On Christopher Nolan’s *Interstellar*

Alexis recommends “Interstellar by Christopher Nolan,” an interesting piece by Adam Rogers of Wired. The accompanying video explains the science of the digital creation of the black hole in the movie with the aid of the American theoretical physicist Kip Thorne.

How much of Interstellar is based on scientific fact? And how much of it is science fiction?
I believe that, at least as Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson once put it, a lot of the science fiction lies in what was found in the black hole by Matthew McConaughey’s character and his team.
What do you think of the movie (if you have already seen it)? If not what are your impressions of what the video presents?
Dan adds: how important is scientific credibility to your enjoyment or interesting in SciFi novels or films? Scientific realism was one of the selling points of Alfonso Cuaron’s recent and very successful film Gravity; but the negligible scientific realism of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block or Rian Johnson’s Looper doesn’t prevent those movies from being entertaining, thought provoking, and in the first two cases, hilarious.
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11 Responses to On Christopher Nolan’s *Interstellar*

  1. Terry says:

    To answer Dan’s question: If we look at several science fiction classics, we see that scientific credibility is often irrelevant. In Frankenstein, who cares how the monster is animated? The interest of the novel lies elsewhere. In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, who cares how he created the time machine? The narrator deliberately leaves that part out. In Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, who cares how he created the potion? In Star Trek, not only are transporters impossible, and replicators, and warp speed, and artificial gravity on space ships, but also laser beams don’t make sound in space. It’s unfortunate that Hugo Gernsback, in the 1920’s, popularized the term “science fiction” to describe the genre. Instead, we should have run with Robert Heinlein’s suggestion that it be called “speculative fiction.” The vast majority of science fiction writers know less science than my little sister, and that has not been an obstacle to the creation of great literature in the genre. Greg Bear’s Blood Music, often cited as an example of extremely convincing scientific extrapolation, is masterful not because it is scientifically sound, but because it is terrifying, and full of believable characters, and has at least one unforgettable scene in which a main character slowly evolves to death in a bathtub. What makes science fiction great is that, unlike naturalism or realism, science fiction is not bounded by the same need for believability. That’s why we read it – to explore possibilities that do not currently exist. To quote Picard in the last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The sky’s the limit.” To limit science fiction writers to what is scientifically plausible is like having sex with all your clothes on. Where’s the fun in it?

    Gernsback, Hugo. Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. 2014. Web.

    Heinlein, Robert. Science Fiction: It’s Nature, Faults and Virtues. Web.


  2. Terry says:

    True, Frankenstein is immersed in the scientific ideas of the time (the believed connection between life and electricity). But I’m not yet convinced that the scientific plausibility of the novel is why it works so well, or what people love about it, or what’s most interesting about it. I am, of course, open to being convinced otherwise by your lectures when the time comes. 🙂


  3. Claudio says:

    I just wish to add a personal question, myself. What is science fiction to us? We see them in films, and obviously we read them in books. But, is this how it truly works? Is this how we must accept what we see? Interstellar, Directed By Christopher Nolan, 2014. IS a great science fiction film. We see Nolan’s vision of space and how time is used through out this film. Time slows down because Mathew McConaughey and his team must find an answer and a new planet to save people from the dying earth.

    I have seen this film 2x (In IMAX). And, although. This is a Science Fiction film, I read a lot of reviews about how it has plot holes, how it does not make sense. Terry. I agree with you. Science Fiction is is made to be shown or written from one’s mind. For example: Super, Sad, True, Love, Story. It is a fiction, based on something which CAN happen, based on something we see and hear about every day. Fiction, does not always have to have an answer. But, sadly. There will always be questions asked about…Frankenstein, and how he was created (through electricity), or how Interstellar’s black hole can lead to another dimension (is it possible?) Fiction, is used to show through one’s mind their own view of how something can work.



  4. Terry says:

    That’s a good question, Claudio. There is no one definition for what science fiction is. Even the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction presents several possibilities. Out of these, I tend to agree with the prevailing idea that came out of the 1960’s. During the 60’s, Brian Aldiss remarked that science fiction “is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are for ghosts.” I quite like that. He also went on to add that “science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode.” Two important elements here are, first of all, “our advanced but confused state of knowledge” – the story tends to work within our current state of knowledge, in that It doesn’t deliberately go against what we know about science, but it accepts that we could be wrong. As for the Gothic or post-Gothic mode, it’s about confrontation with the unknown, the mysterious, the frightening, the shocking. So, science fiction is a genre that makes humanity confront the terrifying possibilities of reality, and in so doing, learn something about itself. The good stuff does that, anyway. I think we can both agree that Interstellar fits into this definition well. And I too enjoyed it very much. I bet Roger Ebert would have loved it too. 😦

    Definitions of Science Fiction


  5. danewman1 says:

    Good discussion. What makes Science Fiction Science Fiction? At what point does a fiction dealing with science become SF? This is a question we’ll discuss when we read Jim Crace’s *Being Dead,* but it’s worth thinking about now. Is Zadie Smith’s *White Teeth* science fiction? (I wouldn’t think so, but it does feature a cloned mouse whose very creation produces the novel’s plot). Is Orwell’s *1984* Science Fiction? (Many people say so, but I don’t remember much science, if any, in it.) Maybe it helps to think about genres as “syndromes” rather than strictly defined categories. Syndromes are defined by co-occurring features, but not all relevant features have to be present in every case. Thus the SF syndrome might include such “symptoms” as focus on scientific questions, technology, prophecy, language, reproduction, etc, but not every SF novel (or film) would need to feature all or even most of these symptoms. Just a thought.


