The Fictional Science of Great Science Fiction

[6 February 2014]

By Matthew Derman

There have been a lot of excellent sci-fi comicbooks coming out recently. Certainly it’s a genre that’s always done fairly well in the medium, and I suppose you could argue that pretty much all superhero stories technically fall under the category of science fiction, meaning the market has always been flooded. But right now it feels like there’s an abundance of great “hard” sci-fi comics, titles that pay close attention to the tiny details of whatever made-up sciences their stories entail. These books create logical, internally consistent rules for their imagined realities, rules that play important roles in the narratives but don’t overpower or overshadow the characters, plots, etc. And in the most successful of these series, there are visual delights to accompany the scientific oddities.

Having some rules in place, even if they’re a little loosely defined or malleable, is an important aspect of any good sci-fi story, in comics or elsewhere. Because when a reader first enters the fictional world of one of these stories, it naturally and inevitably raises questions, since things are not the same there as they are in our own world. The rules, then, are where answers to those initial questions can be found. As we learn what the facts and functions of the new reality are, it begins to make more sense and take shape as a place, providing a more solidified setting for the narrative. Words, images, and/or events that were confusing when we first saw them become clearer when we know what’s going on, and all of the whys and hows of it. Often it’s just a matter of showing us the few distinctions between the comic’s reality and ours, the handful of in-story truths that make its world special. With these divisions established, the rest of the book can be as grounded and true-to-life as it wants, using the differences to enhance whatever points it has to make about the real world.

The rules don’t have to be explored too deeply or explained in too much detail, because then the risk is that the story becomes bogged down in scientific exposition. BOOM! Studios’ recently completed _Six-Gun Gorilla_ series offered a rather broad answer to its central science fiction mystery, but one that was still enlightening and effective. Most of the story takes place on a planet where things are weirdly out of whack and no one understands why. Fire doesn’t work there, for example, and the weather seems to be effected by how many people are in an area and what they’re doing there. Also, there’s an impossibly large, pistol-wielding sentient gorilla walking around and killing folks. Eventually, the book’s protagonist, Blue, figures out that the planet is only half-real, with the other half being made up of/influenced by the imaginations of whoever’s there. How such a place came to be and the specifics of how it operates are never really discussed, because they don’t end up mattering to the story’s final outcome, and because we already know everything we need to know. People are crazy and their imaginations are only partially under their control at best; the half-imaginary world reflects that perfectly. Because the rule was in place all along, even though it wasn’t exposed to the reader until later on, it satisfactorily addresses everything once we learn it.

While the entire world of Six-Gun Gorilla was influenced by its sci-fi facts, the series wasn’t primarily about the bizarre setting. It was about lost love, the value of storytelling, and the dangers of getting caught up in the endless and meaningless narratives of war and reality television. These are all themes that are extremely relevant here and now, even though they’re discussed in the far future on a planet that’s only like 50% real. The sci-fi trappings don’t get in the way of the more important and impactful human portions of the story. The science shouldn’t steal the spotlight, it should contribute to it, illuminating the comic’s core concepts in a unique and arresting way.

This is not to say that sci-fi elements can be tacked onto any old narrative to make it newly important or interesting. The fake science must still be integral, even though it shouldn’t be the real focus of or purpose behind the story. The reader still wants every detail learned to matter, or else why bother including them in the first place? If you can tell your story without any fictional science included, then do so. But if it’s there, it should matter. It just shouldn’t be all that matters, or even what matters most.

There’s an early arc in the current IDW Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye series where a team of Autobots investigates a medical outpost where a horrible, fatal disease is spreading rapidly, and nobody know what it is or why it acts so quickly. It also seems not to affect certain people, and that, too, is a mystery. The story is a pretty classic close-quarters medical drama, turned into sci-fi because it stars giant robots who can become cars and planes and stuff. It’s so classic that, for most of the story, the fact that the characters are all transformers actually feels incidental. But in the final act, it’s discovered that the disease remains dormant until its host transforms, so the few individuals who seem immune are in fact just the ones who haven’t switched to their alternate form since coming in contact with the virus. Evidence of this is present from the beginning, and plenty of clues are dropped throughout the story, which is how one of the characters figures it out in the end. Again, the rule is in place from the start, so when it’s revealed it resolves things nicely. And in this case, a well-established aspect of the fictional reality, i.e. that every transformer can switch between at least two forms, is used as an important part of a more traditional tale about doctors battling an unknown illness. Without that detail, this story wouldn’t exist, yet its true heart is still the tension and torment of watching the cast wrestle with the threat as patients and healers first, and as giant transforming robots second.

Another example that springs to mind is the current run of Image’s Prophet, were the narrative is very character-focused, and the characters are all preparing for a massive, universe-spanning war. There’s no shortage of material on war and the different ways in can affect people, taking over their lives and defining them forever. And Prophet is one of the better, more contemplative such stories I’ve ever read. But a big part of what makes it stand out is the ease and frequency with which it introduces the reader to whole new worlds, races, technologies, etc. The creators are all incredibly inventive, so the series is saturated with fresh sci-fi concepts. What ties them all together, though, and carries the reader through them, is an epic war story centered and a handful of fascinating soldiers.

As important as it is not to let the sci-fi specifics steamroll over the rest of the story, this is still comics, and that means things ought to look good. And in a sci-fi series, the fantastical science stuff should ideally be the source of some of the best visuals, even if that means that sometimes the focus is momentarily stolen. Because that’s the fun of doing science fiction in a comicbook format, the chance to actually show the audience what the imagined future/alternate/fantasy world looks like without needing to worry about budgets or the limitations of modern special effects. In a comic, things can be as intricate, enormous, or downright crazy-looking as needed for the story being told. So if you’re already playing in an environment where incredible feats of fake science are taking place, it’d be a disservice not to take advantage of that in the art.

Vertigo’s FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics, does some awesome visual acrobatics whenever the science hits the fan. The premise of that series is that the laws of physics are beginning to break down in seemingly random ways at unpredictable times and places. Artist Robbi Rodriguez has a general frantic looseness to his style that complements the urgency and insanity of this world of out-of-control physics. Everybody is a little elongated and everything looks a bit sketchy all the time. But then when something serious goes down, when physics as we understand it is suddenly undone, the art always finds a new way to make it look dazzling and terrifying and huge. These moments are spaced out with a lot of more typical crime procedural-style investigating, as well as constant development of the book’s main character and his supporting cast, but you can count on FBP to do something artistically ballsy every issue, because every issue science goes bananas, and Rodriguez always gets it just right. That’s what you want out of a sci-fi book, artwork that reliably makes the sci-fi aspects pop, thus making them even more essential to the series than the story should already be doing.

From the early days of the pulp magazines to the apparent current renaissance, science fiction has always been a big part of the comicbook landscape. And there have always been and always will be good, bad, and mediocre examples of the genre represented there. These days, though, it feels like there’s a great deal more good than bad, or at any rate there’s enough good (and it’s good enough) that I get to read awesome new sci-fi stories almost every single week. So many different worlds, each with its own distinct set of rules and truths, and all of them visually inviting and stimulating. Most importantly, they all have something to say about our own lives, despite and simultaneously because of the fact that they take place in entirely different realities.

Splash Art: Still from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Matthew Derman loves comicbooks and writes about them every week on his blog Comics Matter. He also loves his lady and their two dogs.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/178898-the-fictional-science-of-great-science-fiction/