The first version was prepared for a panel at Arisia on the science in sf films, which is why this draws nearly all its examples from them, but I think it works just as well for sf literature, as well. At some point I hope to expand it with examples from the literature and submit it to NYRSF.
Version 1.1 split the original No. 6 into two categories (now 7 and 8)--something I threatened to do in the original. There was also a new example for Speculative Science, and a further thought about 2009's Star Trek. Version 2.0 reorganized the categories and renamed one of the new ones, and added Idiot Science. Version 2.1 added Former Science and grouped the resulting four types of Mock Science into two pairs, and added more terminology for Impossible Science versus others.
I'm quite pleased with this: I think there a couple of fresh insights and I like some of the terminology (category 5 took two years and half a dozen attempts to get right). I'd love to get some feedback, so if you think this is interesting, feel free to pass a link on to others who might not be reading this blog.
Science in SF: A Taxonomy
Our fundamental division is between five types of Possible Science and five of Impossible Science.
We begin with two types of Actual Science, in which the laws and facts of science as we know them are adhered to and form the basis for a believable speculation or extrapolation whose details are either given or easily inferred.
1. Best Science. In Best Science, the story explores the likeliest extrapolation or implications of the known science. The quintessential example in film is Gattaca. The space sequences in 2001: A Space Odyssey (up until the encounter with the monolith stargate) are Best Science.
2. Also Science. Here, the extrapolation or interpretation of the known science is not likely, but is still possible, and is chosen for story or thematic reasons. If we were extrapolating the likeliest outcome of android technology, we would never give them three-year lifespans, but that bit of Also Science is probably justifiable and is absolutely central to the story of Blade Runner. In 2001, the notion that aliens may have interfered benevolently with our evolution is Also Science.
The remaining three types of Possible Science are Not Yet Science.
3. Speculative Science. Science itself is incomplete and evolving. In Speculative Science, either missing science is invented (e.g., some currently unknown aspect of neuroscience, especially the nature of consciousness), or a plausible revision of current science is proposed. As with Actual Science, the details are given, the dots connected. It’s very common in written sf but hard to do in film, because it requires so much exposition. For the longest while the best example of Speculative Science in film was the invention in Primer, whose screenplay solves the exposition problem by largely omitting it. Then physicist Kip Thorne conceived the idea of a space-travel film involving wormholes that would be wall-to-wall Speculative Science, and got Christopher and Jonathan Nolan to make it. Exposition? We'll put that in a book! (The Science of Interstellar.)
4. Magic Science. While no laws of current science are broken, there is an explanatory gap that is filled in by essentially evoking Clarke’s law that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from you-know-what. Magic Science usually implies the discovery of new science or technology, but unlike Speculative Science, it doesn’t specify what it might be, let alone give us the nuts and bolts to chew on. Klaatu’s ability to make “the Earth stand still” is Magic Science, as is the Krell machine in Forbidden Planet. That the monoliths in 2001 are capable of remotely affecting the minds (and perhaps even the DNA) of the man-apes is Magic Science.
5. Better Than Science. This is Magic Science with a crucial difference: the current laws of science are actually broken, whereas Magic Science simply exploits the fact that they are incomplete. Anti-gravity, FTL travel, and time travel—all these classic sf tropes that violate physics as we know it, but not a plausible revision of same, are usually treated as Better Than Science. The stargate in 2001 is Better Than Science, as are warp drives in Star Wars and Star Trek and jumpgates in Babylon 5.
In most Impossible Science, not only are the laws of science as we know them violated, there is no possible revision of those laws that will make the science work. Less commonly, basic facts of science are ignored. Works that are entirely Impossible Science can be accurately classified as Science Fantasy rather than Science Fiction (or "pseudoreal" rather than "extrareal," where straight Fantasy is "contrareal").
In the four types of Mock Science, the impossible science nevertheless works in the narrative.
The first two types are Pretend Science.
6. Former Science. In this quite rare version, outdated science is presented as real; it goes down easily and works thematically. The most obvious example is Ray Bradbury's Mars in The Martian Chronicles, but a more recent one (and the one that brought it to my consciousness) is Ted Chiang's ultra-strong version of linguistic relativity (the so-called "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis") in "Story of Your Life" and its film adaptation Arrival. It's not really credible that learning a new language could change one's conscious experience of time, but the idea works largely because the idea that language deteremines thought is familiar to many audience members (not all of whom might know that it's been discredited), and it is integral to the narrative and its thematic clout.
7. Fabricated Science. In this relatively rare version, the impossible science is an invention rather than an imitation or mischaracterization of actual science. The quintessential example is the global sterility in Children of Men. Another, from literature, is the psychoactive drug with an impossible specificity of action that plays a key role in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. Fabricated Science is usually left unexplained, and serves a clear metaphoric or thematic function.
The next two types are Ersatz Science.
