Mysticism and SF

Over at SciFi Wire, the house magazine of the Polish syphilis channel, Wil McCarthy has a piece with the eye-catching headline "Is Mysticism Overtaking Science in Sci-Fi?"

What really excites me right now--and not in a good way!--is the recent spate of superficially sci-fi movies that are not merely scientifically illiterate, not merely unscientific or antiscientific in their outlook, but that actually promote mysticism as a superior alternative to science.

Leaving aside the irony of this being sponsored by the Dumb-Ass Horror Movie Channel (not that there's anything wrong with dumb-ass horror movies...), McCarthy's got a point. Science fiction has really taken a fall from the good old days, when science was everything. Why, the next thing you know, there'll be a whole slew of stories promoting daft notions regarding psi powers and kooky made-up religions...

Oh, wait...

Now, to be fair, McCarthy is making a slightly different argument. He's not just complaining about unrealistic elements in SF (the old "explosions in space don't make any noise" thing), but about unscientific or anti-scientific themes.

But still, this is nothing new. The idea that science (broadly defined) is a source of problems for humanity is an idea with a literary tradition going back to Frankenstein at the very least, if not farther. Michael Crichton built himself a very fine career on writing that sort of story, over and over again.

It may be true that this sort of thing has not traditionally been part of "science fiction," by the SF genre has broadened considerably over the last few decades to include a lot of stuff that some would prefer to call fantasy or horror. (Again, the Sci-Fi Skiffy Skippy SyFy channel has done as much as anybody to hurry this process along...)

In particular, the two examples McCarthy cites, the recent animated movie 9 and the forthcoming disaster flick 2012, are not things that I look at and say "Hey, I bet there'll be some quality science fiction in that!" They're closer to fantasy and horror, respectively, than any sort of genre from which I expect scientific accuracy or a strong pro-science message.

So, I'm dubious about McCarthy's claim. It's a decent hook for a column, I suppose, but I don't see it as a profound statement about the current status of science in science fiction.

More like this

Lensmen, anyone?

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 30 Sep 2009 #permalink

The idea that science (broadly defined) is a source of problems for humanity is an idea with a literary tradition going back to Frankenstein at the very least

I know that's the conventional interpretation, but I've never been entirely convinced. The "monster" is perfectly humane (at least to start with) - it's Frankenstein that's got the problem. I've always read it more as being about how we judge people on appearances and get pointlessly upset when our "creations" (i.e. our children) don't live up to our expectations, and about the effects of that rejection on them. Shelley herself wrote various things that support this interpretation, and none that I'm aware of to support the "science is bad" interpretation.

Shelley's Frankenstein expends many words on Victor's neglect of his creation, and the cruel and insulting terms he uses to address it. The creature is innocent, kind, and generous until after it has been extensively mistreated.
Prior to reading novel, I had accepted the conventional interpretation, that Frankenstein was intended to send the message that science was inherently dangerous or immoral. Once I had read the novel - I found Shelley's words did not support that interpretation; the creature's murders are clearly acts of vengeance, and unmistakably results of the ill-treatment it suffered, rather results of his constructed origin. I will go farther than Dunc; I will argue that that most people who accept the "conventional interpretation" probably did not read the novel, or started it and did not finish. (The book is slow to start, tedious for most of the first half, and never gripping.)

Polish syphilis? Sometimes Iâm so glad I never watch tv...

Settle down, Wil McCarthy, and read Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men and The Star Maker.

Or Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality series.

Or Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.

Or Joe Haldeman's The Coming, Guardian, and/or Forever Free.

Or just about anything by Ursula LeGuin, R.A. Lafferty, or the more "ambitious" works of Brian Aldiss, Theodore Sturgeon, or Robert Silverberg.

The apotheosis of mystical sf is, of course, Douglas Adams's So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.

Better yet, Wil McCarthy, please skip the columns and go write some more of your fun, mind-stretching novels!

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 30 Sep 2009 #permalink

I can't help but notice that many of the examples cited to argue against the columnist's thesis are fairly long in the tooth. I think that the anti-science current in today's American culture, for example, are indeed apparent in the sorts of scifi projects that get greenlit.

Remember the movie version of "I, Robot" in which a rabidly anti-intellectual tough guy saves us all (and a super-feminized, hyper-helpless version of Dr. Susan Calvin) from the horrible robots based on his gut instinct that scientists are evil and short-sighted?

"2012" is another decent example. These aren't projects that appeal to people to have a passion for science -- they're celebrations of anti-science. They are films in which having an understanding of the subject being showcased is a HINDRANCE to enjoyment because the suspension of disbelief has been calibrated against an uneducated person; there is no love of the subject, just of the spectacle.

