Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sci-Fi getting dumber thanks to super-heroes?

Randy sent me this link. It's worth reading. (editor's note: the link is now fixed. Don't try to watch daytime TV and blog, Leaguers.)

I wouldn't necessarily disagree with one of the author's points, which is: super-hero movies are full of bad science. A rocket-powered dynamo like Iron Man seems unlikely without some yet-untapped energy source. And where would you keep that fusion reactor in the suit, anyway? How does the Hulk grow with no means for gaining mass? Or Isn't Halle Berry's wardrobe in Catwoman a little improbable?

However, I disagree with a few of his points, or at least his accusations.

I think what he's trying to say is that: Science Fiction was once much smarter than what we get today.

I would not disagree with the merits of Blade Runner being a bit higher than what we're likely to get from Iron Man, as per moral complexity, well-fleshed-out-narrative, etc... But the author has selective perception regarding science fiction, and is ignoring the B-Movie tradition of sci-fi. For every plausible sci-fi movie (the author points to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Terminator, both of which this reader finds to be dubious choices), there were ten "Battle Beyond the Stars" or "Laser Blast".

It seems, really, as if the author is also suggesting that Blade Runner didn't have to share the market with Krull, Beast Master, and a lot of other stuff that wasn't exactly dealing with the steps of the scientific method.

Most of the characters coming to screen are not products of recent scientific development. Iron Man, Spider-Man and the Hulk made their debuts around 1963. Catching a low-budget sci-fi epic was a cheap thrill for a Saturday afternoon, and, of course, this predates most serious cinematic sci-fi by a few years. 2001 would debut a few years after Spidey, and about 30 years after Superman, for example.

He also suggests that comic book movies will somehow keep our kids from dreaming, our science from science-ing. Somehow equating Spider-Man with a lack of American students enrolled in science curricula.

From an historical standpoint, sci-fi comics were the black sheep in the sci-fi family, but there was a direct connection between the guys who were publishing "Amazing Stories" and other science-fiction publications. In fact, DC editor Mort Weisinger had worked for similar publications before coming to National. And Julie Schwartz would be the one who would insist on at least pseudo-scientific explanations for his heroes beyond "mysterious energies", bringing in the Silver-age of science-based heroes. Read more at Men of Tomorrow.

Often the earliest super-heroes, often referred to as "The Golden Age" heroes (circa 1938-1955) reflected the wisdom of the time. Hourman could gain his amazing strength from a pill (with no thought given toa ddiction, etc... but much to the power of modern chemistry). Starman was powered by the strength of his "gravity rod".

However, one of the markers of comics' move from the Golden-Age to the Silver-Age was the post WW-II interest in science and industry which fueled the country. The first Silver-Age sci-fi hero, Barry Allen as The Flash, is a walking textbook of physics issues. I recommend checking out the Showcase Presents: The Flash, which is terribly pseudo-sciency, but does try to make leaps from the textbook to the imagination, in a "look, kids... science is fun and cool!" sort of way (even when it makes no sense, whatsoever).

Further re-imaginings of characters, such as The Atom, explored the possibilities of the textbook as applied to super-hero feats of wackiness.

By 1962ish, when the FF was strapping themselves into an experimental rocket in order to beat The Commies into space, Stan and Jack were mostly concerned with drumming up new ideas to save Timely/ Marvel comics. As mentioned above, the science of the concepts wasn't necessarily rock solid. One was less likely to gain powers from an irradiated spider than one was to, say, get pretty sick. And if genetic traits were passed, Peter Parker did pretty well by not growing extra arms or having weird bug-eyes.

But that wasn't ever really the point of Marvel comics. Marvel was far more invested in the development of the characters behind the powers than in merely showcasing super-feats and displays of the mights of science. Pretty clearly, Stan and Jack were taking a page from the absurd science of movie serials and Saturday matinees. But characters such as The Hulk took also from both Doctor Jekyll & Mister Hyde with a strong shot of Frankenstein.

The point that this guy really misses, I think, is two fold:

1) The 20th century was when science came into the home of the average person. Myth and magic had to give way to the powers of the atom. Interesting ideas for a super-hero possessing the powers of the spider could be attributed to either magic or science. In 1963, science was going to win out, no matter how nonsensical the explanation.

2) Science fiction has long pre-saged actual invention. Laser beams, which are used every day in countless applications, first appeared in a science fiction story. And just because you don't see the path for Tony Stark's incredibly small, incredibly powerful power source, or how repulsors work today, doesn't mean that you won't see it in five years.

