Wayne Szalinski: Destroyer of Worlds
This weekend, I happened to catch Honey, I Shrunk the Kids on television. I probably saw this movie dozens of times when I was a kid, but this was the first time as an adult. It’s a fun, lighthearted romp of a Disney movie, great for kids, and so on and so forth. However, I started thinking about Dr. Szalinski’s little invention in realistic terms, and I must say I was quickly horrified at the implications. Horrified, I tell you.
It is a Death Ray
Essentially, Szalinski’s ‘shrink ray’ collapses the empty space in atoms, meaning they will take up less space. Okay, fine – assuming you can do this, that seems to have some uses. Let us not pretend, however, that any living thing undergoing this process would live through it. Just because you remove the space doesn’t mean you remove the mass – the kids would have the exact same number of particles and, therefore, act upon and be acted upon gravitationally the exact same way. The difference, however, is that they would lose surface area and volume. Do you know how many different things in your body rely upon surface area and volume to function? Your lungs and circulatory system, even assuming they could still function, would not have sufficient area to perform respiration effectively – your body would still have every bit as many cells to feed with oxygen, but lungs so small and arteries so tiny that it would be impossible to feed it all. The kids would have suffocated, too heavy to move (your muscles couldn’t function, either), as impossibly dense specks on the attic floor. Szalinsky probably would have broken his dustpan on their tiny corpses.
What About Non-Living Matter?
Okay, so what if we just don’t shoot people with the thing. Szalinski points out that he intends it to be used to save room in space vehicles, make denser fuels that burn longer, and so on. Seems like a good idea, right? WRONG.
I’m not a physicist, right, but I do know a couple things. I know, for instance, that the reason atoms are mostly ’empty space’ (though that term is a bit misleading) is because atoms have massive amounts of electrical energy filling them – wave/particles called electrons, zooming around, causing massive amounts of charge. Now, we all know what happens if you split the nucleus of an atom – huge amounts of energy is released in the form of an atomic reaction. Now, what makes us think that if you collapse the energy of the electrons in upon itself, there won’t also be a massive burst of energy released? Granted, the nucleus contains its energy in a much smaller space, but basic physics and chemistry insists that electrons have the exact same amount of energy contained in their orbitals, it’s just more spread out. So, if you eliminate or somehow collapse that energy, where does it all go? In a giant goddamned explosion, that’s where. An explosion that would destroy the object you’re shrinking and probably all other objects for miles. BOOOM.
What Happens When the Military Gets its Mitts on This?
Fine, let’s assume that Szalinski manages to invent his machine without killing his family or blowing up his town. Do we want to live in a world where shrink rays are mounted on tanks or airplanes? Have you thought about how destructive that could be? A plane (or satellite!) could shrink a bridge, a damn, a nuclear power plant and cause untold mayhem and destruction with no possible means of defense. Commandos could arrive in secure locations via mail and expand into a killing team within defensive perimeters. Bombs would be every bit as effective miniaturized (probably – I think the same masses of chemicals reacting with each other would retain the same properties, regardless of their change in density. I easily could be wrong about that, though. Thoughts, chemists?), but they would be almost impossible to detect. Bodies could be hidden with little chance of them ever being found. The idea of ‘disappearing somebody’ would be disturbingly real. We could find ourselves entering a nightmarish future where nobody is safe at any time and there is nothing – nothing – anyone could do about it.
All because of some schmuck with an attic full of electronics and too much free time. Thanks, Wayne Szalinski. Thanks a lot.
Physics is a Harsh Mistress
There are those who think that writing science fiction or coming up with fantasy settings is easy since you can ‘do whatever you want.’ The thing is, though, that this isn’t really true at all. You can do whatever you want in the same sense that you can do whatever you want in any genre, from upscale/literary fiction all the way through bodice rippers. Yeah, you can write your entire novel without proper nouns. Certainly you can exclusively write in present tense using a second person POV. Yes, you can stop your novel halfway through, leave an ellipsis, and call it a cliffhanger. You can do all of those things.