8. Sounds Like Science. Here the impossible science is an imitation or mischaracterization of the real (and hence—can we talk?—stupider than Fabricated Science). Captain America's shield is made of vibranium, a rare element mined from the earth with almost supernatural powers. That sounds scientific, and I bet that some MCU geek has identified its spot in the periodic table—but for vibranium to exist, the laws of physics would have to be different in a way that affected only the behavior of that element. Impossible. That staple of 50s sf, "mutations" caused by radiation, is another example: yes, radiation does cause mutations, but muations aren't like that. The presence of an asteroid "the size of Texas" that might be on a collision course with Earth in Armageddon is a case of ignoring scienctfic fact (typically learned in seventh grade). Like Magic Science and Better than Science, Sounds Like Science may be offered without explanation, or it may be accompanied by hand-waving or fundamentally meaningless jargon.
9. Never Mind the Science. This is an important sibling to Sounds Like Science; the difference is that the gross violation of scientific law is not presented to us as a scientific idea, but it is instead a (usually fundamental) story aspect whose impossibility is ignored by convention. That exposure to gamma rays could turn Bruce Banner into The Hulk is Sounds Like Science (like almost all science in superhero comics), but that the Hulk is absurdly stronger than allowed by the laws of physics is Never Mind the Science. All movie monsters that are so large that their bones could never support their mass, such as Gojira, are Never Mind the Science. Explosions in space are a ubiquitous and fairly trivial example.
Finally, we have ...
10. Wrong Science. Scientific laws are violated, or facts ignored, for no story purpose whatsoever, apparently because the author or screenwriters simply didn’t know better. Almost everything other than the stupid giant asteriod in the Armageddon trailer (which convinced me to not bother with the actual movie) is Wrong Science.
There are four modifiers that can apply to many or most of the above categories.
Super Science. This is a violation not of the content of science but of its form and practice. We are shown a scientific breakthrough or invention that in the real world could never be accomplished by these people, and/or that quickly, and/or with those resources and/or budget. Tony Stark’s construction of the first Iron Man suit is Super Science (the suit itself has a Better Than Science power source and is otherwise a mixture of Magic and Sounds Like Science). Like well-done Sounds Like Science, we are used to accepting Super Science by convention.
Idiot Science. This is Super Science's rare opposite number, when the form and practice of science is portrayed as impossibly inept. That the true orbital path of the wandering planet in Melancholia appears to have been succesully relegated to nutjob websites is largely a sociopolitical error, but it is also requires a gross overestimation of the difficulties of planetary observation and orbital mechanics.
Anachronistic Science. Tomorrow’s science is portrayed as happening in the present, or current or future science happens in the past. All steampunk is Anachronistic Science. The memory-erasing machine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is Anachronistic Science with Best and Speculative elements (although the movie demonstrates why we’ll probably never bother implementing such technology even once it becomes feasible).
And finally, the all important …
Bad Science. An attempt is made at one of the above categories, and although the science isn’t demonstrably Wrong, it still doesn’t work for you; it takes you out of the story and makes you wince at its stupidity. That’s Bad Science. Whether science strikes you as Bad depends in part upon your scientific knowledge, but (especially as we move down the categories) on taste. That the alien mothership in Independence Day apparently runs the Mac OS is Sounds Like Science, but for many it’s Bad Sounds Like Science. Botching the hand-waving explanation is a classic form of Bad Science; The Force in the original Star Wars trilogy was (like almost all psi powers in sf) simply Magic Science, but the introduction of midichlorians in the prequel trilogy struck many as a turn to the Bad Side, in that the explanation added nothing. In fact, a good criterion for identifying Bad Science is that fixing it would improve the story—if Jeff Goldblum’s character had to struggle to interface with the alien OS, that could have been exciting and funny and needn’t have taken more than twenty seconds of screen time.
Some Other Examples:
Minority Report. It argues that there is a predetermined future which can nevertheless be altered by free will, and I think that’s excellent Speculative Science, but someone with a different favorite interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (e.g., Everett rather than Bohm) might think it Bad. Either way, however, that there might be precogs who could see that determined future is pure Magic Science.
The Prestige. Tesla’s machine is Anachronistic Super Better Than Science.
Star Trek (2009). The reason why Red Matter stands out is that it’s Sounds Like Science used where Magic Science or Better Than Science was expected. Which is to say that there’s probably an infinite number of more credible ways of blowing up an entire planet, but they went for Cool and Dumb. (One suspects that this was Dark Matter in an earlier draft, until someone pointed out that dark matter and black holes are different things.)
Avatar. A key scientific idea is that a planet or moon with an extraordinary strong magnetic field might produce an ore that is a natural room-temperature superconductor, but with a composition so complex that it still defied artificial manufacture. You have to know more about the physics of superconductivity than I do to decide whether that’s Speculative or Better Than Science, but (at least in the theatrical cut) the movie actually omits all that detail and presents it as Magic Science.