Is realism important in SciFi?

Some good questions from Matt D.:

As of late, in many circles of sci-fi fandom, there’s been an almost obsessive need for scientific accuracy or realism in sci-fi films. Many going so far as to say they hated Interstellar because of the “gaping flaws” in the science. Astrophysicist Dr. Lawrence Krauss went so far as to say that Nolan’s latest work “was one of the worst movies ever made” because he was unable to see beyond the “bad science”.
I can almost forgive him for saying that. He has spent countless hours studying and analysing the things that Interstellar depicts.
I’ve never felt the need to see authenticity in my science-fiction. I don’t care how far out the “science” is or how many liberties the writers/directors/illustrators take with the subject matter.
For me, sci-fi is about imagination. It’s about dreaming up what can’t be done and finding out ways of getting it done: warp drive, reanimation, travelling to parallel worlds. If we start worrying about whether warp drive is possible as it’s depicted in Star Trek, to the point where we can’t even watch it, what’s the point of watching/reading any science fiction?
Sci-fi is about hope. It’s about dreaming. It’s about looking to the stars or at the robots my son plays with and saying “what if?” Our Universe is so vast and so complex. I think it was Neil DeGrasse Tyson that said we’ve discovered and understand about 5% of the Universe. With human understanding of what’s out there being so limited, why would we not got all out when it comes to sci-fi? Why would we cripple our own enjoyment of a medium that has so much to offer? There’s so much theory; so much speculation. Too much for me not to be enthralled by Interstellar. Or The Matrix. Or Doctor Who.
Because, as long as we can still imagine it, I’m going to watch it. And until I no longer enjoy it, I declare, to all those that dare say Interstellar is bad: “No. No, it is not. Now pass me my light sabre and let’s ride the TARDIS.”
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4 Responses to Is realism important in SciFi?

  1. brianna says:

    Firstly, Krauss seems to have forgotten the whole “fiction” part of “science fiction”…

    Secondly, I feel like it would be utterly boring if science fiction were to stick to the limitations of our present reality, rather than embrace imagination and take a few liberties with the science here and there to speculate on where our present-day knowledge could take us, centuries from now. Of course the concepts and methods in stories that deal with something like, say, space travel (and I mean “vacationing on exoplanets” kinda space travel) aren’t going to be applicable or “realistic” in our time, because we don’t have that kind of knowledge or technology yet. We can only dream. Like you said, science fiction is about hope, and imagination – dreaming up what kind of knowledge it would take for us to be able to do things like that, and imagining some kind of technology that would make it seem even the slightest bit logical or possible.

    And even if wormholes do exist and we end up figuring out how to travel through them, it’s obviously not going to work the way it did in Interstellar. Same idea applies to all science fiction. And there’s no use being upset about that or thinking that just because a purely theoretical idea is unrealistically applied in a *fictional* story, it’s “stupid”, or it’s never going to happen. Besides, what is imagined and what actually comes to be are two vastly different things. But even in our reality, imagination is a vital step toward actually making things happen. Progress sometimes means opening your mind to all kinds of wild ideas and concepts. That’s just common sense. Centuries ago, people thought it was absolutely insane to think we could one day send people to the moon and back, right? And even our iPhones would’ve seemed like a totally science-fictional concept to someone in the 1950s (to me it still seems that way sometimes…). So imagine what people centuries from NOW would think of our own doubts and uncertainties, especially regarding space travel. Incredulity, cynicism, and the disbelief that something could never work simply because we have no idea yet how it COULD work (if that makes any sense), are all things that have only ever held us back.

    But that’s getting way off-track now. Point is, sometimes “realism” really does just ruin the entire point of science fiction. People don’t look to science fiction for a legitimate education on actual scientific concepts anyway, so really, who cares? We look to science fiction for a story, a speculation on where our curiosity could take us – not a step-by-step guide on how to actually get there (although it does provide some inspiration, I think).

