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Sci-fi and the Portrayal of Scientists

Before I was a filmmaker, I was a sci-fi writer. I'm still a sci-fi writer. What can I say, I'm a huge nerd and I love it. I recently came across a video I hadn't seen of Ben Affleck doing part of the Criterion Collection edition commentary on the movie Armageddon. It brought back some memories and made me realize something about the film I hadn't years ago.

I haven't seen Armageddon in a long time. I saw it in theaters and then got a VHS copy of the film for Christmas. I was only in high school in '98 when the film came out. But even as a high schooler, I have to admit that between Armageddon and the other "a huge asteroid is about to hit earth" blockbuster of that era, Deep Impact, I was a little more into Deep Impact. The plot and characters struck me as slightly more authentic than Michael Bay's rather silly concept of a gang of oil drillers magically turned astronauts.

Take a look at this short segment from Affleck's commentary for Armageddon:

It's pretty hilarious, in my opinion. Maybe Affleck just doesn't care anymore what Michael Bay thinks of him, or maybe Bay is really a good sport and now recognizes this particular glaring logical misstep in the movie's concept. Either way, seeing this video pop up on my Facebook feed made me realize that Armageddon ultimately is not very kind to scientists, in particular to everyone working for NASA.

This strikes me as sci-fi written by non-science-loving folks. Or at least, created by people who don't understand what scientist really do. Meanwhile, screenwriter Drew Goddard has openly stated that his adaptation of Andy Weir's novel, The Martian, is intended to be a love letter to science. And that makes sense. Weir's novel features a scientist, Mark Watney, who is both endowed with intellect and profound humanity. He's got a dark sense of humor, makes mistakes, but learns and adapts. And in the end, it's his determination to do the math and work through the logical and scientific challenges he faces that keeps him alive.

Armageddon isn't alone in portraying scientists poorly. There's a danger in sci-fi to rely on the notion of the "mad scientist" who brings about some grand threat to humanity. Now, that's not to say that sci-fi writers are not allowed write stories where scientist go too far and bring about problems. I'm a fan of such stories and I'm even prepping to publish a two new novels of my own that deal with ethical problems brought about by greed, fear, and other factors influencing our scientific pursuits. But the important thing for me is that these are universal human shortcomings we all face, scientist or not. And scientists are definitely quite human. For a good example of this, I recommend checking out Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science by Michael Brooks. I'm working my way through it right now and finding it to be incredibly enlightening to the humanity of scientists in both their great reliance on intuition and their hubris that has caused many problems throughout history. It's a fascinating read and really brings valuable perspective.

So what am I getting at? I believe in the three-dimensional portrayal of characters. Armageddon, in its effort to get us to buy what is ultimately a ludicrous concept (that a bunch of oil drillers can be transformed into competent astronauts with a mere week or two of training) ends up being quite insulting to actual astronauts and all scientists who work for years to make the breakthroughs that allow our knowledge and technology to advance. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that oil drillers are buffoons. It's not a simply either/or situation. If a movie were to portray a plot in which a scientist, let's say a chemist, where to show up and save the day by fixing a car a bunch of mechanics had been unable to fix, I would find that equally ridiculous. You'd have to set up clearly that this chemist has a background as a mechanic. But still, if the chemist has been working as a chemist for years what's the likelihood they have the real-world experience as a mechanic to do a far better job than any actual mechanics? It could happen, but it's incredibly unlikely. More importantly, how are the mechanics portrayed in such a story?

In the case of Armageddon, NASA's scientists are presented through the lens of our oil drilling hero who seems to think they're all incompetent. But it can go the other way too. One of the things that bug me to no end about Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is that the film is incredibly uncharitable to farmers and to some extent even undermines environmentalism. The main character is a reluctant farmer who feels the call to exploration. There's nothing wrong with this. We're not all farmers. We're also not all explorers. The real problem is that the only other farming character in the film is portrayed in a rather villainous light. Combine this with the film's thesis that humanity is not supposed to be mere caretakers but explorers instead, and Interstellar sadly comes off saying (in this capacity, at least) that there's no point taking care of our planet and placing value on those who feel called to stewardship of our resources and the growing and raising of food for humanity. In short, once we pillage what we can from Earth we'll be saved by those bold enough to take us to new planets. Of course, we're going to need farmers to keep feeding us once we land on a new habitable planet, so ...

Meanwhile, a novel and movie like Jurassic Park presents scientists of various disciplines arguing the moral responsibility and prudence of cloning long-extinct creatures. This strikes me as a somewhat more balanced approach. Granted, one could make the case that geneticists are not presented in the best light while paleontologists and mathematicians are. However, it is worth pointing out that Jurassic Park is a story about cloning, so, of course the particular geneticist in this plot are the ones that said, "Sure, let's do this. Damn the consequences." In the novel, the real bad guy is the park's owner, a businessman. Sorry businessmen.

As a sci-fi writer myself, I hope to engage in more nuanced portrayals of both scientists and non-scientist characters. I grant that any given story is only a limited perspective on our reality and can only be populated by a limited number of characters. There are many aspects of Interstellar that I really love and I grant (well, sort of) that maybe there just wasn't time in the movie to portray farmers in a better light (though, come on, that thing is long). So I continue to learn and seek to write well-rounded, three-dimensional characters that wrestle with the real ethical and philosophical issues surrounding the advancement of our knowledge and technology. I doubt I'll get to write a blockbuster like Armageddon, but I hope to contribute my own small way to more thoughtful portrayals of science and those who dedicate themselves to discovery and exploration. In the meantime, I look up to guys like Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko, two people who have braved spending a whole year in space aboard the ISS. Now these are some badass scientists right here!

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