quarta-feira, abril 05, 2017

Coruscating Beams of Force: "Exploring Science Through Science Fiction" by Barry B. Luokkala



Ah, E.E. "Doc" Smith's coruscating beams of force ... he introduced these early on, and then every couple of chapters would want to up the ante, so would have to try and outdo his earlier description, and they would become ravening beams of unimaginable pure power…

But "science-fiction" is just a catch-all phrase for speculative fiction, not an enforceable limitation. I used to read tons of SF, all the way from junk/pulp through to the serious hard-science stuff and the only complaint I ever have about any individual book is if it's badly written. Some of the more glaring errors and redundant theories raise an eye-brow (I love H. P. Lovecraft despite plate tectonics being fifty years in his future and all his mentions of aluminiferous ether...) but what the hell, if it's a good book it's a good book.

A lot of very readable and entertaining SF is grounded in Clarke's observation that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." A character who pops what looks like an aspirin tablet into what looks like a microwave and then retrieves and eats a vindaloo is behaving as realistically as I am when I order a pizza. If she then steps into a time machine, she needn't know any more about how it works than I need to know what really happens when I turn on the lights. In fact, I'd worry about the success of a book that said "Gwen's knowledge of farming and baking enabled her to eat a pizza, and since she understood the principles of electrical transmission, she was able to eat it with the lights on." If anything, I think that too many SF books try to explain made up science that their characters, if real, would probably just take for granted.

Sometimes we fail to recognise that some of the best SF writing is not very technical at all. I'm thinking here of the likes of Philip K. Dick, or Walter M. Miller, who tried to make philosophical points about humanity and our past and future without alienating readers with scientific mumbo jumbo. The technocratic side of SF is all well and good, but it isn't the whole story either.

I think there is something ridiculous about people who try to make links between popular science fiction and real science. Much science fiction is really magical fantasy dressed up with scientific language to make it palatable to a modern audience (Doctor Who with his magic wand, sorry sonic screwdriver, Star Trek with its cosmic vibrations that everything from psychically gifted therapists to starship engines can tune into). They are entertainment written by people with an arts background who have no understanding of science and no interest in it, except as a source of impressive special effects. A lot of science fiction is actually pseudo-science that has more in common with Californian new age mysticism, like Star Wars. I can only think of a handful of works of SF that are genuinely scientific. Even 2001: A Space Odyssey descended into religious mysticism. And when Hollywood starts dabbling in time travel any pretense of scientific rationality goes out of the window. The science is SF is like the science in adverts for magical bracelets that cure rheumatism and often uses the same technique, borrowing half-understood concepts like quantum physics to justify any ludicrous claim a snake oil salesman (or Hollywood scriptwriter) has dreamed up. That doesn't mean that I don't enjoy SF. One of my favourite films is “Blade Runner”, but the science in it is laughable.
On the other hand, we have films like “The Matrix” wherein some of the science is top-notch: The holographic principal, Mathematical universe hypothesis (MUH) and Artificial intelligence (AI) for a start.

When it comes to Star Trek, and as far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out. Were there no sliding doors before Star Trek? That would be fascinating if so, but it seems unlikely. I hope I'm wrong!
Oh yes. I almost forgot. If a whole bunch of equations can’t faze you, you should definitely read Luokkala’s book. What a blast to watch some of the Star Trek episodes coming back to life through physics. That was one of the reasons I went into engineering…

NB: I’m still fuming from the latest Abrams incursion into Star Trek territory…Watching hours of constant, confusing and predictable action scenes with an incoherent plot, cliches and "unamusing" one liners is not my idea of enjoyment. Or value for money. I really struggle to find any redeeming features. I'm a Trekkie, taking great enjoyment from trek films. The last two were just symptomatic of Hollywood’s money maximizing strategy and I mourn the betrayal of gene Roddenberry’s original vision. It was HORRIBLE!!! Simon Pegg you need to have you Star Trek Fan Card revoked. The plot made no sense at all and come on the Beasty Boys saved the day, and, of course, we have to be PC with the token gay couple!! RIP Star Trek I will miss you and what a present (NOT) for the 50th anniversary. Well I will go to Netflix and watch some real Trek now.

NB2: For those you not mathematically challenged, read the Alcubierre’s article mentioned in the book about Star Trek’s warp drive.

SF = Speculative Fiction.


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