Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Things Man Was Not Meant To Know

Every story has conflict and speculative fiction; whether science-fiction, horror or fantasy; often involves conflicts of a particularly spectacular sort.  This isn't always true, but we're focusing on where it is.  The threats, if not the central conflict, of sci-fi, horror and fantasy usually come from a standard list.


There's the ancient evil sealed away for who knows how long and now released by the ignorant and unwise.  There's the experiment gone horribly wrong, or horribly right, that runs amok and goes on a rampage.  There's an attack by outside forces such as aliens or demons, quite often brought to the setting by the actions of people.  There's the progressive change in society as some advance makes people take things for granted and results in long-term sociological consequences of a negative sort.  Very, very rarely we have the threat that would have happened with or without mankind and is brought to an end by the cleverness of the heroes.

Which is the point I am heading too.  Science fiction and fantasy, where the mad scientists are replaced by power mad warlocks, has a tendency to confuse sloppy execution and science with things that should not be researched because the very concept is immoral.

My favorite example in this vein is Jurassic Park.  Both the book and the movie wax on and on about how terrible an idea it is for people to clone dinosaurs and uses the scenario as a situational proof for how we should leave well enough alone.  But really, examine the scenario as a whole.  It isn't the concept of cloning prehistoric creatures that is flawed here.  No, rather it is execution of the process.

As soon as Hammond's employees perfect the process of cloning, he goes right into production of park and mass production of dinosaurs on one island to be transported to a second island.  He doesn't wait for an analysis of his newly created dinosaurs.  He pretty much jumps out to grab as many species as he possibly can, oooing and ahhing over the popular species like a kid at Christmas and jumps right into marketing studies.

Over and over again, the attacks on the park are not on the idea of cloning dinosaurs but on Hammond's slipshod carnie approach to it.  The exception to this is the chaos math guy, Malcolm, who is really as arrogant as Hammond.  Malcolm is the only one to attack the idea as inherently wrong and his is made to be the apparently "right" position.

Drs. Grant and Statler attack his ignorance about species of plants and dinosaurs.  The hunter attacks his overconfidence as far as security goes and most of the people attack the rush in which approaches the project.  But most of them aren't attacking the idea.

Then you have the interference from the hacker idiot.  Now, in the movie, if weren't for the hacker, everything would have been fine and dandy, but the book makes it clear things were already going out of control well before he did anything.  Among other things, you had raptors already breeding in the wild and large populations of things like the combies that weren't being tracked.  As well as a sickness in some of the herbivores on the plant island, not counting for the prion-infected dinosaurs on Site B (another facet not mentioned in the movies). 

Anyway, back to the hacker.  His actions are heavily implied to be part of the inevitable reason that the entire idea of cloning dinosaurs is a bad one.  But his actions are only indirectly related to the dinosaurs.  His was just basic greed, panic, poor planning and being unaware of the basic nature of the situation.  And while some people will assume that something like that is inevitable, even if it were (corporate espionage is likely), that is just one in a long line of bad decisions that had to combine to make the disaster.  If Hammond hadn't been so slipshod, then they would have been fine even with the crap the hacker loaded on them with everything else. 

There's the storm, which should have been a non-issue.  Especially given the place they set up, there should have been multiple redundancies even in the face of sabotage and computers shutting down.  The only real impact the storm had was that it made the hacker's plan go to crap.  Given the virus he put in, I doubt that he planned to go back, so they would have had the shut down problems storm or no storm.

In any case, I'm going to come back to my original point, the overall impression of the movie is "cloning dinosaurs is a bad idea" when, if you really analyze it should be "cloning dinosaurs and then putting them in a theme park with untested, unfinished infrastructure and security systems as well as inappropriate weaponry without even studying one dinosaur first is a bad idea."

The same problem can be seen with a number of different technologies.  Computers had their alarmist movie in the Terminator. Cloning's alarmists date back to Frankenstein at least, the author was likely more focusing on her own recent miscarriage than on science, and probably older if you look at the number of myths about a created being running amok in history.  Transhumanism was attacked in the most recent Battlestar Galactica as well as Surrogates.  Resident Evil is an attack on biotechnologies.

Well, not seriously attacks.  Most movies are made to be entertainment, not philosophical discussion and this trend does make sense because a fiction about an experiment that goes perfectly right and makes the world a better place is boring.  So there has to be a threat, and even if they want to have the genius scientist save the day, they still have to have a threat big enough to make an interesting conflict.  Aliens and such are a sometimes used outside element to provoke a beneficial scientific development, but they've turned into something of a parody, at least as regards aliens attacking a modern day Earth.  The current atmosphere has the believability of aliens for a "serious" movie stretched to a point of unpopularity.

Now, later, the alarmists, at least those prone to talk before they research, will point to these ill-researched movies as reasons why X technology is bad.  They use the fictional scenario as a sort of pseudo proof for what would definitely happen.

For example, 1984 is frequently preached as an example of how bad the world would be if the Government could watch everything you do.  Nevermind the fact that the Star Trek federation has all the same surveillance capability and magnitudes more besides.  Not that Star Trek is a good proof for how domestic surveillance is good thing anymore than 1984 is a proof for how its bad.  They're both fictional scenarios.  Neither one is a thoroughly researched study.  1984 is a worst case scenario and in Star Trek it is background that's barely thought of at all. 

And neither is about the good or bad nature of the idea but of the use the idea is put to.

If we took every one of these sensationalist sci-fi movies (or fantasy movies with similar themes) as a proof for what science would bring, then we'd be in a modern day medieval stasis until the oil runs out.  In some ways, we're already there, take a look at the reluctance people have to turning to nuclear power.  We're content to burn up our fossil fuels in the hopes that somebody will suddenly render solar and wind power techs up to a level where we could effectively use them instead of having to cover Texas in windmills to power a major city.  (I'm probably exaggerating there, been a while since I saw the comparisons of how much energy the windmills produce versus how much is needed)

Sci-fi shows like Eureka are my favorite, where the overwhelming mood is that science is a good thing, even with the freaky things that happen every episode.  They make almost every bad thing in the show produce potential benefits for humanity and map a path of advancement.  Though they did have some trace of "Things Man Was Not Meant To Know" in the form of the artifact.

I also love the Nanoha series of animes because of the large number of characters who are clones ("Artificial Mages") or cyborgs or whatever in one form or another and yet the society treats them as perfectly normal, making it a great transhumanist story. 

Babylon 5 is another great one for science given that it is explicitly made clear to us that humanity will make pretty much all the same advances as the Vorlons did.

But these "science is good" movies are largely bogged down in the mountains of "science is bad" movies.  Mostly because it is probably harder to do an entertaining story where the theme is the benefits of science as compared to the dangers of science.

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