I visited the Star Voyager exhibition at ACMI (the Australian Centre for the Moving Image) last weekend, which was a great collection of space related footage, including the oldest sci-fi films, real footage from the Moon landings, video clips, documentaries, and the best collection of space suits I’ve seen in one room.
However, it did make me ponder the question of rules in science fiction. Some of the oldest sci-fi stuff from the 20’s and 30’s was put together before we knew as much as we do now about the planets and space flight, and this lead to some terrifically eccentric short films, such as:
- Flight to Mars. This is like a film of a bad trip: the hero finds an ‘anti-gravity’ powder, and goes zooming off into space, where he finds Mars is populated by giant tree people. He is turned into a giant snowball by another creature and thrown back to Earth.
- Aelita (or Queen of Mars), 1924, by soviet film maker Yakov Protazanov. A wonderful Art-deco styled Mars, and a queen who becomes love-struck with a cosmonaut from Earth.
I have always been more attracted to Science Fiction than Fantasy, as the need to obey at least some of the laws of science I felt made the step into unknown worlds more comprehensible. I’ve no problem with bending one of two here and there, in fact I did that quite comprehensively in my own novel, ‘The Artemis Effect’. But I do find it quite baffling at times when there is nothing familiar at all about the way a world operates. It can almost seem a lazy way for the story to develop.
As a designer, I know that some of the best designs are built on a substructure of rules. They guide and form the design, and the elegance of the solution is in how effortlessly it achieves all the requirements. When I was at University, if a design was impractical in some way (for instance the design of a human powered vehicle, where there was no way that a humans legs could reach the pedals), then you failed, no matter how beautiful the design. In writing science fiction, it can be the same: the physical constrains of science can be an important part of how the story develops, and the challenges characters face.
However, these old movies did make me question that viewpoint somewhat. They were completely unscientific, and yet extremely entertaining. Would we now consider them fantasy? Would they be shot down as stories because they don’t fit the rules?
I’d be interested to hear your take on this.