C.B. Brown

Mysticism and the pro/anti-science axis both strike me as different beasts. Take Blindsight by Peter Watts -- hard SF, no mysticism there... but from a lens of "Science and Human Progress and Reason are Awesome!", Blindsight is a very depressing read. :)

You can also point to counter-examples that move in the other direction. Probably the most well-known is Star Wars. The original trilogy were very much products of the 70's when things like Buddhism and connecting to nature were very hip among a certain crowd. Suddenly you have a movie in which people who control themselves through mental discipline can tap into the forces that "bind the universe". It's all very metaphysical. When the new movies came out however, we learn that there is a quantifiable "scientific" explanation involving medichlorian (sp?) counts in the bloodstream. Even the Indiana Jones movies, originally action movies about mysterious religious artifacts, turned to a quasi sci-fi theme in the most recent installment.

I think a part of the problem is that, at some level of abstraction, the lines between science (especially physics) and mysticism can seem blurry to the average person. What's the meaningful difference as a plot element between psychic powers based on tapping into the spirit world and psychic powers based on "spooky action at a distance"?

I think his two examples were fairly weak as well. The first is a children's movie. Faulting a children's movie for adding an element of mysticism rather than sticking to "science" (in quotes because how much can you really dish out at an accessible level for kids?) is like faulting Finding Nemo for portraying a clownfish swimming deep enough into an ocean trench to meet an Anglerfish. It's a freakin' kids movie for goodness sakes!

As for the second, the way some global warming alarmists play fast an loose with the science (NOT intended to fire off a GW debate, merely to point out that many of the popularizers don't exactly stick to the peer-reviewed literature-I'm looking at YOU Al Gore and Prince Charles!) is a whole topic unto itself, but it has little to do with their view of science as a whole. I think most of them see it more as a "noble lie", a way to bring people around to a "right" view of thinking.

So, to sum up, his evidence is a kids movie and a polemic.

Although as a superhero movie, it was not exactly the most realistic thing in the world, *Iron Man* celebrated engineering. I mean, heck, it shows him designing is suits.

*District 9* wasn't about mysticism at all. It wasn't about science either, but the guy (well, the alien guy) doing the most sciency things was arguably the most positive character in the movie.

*Star Trek* had some atrocious astrophysics in it, but was rollicking fun and was generally pro-the-science-mindset.

Meanwhile, mysticism as a substitute and/or superior replacement for science is hardly anything new in science. And scientist-as-villain is hardly anything new in science.

I didn't read the full article, primarily because I might want to watch 9 in the future without being spoiled. But what I did read was just a more polite, less frothy, but still unconvincing riff on Brin's Star Wars rants.

By John Novak (not verified) on 30 Sep 2009 #permalink

Knowing would have to be one of the worst pretending-to-be-science movies I've seen recently. IIRC, Cage is supposed to be playing a lecturer/astrophysicist. The concept of determinism he presents to his class (why he would be doing this in the first place is beyond me) is completely mangled. But my favourite line would have to be when our supporting male lead espouses, after seeing the pattern in the numbers (paraphrased):

The scientist in me is saying this is crazy and I should walk away.

Obviously then, he's not a very good scientist. The scientist in him should be saying: "This is weird and totally contradicts everything we think we know about the laws of physics and time. We should investigate this further!"
When someone pointed out that it was written by a scientologist, the bad writing and plot-holes suddenly made more sense.

In this context Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End deserves pointing out. It's science fiction, but it's chock full of more psychics and mysticism than just about any modern SF. We're talking Children of the Corn style psychic kids, Satan-shaped aliens holding seances with humans, the hunt for libraries of mystic books, mass ascension to another astral plane, you name it.

The agenda of the LENSMAN SERIES is self-evident. Almost
the entire six volume series corresponds with one of the
two blood lines corresponding to the story behind the covenant
between God and Abraham interpreted in terms of modern
intergalactic struggle between two entities of beings that are
so far beyond us that they cannot be viewed as anything but
GOD's. In view that it is considered one of the greatest space series of all times, one has to wonder if there was not
some devine inspiration to the series for this covenant being
explained in the context of modern scientific society.

By William O. Rom… (not verified) on 20 Nov 2009 #permalink

And the hard SF fiction from Stephen Baxter, Peter F. Hamilton, Alistair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, Adam Roberts, and Neil Asher are found wanting in what way? How about David Brin? Kim Stanley Robinson? Jeff Landis? Greg Benford? SF is far more than movies and the authors being mentioned are hip-deep in science. McCarthy should know better.

By David Ball (not verified) on 20 Nov 2009 #permalink

I read the bio of John Campbell and the McCarthy article.

A couple of things come to mind. I went with some workmates and saw 2012. None of us are scientists. I would just like to point out that the fact that none of us were scientists did not lead directly to any of us thinking that the science is 2012 was real, or that we should start believing in mysticism as a result of anything in the movie. So I am not buying the paranoia that seeing an SF movie laced with pseudo-science and mysticism will make us "uneducated" masses suddenly rush to the nearest New Age cult and empty our bank accounts into their coffers. Puh-lease!

If anything, the actual mystical character in 2012 - the old hippie who broadcasts his radio show from a camper in Yellowstone - is parodied so hard that he is made to look like a freaking idiot, not a suggested role-model for kids.

