You may find strange that I decided to write an article about science fiction in a Science & Technology Blog. Fact is that, according to my experience, all scientists enjoy science fiction. Granted, not everyone of them like Star Wars or Start Trek, but authors like Phillip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury and Stanislaw Lem are widely appreciated. And, why not, we scientists are also humane, we also need entertainment once in a while.
One of the reasons why science fiction appeals to me is that it allows me to dream. The kind of book allows us to answer the question: What if?
Naturally a good science fiction book (or film) establishes a set of presumptions about future things, and then the author allow him(her)self to probe what would happen if those presumptions are valid.
Of course, the reality must stretch a bit, if you want to allow interstellar travel, you must somehow overcome the barrier of the speed of light, you must assume there is something like a hyperdrive, or a warp drive, or simply something called FTL (Faster-than-light) engine.
You have to allow people to manipulate the huge amounts of energy required to operate these machines, you may postulate something called dilithium crystals which can safely combine matter and anti-matter (and magically not “fry” everyone around, since a simple event of positron-electron recombination results in two gamma photons with the minimal energy of 0.511 MeV).
I tried already to write some limited science fiction and I know that in order to get your story going forward you have to take some liberties with physics. Even the movie Interstellar, highly appraised for the correct depiction of the relativistic time dilation effects due to the gravity of a black hole overcome the obvious fact that any accretion disk would produce so much X-ray and gamma radiation which would make the existence of that planet with exposed water unlikely (and forget about the nonsense of entering, and principally, leaving a black hole).
Even though you have to assume some unknown physics to allow your plot to move forward, you have to remain as close as possible to the known physics (and chemistry, and biology) to write good science fiction.
Science fiction allows also some “foretelling”. Authors like Jules Verne or H. G. Wells correctly predicted many of the things we have in our modern world. You don’t need to go so back in time, however, to find science fiction influences you our modern world. It is obvious that our smartphones are a direct adaptation of the communicators in Star Trek (more precisely, they are a crossing between the Tricorder and the communicator). Sometimes science fiction provides us with an idea, which becomes relevant in the future. What to say about the famous prediction by Arthur C. Clarke that in the future all long-range calls would cost the same as a local telephone call? What is the internet, if not the possibility to call someone on the other side of the globe at the price of a local call?
Of course, the predictions do not need to be exact. Since a long time Internet is not related with the telephone line, and any submarine commander would surely laugh at the description of the luxurious interior of the Nautilus (the fiction one). Our smartphones cannot provide data to proceed with a medical diagnosis (yet) and, for sure, they will not work in another planet.
The problem is that in the search for entertainment, some authors end up violating the known laws of physics (and chemistry and biology), therefore producing bad science fiction.
Recently I watched a movie called Cloverfield Paradox. It was advertised as related with the excellent movie Cloverfield, this one really good (and low budget). In particular, the advertisement promised to give some answers about the monster in the first film.
The setting was really interesting, but the film already fails in the premises. We learn right in the beginning of the movie that Earth is facing an energy crisis (obviously caused by the end of our fossil fuel reserves). Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the modern world would ask: “What happened with the solar and wind technologies?”. The worst is that a single line of text in the script could solve this inconsistency, one of the the characters would simply “remind” that these alternative forms of energy are totally dedicated to keeping industries and hospitals working, or that their growth (especially in the case of solar energy) depends of rare raw materials. In my case, the funniest part was watching the characters sitting in a long line before a gas station to get fuel for their cars. It is funny because everyone would ask, why are they using their cars, really? If fuel is so rare, why bother driving around? Are there no mass transport vehicles in the future?
Then we learn that the female protagonist has to go to a space station to operate a particle accelerator which would solve the energy crisis, providing infinite energy. She is referred as vital for the project, and yet, due to careless use of a technology she caused the death of her two kids (this is the vital scientist needed for the project?). We learn that this particle accelerator can only be operated in orbit. OK.
The space stations has even some realistic architecture. A set of rotating rings linked by a tower-like structure. You see that and think, OK, they will provide gravity by inertial forces. The problem is that the characters act like there was real gravity going on. A rotating ring, even if it has a diameter of hundreds of meters, would produce measurable Coriolis forces depending on the height. It would be funny seeing the characters playing with this, for example, throwing a ball to the air and seeing it making a curve, but nobody thought about this (it would be very easy to fake this effect). Another problem related to this is that in no place inside this stations there is absence of gravity (and the characters must migrate between the rings, evidently, using the tower structure, which is not spinning). Would it to be too much to ask for the actors to fake absence of gravity once and a while?
Then they operate (after more than 600 days in space) the so called particle accelerator. Before, obviously, we learn what is the connection with Cloverfield. A conspiracy theorist suggests that operating that particle accelerator could open portals to another dimension allowing monsters to invade Earth. Really? Why? How does the guy knows this? (obviously, he read the script for Cloverfield).
The operation obviously goes awkward, and suddenly, Earth is no longer where it was. Whaaat? Even thought the connection with other dimensions and other universes, how could you justify the disappearance of an entire planet? With the progress of the story we discover that this happened because a fancy gyroscope went missing. Really, one gyroscope? A space station like that would have lots of gyroscopes (not to mention that the rotating rings are some sort of gyroscope themselves).
There are other inconsistencies like these, in one scene the rotating rings are in attrition with the structure and they produce sparks. I think nobody told them that oxygen is necessary to produce sparks.
When I was at the Physics course, in the 1980’s, the most interesting book at that time was the first Portuguese translation of A brief history of time, by Stephen Hawking. Not because of the content, but because the translation was so full of errors, that the the fun was to try to understand what the English version told, based on the faulty translation. At that time one of my professors told that the publisher contacted a physicist in Rio de Janeiro to do this translation, and the guy asked for some payment to do this, the publisher was not satisfied with this, and, obviously, hired an English-literature student to do this (obviously, but much less money). My feeling with Cloverfield Paradox is this, they decided not to hire the physics professor to be consultant. A pity is that the general plot is actually good (if you disregard this bullshit of parallel universes), but these inconsistencies destroy the film (or, maybe you want to watch the film to spot these inconsistencies, as my colleagues in Brazil did with the book).
To end, just about the last scene of the film. The main female protagonist is finally returning to Earth, fleeing a crumbling and disintegrating space station, besides her only one colleague, hurt, survived (the others died with horrible deaths, I will not talk about the complete violation of the second law of thermodynamics in the middle of the film), and the mission control manages to call her husband on Earth to tell the good news. The reaction of the guy is to say, “tell them not to come”! Really? What does he expect them to do? It is better to die in the cold of the space or burned in the uncontrolled reentry of the wreck of the space station? And finally, the monster appears.