzzle story. And more annoying still - many episodes that present themselves this way turn out to be nothing like. No, more often than not, someone's "last-minute" realization that reversing the polarity on the intertial dampeners will save the day is the scifi equivalent of the "missing twin" in a murder mystery (or the cigar samples in a Sherlock Holmes). In any case, the point is that they can't leave it alone. In reality, science just is. It is a method and a philosophy, sure, but it is not a religion. It is a tool - we use it to get us things (or knowledge) we need. And in Space: 1999 this is indeed all it ever is. The story resolution is elsewhere. Theories sometimes turn out to be wrong, instruments fail, situations are revealed to be more complicated than previously suspected, etc. The stories are metaphysical, and science enables them. It isn't a show about people "doing science" except in the sense that all the main characters are scientists.

So on the whole I find it ironic that Star Trek has a better reputation for scientific accuracy than Space: 1999 - or most other scifi shows, for that matter. It seems to me that the "science" in "science fiction" should function as follows:

  1. To make the basic world believable. Star Trek fails on this count because so much of what goes on simply doesn't conform to the universe we know (sounds in space, so many planets, so few hostile environments, etc.)

  2. To motivate plots. Star Trek does a good job with this one in general - until the 42nd minute, when we are reminded, yet again, that science is just magic in this universe, that it automatically does everything you really need done.

  3. To fuel speculation. Its real purpose in scifi - and the real purpose of scifi in general. The Original Series and Voyager manage this pretty well. Next Generation not so much.

  4. To aid in suspension of disbelief. All scifi is fantasy - and so readers and viewers have the same problem: how to temporarily put aside our natural skepticism in order to enjoy a good story? Some scientific explanation helps here because we implicitly trust science. No one really understands the babble that comes out of the doctor's mouth - but it helps to hear it anyway because it makes it sound like he knows what he's talking about. Well, a couple of well-placed scientific explanations go a long way in scifi. But Star Trek ultimately fails most on this count - because the treknobabble becomes the plot. It isn't just there as scaffolding and props - it's there just to be there, for no other reason than to let its audience "play expert," and that's annoying.

Hearing the doctor spout medical jargon is comforting because it allows us to shuffle responsibility for our condition onto him. We don't understand a word he's saying, but the babble makes it seem like he knows what he's talking about. Fine for medical science, not so much for drama. The whole point of a drama is to allow us to participate vicariously. There's no point in a show where the writers are allowed to shove the action out of sight whenever it gets too difficult for them to think through!

Star Trek is science for the unscientific. Spend four years at Starfleet Academy and the universe does whatever you say. Nice thought, but it makes for poor drama, and it has nothing to do with real science in any case. In reality, scientists are mostly aware of what they don't know. It's the guessing, the second-guessing, the questioning and the wondering that make it interesting. It's for explorers, not diplomats.

To the rational mind, nothing is inexplicable, merely unexplained. Right. But the point is that things are sometimes unexplained. Just because something happens that you didn't expect doesn't mean that the universe is a giant dice game, that you have to throw out your faith in an ordered cosmos. It just means you've got some thinking to do. Star Trek and its fans don't seem to get this (or else they don't enjoy thinking, I haven't decided).

No, I would rather have a show that got the things I know right. Give me accurate moonwalks, give me inhospitable planets, give me space vacuum. Pay attention to these details because it helps my suspection of disbelief. Give me a universe that looks like mine. I'll believe in space warps, time travel, mysterious nuclear explosions, travel through black suns, cosmic intelligence, impossible planet-sized "spaceships," or even giant Space Brains. After all, I have no direct proof that these things aren't real - but speculating about them is a lot of fun.

