Best invocations of pseudoscience

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jwwells
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Best invocations of pseudoscience

Postby jwwells » Sat Dec 18, 2010 7:19 pm UTC

(Distinction from 'Favorite Fictional Science' thread:

That thread is about stories that make up science to explain fictional concepts, like dragons.

This thread is about stories that use or modify existing pseudoscientific concepts to make a story.)


Usually, when I see a pseudoscientific concept pop up in a story, I facepalm. See: All X-Files episodes except "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose."

Which authors have made it work?

In order for something to be pseudoscience by my criteria, the characters have to speak about it as if it were actual science, but it should also completely break some assumption or finding of modern scientific thought. It should not be a genre staple; faster-than-light propulsion is ridiculous, but not really pseudoscience, unless we're also willing to count the wizards and dragons of fantasy novels as pseudoscience as well. It's genre convention.

MY PICKS:

Number 1:
Author: Philip K. Dick
Work: Everything by Philip K. Dick.
Pseudoscience: Everything he writes, eventually. Telepaths abound, and so do blurrings between dream and reality, replicants that have every facet of human intelligence except, perhaps, the soul, and so on.
Why it works: PHILIP K. DICK.

Number 2:
Author: Thomas Pynchon
Work: The Crying of Lot 49
Pseudoscience: Psychokinetic machine designed to break entropy and allow the mental sorting of particles into boxes.
Why it works: Novel makes it clear that character is probably a crackpot; main character may be going too crazy to be sure. Story is about hilarious conspiracy theories.

Other suggestions?

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Re: Best invocations of pseudoscience

Postby Virtual_Aardvark » Sun Dec 19, 2010 9:52 am UTC

Perhaps Star Trek's regular invocation of tachyons? Though that's more along the lines of abusing a poorly understood science. No one can say they're wrong because no one's got a gorram clue what tachyons actually do.

Also Whedon's idea that cutting into a genius' amygdila to create telepathy probably falls into this.
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Re: Best invocations of pseudoscience

Postby Hobbes_ » Sun Dec 19, 2010 7:04 pm UTC

Number 2:
Author: Thomas Pynchon
Work: The Crying of Lot 49
Pseudoscience: Psychokinetic machine designed to break entropy and allow the mental sorting of particles into boxes.
Why it works: Novel makes it clear that character is probably a crackpot; main character may be going too crazy to be sure. Story is about hilarious conspiracy theories.


This is every Pynchon novel ever. But that's OK, I still love them, I can't get enough of his style even if everyone else thinks it's pretentious (and let's be honest, it probably is). I'm not sure I fully understand the intention here but as best I can understand it I think his best use is Against the Day in which a group of mathematicians and physicists devoted to Quaternions use a combination of it and Yoga (as they see themselves as vectors which they can point with yoga) to change their positions in time and space as well as change who they are. As with all Pynchon novels it's never clear if the characters are all just in some bizzare mental state, it's part of a larger and totally off the wall conspiracy, or this is supposed to represent reality.

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Re: Best invocations of pseudoscience

Postby The EGE » Sun Dec 19, 2010 8:11 pm UTC

Virtual_Aardvark wrote:Also Whedon's idea that cutting into a genius' amygdila to create telepathy probably falls into this.


As far as we know, stripping her amygdala wasn't what made her telepathic. That was a separate Alliance douchebaggery, probably as part of turning her into a heartless killing machine.

(I think. I haven't seen the R Tam sessions yet.)


In Firefly, I happen to be rather fond of the ship technology. An insanely powerful engine (though not ftl), and some sort of advanced gravity system that not only gives the ship gravity (without any spin) but seems to keep the crew alive during some very sharp accelerations. We never get any scientific details of the system, but the way it looks and malfunctions - tangles of wires, mysterious lights, and realistic-sounding malfunctions - make it convincing. It's actually a whole lot more convincing than, say, Star Trek where you have these beautifully shiny metallic engines... and then computers from the 70s.
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Re: Best invocations of pseudoscience

Postby jwwells » Tue Dec 21, 2010 2:44 am UTC

This is every Pynchon novel ever. But that's OK, I still love them, I can't get enough of his style even if everyone else thinks it's pretentious (and let's be honest, it probably is).


I'll take pretentious and great over unambitious and competent any day. Well, not any day. But most days.

As far as we know, stripping her amygdala wasn't what made her telepathic. That was a separate Alliance douchebaggery, probably as part of turning her into a heartless killing machine.


I think the idea was that she already had some kind of latent telepathy, but screwing with her brain helped remove "inhibitory pathways." (In scare quotes, because, again, this is pseudoneuroscience.) This kinda works. It wasn't all that believable to me, though, because it seemed so pat. "Look! Making a telepath requires incredible inhuman cruelty! GRRR! DON'T YOU HATE THE ALLIANCE NOW?"

Would the story have worked just as well if no evil experiments had to be performed on River, but she were locked away from her family and friends and kept in a prison just to isolate her? What if some of the scientists wanted to let her go, and were assassinated for trying to sneak her out?

