August 13, 2009

One handwave to rule them all

A funny Onion parody of the inherent pitfalls with "hard" science fiction. And why science fiction plot devices too difficult to explain for real either shouldn't be used in the first place, or should be written in a manner that can be handled with an accessible metaphor.

A reading of Gabriel Fournier's The Eclipse Of Infinity reveals that the new science-fiction novel makes more than 80 separate references to "quantum flux," a vaguely defined force the author uses to advance the plot, resolve conflict as needed, and account for dozens of glaring inconsistencies.

One thing that Numbers does nicely is come up with metaphors to explain complex scientific concepts. However, this isn't easy to do "naturally" either, and the didactic interruptions to the narrative--and the clumsy excuses used to insert them--get annoying after a while.

Just as the writer of a whodunit has to be as smart as the villain, the writer of hard science fiction has to actually understand the science--and be able to write a good story besides. Which is probably why I find that I admire hard science fiction more than I actually enjoy it.

Television shows like The Mentalist--where the lead character relies on misdirection and psychological slight of hand--are a welcome relief to the increasingly phony science in CSI-type shows, where DNA tests can be run over a commercial break and a chip of paint can identify any car.

I'm also getting tired of 128-bit encryption that can be cracked in a matter of minutes, TCP/IP connections that can be traced in a matter of minutes (always to a concrete location). Though when the demands of plot randomly kick in, either of those two suddenly becomes absolutely impossible.

All fiction needs handwaves. But there are limits. Patrick Jane (The Mentalist) would trick the mark into giving him the password. Now that's plausible. Bones does a good job of putting the "hard" and "squishy" sciences in conflict with each other (and a good job not taking itself seriously).

The brilliant anime series Noein tackles the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics with a depth of insight that I haven't seen elsewhere. The problem is, it tries so hard to be "hard" science fiction that whole paragraphs of dialogue often degrade into meaningless technobabble.

A Star Trek: TNG episode covered the same subject matter and did a better job keeping-it-simple (but not stupid). Noein has ten times the dramatic depth, though. With a few more metaphors and judicious handwaves, and less technobabble and a bit of editing, it'd be a masterpiece.

But speaking of quantum mechanics:

I don't trust quantum mechanics. I took my car to a quantum mechanic and asked him to fix the speedometer. Now I have no idea where my car is.

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# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
8/13/2009 7:40 PM   
Sometimes when I'm watching detective shows where the detectives use the Internet to find information, I think, "Geez, what did they do plot-wise before the World Wide Web?"

And it's always so amazing how quickly they locate information with Google. They put in keywords and *snap* the right website or whatever comes up. And what is with all these city halls that have ALL their records on-line? Does anyone know a city hall like that?

When I get really fed up with it all, I watch good old Columbo who sees that one clue that puts him on the right track and never uses a cell phone (but has the police calling him everywhere he goes--I kind of wish new cop shows would do this; it's totally hilarious).
# posted by Blogger Joe
8/14/2009 8:40 AM   
"Geez, what did they do plot-wise before the World Wide Web?"

The token snitch. Always baffled me how often the snitch knew EVERYTHING.