    To say science fiction should be, essentially, a re-cap of what we already know, is to deny its most fundamental components – vision, imagination, speculation. Things that Krauss seems to be lacking…


    • danewman1 says:

      This is a good discussion. I’m particularly interested in Brianna’s qualifier that “*sometimes* ‘realism’ really does just ruin the entire point of science fiction.” I wonder if the point to take home is that it all depends how you define “realism” and “science fiction.” For some readers, SF includes almost anything; for others, there’s a definite difference between “speculative” and “science” fiction; for others yet, only “hard science fiction” really counts. It’s obvious that the role of realism (however we define it) will vary depending on how we define the genre.
      But I would question the equation of “fiction” (as in science FICTION) with a complete release from realism. Clearly, readers of historical fiction, or crime fiction, wouldn’t agree: realism (or its appearance–important caveat) is crucial to those kinds of fiction.
      And to play devil’s advocate (again): though I agree that hating SF that isn’t realistic is an impoverished reaction to entertainment, I think a lot depends on the logic of the film (or novel) and the world it builds. I would argue that scientific accuracy in Cuaron’s *Gravity* was a crucial part of the filmmaker’s contract with the viewer, and for that reason lapses in accuracy matter more in this film than in, say, *Star Wars,* where realism has no part to play whatsoever. You only have to think about the seriousness with which comics fans attack any apparent change to the laws of reality that dictate the world of that comic. We have no problem accepting that Superman can fly (never mind how!), but if Superman were to give a brilliant 3-hour analysis of Plato’s *Symposium* in the form of beautifully crafted hiphop lyrics we might in all fairness question whether this was realistic (when did he have time to read Plato? who were his hiphop influences–or did he “learn” it spontaneously?)…. I would also question whether SF doesn’t (sometimes) play a part in science education. I’d say more people my age know the basics of genetics from *Jurassic Park* than from James Watson’s *The Double Helix.* Does this mean the authors have a responsibility to be accurate? I don’t know. The aestheticist in me says “no,” but the part of me that despairs of the state of scientific knowledge among non-scientists says “well, why not?”


    • Stergios Steven Argyrakos says:

      I found this post/take on the subject matter very inspiring. And now I feel like I know how to properly articulate to friends and family why the lack of realism in science in films and books does not matter, so long as it’s entertaining, creative, imaginative and brings about conversation and speculation. For the longest time, my excuse has been that a viewer/reader needs to provide the suspension of disbelief for the sake of enjoyment. But the reality is, we ought not be critically of what we cannot fully understand (until later, or never).

      Having said that, some people tend to criticize the realism in sci-fi movies, not because it stems from the science that the film is diving into, but from other things. For example, in the 1986 movie, Aliens, directed by James Cameron,
      protagonist Ellen Ripley succeeds in shooting the Xenomorph (Alien) Queen out a large gate, to which it is then sucked into the vacuum of space. However, as the gate is still open, Ellen Ripley is being sucked out, but holds on for dear life by latching onto a stationed ladder. As the gate is closing, she succeeds in surviving, because she held onto the ladder. A lot of fans and casuals have complained at this part, saying that no human body can withstand the pressure of the vacuum of space while simultaneously holding onto a ladder with arms. They say that either her arms would be separated from her body and she’d be shot out or that she would let go because she handle it. Though this is true, as the science of today has indeed proven it, this flaw “ruins” the film for a lot of people. Though it is kind of silly, I do disagree in that it shakes my initial love for the film. It’s still one of my favorite movies of all time and I’m never distracted by this with every viewing.

      Having said that, a lot of people can’t let this fact pass by them. Do you think it matters in such an example as this?


  2. Claudio says:

    After reading the short story for tomorrow’s class, and I have been writing my own science fiction stories. Personally, I tend to believe on depends what story you are reading or writing on. Realism, will always be there. Example: If you are reading a story that is set in the future, and there happens to be a location which is set within a city, everyone knows about then yes. And, if realism involves a story which is based in a sci-fi world then why not?

    But, then we can go into the other aspect of is realism important in sic-fi? Brianna does bring up an amazing point. I wish to add, we need sci-fi to get away from realism. We would like to think the impossible no matter if there are plot holes. Going back to “Intersteller” that film raised the true meaning of Sc-Fi. It was not realistic, it had a few plot holes, yes. But, for what it was, it was great. If, realism was added into this film, then it would not be fun.

    In conclusion, realism is around us. We intend to read about it in books, see this in films. Sometimes, science fiction is added to realism, and asks us the question “What would happen if this would be added?”, or “what would happen if this story took place in the future?” And as Brianna said. Sci-fi is about hope and dreaming. Also, imagination.


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