One of the early Sci-Fi writers (I can’t remember if it was Doc Smith or A.E. van Vogt or whoever it was) talked about growing up thinking of Sci-Fi as a game between the reader and the writer, the writer trying to make their extravagant and outlandish inventions as scientifically grounded as possible, the readers trying to still poke holes in them.
They needn’t have bothered.
So, it’s an apocryphal story—actually not even that, more like anecdotal. All right, all right, it’s something my dad keeps talking about.
A little kid writes a letter to the editors and writers of Superman comics complaining that something or other that Superman did in Issue X violated the law of relativity or something. The editor’s response is simple: “Relativity is just a theory, son—but Superman is real.”
Right? What a douchey thing to say. Of all the self-congratulatory propaganda you could possiby—
Here’s why the editor is right.
Science is not a force of nature. I know it’s sometimes portrayed that way in Sci-Fi and Fantasy stories, as something that can “break down” like a senile mainframe. But science isn’t a physical reality, it’s an intellectual process. Science is the collective human intelligence trying to understand the world around it, to make sense of it in order to better our position within it.
If you see something happen in the actual world and you think “That can’t happen, it’s against the laws of science,” you are guilty of cognitive dissonance. Because if you are unable to accept the evidence of your senses, you cannot science. Because it wouldn’t be true. It wouldn’t fit the facts.
Superman does not, as far as we know, exist in an actual world. He is a fictional character and, as such, he exists in a fictional universe which automatically operates under rules different from the science of our own.
So if you’re looking at something that Superman is doing and you go “That’s not possible!” that, too, my dear boy (or girl, or person—whatever), is cognitive dissonance. Now, it might not necessarily be your fault—it could be indicative of problems in the story’s narrative contract, but that’s a whole other thing.
The point is, the rules of a fictional reality are decided entirely by the author of said fiction. Our “science”, the laws of the forces of nature in our world, don’t apply. This doesn’t mean that science doesn’t apply because again, science is an intellectual process, rather than a set of rules. But it does mean that our world’s science cannot be used as a weapon to discredit fiction.
So instead of thinking “Superman shouldn’t be able to lift that building because it would collapse under its own weight,” I would urge you instead to accept the evidence presented as fact; and if you really must science about it, use your science to figure out how Superman could lift that building. Sci-Fi is a lot more fun if you say yes to it.
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