Monday, 31 October 2016

Science fiction plausibility

This post will examine numerous works of science fiction, and determine where they rank in terms of accuracy. The entrys herein will involve movies and games rather than books. About 15 years back, alan kazlev published an excellent guide to this subject on his personal website. The chart uses multiple criteria in order to come to a rating, so even if the story is accurate in terms of physical laws (no superluminal travel without time travel), it can still run afoul of other blunders (like a galaxy full of alien civilizations). The scale is balanced in a way that penalizes the more speculative technologys and phenomenon, resulting in an inherently lower score: Anything involving femtotech, time travel, or the like will qualify for this penalty. Consequently, futuristic space operas get lower ratings than techno-thrillers because more ambition equals a greater amount of risk taking WRT accuracy! Of course, just because a film is set in the current day doesn't mean it can't get a very low rating. For instance, armageddon has a plausible set up involving astronauts sent to destroy an asteroid heading for a collision with earth, but makes so many mistakes and errors along the way that it devolves into sheer absurdity. Scientific accuracy is not as simple as it might seem at first. While the guide is very good at establishing its criteria, there are a few headscratchers present. For instance, kazlev says that plausibly hard sci fi should have no unobtainium, but then goes on to place reactionless drives in the plausibly hard category... Even though they require exotic matter (unobtainium) to work. *

Ultra hard

Metal gear solid. Why does it qualify for this ranking? MGS1 has crude nanomachines used for communication and medicine, genetically engineered viruses that can select targets based on their DNA (!), and walking battle tanks that can launch nuclear ordnance. MGS2 has sentient artificial intelligence, 4th generation nuclear weapons, and virtual reality simulation. That last point is especially relevant, if you subscribe to the VR theory.

Plausibly hard

The 6th day. Why does it qualify? This is a typical spy thriller with the usual near-future setup, I.E, self-piloting cars, affordable VTOL craft, energy weapons, holograms. What sets it apart from others is the weird, pseudo-cloning technology that features prominently in the story. An individuals DNA is implanted into an adult sized 'embryo', which rapidly grows into an exact duplicate of them. This would probably require nanotechnology rather than mere biotechnology.


Avatar. Why does it qualify? Avatar posits outrageous growth of the economy by 2154, such that a fleet of interstellar ships like the ISV venture star can be supported. While the ship doesn't violate relativity by traveling FTL (faster than light), it does handwave away problems with waste heat. The alien na'vi are also very human like in their appearance, despite the astronomical unlikelihood of evolution following such similar paths. There are also minor problems like the floating mountains of unobtainium, the mental link between avatar and human, etc.


Alien. Why does it qualify? Alien is the prototypical space horror film starring a very realistic alien species. The xenomorphs are different enough that they obviously don't originate from earth, but not so different that they are morphologically and biochemically impossible, either. (Hence, they manage to stay within the golden middle) The story would get a higher rating, were it not for the non-explained FTL travel, and rapid technology development early in the 21st century.


Soldier. Why does it qualify? The society in question develops very advanced technology early in the 21st century (including FTL travel), uses a planet many light years away for a rubbish dump, and posses fridge-sized bombs that can destroy an entire planet! Even star wars managed to be more realistic in this regard, since it took a battlestation the size of a small moon to do that. However, their depiction of superhuman soldiers was both realistic and disturbing.

* Case in point: Objects that have a negative mass are just as absurd as objects with a tensile strength equal to the strong nuclear force. Nevertheless, larry nivens ringworld gets a lower rating than stephen baxters xeelee sequence.