Sci fi rules OK!

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.

One real gem was the original video clip from David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity‘, set next to Flight of the Conchords version. Both very dorky and very funny.

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.


4 thoughts on “Sci fi rules OK!

  1. I think it depends on the scifi story. Sometimes by imagining the unknown can be more interesting or be something that our society deems as possible in the future, for example having one electronic chip to power all medical devices. However, I understand how disobeying scientific laws that are the foundation of our understanding on science could make a story too outrageous to be considered Sci/fi and be fantasy. I think that’s why the line between these two genres blur together so often. At the same time, I think pushing our understanding of science, even if we deem it to be completely incorrect, is good because there no reason to be pigeon-holed into human understanding of things when theories are rewrit and we are in fact fallible. (Sorry, I went to a couple lectures on evolution, I’ve got a humans-are-outrageously-dumb outlook going on right now – no, I’m not an alien.)

  2. Damn – I loved the idea that an alien might be reading my blog!
    I do agree with you in that all scientific theories are just theories (although some of them have so much evidence backing them up that it seems unlikely that they will ever be overturned), and so investigating future possible technology can be a good way to go for sci-fi.
    I think for me it just grates a bit when things happen casually in a book which you know really wouldn’t work, rather than a deliberate bending of known science.
    Thanks for the thoughts – good ones.

  3. I tend to let anything fly in my reading. I love Sci Fi but I just don’t require it to operate within the realm of reality because…well, what is reality? Who knows what people will accept as true and scientific in the future? Our perceptions of all things are constantly morphing and so much of what we perceive as reality is because of who we are as individuals. I think that, to some extent, even memoirs and autobiography are read as though they’re fiction. It’s just at the end we go, “oh, this really happened to someone somewhere.” Either way, though, when we try to imagine something outside our own experience, we’re reaching into our imaginations where everything is possible.
    Does that make sense? I think really the way we class our work in a genre depends totally on our own preference as both writers and readers and not any set of rules. My favorite things to read and write are things that bend the rules, especially sci-fi and magical realism. I think they tap into my childlike sense of wonder that doesn’t get attention any other way.

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