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"I may not know how to fly but I know how to read and that's almost the same thing."-- Gregory Maguire, Out of Oz

"...while finding true love was one of the most splendid things that could happen to you in life, finding a friend was equally splendid." -- Felix J Palma, The Map of the Sky

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Friday, February 20, 2015

Believablity in Science Fiction

Because Nerds want answers to the hard questions.


This topic was inspired by a friend on Facebook and The CW's upcoming television show, iZombie. The upcoming show looks cute. Like kittens riding Roombas cute. The concept is fairly simple (it's The CW, of course it's simple) a med student becomes a zombie and winds up working in a coroner's office. I mentioned on Facebook the concept was both intriguing and confusing. On the one hand, zombies are "in" and CW plays its cards right, it could be a hit show. On the other hand, CW's focus is usually pretty actors and actresses to distract from mediocre writing; which means its unlikely CW's going to play cards at all. I want to know how a zombie, who by definition is brain dead, achieves cognition, instead of just the miracle of standing upright and chasing down victims. If CW's writers were smart, they'll explain this and have a hit show. If they're not smart, they'll pretend like the issue is non-existent and hope its teen demographic isn't smart enough to notice. (Like with their show Star Crossed where the Atrian 7, were really the Atrian 4, and in some scenes it copied the Twilight movie almost word for word.)

When I expressed my ambivalence, my friend compared vampires to zombies -- citing popular zombie stories like World War Z, Warm Bodies, and The Walking Dead -- to illustrate that since these creature technically don't exist, each writer is free to write whatever the hell they want on the classic monster, science be damned. In World War Z, the zombies are fast moving. In The Walking Dead, the zombies are slow, instinct driven monsters. In Warm Bodies the zombies are capable of thinking, and capable of being resurrected from the dead by emotion. I read WWZ and I saw the movie, I countered. WWZ the book, the zombies weren't particularly fast; that came later when Brad Pitt and a special effects team wanted to go for shock and awe. The Walking Dead, did in fact offer scientific explanation for the monsters; in season one, the survivors find themselves at the CDC, talking to a Doctor who shows them a video of a human brain going through the transformation of Human-Corpse-Walker. I can't vouch for the science or lack there of, in Warm Bodies. I admit; it was too young for me and I couldn't make it through the first chapter. But I did see the movie, and it was cute: Kitten on a Roomba cute. It made me laugh but there was no substance there.

My friend reminded me that there was no science to back-up Twilight, a book I adored. I reminded her of all the strange questions that were asked of Stephanie Meyer at the height of the books' popularity; questions like, why do vampires sparkle? Why don't they go on a rampage when they catch a whiff of a woman on her period? Why this, why that? Why not this, why not that? Poor SM didn't have all the answers, and the ones she gave were clearly made up on the spot and dis-satisfactory. It didn't hurt her books popularity any, that her world was mostly character driven and not particularly well thought out in any other aspect. But it did highlight a difference between "mindless-fun" and "well-thought out."

I prefer "well-thought out." I don't need a scientific essay to support a fictional story; hell, I don't even need real science to support the story. Fantasy is one thing; has less science and more magic. Magic is like religion; you do not need to see it to believe. A wizard in Harry Potter could reanimate the dead using a spell. Okay, I believe that. Why not. But in science fiction, you're talking about taking a dead body, and animating it. Okay, I believe, for science fiction's sake, it can be done, but it also makes me ask the question: How is it done? Obviously I don't expect a real and proven theory: the science experiments to prove it are probably illegal. But let's take a look at my favorite modern day zombie novel: The Newsflesh Trilogy.

I find The Newsflesh Trilogy very believable. So the question becomes: Why? Why is Newflesh better than Warm Bodies? Better than the movie version of WWZ? Better than Twilight? The devil is in the details. Mira Grant's epidemic is started by the release of an un-FDA approved airborne vaccine against the common cold. The love-hate relationship between modern society and vaccinations is something we're seeing today with the Measles outbreak. People are afraid vaccinations might do more harm than good in the long run and since we can't know the future we prefer to secure our short term future by shooting ourselves up with FDA approved protection. Then you have "localized infections". The main character of Feed has the zombie-virus living in her eyes. Its revealed that this is the human body's response to infection; collect samples of the infection that way it can learn to fight against it. Its an evolutionary step, but humans aren't immune yet. Why is that? The CDC started this mess, and they want to reap the financial rewards of cleaning it up. So they keep reintroducing altered strains of the virus to keep people from getting immune. Again this is somewhat believable; citizens love fearing authority. If President Obama mentioned the sky was blue in a press conference, the American people would automatically wonder two things: What the hell does he mean by the sky is blue? And whether or not the sky is actually green?

As for iZombie , I would love nothing more than to tune in and discover that the writers did indeed find away to explain the miracle of a talking zombie who maintains employment. I can't make an informed judgement for or against the story-line without actually seeing it first. But until it comes on, I remain skeptical. 

I maintain the difference between Fantasy and Science Fiction is in the world building. Great Fantasy worlds have to be built in such away that the readers (or viewers if we're talking about tv) suspend any and all disbelief; don't ask why things are, just believe they just are... After all, Middle Earth isn't Earth. Narnia isn't the United States. Hogwarts isn't Oxford. Great Science Fiction has to incorporate some aspect of reality in such a way, that the readers can become convinced that such a thing is possible on Earth, in the United States, or at Oxford, with the right amount of dedicated research, hard work, and occasional hubris. 

I don't think I'm asking too much in wanting storytellers to do a good job, but I am aware that the very idea of a "god job" is subjective. These are just my thoughts on the matter. What are yours?

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