Fudging Science

I am working on writing. It’s just that there’s not much to report because the work is not that exciting; going through and changing everything to the same 12 point font, reformatting all of the tables into something a PDA reader can understand and changing all the underlined material to italics (publishers want anything italicized to appear underlined in a manuscript, apparently in spite of the fact that this is the way things were done before electronic typesetting. Interestingly enough, when I originally turned the manuscript in, I had to go through and make all the italics into underlines… now I’m having to undo all of that work. If only I had known…).

So basically it’s drudge work, and there’s nothing particularly exciting or writing-worthy about it. I guess I could discuss some of the things I’ve noticed while going through the manuscript, like how I rediscovered an obscure Joe Jackson reference I put into one chapter, or how the character of Levine is one of my favorites because of the way he insults people. But that seems a little too self-indulgent, even for a blog.

So I’ve been using this space instead for other things until this project is out of the way.

I guess I could discuss the films Independence Day and Signs. I’m watching the latter with my wife (she can’t take any kind of suspense, so I have to see the film first and then talk her through it), and I am reminded of how it is still being hotly debated in the SF community as to 1) whether it’s SF or not, and 2) why it does or doesn’t suck as a film.

This is one reason I’m kind of relieved to be away from the SF community. Sometimes the fun gets sucked out of things in the name of Accurate Science or someone’s definition of what SF is or isn’t (but don’t talk about bad science in Stars Trek or Wars).

Both Signs and ID4 endured a critical drubbing in the SF community because of things like idiot plot and science that doesn’t make sense. And I’ll admit that while watching these films for the first time, some things did occur to me, such as (in the case of Signs), Why doesn’t this farm family have at least a shotgun handy? and If the aliens hate water, why are they invading Earth in general and sunny, humid Pennsylvania in particular?

But that didn’t totally kill my appreciation for either of these films. I tend to be very forgiving of things like that if there are some other things that work for me. And both of these films had it in spades. So I’m very unapologetic about liking both of them.

In the case of Independence Day, I went because I’d seen the ad during the Super Bowl of New York City blowing up, and I was in the mood for a special effects extravaganza. The movie delivered just that. It also delivered a fun and witty script, and as a writer I loved the way they took things like Area 51 mythology and the military’s penchant for $500 toilet seats and wove it all into something that works. This is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, as any movie is with Jeff Goldblum playing Jeff Goldblum playing a scientist. Plus, Brent Spiner’s line, “I don’t get out much,” is a look into the camera and a wink that says, we’re here to have fun, folks.

As for Signs, perhaps folks were looking for ID4 done right, or a recreation of War of the Worlds. Without falling back on the it’s not about an alien invasion so much as one man’s spiritual journey defense, I’d like to say that I would have been disappointed if Shyamalan had made a special effects extravaganza. That’s not what I expect from him. I expect quiet, deliberately paced thrillers where the characters actually mean something and develop and change. And he, too, delivered.

As for the lack of the alien invading fleet, and the complaint that for the most part the invasion was seen through a television set – welcome to the 21st century. How many of us are actually experiencing the liberation of Iraq by being out there in real time? Television is how we experience things now, and it was refreshing to me to see the TV as the family’s lifeline to the outside world during the invasion.

One thing Shyamalan understands is that you don’t need a large effects budget to put people on the edge of their chairs. You simply have to be able to relate your audience, and in this case the relation is “Alien invasion? Run to the television set!”

For all my carping at Stephen King’s sloppiness as a writer, one reason for his success is because of his ability to relate to his readers. Critics complain about his use of brand names, but when his hero grabs a Budweiser, sits in his La-Z-Boy, eats Doritos and watches his Sony TV before being eaten by a monster, people can relate. “Hey… I have a La-Z-Boy and a Sony, and I like Bud and Doritos… this monster could be eating me.

The Science Purist Crusaders among us should realize that when average people sit down with a tub of popcorn to watch a movie, they don’t care about whether or not there is sound in the vacuum of space. They want a good time at the movies. If the Crusaders can’t suspend their disbelief for a couple of hours it’s not my problem (and ironically, these are the same folks who can suspend their disbelief to the point where they buy into the idea of a world inhabited by elves, dwarves, and hobbits… but I’m not going to go there).

I’ve made a study of this. Most SF movies fudge science to various alarming degrees, but I’ve concluded it’s a necessary sacrifice, because movies with accurate science stiff. The science in 2001 was dead on for its time. It was also a Kubrickian incomprehensible mess. 2010 was better as a movie, but nobody went to see it, even though science got a fair shake there. And one of the best true SF movies ever, Gattaca, wasn’t exactly a blockbuster – but it should have been. The science was right and it was so woven into the plot that the movie would have collapsed without it.

So there’s an element of fantasy in science that makes visual SF (that is, in TV or films) work; if you want accuracy, stick with novels (if you’re interested in this notion of fantasy leakage into SF, check out James Bow’s blog of late… he’s been busy discussing this exact thing).

Besides, if you look closely at ID4 and Signs, you’ll see an interesting pattern. It wasn’t the humans who had the bad science. It was the aliens. Both times. Maybe their home worlds had serious budget cutbacks in their educational programs.

No wonder we humble terrestrials so consistently kick alien butt at the movies.

NP – Shine.FM


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