Prometheus and Bad Science

In the wake of Ridley Scott’s new film, Prometheus, science-fiction fans have been quick to point out the many, varied ways in which science is butchered for the sake of plot stupidity. As in, ignoring not just Einstein but Newtonian physics, idiotic scientists, B-movie style mindless alien monsters, and one of those laughable scenes where something big and inanimate (a spaceship) chases a character (Charlize Theron) who runs along its path instead of going sideways. After it drops straight out of the sky, instead of, y’know, falling in an arc, like Newton’s laws of inertia proscribe. (Also in last link, the CEO going on away missions was an implausibility Star Trek got rid of in its second series.)


Needless to say, the criticism has been bagging on the movie’s scientific inaccuracy. And more often than not, someone will point out that the film is science fiction, emphasizing the FICTION part. Well… yes and no.

Science fiction has always had an elitist edge about it, holding the genre and its components to the highest standard. (Sad truth, it can be really blatant elitism with some authors/historians, though for most it’s more about adhering to science fact.) I’d say that that rigorous elitism, that staying true to science, is what makes science fiction. It’s why people derisively referred to film, TV, and other visual media as “Sci-Fi” instead of science fiction—because of its lower scientific rigor, considering it more low-brow entertainment, and later, because the media referred to it as Sci-Fi.

The genre’s founder, Hugo Gernsback, was an enthusiastic immigrant engineer; in his Amazing Stories magazine, he promoted didactic “scientifiction” designed to educate as well as entertain, full of technocrats emerging from their ivory-tower meritocracy to dispense scientific wisdom and technological inventions to the masses… while fighting off bug-eye-monsters and protecting nearby comely young ladies.

The man who formed science fiction as we know it today was John W. Campbell; his idea for SF was to write what popular fiction of the 2500s would be like; he revolutionized the genre, moving it away from Westerns with their horses traded in for spaceships and sixguns replaced by blasters, and away from the didacticism of Gernsback. He was also something of an egotistical blowhard. Read any of his introductions to Analog short-story collections and you’ll see him arguing that SF is the hardest genre to write in because it has to adhere to science as we know it, yet say something meaningful about the human condition. You’ll hear him say that Science Fiction is the greatest genre, because it is every genre, or hear the glories of prophetic science fiction—the fans of one of Campbell’s best-remembered authors, Robert Heinlein, are quick to point out Heinlein’s successive “prophecies” compared to his contemporaries.

Heck, the entire genre from the mid-40s to the early ’60s was heavy into the benefits of science—glorious new devices, utopian futures, with brilliant super-scientists leading us ever onward.

True, the ’60s and ’70s saw SF turning away from Campbell’s mold—the rise of Soft Science Fiction, focusing on the soft science: anthropological science fiction, social science fiction. Authors like Delany and Zelazny and Le Guin and Philip K. Dick asked deep, biting questions about the human condition, something that Campbell’s authors often gave only a second glance to. But even in the Soft SF revolution, science as we know it—often the soft sciences, but the “hard” physics and engineering sciences as well—are adhered to. While its protagonists are often no longer scientists, they’re still pretty smart and capable. Yet it was Campbell’s ideals SF returned to: social science fiction merged into the tech-savvy, fight-the-power anarchy of cyberpunk, whose technological focus helped bring about a return to the hard sciences.

(Consider science fiction’s reflection of its eras, progressing views of science pushing back the boundaries of the unknown and impossible. In Gernsback’s lifetime, humanity had introduced cars, airplanes, radio, and dozens of other brilliant technologies which fascinated him; he introduced science fiction in his Modern Electronics magazine, as something for fellow engineer-futurists, who became some of its earliest authors. Campbell’s boom years were after the War, when millions of Americans took advantage of the G.I. Bill to get a college degree, and when scientists praised future glories of the recently split atom. Hence, scientific optimism and super-educated scientists. Soft SF arose during an era of change: the Civil Rights and Women’s Lib movements, anti-conformity and fighting the establishment, hippies, free love, recreational narcotics. What does Prometheus say about the 2010s?)

pretty pretty pretty visuals.

The point being? Rigorous adherence to known science has always been a cornerstone of the genre; it’s an expectation of many of its adherents, hence why fans hold science fiction films to higher expectations. Get rid of the science, and you can still have science fiction. Thanks to subgenres like “space opera” and “science fantasy,” essentially dumping ground terminology for science-lite science-fiction, fans can still enjoy John Carter and Star Wars by holding them to a less rigorous set of expectations. But without the “science,” you don’t have science fiction: you have fiction. Which is something I don’t think Hollywood has realized, in its bad writing and misguided marketing.

And, more to the point: by promoting shitty writing, dull plotting, impossible science, and idiotic characters, is Prometheus promoting anything beneficial for either science, science fiction, or even film? No. It’s promoting lackluster, bad, and stupid filmmaking under the veneer of pretty visuals and hoping the viewers don’t notice, building high expectations which are rudely squashed. I’m ashamed that it has a 74% on Rotten Tomatoes and didn’t get a fraction of the scathing other, better SF films often get. Not every science fiction film can be Blade Runner or Moon or Inception, but it’d be nice if they tried.

2 thoughts on “Prometheus and Bad Science

  1. ah. It’s always nice to read about and think back of the old writers like heinlein, asimov and such. I loved those books. I sometimes wonder if there are still people writing that kind of science fiction. Every time i “compare” stories in (current modern) movies it’s sad to see that although some movies are great they are… nice to watch (visual stunning), but… ah well… i’m gonna watch “the great race” with jack lemmon. ( no sci fi… but keeps me busy :D oh and a fun story.

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