That doesn’t mean doing those things is a good idea.
The trick with science fiction and fantasy is this: you suddenly have to care much, much more about realism than you would in a different genre. You have to care about it more because you are willfully and knowingly violating it on a regular basis, but must do so in such a way that the audience accepts such a violation as reasonable.
Now, fantasy and science fiction do this in different ways. Specifically, fantasy is involved in making the impossible seem possible (Magic? Goblins? Fairies? Sure, I’ll buy that!). The whole world needs to be constructed so that nobody looks sideways at the surreal and/or if they do, there is documented reasons why. You, essentially, create your own history, science, mathematics, and physics to go along with everything. In scifi, however, you are involved in making the possible seem plausible. In other words, science fiction is obligated to extrapolate upon known scientific concepts whenever possible. It doesn’t create its own laws of physics; it takes the existing ones and imagines their theoretical applications beyond what we can currently achieve. You can’t break the rules without spending a good amount of time explaining how.
You are, furthermore, in both genres, obligated to explain how, no matter how obliquely. Fantasy can often get away with the whole ‘it’s a different, alien world’ angle (though not always), but science fiction is held to a higher standard, since it’s operating in the ‘real’ world. Works of speculative fiction that don’t do their due diligence in justifying their concepts suffer for it, since the audience has to work pretty hard at suspending their disbelief all the time. If you want to say, I don’t know, that all electricity has ceased to function (a la Revolution), you need to make sure things are internally consistent.
I’m reminded of a pitch workshop/session I attended wherein the group was going to have the opportunity to do a group pitch to an editor from Del Rey books, one of the big SF/F publishing houses. The editor was not sparing in her critique of each author’s pitch, but one guy got raked over the coals so hard it made the rest of the room blush to hear it. He was a kid (still in college) pitching an Arthuriana scifi epic in which the descendants of Mordred took over the world and rule the earth from what would have been modern day New York City, save for the altered timeline. The editor proceeded to ask him a couple mundane questions:
Why did they move to New York? Why not London?
What happened to the Native Americans in this timeline?
Were there ever Nazis in this world? Did World War 2 ever happen?
So, it’s been a thousand years, right? Why do they still use swords?
The guy could supply no satisfactory answers to any of these questions. His world crumbled around his ears when placed under mild scrutiny. At the end, the editor said “I don’t think you have any real idea what’s happening in your own novel,” and left it at that. Harsh? Perhaps. But I think she was right.
This, of course, brings me to Revolution. I watched the pilot last night; the characters are good, the acting is okay, the action is fun, and the conflict seems engaging. The premise, though, makes no damned sense in the least. It would be one thing if somebody destroyed the grid (somehow), or if the earth were bombarded by EM so intense that it consistently scrambled all electronics. That, though, isn’t what is shown as happening. Electricity is just gone, as though by a David Copperfield illusion. One character remarks ‘physics went haywire’. This elicited a grunt from me – yes, it would have to. However, you aren’t allowed to do that. This story takes place in the really-real world, man; physics just doesn’t ‘go haywire’. I’m not a physicist, but I have a serviceable grasp of the basic concepts, and nothing they portray in that show pass basic muster. No electricity doesn’t mean no cars, it just means cars that need to be cranked in order to start. No electricity doesn’t mean the permanent collapse of infrastructure, it means a reversion to steam power. Guns still work; there is no godly reason you’d revert to muzzle-loading muskets and crossbows. Colt invented his revolver and Maxim perfected the machine gun in pre-electrical times, folks. In short, the world portrayed isn’t the one that seems likely to develop fifteen years post-blackout, even if we do accept the nonsense idea that electricity ceased to function (as though the movement of electrons were some kind of ‘technology’ and not a basic physical property of existence).
Nevertheless, I might still watch the show. That was a reasonably cool swordfight, after all.