Bad Sci-Fi, No Cookie!
I don’t exactly keep it a secret that I love fantasy and science fiction: Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, just to name a few. I grew up on Amazing Stories, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits. I have no problem with blending science fiction with fantasy. I love Piers Anthony for the way he combines the two. But as with anything, it needs to be done well.
I recently discovered that Hulu has the original Outer Limits, not just the remade series, and had a bit of a geek-gasm over it. So I sat down to watch the legendary show from its beginnings, and I was enjoying the trip back to 1963 until I hit the episode called “The Sixth Finger” (season 1, episode 5) That was when it struck me, perhaps rather belatedly, that TV writers just don’t know science. You see, while it’s true that any good story is about people and how they respond to situations they’re in, perhaps highlighting important issues in the process, what makes science fiction what it is is the science. Radical concept, I know. Magic makes fantasy, cowboys make westerns, and science makes science fiction. And bad science makes bad science fiction.
“The Sixth Finger” deals with a man who has been artificially evolved tens of thousands of years into humanity’s future, and later is reverted to his original state. Now certainly, we often wonder what Homo sapiens will look like in that far distant time, and there have been science fiction stories written where we get to see what we might look like then, through the vehicle of either time travel or simply setting the story in that time period. This is fine because time travel has not been definitively disproved, and conjecture is the backbone of all speculative fiction. But showing evolution in one person is plain old bad science fiction, because it is grounded in bad science. Evolution is not a force unto itself and has no ultimate or inevitable goal. Also, individuals don’t evolve: a species as a whole does over the course of generations.
Evolution starts with a random mutation, an accident in the DNA copying process in the earliest stages of conception, sometimes as a result of a faulty sperm or egg. Some mutations are minor and end up making little or no difference. Others can cause or lead to disfiguration, disability, or disease. Others yet can end up being useful. When organisms procreate, they pass on their mutations good, bad, and indifferent. Once enough people with a particular mutation pass it on to enough offspring, it becomes the norm, whatever that trait happens to be. Evolution has happened and the mutation is no longer considered to be such.
Evolution is “directed,” for lack of a better term, by natural selection and sexual selection. Natural selection means that if a mutation ends up being useful and gives those who have it an advantage over those who don’t, then in time it is likely that more organisms will have it than not and they will be said to have evolved in that direction. Sexual selection is a matter of organisms choosing mates based on characteristics they have. If a given set of characteristics is more desirable than others, then those who have it will be more successful in finding mates and those genes will be more likely to be passed on. In time, again, more organisms will have it than not and they will be said to have evolved in that direction. The important aspect is that an overwhelming majority have, for whatever reasons, passed on a certain trait that began as a lowly chance mutation. Evolution doesn’t always happen in a necessarily positive direction, either. Peacocks are a great example of sexual selection driving evolution into questionable territory. Peahens are attracted to the grand and brightly colored plumage, but so are predators.
Forcing evolutionary change in an individual with no selective pressures to guide it, not to mention the assumption that any given individual possesses within him the full “potential” that mankind can become, is a nice mythology, an imaginative fantasy, but it is profoundly bad science. And this episode makes it clear that we are dealing with straight science fiction, not fantasy. We’ve known the basic mechanics of evolution for a while, so I’m not entirely sure we can chalk it up to 1963. Either way, it fails to stand the test of time. The sad part is that in 1996, Star Trek: Voyager aired an episode named “Threshold” (season 2, episode 15) that dealt with Paris and Janeway evolving forward and back again.
Here’s the deal: If science fiction deals with something not well understood at the time, but later is proved to be quite different from how it’s portrayed, that simply makes that story dated. If, however, science fiction deals with something that is reasonably understood, but portrays it in a significantly different way, that makes very bad science fiction because it’s based on very bad science.