Culture Magazine

Science in Science Fiction 1: The Stargate World [Media Notes 33]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
It’s an issue I think about from time to time, the science in science fiction. What’s it doing there? Think of Clarke’s (in)famous Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It’s that’s at the center of my thinking. Is science just another form of magic (what is magic, anyhow)?
Most recently the problem’s come up while watching the Stargate franchise. I saw the original movie when I came out in theaters (and just re-watched it) and I watched a number of episodes of Stargate SG-1 on television. So I decided to watch Stargate Atlantis. That’s when I began asking questions: Here they are flitting around in another galaxy and the aliens they meet are humans and they speak English? I suppose the underlying mythology takes care of them being humans, and the language is, if nothing else, a story-telling convenience (don’t want to waste half of each episode learning the local language). But it’s pretty flimsy stuff. And those precisely targeted wormholes at will, the intelligent nanobots, etc. It’s all pretty flimsy. And, of course, Atlantis. Really? Then I went to SG-1 and of course was hit with the Goa’uld (glowing eyes, sarcophagus, the amulets and hand-magic) and all that Egyptian mythology and decoration. The Ancients behind it all.
Is there any meaningful distinction here between magic and science? Not that I can see. So why bother with science at all? Magic is just fine for the Harry Potter world, not to mention Lord of the Rings? Well, science and science-based technology are part of the modern world and so that’s why they show up in the Stargate universe. The Rings universe, of course, is in rebellion against modernity. And Harry Potter? Well, the style of magic is different from the style of science – not so much reason, math, and explicit instruction, more incantation and word-play.
Both magic and science (of the science fiction kind) allow you to do things that cannot be accomplished in the mundane world. Most stories are, at the core, about relations among humans. One could in principle cloak a given story in either science or magic, but there are (cultural, ideological) reasons to choose one over the other. And almost no one choose science and science-based tech before the end of the 19th century, presumably because it wasn’t so inescapably present and available in the world.
What’s interesting, then, about the Stargate universe, is that science and magic seem inextricably blended. Perhaps that’s why it’s been such an attractive media property.
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This Wikipedia discussion of “hard” and “soft” science fiction is relevant:
Science fiction has historically been sub-divided between hard science fiction and soft science fiction–with the division centering on the feasibility of the science central to the story.[199] However, this distinction has come under increasing scrutiny in the 21st century. Some authors, such as Tade Thompson and Jeff VanderMeer, have pointed out that stories that focus explicitly on physics, astronomy, mathematics, and engineering tend to be considered "hard" science fiction, while stories that focus on botany, mycology, zoology, and the social sciences tend to be categorized as "soft," regardless of the relative rigor of the science.[200]
Max Gladstone defined "hard" science fiction as stories "where the math works," but pointed out that this ends up with stories that often seem "weirdly dated," as scientific paradigms shift over time.[201] Michael Swanwick dismissed the traditional definition of "hard" SF altogether, instead saying that it was defined by characters striving to solve problems "in the right way–with determination, a touch of stoicism, and the consciousness that the universe is not on his or her side."[200]
Ursula K. Le Guin also criticized the more traditional view on the difference between "hard" and "soft" SF: "The 'hard' science fiction writers dismiss everything except, well, physics, astronomy, and maybe chemistry. Biology, sociology, anthropology—that's not science to them, that's soft stuff. They're not that interested in what human beings do, really. But I am. I draw on the social sciences a great deal."[202]

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