May 20, 2009

Unscience Fiction

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 8:54 pm by Rev. Thomas Perchlik

I went to see the latest Star Trek movie this past week. It was lots of fun, but I came away wondering again why fantasy with spaceships, but no science of any sort, is called “science-fiction?”

Of course the original Trek series often played loose and free with science.  For example they never took trouble to explain phasers that vaporized bodies down to their shoe soles, without effecting anything near them.  But the latest movie had strange “red matter” that was never explained in any way, starships being built on a planet’s surface (very illogical), huge shuttle bays on a small ship, inexplicable water works on a starship, magic mathematical equations, planets (Vulcan and Delta Vega) that are way too close to one another, (and what does “delta vega” mean?)  etc. etc.  There was, literally, no science ever used or mentioned except in some questions for Vulcan kids being tested in school.

The point is that we communicate our values in the stories we tell.  Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists have long valued integrity between science and religion.  We have long insisted that supernatural ideas be taken with a grain of agnosticism and that science is of great value.  Many of UUs have loved Star Trek shows because they blended science and religion in fun ways (“Who Morns for Adonis,” “The Apple,” to name two original series episodes off the top of my head).  Often there were strange “spiritual” elements that were explained in pseudo-scientific terms, like the energy existence of the Organians, but there was also real science, and the portion of that increased through the Next Generation and beyond.

Now a movie is made with no science at all.  And we wonder why Kansas schools and others are trying to present religious ideas like Creationism (AKA “intelligent design”) as if they were good science!


  1. Keith Sayer said,

    I’ve talked about this topic in many of my literature classes. One of my first questions to get people to think about these kinds of things is “So is Star Wars a fantasy or a science fiction?” I’ve never really thought that Star Trek would come as close to the line as Star Wars, but it would seem based on your description of the movie (I’m seeing it this weekend) that Star Trek has adopted more of a fantasy, Star-Wars model against what it once practiced of science-fiction. I agree that this kind of faulty linking predisposes us to wrongfully connect mythic constructs with empirical science. After all, I may believe in the meaning of myths such as the Adamic narrative; but I don’t have scientific proof for it. I would have to rely on a different set of reasons for belief in such a narrative. That is why I disagree with intelligent design, because it is misguidingly trying to prove mythology (for clarification, I do not believe that a myth is necessarily the opposite of a fact, but is what is true “at the deepest possible level” to a person, beyond objectivity) in a scientific context.

  2. Chuck B. said,

    An interesting post. First let me state I have been reading SF since the 1970’s and while I appreciate Star Trek I do not speak Klingon, attend the conventions, or in any participate in the fan culture. I am, however someone who takes reading SF seriously.

    Outside of marketing, very few of those people who read a great deal of science fiction consider Trek hard science fiction. At best it falls within the category of society-based SF as written by Poul Anderson, Kieth Laumer, Ellison ( the creator of the tribble) Assimov and Roddenberry where the science was not the main point. While I cannot say that I have polled most UU’s the point of a majority of Trek stories was NOT religion. Usually the stories dealt with everyday issues that were translated into the Trek universe. Every form of the franchise had more stories about race, war, government control, peace, and cultural contamination than religion.

    Most SF authors agree, or at least the major authors can be quoted in back issues of SF periodicals of the time, that as long ago as the 1970’s when Trek was only being produced as a series of novels that it had since passed into its own form of fiction. This was usually believed because the genre had internal inconsistancies that strained the credibility of even society SF based writers. There was a time when veteran SF authors told writers that they would not even get credibility of make any money writing Trek novels (1981- Larry Niven said this)

    Its interesting that you single out ST, as Star Wars and the Firefly franchises are much more anti-SF than even Trek. Star Wars had sicentific gaffs (being able to travel from one system to another within a few months as stated in the Emprire Strikes Back) so great that it is rarely even considered Space Opera but is called Science Fiction Fantasy.

    This may be quibbling from within the beltway of the genre, but if you are going to make generalizations of a movie or form of ficiton and apply them to a larger group, I think it would be best to make more concrete metaphors.

    Your argument would be more valid in the fact that Lord of the Rings, vampire fiction, zombie fiction, and Star Wars in science ficiton are generally making more money than any valid hard SF. These genre’s are the epitome of magical thinking and are a proof of the scientific dumbing down of our country than singling out a franchise that was on its last legs and performed a hail mary restart.

  3. Thomas Perchlik said,

    I liked the comments on this post, but the best response was from my brother who sent me this link to a related news story:

  4. Sabio Lantz said,

    Very nice post again ! Thank you.

  5. […] Rev. Thomas Perchlik complains that there’s not much science in the science-fiction blockbuster Star Trek: The Future Begins: Unitarians and Unitarian […]

  6. Scott Gerard Prinster said,

    Thomas, the science does not have to be explicit in a science fiction story, but the Star Trek movie is replete with extrapolations of known scientific principles. Red matter is similar to the compressed matter from a black hole, in that it exerts enormous gravity on nuclear matter. Nero and Spock are sent back in time by being caught on the event horizon of a black hole, an extension of the distorting effect that black holes have on time. One of the best science moments is when we see a Federation ship being destroyed by a Romulan torpedo, and the explosion seen from space takes place in total silence.

    Part of the problem I have with these extrapolations from science is that they remind me of how J. K. Rowling introduces new magic into each successive Harry Potter book. We’re supposed to believe that no one else has heard of a Polyjuice Potion or the Sectumsempra curse? When principles like “red matter” are introduced into a story without a backstory, they seem to function as a deus ex machina, and that’s my primary complaint.

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