Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Third Law

I have a hard time getting into science fiction. I sit down to watch a sci-fi show, or read a sci-fi book, or play a sci-fi game, or whatever. A few minutes in, my mind starts picking at the seams of the fiction: why are noises in space? How did these aliens evolve almost exactly the same way we did? How does that laser gun work?

I doubt I'm alone, here, and I daresay this is one of the reasons fantasy is so much more popular than science fiction, particularly in RPGs. When it comes to portraying imaginary worlds, fantasy has the distinct advantage of being able to handwave everything with magic. Why are there dwarves? Magic! How can people come back from the dead? Magic! What made those monsters? Magic! Science cannot handwave.

Or...can it? I am reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's three laws. In particular, I think of the third one: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." This has become a big lynchpin saying of geek culture these days. Monte Cook cites the quote as the very inspiration for Numenera. This quote is used to justify virtually the entire existence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as openly declared in the first Thor movie. What's tricky for me (and, I presume, others) is that this quote is easy to apply outside of ourselves, but much harder to understand when we're the ones being wowed with that "sufficiently advanced technology."

Science fiction, at its best, poses imaginary answers to real questions. I think that idea gets lost underneath the barrage of laser swords and green-skinned aliens, but in our modern age, I think it's more important than ever for sci-fi to remember that. We're a more cynical, sophisticated audience these days. You can't play so fast-and-loose anymore with your pulp sci-fi and expect to draw a big crowd (unless, of course, we're talking about Star Wars, perhaps the biggest example ever of "the exception that proves the rule.") We all have to remember Clark's Third Law.

So keeping that law in mind, I am trying to let myself enjoy science-fiction...and, more importantly in my case, science-fiction roleplaying. When I find my mind starting to spin around the physics of it all, I reset with a simple "Third Law, Ed. Third law!"




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