A while ago, I wrote about a show that was coming out that I was pretty excited for - Fringe. The show's been out, and it's pretty much what I've expected, and it's certainly a fun program to watch. The main thing is though, you really can't take it too seriously. Popular mechanics went and did a feature on the bad science in the show. From both episodes that I've seen, they're really taking liberties with what's going on here, and theyve acknowledged that - J.J. Abrams has said that they would pretty much jump the shark each episode, which makes me think that the creators just want to have as much fun as possible before the ratings plummet.
One of the readers on the PM website left this comment:
" It's science fiction, not science fact. there's no point in wasting time and effort to debunk something that isn't real in the first place"
This made me think a little bit - to what extent is Science Fiction about made-up science? To some extent, there's quite a bit, when you look at some of the things that SciFi has covered over all the years. We see aliens from mars, aliens from other star systems, worm holes, cloning, robotics, robots that look like people, robots that look like people and want to be people, hyperspace, and so forth, nothing that really has any real-life counterparts, unless you subscribe to the aliens landed at Roswell thing. So there's a lot of science fiction that utilizes made up items in order to tell its story.
But how much of this is merely a plot device and how much is just technobabble? This, in my mind, is what seperates the good science fiction from the bad. The best science fiction stories that I've read and watched have some of the more absurd things happen to some of the characters. Takeshi Kovacs is a super soldier who's trained to switch bodies by means of a Stack, a small carbon device implanted in his brain (and much of the rest of the population) to prolong life. Shan Frankland was infected with a parasite that allowed her to survive a trip into the vacuum of space for months before being revived. Martin Springfield is an agent for a super intelligence known as the Eschaton, and works to prevent causality breaks designed to eliminate the Eschaton. Dr. Susan Calvin is a robopsychologist for US Robotics and Mechanical Men, and ... you get the idea.
In each instance, the science here is a secondary element, although generally, very well thought out, given the level and sophistication of knowledge at the time of the book's publication. The characters and story are the primary movers here. The same goes for two of my favorite TV shows, Firefly and Battlestar Galactica, where a lot of the science that could, and has been traditionally dropped in as technobabble, has been eliminated in favour of a character driven story.
To me, this is what really makes or breaks a story, when an author or creator can place people in improbable or impossible situations, and make them react in a way that entertains, or enlightens us, rather than a useless explaination for something that doesn't exist.
This isn't to say that all science fiction utilizes fake science, and with time, science catches up to the literature. Charles Stross's Halting State (reviewed here) utilizes MMORPG and Social Networking as part of its storyline, showing off a near future that's quite frightening. Karen Traviss's Wess'Har series utilizes some likely technology throughout the story, and presents some very real problems, such as Global Warming and Climate Change several hundred years from the present day, and provides a fairly realistic-seeming future for society after that happens. The film Minority Report actually utilized a think tank to try and figure out where technology would go, and in the years since its been released, much of what we saw seems likely. The list goes on and on.
The big question is, when does some of the more fantastic things, like Cloning, Artificial intelligence, flying cars and jet packs become non-fictional? We've already had a couple of those things happen.
In short, there's a lot of Science that will be perceived as fake, but necessary. In Fringe's case, it's the fantastic explanation that's undermined by bad science. This really doesn't set the show apart from things such as the X-Files or Star Trek, but it is fun to watch.