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Innerbrat
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The Power of the Story 
27th-May-2008 09:43 am
palaeo

Obviously, sending this unsolicited didn't bear any fruit - I didn't really think it would - but here's that thing I wrote for a science communication workshop before going to Belgium.

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The music rises from the edge of consciousness as the focus zooms in on his face.  An expression of disbelief gives way to awe as he sweeps off his hat and sunglasses and stands in the back of the jeep, never once looking away from what we can't see. Then our viewpoint changes and we stand behind him, watching legs the size of trees walk past and a living, warm blooded Brachiosaurus joins the rest of its phenomenal herd.

This was not the moment I decided to become a palaeontologist. That moment had occurred a decade earlier, when Lord Roxton strolled across the felled Beech tree to Maple White Land. Palaeontologist, in my preschool days, was a close second to big game hunter, and more suited to a child born in the eighties.

Spielberg's endotherms only confirmed it for me: dinosaurs were amazing and I wanted to work with them. Even today, when I tell people what I do, there's inevitably going to be mosquitoes and amber worked into the conversation at some point. More often than not this is phrased as a genuine question: can we clone dinosaurs from ancient DNA, and if not, why not?

This is how great the effect Michael Crichton's idea has had on a generation, presented as it was through a bestselling novel and a film that rapidly became iconic. His story captured our imagination and made us want to know more. It created scientists.

Four years ago, Will Smith investigated a murder supposedly committed by a robot, but in fact he fought a whole lot of robots in well choreographed action sequences. Asimov's I, Robot, which once created AI programmers as much as Jurassic Park did palaeontologists had been stripped of all scientific awe in the name of entertainment.

What’s happened? Why do we no longer come out of the cinema, or close the covers of the latest novel, and feel inspired to go out and achieve in the name of science? There are still stories being told that aspire to be science fiction, but in order to create the spectacle, the science has become downplayed in favour of the fiction.

It could just be a passing trend in the tastes of the readership. Science fiction has been overshadowed in recent years by the rise of fantasy, and the thrill of the possible has given way to awe of the fantastic. It may well be that we just need to wait for science to come back into fashion.

Or it may be that science itself has outgrown the fiction. As we move further and further past the year 2001, and space tourism becomes more and more available, the amazing has become the ordinary, and there's nothing more a writer can dream up that we don't already have in our sights.

I hope not. I think stories have much to inspire in us still. If only scientists can remember the power that they have, and return to writing fiction as a way to inform.

Opinions 
27th-May-2008 08:58 am (UTC)
that bit in jurassic park always gets me warmed up. when you see the other two dandering through the lake i ALWAYS start crying. real dinosaurs :)
27th-May-2008 09:13 am (UTC)
What’s happened? Why do we no longer come out of the cinema, or close the covers of the latest novel, and feel inspired to go out and achieve in the name of science? There are still stories being told that aspire to be science fiction, but in order to create the spectacle, the science has become downplayed in favour of the fiction.

I think you answered your own question there. Instead of that awe, that wonder, that I wonder what if, we have fight sequences and explosions.

I've never lost my awe of the ancient worlds and possiblities that Jurassic Park set aflame in my child-self's mind. Never. Even with the action, the running and screaming, the awe at the beginning sets it up so I never lost it.

I, Robot I'm still not sure if I can be bothered watching, even though we do have it. It looks slick, modern, an action movie set in the future as opposed to science fiction. And that...

Isn't as powerful.
(Deleted comment)
27th-May-2008 02:01 pm (UTC)
Actually, it was a completely unrelated script that the producers thought "Hey, let's buy the rights to Asimov's story title. That'll generate some good PR!"
27th-May-2008 02:34 pm (UTC)
To be fair it did take story elements from Asimov's "Little Lost Robot", although the film did indeed make me cringe.

Good article IB. I'm guessing the reason it wasn't accepted is because it's not "in tune" with the very attitudes which it is bewailing. ;o/
27th-May-2008 02:00 pm (UTC)
As one of those souless Hollywood-wannabe writers, I sympathize. There's been a recent trend of late to appeal to magic and other supernatural phenomena (which I consider a misnomer, really) more and more instead of showing the wonder and awe of actual phenomena.

It's something I want to try and change with my own work, because I bet a return to science being nifty might be in the stars...

Well, I can hope.
27th-May-2008 03:41 pm (UTC)
I think that's because looking for scientific accuracy in any movies starring Will Smith will be an effort in futility. I don't think it's that Will Smith insists on scientific rubbish in the films he's in, I just think it's a side effect of casting him.

Mac computer virus able to affect heretofor unknown alien operating system? Check.
Gravity not being a bitch when landing improperly after parachuting? Check.
Ignoring rules of physics and the squishy-ness of the human body? Check.

I think, when it comes down to it, it's because Will Smith movies usually end up being popcorn crunchers. They're not horrible movies, but they're not going to be movies that people are talking about even a year later.
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