Cordial Deconstruction

Observations from our shared single objective reality in a materialistic, naturalistic, & effectively macro-deterministic universe.

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Eureka: Recycling Bad SF Physics.

Posted by Karl Withakay on July 27, 2009



This post kind of goes off on a tangent for a while, but I felt it was necessary to give an insight to my thought processes regarding deconstruction science fiction in general, seeing as this is my first sci-fi deconstruction.

It’s not my intention to do much deconstruction of the show Eureka, mostly because the show doesn’t take itself as seriously as, say, Fringe does, but this week’s episode, “Insane in the P-Brane” the writers went to the classic sci-fi plot file drawer and pulled out the “We’ve been shifted to another dimension  and nobody can see us.” plot, and recycled the plot point’s huge holes along with it.

It seems like every SF series has to do the episode where one or more characters somehow gets shifted out of phase, into another dimension, or is otherwise modified such that nobody can see them and they can’t interact with the world around them.  Star Trek TNG, StarGate SG-1, and numerous others have done it.   So aside from the bad physics plot points it always creates, it smacks of lazy writing to recycle the idea, especially since nobody ever manages to take that idea and make it their own by doing something really different with it.   Note to Sci-Fi writers out there:  Feel free to recycle a plot idea, but be sure to do something different with it to differentiate your story from every one else’s.

It’s not really fair to deconstruct science fiction in the same way you would a spy thriller.  Almost all science fiction includes elements that are against the known laws of physics, and are just not possible in reality, and Eureka is a fairly over the top show in that regard.  So, when deconstructing science fiction, you have to draw the lines of what you’ll accept and what is BS.

There are a couple of keys to creating an acceptable science fiction universe:  explanation and consistency.

#1  Explanation:  First establish a (fictional) explanation for a phenomenon to make it acceptable.*  As bad as a movie and as riddled with bad physics as The Core was, I give the nod to them, on Unobtainium.  By calling the hull material unobtainium, they basically acknowledged to us that the properties of the hull alloy they put in the story were BS asked us to accept it and move on, and there’s nothing wrong with that in science fiction.

#2  Consistency:  Once you define your sci-fi universe, it has to be internally self consistent.  That’s not to say that you’re necessarily locked into the universe as you defined it, but you must at least provide an explanation for any changes that contradict the previously established laws of your universe.  You can’t have warp drive tearing holes in time and space in one episode and forget about it while blazing away at warp 9 in later episodes unless you explain that new technology has been introduced to correct the issue.

Implied by #’s 1 & 2 is that any sci-fi universe is pretty much governed by the same rules as our own, except as otherwise specified.  This may seem blindingly obvious, but this Zeroth Key (With a nod to the Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics) is the basis for most of my science fiction deconstruction as you’ll soon see below.

I’m not going to deal with the specifics of this  Eureka episode, but I will instead address the plot point in general.  I’ll also add that in science fiction, I am more likely to accept a sci-fi plot point with gaping  holes in it if it’s the first time that plot point has been used.  I’ll have less tolerance for followup uses of that plot point that continue to fail to address those same holes.

For the sake of science fiction, I will accept that a person could be phase or dimension shifted such that they cannot interact with the rest of the world, but let’s look into what that would actually mean.

In the universe we live in, which is the only one we know about, there are four funamental forces through which all things can interact, and all interactions between any matter or energy involve these four forces.

Without going into physics 101, electromagnitism is the force most responsible for our interaction with the world around us.  The ability to see light, feel heat, and touch objects is all a result of the matter in our bodies interacting through the electromagnetic force with the matter and energy around us.

The plot holes in dimension/phase shifting mostly revolve around  gravity and electromagnetism.  If you’re phase shifted from the rest of the universe and can’t interact with it, you should no longer be attracted to the Earth by the force of gravity, since the Earth is in a different phase or dimension, and your momentum from before you were shifted should cause you to be flung tangentially off of the face of the earth.

For the sake of plot convenience, let’s assume that the force of gravity permeates dimensions/phases such that you can still interact gravitationally with the rest of the universe unaffected by your shift.  (We have to assume the strong and weak nuclear forces do not permeate phases, or there would be  all sorts of nasty, but interesting nuclear interactions to occur as you interact with  matter from the normal world with out the benefit of electromagnetic repulsion.)  In that case, you should fall through the surface Earth ending up in a nearly linear, highly elliptical orbit around the Earth’s center of mass ranging from surface to surface since you can no more interact with the stuff the Earth is made of than you can the stuff other people and door knobs are made of.

Speaking of door knobs, how come these plot points always involve normal world humans walking through the phase shifted people, but the phase shifted people almost never just walk through walls to get to where they’re going?  I mean, they can walk through other people, they can’t interact with the computers to type out a cry for help, but they are somehow blocked from passing through the walls and floors without at least a made up explanation, what’s the deal?

Another thing to consider is that the phase shifted persons should not be able to see anything of the unshifted world (or themselves unless they posses their own light source), as their eyes cannot interact with the unshifted photons of light from the rest of the universe.  We’ll have to stipulate that the phase shifted persons can somehow interact with photons (energy), but not matter from the unshifted world if we want them to be able to see.   This would also slow down the rate at which they freeze to death:  they could then receive heat from the sun and   surrounding matter via thermal radiation, but not via conduction or convection.

Of course, all this is also ignoring that fact that the shifted persons should not be  able to breath unshifted air, and should therefore suffocate fairly quickly.

So, can one use the phase/dimension shifting plot point and avoid some or most of these plot holes?  Here’s my plot outline of a phase shifting story that minimizes the holes.  A ship’s engine’s fail in the dead of interstellar space.  One or more crew members must go EVA to fix the problem, and there is some soft of “event” that causes them to be phase shifted, and they are stranded with a finite amount of life support and thruster jet fuel left in their EVA suits.  They must find a way to return themselves to normal or at least alert the ship to their predicament before either their life support runs out or the ship is repaired and leaves them behind.

The action of the story focuses on the actions of the rest of the crew as they try to determine what happened to their crew mates and the interaction between the two shifted crew members as they try to resolve their situation.   (They can see each other via the lights on their suits.)


* This can also be thought of as acknowledging the absurdity.  By acknowledging the absurdity, you premptively point out your own plot hole instread of leaving it to the viewer to criticize.

I forgot to add the sound perception plot hole.   Even if you stipulate that shifted persons can see the non-shifted world via some sort of two way mirror effect for photons from the non-shifted world, if they can’t interact with matter from the non-shifted world, then they shouldn’t be able to hear anything from the non-shifted world as their ear drums cannot interact with the air molecules in which sound from the unshifted world propogates.


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