Did we really need the whole "she goes crazy because of the brain cutting" plot? What if she'd been susceptible to mental breakdown from the start, and her 'training' pushed her over the edge? At the very least, that'd be more relevant to real-world cases of mental breakdown in badly supervised experiments.

It would also have been cool pseudoscience, not bad pseudoscience.

In Firefly, I happen to be rather fond of the ship technology. An insanely powerful engine (though not ftl), and some sort of advanced gravity system that not only gives the ship gravity (without any spin) but seems to keep the crew alive during some very sharp accelerations. We never get any scientific details of the system, but the way it looks and malfunctions - tangles of wires, mysterious lights, and realistic-sounding malfunctions - make it convincing. It's actually a whole lot more convincing than, say, Star Trek where you have these beautifully shiny metallic engines... and then computers from the 70s.


Yes! I think this is a key point of good fictional pseudoscience.

It's not plausible, but the look and feel of it, and the way it behaves, makes it believable. I can't buy an arbitrary Warp Drive that moves as fast as is necessary for the plot and only malfunctions in fancy, weird, jargon-y ways.

I can buy a spaceship that behaves badly in the same way that a car or a passenger liner might behave badly - where "coils" get busted and so on. It's connects to my experience. It captures something about the way big, clunky machines behave.

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Re: Best invocations of pseudoscience

Postby Lazar » Tue Dec 21, 2010 11:17 pm UTC

One thing I hugely appreciate in Firefly is that they made at least passing references to an Internet-like "Cortex". Even in the 2000s-era incarnations of Star Trek, they act as if the Internet was never invented.
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Re: Best invocations of pseudoscience

Postby Joeldi » Wed Dec 22, 2010 9:51 am UTC

Minovsky physics.

They're used to explain why on earth giant humanoid robots are a good idea in the first place, and are then used to allow giant lightsabres, energy beams and anti-gravity devices to exist.
And it all makes sense!

Unfortunately UC Gundam also has telekinesis and telepathy, explained by "In space, people have to be able to function in three dimensions" ...
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Re: Best invocations of pseudoscience

Postby grythyttan » Wed Dec 22, 2010 11:21 am UTC

Joeldi wrote:Unfortunately UC Gundam also has telekinesis and telepathy, explained by "In space, people have to be able to function in three dimensions" ...
that makes sense if you consider that UC gundam is an anime and therefore is twi dimensional. now, if you take all the stills and put them in a pile, characters acting in the third dimension would would be given mysterious power over things. I'm sure there's a way to twist this into making sense, but I'm not the right man for the job.
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Re: Best invocations of pseudoscience

Postby bigglesworth » Wed Dec 22, 2010 3:33 pm UTC

Hobbes_ wrote:As with all Pynchon novels it's never clear if the characters are all just in some bizzare mental state, it's part of a larger and totally off the wall conspiracy, or this is supposed to represent reality.
My reading of it was that it
Spoiler:
was a world that was once connected with our reality, but then finally separated by the Q-device before it was swept away entirely.
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Re: Best invocations of pseudoscience

Postby Hobbes_ » Wed Dec 22, 2010 6:23 pm UTC

bigglesworth wrote:
Hobbes_ wrote:As with all Pynchon novels it's never clear if the characters are all just in some bizzare mental state, it's part of a larger and totally off the wall conspiracy, or this is supposed to represent reality.
My reading of it was that it
Spoiler:
was a world that was once connected with our reality, but then finally separated by the Q-device before it was swept away entirely.


Spoiler:
Entirely possible. I wasn't being super-specific because I haven't read that in a while. I actually got it out and put it on my immediate "to-read" list as a result, in part, of this discussion. I really like the way Pynchon incorporates science/pseudo-science in his books. The general reality splitting in Against the Day was quite intriguing. I always wonder how much of these adventures into imagination are part of an incredibly complex thematic structure that I'm only barely smart enough to guess at and how much is just random things he comes up with.

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Re: Best invocations of pseudoscience

Postby RahulKolasseri » Sun Dec 26, 2010 5:06 pm UTC

Two words- Isaac Asimov. Best damm sci-fi auther ever, imo. My favourite stuff of his are his Foundation and Robot series, and all of his short stories.
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Re: Best invocations of pseudoscience

Postby frezik » Sun Dec 26, 2010 11:08 pm UTC

Portal. You can pretty easily make a Perpetual Motion Machine out of the portal gun, like building an endless waterfall.

I suppose if the creators wanted to fix it, they could say that GlaDoS sustains the open portals by feeding it energy remotely, and you'd never get out more energy than you're feeding in.
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Re: Best invocations of pseudoscience

Postby Link » Sat Aug 27, 2011 8:39 am UTC

I think the TV series Fringe does a good job at this. Mostly because most of the characters themselves have difficulty accepting the weirdness they encounter, especially in the first seasons. Generally, the given explanations also mean things aren't as far out there as you might think at first. Sure, some episodes are better at it than others, but overall the series does a pretty good job at portraying something completely ridiculous as not that crazy. (Of course, it helps that the breakdown of reality itself is a central theme.)


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