How many scientists, engineers, etc... first dreamed of becoming the next Ray Palmer, Reed Richards, Tony Stark? How many kids will look to exoskeletons and the possibilities?

We now live, eat and breath science. To suggest that we aren't surrounded by high-tech developers of cyber-space is bizarre. To lay the blame for a lack of developing science academia at the feet of Tony Stark is crazy when there are so many other factors out there from anti-intellectualism and the now popular attacks on science from politicians and folks looking for camera-time, Spidey isn't really your issue. Especially for those who really know Spidey know that his web-shooters weren't just genetic mutation, but are his own invention.

If anything, this article is somewhat depressing in that the author is suggesting that rather than dream of HOW the feats of Tony Stark or Spider-Man can be achieved, those dreams are too big and should be considered impossible. In a world where we went from a small engine propelling the Wright Bros. through the sky to landing on the moon (and coming back!) within a few decades, how can anything we see Batman, iron Man or any other super-hero doing be considered impossible? Perhaps today's suit of armor has no stabilization control, but tomorrow's might look and behave differently. Its not about the outward package, its about the problem you need to solve to get the basic concept to work.

I'm not writing off the science of super-heroes. I may know that a yellow sun will never make me defy gravity, and bullets will never bounce off my skin, but that doesn't mean we, all of us, can't imagine how that could happen.

Anyhoo, that's my two cents.


J.S. said...

How come when I click on the link to this article, it leads me to my blog?

The League said...

It now leads to the proper place. so...

Carry on my wayward son.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing or improbable or unbelievable about Krull and if anyone says different they're asking for a Glade right in their forehead. That's if I don't decide to toast you with my Love Powered flame thrower hands first.


The League said...

It is true that Peabo will hurl his bladed boomerang at anyone, with almost no provocation.

As for the "Love Powered Flame Hands", they have ointment for that. I told you to be more careful when you went to Boystown...

J.S. said...

Well, to be technical about it, most comic books and superheroes really belong more to the realm of fantasy, strictly speaking, than science fiction. I don't really mind the fact that much of this stuff has so little basis in real science, but that being said, I think there's still room for a whole range of fiction stories that could be more grounded in science than what we typically see, and which could still be extremely interesting. Also, I think part of this guy's concern isn't so much the fact that science is missing from a lot of the current fiction, but the fact that science is being mischaracterized by so much of the present fiction (comic book readers are getting an awfully twisted view of some actual scientific concepts- like mutation, faster than light travel, artificial intelligence, etc.). It's not that writers should feel bound by the laws and theories of science, but maybe giving real scientific principles an occasional nod (even as a writer finds a semi-plausible reason to ignore them) might not be such a bad thing.

The League said...

I completely agree that most superhero films should be considered fantasy. Obviously there's not much scientific basis for a radioactive spider giving you powers.

But (a) I don't think this is anything new, and has been part of science fiction since Frankenstein. And (b) Singling out comic movies is a bit silly.

I also sort of raised a skeptical eyebrow when he mentioned movies like Terminator as somehow more realistic than a comic movie. A time traveling, flesh covered robot? 2001 with a monolithic block that sparks life and consciousness?

There is and should be room for "Things to Come" style sci-fi. But I think this guy is picking and choosing what HE thinks is likely to occur and what HE thinks makes good sci-fi.

Projecting and predicting near-future science fiction is one thing, but usually those movies end up poorly dated within a few years. Even one of my favorite sci-fi books, Asimov's "Caves of Steel", feels horribly outdated simply because Asmimov was unable to foresee the internet (they pass messages by pneumatic tubes in the year 3000, or whatever).

As I tried to highlight above, the early developers of comics (though not-so-much Stan) tried to have some sort of tie to trends in scientific progress and. or understanding. When Superman debuted in 1938, he was given a "plausible" space-bound scientific explanation, and continues to have those explanations offered up, perhaps more than any other character in comic-dom. It's almost all entirely unlikely, but they've written whole books on the subject (One of which you gave me for Christmas).

Most of its horsehockey, but that's always been true of science fiction as it attempts to guess what technology will eventually meet human needs.

Michael Corley said...

Bravo. I have little to add because your statements are so well thought out. I deeply love both genres and hate to see this kind of bickering.

I think its a bit rich for him to bash Iron Man as implausable as the military HAS EXOSKELETONS. True, they don't fly, but how far away is that, in the big picture. Certianly much closer than androids who do manual labor on distant worlds a la Blade Runner.