  6. Claudio says:

    Mr.Daniel Newman. I am trying to come up with something similar to your thought. And, words cannot describe what I want to say about your thought. Returning to the question, what is Science Fiction? I asked around, out of curiosity. And, the first thing they told me, was. “Science Fiction” is basically something set in the future. We have the cliche of flying cars, technologies that are never seen…yet, weapons (such as Star wars and Star Trek use), and the fact there are ships that can go the distance into our solar system. But, personally. After reading, Super Sad True Love Story (In my opinion, Brave New World IS A MUCH BETTER READ). Science Fiction, is just the fact something, a treat is out there and they must defeat it, or survive against, and it is told through a mind of an author or a screenplay writer.

    The Girl Who Was Plugged in. May we say, it was a girl? May we say it was a man? Or an “it” in that matter? What we read, was through a females eyes and told us what happened. What she went through were emotions? (Like The Matrix). All this to say, Science Fiction is something we can geo through ourselves, we imagine them and write them in a novel or screen play.

    There is no definitive meaning of Science Fiction. Because, it can be many things…right?


    • danewman1 says:

      A quick note: Claudio mentions that he thinks *Brave New World* is a “much better read” than *Super Sad True Love Story.* This is, of course, a perfectly good opinion and one that I’m sure is widely shared in the class and beyond. But here’s the thing: in the context of a literature course I’d like to see opinions backed up and explained. WHY is Huxley’s novel a better read than Shteyngart’s? Is it the way it’s written, specifically? Is it that the questions it raises are more important, more interesting, more “universal”?

      As for what constitutes SciFi, and why *Super Sad True Love Story* wasn’t nominated for SF awards, I can only speculate that these are classification issues for those who market and publish these books. Shteyngart’s novel was published by a “literary” press and he had up to that point published only “literary fiction.” That might have been enough to keep him off the radar and out of the running. For the same reason you can expect to find autobiographies and biographies of novelists on the Fiction shelves rather than Biography.

      Speaking of all this…. Am I the only one impatiently waiting for the release of Zadie Smith’s upcoming SF novel? Smith gets pretty scientific in her first novel *White Teeth* (2000), but it’s hardly SF. To quote her on her current project: “I don’t know if I can do it. Those books are incredibly hard to write.” (http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/esmagazine/the-world-according-to-zadie-smith-8677420.html)


  7. Terry says:

    Hi Claudio,

    I think that trying to define what Science Fiction is can become like a snake eating its own tail. You say sf is something that happens in the future, but much of it happens in the past, and other stories take place in the present or, like Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, an alternate present. The genre is so wide, it seems to break down and become less a genre and more a mode of telling a story. And as Dan says, there are definitely some recognizable “syndromes” that reoccur.

    I just checked, and I am surprised that Super Sad True Love Story wasn’t nominated for a Hugo or a Nebula award. It’s clearly science fiction. I’m not sure why this novel was not recognized. Perhaps the publishers didn’t sell it as science fiction? The same thing happened to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I’m not saying that Shteyngart is one of them, but there are a few “literary” authors, cough, like Margaret Atwood, cough, who insist they don’t write science fiction, as if writing science fiction is something to be ashamed of. Ultimately I don’t know what exactly science fiction is. Maybe we should end with Damon Knight’s definition: “science fiction is what I point at when I say science fiction.”

    If anyone is interested, Amazon just released the pilot for an adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle. It’s an alternate history where Germany and Japan won WWII.

    Man in the High Castle, stream and reviews

    Damon Knight


  8. Terry says:

    Although I really liked Super Sad True Love Story, I agree with Claudio about preferring Brave New World. And it probably has something to do with the reasons you suggested, Dan. In Brave New World, I prefer the extreme satirical distance taken towards the characters. Is it possible that the novel comes off as universal because of that distance? After all, it seems to be that distance that keeps us from getting too engrossed in any particular character and therefore allowing us to keep our eyes on the bigger picture – the social contract thought experiment.

    I really liked Super Sad True Love Story. I never would have known it was a science fiction book by its title or cover – it looks like popular literature. As for its mechanics, I found it started out strong, reminding me of Silverberg and Dick at times, and I found myself excited and wowed by it. Then it sort of petered out. Not horribly. It just faded (perhaps like the memory of an old love)? The first half of the novel really went for the sci-fi element, and I guess it was when it stopped adding to that world it so brilliantly created that it puttered out and became only a sad love story.

    Dan – thanks for giving us the heads up on Zadie Smith. I read up on White Teeth, but for some reason the premise just doesn’t appeal to me. Perhaps it’s also too character-oriented for my taste? When I read fiction, I usually only enjoy science fiction, or other literature that has a surreal element to it, like writings by Ballard, Bradbury, or Shirley Jackson. Maybe I’m missing a whole part of my brain’s taste buds when it comes to literature? Still, I’ll be interested in seeing what the critics have to say about Smith’s upcoming science fiction book (I wonder if it will be marketed as such?). It’s good that she is looking to LeGuin for inspiration; perhaps she should also be channeling Octavia Butler?


  9. Daniel Law says:

    Jaysanalysis.com has an interesting article comparing Intersellar (2014) with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). For instance, Jay compares the Monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with TARS in Interstellar (2014). In addition, Jay compares and contrasts the theme of death in both movies and suggests that death in both pieces are related to time which is the antagonist.



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