Monday, July 02, 2007

Realism-Fantasy Scale


In science fiction (SF) there is a notion of "hard" SF. The idea
behind hard SF is that it's scientifically realistic. It's speculative
on what technologies might actually be possible given our
understanding of the world. In these kinds of works, the laws of
physics as we know then are rarely broken. Kim Stanley Robinson's
Red Mars series is like this. The other end of the scale
doesn't have a name, so far as I know. I guess it would be "soft" SF,
but that sounds derogatory. The Star Wars series is an example
of this. Pictured is me in my office, reading soft SF (Marvel Adventures
"Iron Man" and "Hulk.")

For this essay, though, I will refer to this scale as the
realism-fantasy scale.

As someone fascinated by science, over the course of my life I've
learned more and more about how the world works. This has had one bad
effect: it has reduced my ability to enjoy things on the fantastic
side of the scale. I know things are impossible or make no sense, and
it distracts me.

A great example is the superhero The Flash, a hero who can move very
very quickly. As an example of how fast this guy is, a friend told me
that once The Flash zipped to the library, read books about how to
build a bridge, and then built the bridge, in time to save a car that
was about to go flying off of a cliff. This is something that might
have seemed really neat as a child, but now I'm just left wondering
how he could have done this without damaging the pages of the books,
or the materials of the bridge. Indeed, how does he keep from breaking
his own bones?

Imagine picking up a piece of paper such that it was moving at 200
miles per hour-- without ripping it.

The fantasy novel The Runelords deals with this power in an
interesting way. When someone gains the ability to move very, very
quickly, many laws of physics still hold. The person must take care
not to change direction of the limbs too fast, because they would
break, given their momentum.

Then, as a cognitive scientist, I get wondering about thought. Clearly
The Flash must think faster than everyone too, or else that
book stunt would not have been possible. But if he's thinking that
fast, then how could he hold a conversation with anyone? Imagine the
world slowed way down (which is what your experience would be like if
you were thinking that fast). Imagine someone saying "How are you?"
over the course of five (subjective) minutes. You would be terribly
bored and unable to understand what was being said. Then you'd need to
take another subjective five minutes to answer "Fine, thanks." How
would you do it if you were breathing at a subjectively normal, but
actually speedy, rate? Seems to me the only way it could work is if
Flash could control his speed, slowing down to talk to anyone.

Usually in movies extraordinarily fast creatures are shown
from the perspective of normal time-- they zip all about. I always
thought that if they made a Flash movie they should do at least some
of the sequences from his point of view. That is, with the
world slowed down, and he just walks around, taking guns out of
people's hands, etc.

The excellent film Over the Hedge actually did this. In the
film, a fast rodent is given caffeine, making him super fast. It's a
very funny sequence, where everyone slows to almost a stop, and the
rodent just walks around, doing whatever he likes.

Thinking of it this way helps you understand the weirdness of it. If
time is going slowly for you, then things would fall very slowly. The
Flash could "place" a box in the air, and return to it a while later
and it would only have fallen a few inches. And when you think of
that, well, then how can he actually run so fast, since gravity
affects him similarly? It would be like trying to run in very low
gravity: you don't reach the floor fast enough to get any speed.

Anyway enough about my super-speed case study.

The nagging knowledge of science interferes with my creativity as
well. When I create monsters for video games or stories, I have this
nagging reminder of evolution in the back of my head. How could a
creature have possibly evolved this way?

Certain fantasy and SF worlds simply do not make sense under
scrutiny. A great example is the land of Oz. I'm not saying that there
is no place for such worlds-- whimsical worlds are delightful. It
seems, though, to create and appreciate such a world requires the
author/audience to either be ignorant to the issues, or else be able
to ignore them. I find this more and more difficult to do.

3 comments:

Daniel said...

I call things like Star Wars and Doctor Who "space fantasy" - their delight comes from swashbuckling tales in an exotic realm, not their clever extrapolations (Star Wars takes place "a long time ago" remember) It could as easily involve dragons or samurai. Like any fantasy world it pretty much just has to obey its own rules. On the other hand its nice when these adventures make at least the *pretence* of living in the same world of physics as us, even if a few things get swept under the carpet...

But everyone has their own line. Kingsley Amis said he couldn't consider anything involving time travel as science fiction, because it's so absurd. What do you thing? Also, for some reason psionic powers have for a long time (since the 30s) been considered part of what is acceptable to have in science fiction, kind of a loophole...

Neal said...

My personal issue with this comes not from the Flash, but from a Marvel hero capable of similar speeds (though able to fly) named Northstar. In one issue, Northstar gets grabbed by a larger character "before he could react", and there's a footnote which says something like "despite being able to travel at superhuman speeds, Northstar's reflexes are not proportionately faster"...

First thing I thought (and couldn't shake) was "Wouldn't he have died the first time he used his powers? He'd have crashed into something at supersonic speeds and turned himself into paste."

One positive thing, though - the show Smallville (though it has a host of other problems) tends to show Clark's point of view (when he's moving fast - so you can see him pushing down bullets, etc, etc.)

Barb said...

Good words.