So, the other day mumblingsage coined the word “conceptpunk” on a post about Doctor Who’s wibbly-wobbly science, and while I’ve never been overly fond of the “_____punk” construction I’m in love with the idea because it helps me articulate one of the things that fascinates me about how we write science fiction.
The scene is the one where the Fourth Doctor explains to his companion Leela how the TARDIS’s dimensionally transcendent interior works, by means of analogy to the optical illusion of a box that’s closer or farther away. My reading of the scene is actually that the explanation that’s “wrong in every particular but a very useful lie”, to borrow from Terry Pratchett… this trope has been invoked multiple times by Matt Smith’s Doctor, after all.
But there’s something intriguing about the idea that it actually works exactly the way the Doctor describes… or more particularly, that it works because of how the Doctor describes it.
Conceptpunk. Technology that runs on notions, or as mumblingsage described it to me in private, “the triumph of words over reason.”
Think about the way the Doctor stops and talks his way around problems. The solutions he arrives at rarely make sense in terms of real world science (if closing our eyes shut down our visual processing, we’d never do it as step one of a visualization exercise), but they usually make perfect sense if you’re just following his explanation. His ideas are internally consistent, no matter how much they conflict with reality.
He was able to shut down the angel in Amy’s brain because he talked his way around the problem. Because he explained it convincingly enough.
This approach also goes a good way towards redeeming the weeping angels in general. How were they able to behave in ways that conflicted with their previous rules in that appearance? How come they had new powers that the Doctor, who’d studied and even tangled with them, didn’t know about? Maybe because that book they consulted hadn’t been written yet.
Remember the otherwise pretty meaningless but spooky sounding soliloquy about “the time of the angels” coming about if “our ideas could learn to think for themselves”?
All that stuff about quantum locking and “because you can’t hurt a rock” and the whole idea of them feeding on the lives that would have been if they didn’t zap you back in time, it begins to make a kind of a sense if you consider them to be conceptual creatures. Okay, the spooky soliloquy still doesn’t make a lot of sense, but now it at least hints at sense.
(The idea of the statue of liberty being able to sneak up on people unobserved isn’t easily explained by this, but I assume that the power they were getting from their battery farm was enough to run a massive perception filter. But the perception filter is itself a conceptpunk device. H2G2 has the same thing, but they call it a “Somebody Else’s Problem Field”.)
The reason I like conceptpunk as a concept isn’t just because it helps Doctor Who make sense. It also neatly describes how large swathes of what is labeled science fiction works.
Like superheroes. I love superheroes, but let’s face it: superpowers really don’t “work”, as science fiction.
For example: ignoring JMS’s run on Amazing Spider-Man, is Spider-Man a mystic hero or a science one? He’s science, right? He got his power from radiation and genetics. He has the proportional strength of a spider.
But how does that work? The musculature of a spider wouldn’t scale up like that, and the inside of Peter Parker’s body looks like a human body. It’s just… stronger. Because spiders are strong. And he’s agile because spiders are agile. He doesn’t have a spider’s legs, lightness, eyes, or simplified nervous system that’s optimized for quick reflexes… but he can dart out of the way of harm the way a spider could.
Peter Parker’s powers, in short, come from the idea of a spider.
A lot of other spider characters in his pantheon (like Jessica Drew and Miles Morales) have “venom” attacks that are actually energy/psionic attacks delivered through their fingers. But they have them, because some arachnids have stingers or venomous bites, and so by analog they have a “bite”.
Similarly, I could write a whole essay on how the X-Men are powered by the idea of evolution, but in the end it would be a lot of words that just ends at that conclusion: the X-Men are powered by the idea of evolution.
The Flash? His super power is the idea of speed. All the talking around it they do, like giving him a protective anti-friction field, doesn’t change the fact that everything he does is physically impossible. The canon explanation, that he draws upon “The Speed Force”, is pretty close to an admission of this: there’s an elemental concept of speed, and that’s his power.
On the subject of “elemental concepts”, everybody whose superpowers relate to one or some of “the four elements” also has conceptual powers. If your power is that you can manipulate “earth, air, fire, and water”, that’s like saying your power is to manipulate molecules that Aristotle would have thought were elementary in their nature. How does that work? Either the story universe has to be ordered according to completely different lines than ours is (which is the case, in my fantasy stories) or… well… your powers have to be operating along different lines than what we consider to be science, even if you’re an alien or mutant or your powers come from a scienterrific device.
And sure, nobody would accuse the big two comic book companies of being hard science fiction. But the same thing slips into all levels and forms of science fiction. Things work according to our ideas of heat, of cold, of time, of space, of spiders, of whatever. In things like Doctor Who and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you see these things being taken to their most absurd heights, but it’s really part of the DNA of speculative fiction. It’s always been there and it’s always going to be there.
But even though I’m talking about examples of “conceptual science” in existing science fiction, what really is intriguing me right now is the idea of it as a genre, of deliberate “conceptpunk” stories. Obviously a lot of fantasy/magic works by exploiting metaphorical connections between things (“eyes of the owl”, etc.), but what I’m thinking of is something that would fail the “dragon and elves” test when it came to shelving fantasy works. I’m sure a lot of people would call it fantasy since it explicitly rejects the idea that the speculative devices and happenings are powered by “SCIENCE!”
My thoughts in this area are very half-formed at the moment, which is why I’m blogging about them, but half-formed or not, they are there, and it’s helpful to set them down.