Get Your Facts First…

“…and then you can distort them as much as you please.”  Mark Twain.  And it seems to me that aspiring writers should take his advice seriously.

I have a very dear friend.  I met him through NerdNYC, and he spent four years as a member of my gaming group before he had to return to Sweden.  He was a graduate student at Columbia, you see, and his Visa expired when he got his PhD.  He was probably the most brilliant person I’ve ever known.  When he started talking shop, I would understand the individual words that came out of his mouth, but not the sentences they were strung into.  And yet he needed his wife to remind him to eat.

I bring this up because knowing what actual scientists are like, and how they behave, has ruined a lot of the classic science fiction plots for me.

For example.  I watched the 1986 version of The Fly for the first time this past weekend.  It was a powerful movie with awesome special effects, and all the oozy body horror you would expect from a David Cronenberg film.  Still, it was a little bit ruined for me by a simple fact: Seth Brundle’s behavior doesn’t make any goddamn sense.  Not after he merges with a fly (spoilers!), then he has an excuse.  If human brain cells in a mouse can make a mouse smarter (and it appears that they do), then fly cells in a human brain can probably make a human dumber.  No, I’m talking about before  he gets spliced. 

Brundle has invented teleportation pods that more-or-less work.  He’s keeping it secret, though, until he can use it to safely teleport living things.  If it’s released too early, his sponsors, his peers and the press will “destroy” him.

Bullshit.  He should be shouting this from the rooftops.  He would’ve won the Nobel Prize for Physics just for proving on paper that macro-scale teleportation was possible, let alone building technology, however buggy (if you’ll pardon the pun), that actually does it.  Governments and corporations would be throwing money at him.  Labs and universities would be begging him to do his experiments in their labs (which have carefully-controlled clean rooms to prevent contaminants – like flies! – from getting into the experiments). 

Even if he never successfully teleports so much as a guinea pig, he’s revolutionized the shipping and energy industries forever.  And his best defense against rivals stealing his research?  Publishing.

You see this everywhere.  The 2011 prequel to The Thing?  “We need to keep this quiet.”  No you don’t!  You found an alien!  You need to tell everybody!  Then when they find the wreckage of your camp, at least they’ll have an idea what happened!

I know that artistic license is a thing, but please don’t have your scientists act like not-scientists just so your plot can move forward.  Please oh please.  If nothing else, come up with a reason for your scientists to keep everything secret.  If you don’t have a friend like I did, visit this site to give you a bit of insight into how scientists actually think and behave.

And while I’m at it, a note on the military: the Cold War is over.  I know that’s almost as frustrating for horror and science fiction as it is for spy thrillers, but we have to deal with it.  The demand for weapons that can wipe out the entire continent your enemy sits on has been dramatically reduced.  The trend in weaponry for today is ever-increasing precision.  No one wants to create a zombie plague, no one wants Captain Trips, no one wants The Blob, and no one wants the ultrafast-reproducing carnivorous locusts.  And no one is saying “we have to do this before our enemies do”, because our enemies are hiding out in caves and tiny villages, using the weapons they’ve stolen from us.  If those things happen, they should be dreadful accidents or Cold War relics. 

Super soldiers are just as viable as ever (but remember, “berserk killing machine” is no one’s idea of “super” – no one is going to create a soldier who won’t follow orders on purpose), and out-of-control AI warbots might be on the edge of a renaissance.  Just don’t make them too much like the Terminator.

Thank you for attending the lecture, refreshments are now being served in the gallery.


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Filed under Reviews, Writing Theory

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