On high quality Science Fiction
(This post from my Battlestar Galactica Analysis Blog is cross-posted to my main blog too.)
There's been some debate in the comments here about whether I and those like me are being far too picky about technical and plot elements in Battlestar Galactica. It got meaty enough that I wanted to summarize some thoughts about the nature of quality SF, and the reasons why it is important. BSG is quality SF, and it set out to be, so I hold it to a higher bar. When I criticise it for where it sometimes drops the ball, this is not the criticism of disdain, but of respect.
I wrote earlier about the nature of hard SF. It is traditionally hard to define, and people never fully agree about what it is, and what SF is in general. I don't expect this essay to resolve that.
Broadly, SF is to me fiction which tries to explore the consequences of science, technology and the future. All fiction asks "what if?" but in SF, the "what if?" is often about the setting, and in particular the technology of the setting, and not simply about the characters. Hard SF makes a dedication to not break the laws of physics and other important principles of science while doing so. Fantasy, on the other hand, is free to set up any rules it likes, though all but the worst fantasy feels obligated to stick to those rules and remain consistent.
Hard SF, however, has another association in people's minds. Many feel that hard SF has to focus on the science and technology. It is a common criticism of hard SF that it spends so much time on the setting that the characters and story suffer. In some cases they suffer completely; stories in Analog Science Fiction are notorious for this, and give hard SF a bad name.
Perhaps because of that name, Ron Moore declared that he would make BSG be Naturalistic Science Fiction. he declared that he wanted to follow the rules of science, as hard SF does, but as you would expect in a TV show, character and story were still of paramount importance. His credo also described many of the tropes of TV SF he would avoid, including time travel and aliens, and stock stereotyped characters.
I am all for this. While hard SF that puts its focus on the technology makes great sense in a Greg Egan novel, it doesn't make sense in a drama. TV and movies don't have the time to do it well, nor the audience that seeks this.
However, staying within the laws of physics has a lot of merit. I believe that it can be very good for a story if the writer is constrained, and can't simply make up anything they desire. Mystery writers don't feel limited that they can't have their characters able to fly or read minds. In fact, it would ruin most of their mystery plots of they could. Staying within the rules -- rules you didn't set up -- can be harder to do, but this often is good, not bad. This is particularly true for the laws of science, because they are real and logical. So often, writers who want to break the rules end up breaking the rules of logic. Their stories don't make any sense, regardless of questions of science. When big enough, we call these logical flaws plot holes. Sticking to reality actually helps reduce them. It also keeps the audience happy. Only a small fraction of the audience may understand enough science to know that something is bogus, but you never know how many there are, and they are often the smarter and more influential members of the audience.
I lament at the poor quality of the realism in TV SF. Most shows do an absolutely dreadful job. I lament this because they are not doing that bad job deliberately. They are just careless. For fees that would be a pittance to any Hollywood budget, they could make good use of a science and SF advisor. (I recommend both. The SF advisor will know more about drama and fiction, and also will know what's already been done, or done to death in other SF.) Good use doesn't mean always doing what they say. While I do think it is good to be constrained, I recognize the right of creators to decide they do want to break the rules. I just want them to be aware that they are breaking the rules. I want them to have decided "I need to do this to tell the story I am telling" and not because they don't care or don't think the audience will care.
There does not have to be much of a trade-off between doing a good, realistic, consistent story and having good drama and characters. This is obviously true. Most non-genre fiction happily stays within the laws of reality. (Well, not action movies, but that's another story.)
Why it's important
My demand for realism is partly so I get a better, more consistent story without nagging errors distracting me from it. But there is a bigger concern.
TV and movie SF are important. They are the type of SF that most of the world will see. They are what will educate the public about many of the most important issues in science and technology, and these are some of the most important issues of the day. More people will watch even the cable-channel-rated Battlestar Galactica than read the most important novels in the field.
Because BSG is good, it will become a reference point for people's debates about things like AI and robots, religion and spirituality in AIs and many other questions. This happens in two ways. First, popular SF allows you to explain a concept to an audience quickly. If I want to talk about a virtual reality where everybody is in a tank while they live in a synthetic world, I can mention The Matrix and the audience immediately has some sense of what I am talking about. Because of the flaws in The Matrix I may need to explain the differences between that and what I want to describe, but it's still easier.
Secondly, people will have developed attitudes about what things mean from the movies. HAL-9000 from 2001 formed a lot of public opinion on AIs. Few get into a debate about robots without bringing up Asimov, or at worst case, Star Wars.
If the popular stories get it wrong, then the public starts with a wrong impression. Because so much TV SF is utter crap, a lot of the public has really crappy ideas about various issues in science and technology. The more we can correct this, the better. So much TV SF comes from people who don't really even care that they are doing SF. They do it because they can have fancy special effects, or know it will reach a certain number of fans. They have no excuse, though, for not trying to make it better.
BSG excited me because it set a high bar, and promised realism. And in a lot of ways it has delivered. Because it has FTL drives, it would not meet the hard SF fan's standard, but I understand how you are not going to do an interstellar chase show with sublight travel that would hold a TV audience. And I also know that Moore, the producer knows this and made a conscious decision to break the rules. There are several other places where he did this.
This was good because the original show, which I watched as an 18 year old, was dreadful. It had no concept of the geometry of space. TV shows and movies are notoriously terrible at this, but this was in the lower part of the spectrum. They just arrived at the planet of the week when the writers wanted them to. And it had this nonsense idea that the Earth could be a colony of ancient aliens. That pernicious idea, the "Ark" theory, is solidly debunked thanks to the fact that creationists keep bringing it up, but it does no good for SF to do anything to encourage it. BSG seemed to be ready to fix all these things. Yet since there are hints that the Ark question may not be addressed, I am disappointed on that count.
To some extent, the criticism that some readers have made -- that too much attention to detail and demand for perfection -- can ruin the story for you. You do have to employ some suspension of disbelief to enjoy most SF. Even rule-follow hard SF usually invents something new and magical that has yet to be invented. It might be possible, but the writer has no actual clue as to how. You just accept it and enjoy the story. Perhaps I do myself a disservice by getting bothered by minor nits. There are others who have it worse than I do, at least. But I'm not a professional TV science advisor. Perhaps I could be one, but for now, if I can see it, I think it means that they could have seen it. And I always enjoy a show more, when it's clearly obvious how much they care about the details. And so does everybody else, even when they don't know it. Attention to details creates a sense of depth which enhances a work even if you never explore the depth. You know it's there. You feel it, and the work becomes stronger and more relevant.
Now some of the criticisms I am making here are not about science or niggling technical details. Some of the recent trends, I think, are errors of story and character. Of course, you're never going to be in complete agreement with a writer about where a story or character should go. But if characters become inconsistent, it hurts the story as much or more as when the setting becomes inconsistent.
But still, after all this, let's see far more shows like Battlestar Galactica 2003, and fewer like Battletar Galactica 1978, and I'll still be happy.