The phlebotinum behind the curtain
I decided to return back to physics Professor Peter Beckmann’s office …
“ Can science fiction be used to teach science? ” I inquired.
“Of course, ” he replied. “Good science fiction looks at all rules of reality, the rules of physics, and breaks [one] rule.”
(From a 2012 essay at http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/12270)
Professor Peter Beckmann (not, I hope, to be confused with Dr. Peter Venkman) would consider me a bad man. Or at least a writer of bad science fiction, assuming he considered Zombie Ranch to be a work of science fiction at all. There’s at least one other essay out there declaring that any work containing creatures like werewolves, vampires, and zombies is automaticallly disqualified from being science fiction, no matter what rationalizations might be attempted by the author. Those sorts of things just ain’t good science, so they ain’t good science fiction.
So from some perspectives, any zombie story is already deep in fantasyland from the moment the dead walk, even if that happens to be the “one rule” being broken. But if Beckmann were to accept the risen dead, he would still be aghast because alongside them I included camera drones that defy gravity for no discernable reason.
There are aspects of this vision of a Weird New West that are recognizable as things that already exist or seem like they’re just around the corner from existing, but anti-gravity is actually a pretty big deal, at least based on our current knowledge. There are effects that mimic something like it, but our cambot design doesn’t have the triangular configuration of an Ionocraft, nor does it have the airflow required to say it’s using conventional propellers. If it did, I could show people this video and be done with it (SUGGESTION: Watch that video regardless, it’s awesome).
Michio Kaku (author of Physics of the Impossible) has this to say on the subject of antigravity:
In science fiction, force fields have another purpose besides deflecting ray-gun blasts, and that is to serve as a platform to defy gravity. In the movie Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox rides a “hover board,” which resembles a skateboard except that it floats over the street. Such an antigravity device is impossible given the laws of physics as we know them today (as we will see in Chapter 10). But magnetically enhanced hover boards and hover cars could become a reality in the future, giving us the ability to levitate large objects at will. In the future, if “room temperature superconductors” become a reality, one might be able to levitate objects using the power of magnetic force fields.
Well there you go, boom! My brilliant scientists invented a room temperature superconductor.
“Not so fast there, Clint,” said a little voice in the back of my mind.
See, any time you start bringing in “real world” concepts of how a tech could operate, you invite the possibility that you’re going to cleverly explain yourself right into a corner, especially if you only have a layman’s understanding of the concepts in question. J.J. Abrams often seems to fall into this trap. People ask why it annoys me (and others) that the newest Star Trek movie has a “cold fusion bomb” that freezes a volcano, when Star Trek is already chock full of technobabble and impossibilities. Well that’s just it, if they’d called it a “thermonomic inversion bomb” it wouldn’t really have any real world benchmark from which the audience can complain it’s inaccurate. In a similar way, the opening concept behind his TV show Revolution said all electricity was permanently gone from Earth because of an EMP, and eventually in Season Two they had to retcon that and make something up with nanites because people kept pointing out that a) EMPs don’t work that way, and b) removing “all electricity” means biological life and many important chemical reactions wouldn’t function, as opposed to just making your iPhone a brick. The funny thing is, Abrams and his co-writer didn’t really care about all this, they just wanted to make a show based on the cool image in their heads of two dudes swordfighting in front of a Starbucks… but hitching their premise to an actual, studied scientific phenomenon weighed it down more than if they’d just left it all completely vague and got on with what was important to them (swordfights).
I’m not a dumb guy, but I like to think I’m smart enough to remember that I don’t have an advanced degree in physics, and moreover, that one or more of my readers might. If I went down the road of magnets, then I would be dealing with the fact that (no matter what the Insane Clown Posse might think) there are people out there who understand how magnets work.
I could pretend that I had some deeper scientific purpose and thought to including floating cameras on the very first page of Zombie Ranch, but the plain truth is it’s there for storytelling. The zombies are already arguably spoilered by the title, but the cambot serves to introduce that there’s other diversions from what a reader might expect. It steps (hovers?) right up and announces in not so many words that there will be a technological theme behind these proceedings, a media theme… and more than just that, the remoteness of the human operator punches up the sense of disconnect already evident in modern reality TV between cameraperson and subject.
It also just looks cool. And fortunately, writers in my situation have had a solution to this dilemma for many years. Where an explanation is not explicitly required for the story, we don’t try to explain. We take refuge in the wonderful, fantastical substance known as Phlebotinum, the stuff dreams are made of (or at least, suspension of disbelief). Even in these past few comics where I’ve turned a self-reflective lens upon the origins of the cambot, the intent is not to explain why it works, so much as show why its existence was (and is) important to the inhabitants of this world.
Can science fiction be used to teach science? Sure. But I’m here first and foremost to entertain. Perhaps in some definitions that disqualifies this story from being science fiction. I’m all right with that if so. Phlebotinum is a bit of a “get out of science free” card, but it still should be handled with care, and if the amount of thought I put into all this (and the amount of blabbering in this blog entry) is any indication, I’m using appropriate precautions. You don’t have to ignore the Phlebotinum behind the curtain, but sometimes it’s best to just let the wizard do his thing and move right along.