The Hardness Scale of Science Fiction

December 23rd, 2010

When I was a kid, I collected rocks.   One of the rock-related items I bought was a sheet of cardboard labeled Mohs Scale of Hardness.   Talc is a one, while diamond is a ten.   Tooth enamel is apparently a five.   My card didn’t have a diamond on it when I bought it, but an encouraging aunt sent an industrial diamond for me to glue on.   Harder minerals scratch softer minerals.   There are materials softer than talc and harder than diamond, so it isn’t quite a ten point scale and you can have intermediate values.

There’s a hardness scale when it comes to science, too, although not so well quantified.   Physics is at the hard end, with high standards of rigor and easier to tell if you’ve got things right, moving on down through chemistry, biology, getting softer moving into sciences that deal with human and animal behavior, psychology and social science, where it’s increasingly difficult to tell if you’ve got things right, and I’ll finish at the soft end with economics since that’s the “dismal science” on my radar this week.   Most economic findings are apparently wrong.   Asimov’s Foundation series posited a “psychohistory” that elevated sociology to a hard science, but that’s still only science fiction to us today.

I wanted to try to make a hardness scale of science fiction, the way there is for rocks.   I’ve thought about this sort of thing for many years now, trying to characterize the science/reality component of science fiction and to rate work by that measure.   Let me try to quantify my scale, and make Mike’s Scale of Hardness of Science Fiction movies:

0. Futurama. While often clever, there’s nothing hard about Futurama in the slightest, which is fine for a funny cartoon.   It makes a sort of perfect zero to start with.

1. Star Wars. I have often dismissed the Star Wars movies as fantasy, which they are.   But they look like science fiction, with spaceships and robots.   The mysticism of the force and a host of other ridiculous items make the science of Star Wars about as soft as talc.

2. Superheroes, e.g. The Fantastic Four, Superman, etc. There’s a wide variety of superhero stories out there, and some are better scientifically than others, but the average is ridiculous, although there’s often an effort to involve some science.   Yes, cosmic rays exist but they don’t give people (or monkeys) superpowers.   Yes, an alien native to a high-gravity world would likely have different capabilities on Earth, but leaping not flying.   Etc., etc., etc.   There’s sort of an attempt to be self-consistent, or fix the most ridiculous things with a “retcon” now and then in the comics or in a movie.   Basically though, just a notch above Star Wars here.

3. Event Horizon. There’s actually a lot of good science and hard science fiction elements in this horror movie, but it basically turns evil into an actual physical force and certainly feels like the supernatural is involved.   It doesn’t manage, in my opinion, to reach the level of Solaris where the supernatural elements are understood as advanced alien technology.

4. Armageddon. How could this stinker be so high?   Well, it tries to set everything in the real world that has real science as we know it.   That’s it.   You get a 4 on the hardness scale by leaving out magic and the supernatural.   But no higher if you get every other damn thing wrong every single time, like Armageddon does.   The Core could go here, too.

5. Star Trek.   This franchise tries to get the science right, and does some fraction of the time.   It also tries to put in a fair amount of science.   It’s sometimes self-consistent, but has a lot of baggage, too, and there are aspects of the technology that do not bear close scrutiny.   The ability to time travel, for instance, just makes a mess here as implemented, and how they do it never made sense to me.   Then there are the transporters…I haven’t figured out why anyone ever dies on the show, or why the doctors don’t use these.   Look, there are some Trekkies out there who I am sure have some tortured explanations for some of the things that don’t make sense, but there are some things that don’t make sense.

6. Space Cowboys. I might have been able to use Deep Impact here, too.   Basically what you get if you make Armageddon and don’t make such a huge number of mistakes, just a consistently steady rate of small ones.   Still including a lot of science and getting a lot of it right.

7. Aliens. The Aliens universe has faster than light without paradoxes or dealing with relativity, even if it also uses hibernation for space flight.   For historical reasons we’ll permit that one conceit to still allow a hardness rating of seven, but no higher.   Cleverly, it keeps the focus off issues like this one so you have to think about it even mattering.   The biology of the alien is suspect to some, also.   This level marks the peak hardness for the majority of good science fiction.

8. Avatar. James Cameron enlisted a lot of scientific help to create Pandora and its flora and fauna.   His unobtanium, very high-temperature superconductors, isn’t known to be impossible.   The magnetic fields required to make mountains of the stuff levitate, however, while conceptually correct would have consequences not in evidence.   Probably too cool of an idea for Cameron and art won.   From my reading about the starship, we’re not talking faster than light travel.   Lots of good science here with only a few minor problems and no major ones.

9. Contact.   If we grant the wormhole technology of the aliens, the only faster-than-light mode of travel given the physics stamp of approval, I’m only aware of few very small items technically wrong, and a couple of things that are sort of misleading but done for particular artistic effects.   Contact is harder than Avatar primarily because of the actual emphasis on issues of science and engineering, while having more subtle violations of known science.

10.   2001: A Space Odyssey. “Harder than Chinese arithmetic,” a phrase I recall reading a long time ago in some bad porn, applies.   That seemed to be about as hard as…something…could get, and indeed, I know of essentially no science flaws in this movie.   If I wanted to get super nit-picky, I could argue about a few things, but they’re not clearly wrong.

I’d love to see a science fiction movie harder than 2001.   There’s written science fiction by writers like Greg Egan, Geoffrey Landis, and a few others that are pretty hard.   I shoot for above an 8 myself.

Now, there are a few other comments I wanted to make.   Like minerals, science fiction movies are not always so pure.   A movie like Red Planet does pretty well getting the physical science right but is rather boneheaded in some basic errors in biology.   I’d have to give it something like a 5 or 6, but would rate the physical science harder and the biological science softer.   Then there’s Battlestar Galactica.   Given the faster than light, a few other minor problems, but the huge number of things it does well, it should be a solid seven, maybe a 7.5, except for all that mess with fate and the supernatural that kind of ruined it as hard science fiction for me.

How does this scale look to you?   Did I make any mistakes?   Is it easy or hard to think of other movies and fit them in here?   I don’t have a scratch test like you would have for minerals, but I suppose I could parameterize a few axes and quantify vector lengths and directions, although frankly that would still be pretty subjective and perhaps even too geeky for me.


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