This is the point that Asimov is missing in his essay (linked above). It's true that a giant nuclear explosion on the "dark" side of the Moon wouldn't send it hurling out into space at impossible speeds. It's also true that nuclear waste, even in massive quantities, doesn't create a magnetic resonance of the kind shown in Breakaway (or of any kind, as far as I know). But none of that bothered me because it seemed clear that the writers knew all this and expected the viewer to notice it. We are, for example, repeatedly told that the crewmen mysteriously dying are not dying of radiation poisoning, even though they show all the symptoms of it. Dr. Russel has no explanation for this. We are further shown that the magnetic resonance gets worse as the Eagle pilots scramble to scatter the waste, exactly the opposite of what should happen. It's very clear in the first place anyway that Cmdr. Koenig's plan to scatter the waste is just a shot in the dark - not based on any certainty that it's going to work. He simply doesn't know what else to do. Subtle implications are dropped left and right of the nature of what's really going on (revisted, though never fully explained, in several other episodes throughout the season, most notably in the first season's final episode The Testament of Arkadia). It shouldn't bother a scientific-minded viewer that some threads are left loose - especially since this seems deliberate. But it bothers Star Trek fans, who have no patience for loose ends.

One of my favorite moments in Space: 1999 comes in the third episode (and one of the best) Black Sun. It has become clear that the Moon will pass though a black hole (termed "Black Sun" here - the theory was still new at the time, and "black hole" was not in popular parlance) - and everyone is naturally apprehensive about this, assuming they will die - which, of course, they will. Dr. Bergman comes up with a "plan" to modify the towers that create the artificial gravity field around Moonbase Alpha to repel - using the "black sun's" energy against it and slingshotting the Moon around it. I remember wanting to groan the first time I saw this scene. Fucking treknobabble again - in this otherwise brilliant-seeming series - already in the third episode. But of course Space: 1999 is slier than that. The others standing around the table don't seem completely convinced. Only Dr. Russel seems to believe it can work (she calls it "brilliant," Dr. Bergman responds that it's "insane"). Later, the Commander and Dr. Bergman arange a "demonstration" - which annoys Dr. Russel because of the risk involved, and because they did it anyway without telling her they were going to. Then Commander Koenig tells her there was no risk - it was just a show for morale. They know this plan isn't going to work.

I was in love! They were spoofing treknobabble 15 years before it became a weekly feature! (I guess it arguably existed on the old show too - but in much smaller doses - so perhaps they were directly spoofing Star Trek. I almost hope so.). And the fact that the others around the table weren't completely convinced was also a nice touch. That the crew ultimately believed in it was a choice: because they wanted to - and because they had no alternative, really. Either it works and they live, or it doesn't and they die (and of course what actually happened is a bit more interesting than either of these...) - point being they have no control over what happens to them. The universe operates as it operates, and they do the best they can.

This is science.


At 6:00 AM, Blogger noahpoah said...

They were, at all times, completely in control of their environment, never seriously threatened by anything that I could see.

In fact, perhaps the only times that they weren't in control produced by far the best episodes (and movie) - the borg was interesting in large part because it was so overpowering. While it is still, perhaps, annoying that they always end up defeating the borg, the writers at least had the courtesy to blow up lots of federation ships in the process.

Though the transporters frequently fail due to atmospheric radiation at dramatically convenient moments, the universal translator has never done so that I can recall...

There was a time-travel episode (on DS9) in which a Ferengi and the shape-shifter guy came back to Earth circa 1945. The ambient radiation made the universal translators fail. Mildly interesting counter-example, but certainly doesn't ruin your argument. Just thought I'd bring it up.

At 11:51 AM, Blogger Joshua said...

Actually, now that you mention it, I can think of at least one episode of Voyager where they get the universal translator thing right too - namely, Tom and Tuvok are stranded away from the ship and the translator therefore doesn't function. A local alien has to learn their language, and speaks with an accent.

I should have made this point differently. It isn't so important that they sometimes get it right, but rather that they so often get it wrong. For that one Voyager episode I can think of at least five involving similar situations where - despite the fact that they don't have their communicator badges and are out of range of the ship, they nevertheless speak English with local aliens. It's these examples that matter.

As for the Borg, don't get me started. Wonderful concept consistently butchered. The first episode they're involved in (I think it's called "Q Who?") was PERFECT. After that, incrementally downhill, reaching a nadir in Voyager's final episode - which was horrible. (I don't even want to know if they show up in Enterprise. Their very presence in that show would qualify as worse than anything Voyager might have done to screw up an already bad situation.)


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