When I first watched the scene in Star Wars: Phantom Menace that talked about midi-chlorians, I rolled my eyes so hard that I nearly caused myself to black out. Now, please table your “Um, actually“, because midi-clorians really just serve as the lede to this piece, then as an opening example. Trust me, I do NOT want to talk in depth about the specifics about midi-clorians.
Instead, the point of this article is to talk about the level of reality we like in our sci-fi.
Types of Sci-Fi: More Science; Less Fiction
Our example of midi-clorians were a hackneyed attempt by George Lucas to offer scientific plausibility to The Force, an element of Star Wars that until that film, had only been understood as mysterious. Midi-clorians were pseudo-scientific babble exposing things that didn’t need to be exposed. For decades the Force simply existed as a mystery that we didn’t know much about. [In transparency about my bias, I really like this guy’s take on midi-clorians.] And never mind that Lucas introduced midi-clorians in an odd juxtaposition to a virgin birth, but sure, fine, whatever, I’m over it.
In short, early Star Wars was sci-fi that was comfortable in its fiction, and didn’t worry as much about its science.
As modern science advanced, a lot of things that once felt like magic, are now seen as commonplace. When the telegraph was first invented, having your voice carry across the continental United States must’ve felt like the work of a wizard, but nowadays our iPhones are just that things we’ve always taken selfies with. No big deal.
This has changed the way that we consume media as well. Modern viewers are much more inclined to dissect, rather than digest. Within seconds of nearly any sci-fi movie, we’ll see internet comments light up, decrying how the starship dogfights violate the laws of physics.
One of the cries of modern sci-fi viewers is the call for more realism or, at least, plausibility. But on the other hand, no one wants to be reminded of the real world in a sci-fi flick. Yet on the third hand, we all want things we can relate to: heroes, archetypes, characters and myths we recognize. Although on that fourth hand, we want to be able to suspend disbelief, while also carrying pet peeves, concerns, and hot button issues that drag us out of the fantasy world.
The term suspension of disbelief was first coined by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, better known for Kubla Khan. In this present day we know there are no dragons and elves running about, nor are we baffled about microwaves, electrical current, or the shape of the earth. Our disbelief runs thick. So storytellers have to work all the harder to make elements seem real and believable when employed in a story.
But while greater scientific plausibility satisfies the skeptical modern movie goer, it does little for the sense of wonder. How can one regain the feeling of excitement in a genre that now seeks to make it as rooted and believable as possible?
Well, they give us different types of sci-fi, that’s how. Let’s look at each of them.
Various Levels of Reality in Science Fiction
Street Level Sci-Fi – Street level sci-fi is the most down the earth type, and it’s know by largely believable settings and likely a recognizable time period. Street level sci-fi can be bent – it’s still fiction, after all – but it shouldn’t bend so much that the basic credibility snaps.
Here, the storyteller’s job is to take what everyone knows about about the specific time period, setting, or characters, and combine it with just enough new elements to make it exciting and feel original.
Street level sci-fi should never step toe over the mysterious line where disbelief creeps in. It’s the Georgia forest, but with zombies. It’s a vigilante lawyer, which is credible enough, but it sneaks in the twist that our hero is blind!
Echoed Sci-Fi – Sometimes of science fiction is in a world that only has echoes of the history and reality we know. Echoed sci-fi calls back to the familiar, but it’s largely divorced from it.
It’s one rooftop higher than street level, if you will. The sci-fi elements are a touch brighter, a smidgen bigger. Echoed sci-fi allows storytellers to tease us, saying that if something like vampires were real, life would be a bit more interesting. Yet some viewers react negatively to something they’ve seen too often, so you better give it a twist.
But don’t twist it too far because us nerds know know EXACTLY what happens when a teenager is bit by a radioactive spider.
Tethered Sci-Fi – But sometimes we want less realism, and more inventiveness. Sometimes we allow our storytellers to toss out most of the familiar, but not all of it…we still want it tethered to something we can hold on to.
Tethered sci-fi still sprinkles in a familiarities. It might feature social structures and economies that are somewhat Earth-like, even if the worlds themselves are clearly galaxies apart. Most of this sic-fi centers around creating entirely new world, yet ones that obey most of the same principles that are familiar to us, with the major additions of fantastical technology and alien life forms.
Chewbacca might be a hairy wookie from Kashyyyk, but he still understands the role of a best friend.
Wild-eyed Crazy Pills Sci-Fi – Some storytellers set their story far into the future or in galaxies far, far away. This allows the sci-fi to become more wahoo kooky, which by nature of its far-out inventiveness, allows also for a greater sense of wonder. After all, Clarke’s Third Law states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Some times you have talking raccoons who are best friends with walking trees.
So why does this matter? For starters, when it comes to criticizing sci-fi, swim in your own lane. Don’t criticize Guardians of the Galaxy for its physics. It’s wild-eyed sci-fi. The physics aren’t supposed to be believable, they are supposed to blow your mind.
Similarly, don’t criticize street level for failing to push the envelop. They’re just trying to keep it real, yo. Let’s save our “um, actuallys” for when they really matter, like when George Lucas tries to insert the midi-clorian nonsense.
Second, don’t expect storytellers to cross streams. In fact, we don’t want them to, because it will pull us out of our disbelief. Rocket Racoon shouldn’t guest star on Daredevil, nor should the zombie apocalypse be teleported away by aliens.
We like our science fiction in differing levels of realities. As for this nerd? I love all of it, just not all at one time.
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