Saturday, July 07, 2007

Biology and science fiction

When it comes to science fiction, I try not to let shoddy science get in the way of enjoying a good story. Sometimes, though, the suspenders of disbelief are stretched past all credibility. But even if they don't quite snap, why have a good story with bad science if you can have a good story with good (or at least good-ish) science?

Biologist PZ Myer has a lament about physics snobbery, especially as it relates to science fiction. I feel his pain -- biology is much more complicated than physics. Rocket science? Bah! Getting a rocket to fly is easy compared to growing a kidney. So why do physicists and engineers treat biology as the soft option?

Biology professor Michael LaBarbera has a look at the biology of some classic sci-fi B-movies, and explains why the best weapon against giant ants would be a strong throwing arm with a house-brick, and why the giant octopus from It Came from Beneath the Sea was so lethargic and passive. He also explains that Stephen Spielberg did a remarkable job of getting the biology of E.T. and Jurassic Park believable.

Truly alien aliens would probably make for truly boring stories, but I don't think it is asking too much of writers that they treat biology with at least as much care and respect as they do physics. (By Wodan's one good eye, that's little enough!) I'm not asking for total scientific realism -- where would SF be without faster than light travel, time travel, aliens that look like humans, and other fantasy elements? But it would be nice to see a little bit of plausibility in SF biology from time to time.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, bad biology in movies just snaps my suspenders too. I was so bothered by ET that I crawled off and devised a whole ecosystem and ecohistory to account for disturbing things like a patently clumsy, helpless creature with penguin feet and tarsier fingers becoming a highly skilled space-going species. My scenario involved telekinesis as a defense/escape maneuver, and derived the empathic linkage and the extendable neck, luminescent chest and fingertips , to say nothing of the bare skin, long arms and short face, from a presumed ecological niche involving family and tribal groups which bred and raised their young on land, but who chiefly hunted by means of cooperative luring in relatively shallow waters, where a group would float in a circle in the evenings and draw fish to themselves.

I must say though, that the taun-tauns in one of the Star Wars movies made me nutty enough that I didn't even try to find a
nation. In particular what bothered me was the way they trotted across the horizon apparently as light and effortless as a Road Runner or some light weight bird like that. In truth however, these animals were presented as substantial, muscular, and quite large beasts of burden. But the way they moved onscreen made them look as if they had discovered the inertialess drive.

And don't even get me started about the Ewoks. These little plush toys were presented as being a tree dwelling warrior species, and then at least one is shown falling cutely off a log. If they had to have something cute, why didn't the observed the savagery of cute little animals like tarsiers or koalas? These animals are legitimately adorable, but only at a distance. Up close, you could lose a thumb.

Mrs. Cake

Vlad the Impala said...

Mrs Cake said:
"...clumsy, helpless creature with penguin feet..."

Clumsy? Helpless? You shouldn't say that.

Some people have told me they don't think a fat penguin really embodies the grace of Linux, which just tells me they have never seen a angry penguin charging at them in excess of 100mph. They'd be a lot more careful about what they say if they had. -- Linus Torvalds