Saturday, 21 December 2019

Noisms' Theory of Scientastic Misalignment

We are willing to accept the highest of high fantasy and forget about what we know about "real" science. This is the case with, say, the Dragonlance books. Nobody reads them and insists that they are unrealistic because they have dragons in and technically dragons shouldn't be able to fly or breathe fire because it's impossible based on what we know about physics. Star Wars is also in this camp - nobody wonders how a lightsaber is actually supposed to work. You just go with it.

We are also willing to accept very hard science fiction which purports to be based on a realistic-ish depiction of real physics (Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books come to mind- and possibly the original Alien and some of William Gibson's stuff).

There is a third category: the spectrum in the middle in which we accept a certain amount of fantasy in return for the creators paying lip-service to the requirement for this to at least have a veneer of making some sort of sense in terms of real physics. The best example of this is, without doubt, Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is to all intents and purposes fantasy, but which goes to great lengths to make it appear as though there are genuine scientific explanations for everything going on in its universe.

Where audiences begin to smell a rat is when there is a misalignment between our legitimate expectations and what is actually delivered.

The most prominent illustration of scientastic misalignment is the midi-chlorians. Why, George? Why? You don't need to explain the Force. The audience accepts it's fantasy - mumbo-jumbo. In that scene, we saw our expectations (high fantasy) slipping out of alignment with what was being depicted (the 3rd category, namely of lip-service to science). George was thereby led into foolishness.

Another good example is JJ Abrams' Star Trek reboots. Here, our expectations were for lip-service to be paid to real physics in the finest traditions of Trek. But what we got instead was pure high fantasy. Think of all the scenes in which warp speed happens at precisely the speed it needs to for the plot to work. That has always been the case in Star Trek, but in Next Gen they would at least have had a line or two of dialogue in which somebody tells the captain why it will take 3 weeks (or whatever) to get from A to B. JJ Abrams dispensed with that entirely. Scientastic misalignment resulted.

Things can of course work the other way round: we can get scientastic misalignment where a previously hard-seeming SF or very low-fantasy story suddenly gets an injection of high fantasy. Oddly, this form of scientastic misalignment can work well: two decent examples that spring to mind are the Night's Dawn trilogy and A Song of Ice and Fire.

The most egregious event of scientastic misalignment that I can think of is, perhaps perversely, not a genre film at all - it's Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia. (You know the scene I have in mind if you've seen the film.) You often actually encounter this problem at the pretentious end of so-called literary fiction and serious cinema, where an apparently normal, real-world story suddenly jerks into the fantastical or surreal without warning - typically to unwittingly hilarious effect, and typically also indicating that the film-maker has run out of ideas.


  1. Yes, Night's Dawn shouldn't work at all but somehow it does, I think perhaps because it commits to the "silliness" and runs with it. There's no sense that Hamilton is at all embarrassed at what he is doing and that confidence carries you along.

    I've never tried to explain the story to anyone, but I imagine if I did they would scoff at it.

    1. I read it at the right age - about 16 I think. I read the first volume cover to cover in two days. I suspect if I had come across it at the age I am now I would have found it laughable.

    2. Yeah, I read it at around 20ish and at a similar pace. I'm not sure how I would feel about it now if I were reading it for the first time.

  2. Hmmm. Would one count Dune as a story where fantastic elements where injected into hard-seeming SF? The first act is oddly feudal but never egregiously so - House Atreides could easily be a megacoprp of some kind - and tends to have a clear account of technologies or the lack thereof, but the way the plot develops adds a dollop of (effectively) fantasy.

    1. Yes, that's another example where it does sort of work in the context of a sudden insertion of high fantasy into a pseudo-SF framework.

  3. Abram's Trek even eliminates the need to have starships when there are transporters that can reach from Earth's solar system to the Klingon homeworld. Even fantasy flops when the entire setup is nulified for story.

    1. Is that the third one? My toleration for his Trek films rapidly dimished after the first one. I did see "Into Darkness" but thought it was complete tripe.

  4. There's also the issue of consistency. I can usually roll with soft as pudding Marvel science, but how Antman size changing works is so wildly inconsistent that it's hard to swallow.

  5. I notice that most of my players (nearly all of one group and about half of another) fall back on 'real world' physics and other considerations easily, quickly, and often.

    Me, I have the same outlook today that I've had since 1977 - figure out the rules of the setting and use them.

    When playing Star Wars I just assume Ships jump to Hyperspace, Lightsabers activate when you turn them on, and droids are artificially intelligent and feel pain. Why? Because that's how it is in Star Wars and I don't even think about it beyond that. Model #1.

    When playing Traveller, I tend to lean more towards real science and Model #2 of your example. Why? Again, that's just how it is in Traveller. It's what makes Traveller Traveller.

    Star Trek, my favorite setting and subject, is very much Model #3.

    Now, if I could just get players to stop trying to make every game, in every genre, regardless of setting in Model #1, that would be sweet.

  6. not relevant to the post but:

    The Guns of Navarone @14min - assembling a crack team there is a strong emphasis on speciality - a character is low level generally but very high level in some skill. I actually think Gygax is right (but I associate high level with high mental stats) and yet there should be more freedom for astonishing excellence in special areas.

    For example a Fighter with level expertise in climbing
    A Wizard with level expertise in Hide in shadows.

  7. >>>nobody wonders how a lightsaber is actually supposed to work.

    Lucas' Star Wars always seemed at least technically plausible, but when the Last Jedi opened up with space bombers, I knew I was in for a mind numbing 2 hr journey into idiocy. Someone, anyone, on that production should have whispered, eh, Mr. Johnson, there is no gravity in space....

    1. I shouldn't engage in an internet/StarWars/physics argument, but I can't help myself.

      (a) The official explanation is that they're magnetic projectiles that are launched, not gravity-based bombs.

      (b) Complaining about real world space physics in Star Wars is a bit rich. The fighters all bank and roll like WWII craft flying through an air atmosphere. There is sound and huge explosions without any oxygen. None of it makes any sense in space. Why should bombers be any different?

      (c) Even if the bombs had been gravity based, and even we insisted on real-world gravity physics in Star Wars space, the bombers wouldn't be objectionable. There's gravity on ships in Star Wars. Always has been. When the bombs are released, they drop within the ship, then continue along the same trajectory in space (why would they stop?). It makes total sense if you think about it.

      (d) There are space bombers in Empire Strikes Back.

  8. JJ Abrams did it in the newest Star Wars, too.
    At first he sets an abitrariely short time frame (The First Order will attack within 24 hours), and then has the heroes travel another three or four planets, travel to the core worlds assemble an fleet, and bring this fleet in time for the end battle.
    I don't know how to describe it, but it feels just off.

  9. I thought the super advanced alien robots turning up at the end of AI Artificial Intelligence felt that way. But I realised eventually from watching Rob Ager video that there was possibly a subtle theme about the robots creating disposable humans (the 'mother') for the pleasure of the child robot, ie repeating the original cycle of exploitation. Not certain that Spielberg actually intended it, but a lot better than pure schmaltz!