Anyway, we go to such a movie for one thing and one thing only: the spectacle. Seeing the whole of California sink into the sea all at once was almost worth the $10 ticket right there!

The other thing is that the plot line is inconsequential in such a movie, so no one is paying attention to it anyway. It's the same old formula: humanist young hero bucks the corrupt system and saves thousands of lives at the last minute, and gets the President's daughter (Horatio Alger, anyone?), they take the ARK and arrive in the Promised Land (everything's there except Noah, for crying out loud), and the sun rises in the end and everybody's all happy and stuff. How rehashed is that? Yay! Take the kids and go home now.

I saw District 9 and liked it because of it's humanist/anthropological dimensions. The premise of one of "usâ having to deal with the psychological and moral issues of morphing into one of "them" in a manner completely beyond his own control was what made that movie interesting, and well as the portrayal of apartheid with all its attendant social questions. Forget the science behind some magical substance that successfully converts a human body into a very highly specialized alien body (while leaving all brain and neural functions intact, apparently), or that the aliens apparently come from a planet with an atmosphere and a force of gravity exactly like ours (this is the case in lots of sci-fi movies).

What would happen if a scientist made a sci-fi movie (somehow convinced Hollywood to finance it - hey, that would take lots of magic right there, I'm thinking!) in which EVERY scientific detail was correct and the outcomes could all be logically and scientifically deduced from the exposition?

Everyone on scienceblogs would think it's a killer movie.

The public would stay home and watch Star-Trek reruns on their tivos. The producers of the movie would lose their behinds, as the ROI plummeted deeper and deeper into the red.

So there's the problem. It is, of course possible to do all the painstaking research to make a blockbuster movie that is scientifically correct.

But unless you can convince your potential backers it will make 30-50 million bucks on opening weekend, it's a no-go.

That's where the magic comes in.

I am glad you recognized her dread about pronouncement as something more than paperwork. One part of my residency I loved was the once a week the hospital chaplain/counselor/ethics professor would round with us.

A lot of stuff that is made for movie SciFi, is really just flimsy plotline for spectacle and drama. The sad truth, is that most science is tedious careful work, that just doesn't make good entertainment. When we go to the movies, we want our limbic system to be lit up, anything too realistic logic wise, just won't cut it.

I would consider fiction about religion legit. If it isn't about mystical objects/beings having strange owers but instead is a fictional exploration of anthropolgy, how cultural beliefs get created propagated and modified, and their effects upon individuals and society, then it can stand up to the best of sci-fi. I tend to view good sci-fi, as a fictional exploration of the human condition via thought experiment, what would be the resulting societal dynamics be like if we changed this? But that is probably too cerebral for a mass audience. So mostly what you see is just cheap plot excuses for spectacle and scary monsters.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 22 Nov 2009 #permalink

There's a difference between being "pro-science" and being "pro-technology" or in favor of any and all applications of science. The truth is that in some cases science had led to horrific consequences, either intentionally (Hiroshima) or unintentionally (thalidomide). Science fiction stories that warn us to do science wisely and not carelessly are not automatically "anti-science," or advocating of a return to pre-industrial times, and they often make for better literature than the overly optimistic tales of how engineering will solve our problems. I agree that the two recent movies, which I probably won't watch, are not the best examples of this, but in general we shouldn't discount dystopian visions as promoting ignorance simply because they are dystopian.

But engeineering WILL solve all our problems: physical engineering, genetic engineering, social engineering and psychological engineering.

Science in the lab is fun and keeps certain kinds of people off the streets (which may be the argument that justifies confiscation of other people's money for use by scientists and their keepers). When you want science to move out of the lab and change your life, you call in an engineer.

Then you invoke Clarke's Law to make the engineering seem like magic.

Heh. I was watching a TV show that was doing a tongue-in-cheek riff on sci-fi. I think it was one of the CSIs. (Is that science fiction?). Anyway one character claimed that Mr. Ed was sci-fi because it postulated an alternate universe in which horses could talk.

Science fiction has been around long enough that the boundaries between genres have pretty much melted in a lot of people's minds. That said, it's hard to avoid a sense that the faith-based superstitious rot that has permeated much of the rest of society has worked it's way into sciencey fiction.

It doesn't help that too many scientists have a tendency to sneer at the medium. It's an art form that adorns the lobby of the halls of science, so to speak. Neglecting it sends a very bad message (framers). Take it back. Own it.

By Radge Havers (not verified) on 23 Nov 2009 #permalink

Some are missing that the "animated film" 9 is not the oDistrict 9.

Not to dismiss the importance of one doing one's homework, but just the idea of this discussion is amusing to me. I am reminded of my younger days, when I would watch "war" movies while my retired-submariner father would scoff, "That's not how it really works."
I loved Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series, but not being a scientist, I have no idea how "hard" it is. Do I want to know? Nope. Fiction, by its nature, requires the suspension of disbelief. And the writer's first concern (well, second, after "Can I pay my rent?")is whether or not he/she can tell a good story.

By Stephanie (not verified) on 29 Nov 2009 #permalink