Enjoying science fiction often requires a willing suspension of disbelief. Some of the best books, movies, and television shows in the genre lovingly shove the laws of nature into a corner in favor of an entertaining narrative. It's a sacrifice made, by consumers and creators alike, to the gods of story.
Sometimes, in order to get where we need to go, we have to accept inconsistent time travel, murderous intelligent robots, or superheroes as a matter of course. And that's okay.
Sometimes, however, a story finds a way to play with the toys of another world while still showing respect to this one.
With the end of 2019, and the start of a new decade, quickly approaching, we're looking back at some of the narrative wizards who found a way to tell their stories without casting good science aside.
Alita: Battle Angel
Set more than 500 years in the future, Alita introduces viewers to a world in which bionics have become commonplace. Humanity has splintered after the Great War. A privileged few live in Zalem, an impressive floating city in the sky. The rest live on the ground, where resources are tight and life is tough.
Dyson Ido scours wreckage and finds the remains of a cyborg. The body has been almost entirely destroyed but the brain is intact. Ido revives her, attaching her to a new synthetic body, and names her Alita.
As Alita rediscovers the world, and her place in it, things go from bad to worse and she’s introduced to the stark realities of life, and an imaginative array of mechanically enhanced persons.
While Battle Angel takes the notion of bionics to its inevitable extreme — Alita herself is little more than a human brain inside an entirely manufactured body, and recent breakthroughs in bionics suggest it might not be as outlandish as it seems.
Prosthetics have offered patients the ability to regain motility, for centuries, but only recently have we been able to offer near full recovery of a lost limb.
According to results published in Science Translational Medicine, scientists and researchers successfully equipped three patients with prostheses, which offered real-time feedback to the users’ nervous systems.
"After all these years, I could feel my leg and my foot again, as if it were my own leg," said Djurica Resanovic, who lost his leg as a result of an accident.
To achieve this result, electrodes were implanted into the intact nervous system of the patients. Those electrodes received information from the prosthesis and fed it to the brain as if it were biological tissue.
Resanovic could even feel researchers touching the artificial leg while he was wearing a blindfold and earplugs. "I could tell where they touched the big toe, the heal, or anywhere else on the foot. I could even tell how much the knee was flexed."
If we're achieving these types of results in 2019, who's to say what we might accomplish in the next 500 years? Here's hoping we can avoid the fracturing of humanity.
Spider-Man: Far From Home
Marvel movies often rely on outlandish scenarios to explain what's going on. There are alien overlords, real-life magic, and literal gods flying around. But Far From Home, despite its name, took a more home-grown approach to the threat Peter Parker faces.
Quentin Beck, known as Mysterio, introduces himself to Peter and the gang as a refugee from another universe, come here to save this world from elemental creatures that ravaged his own.
Despite his claims, it’s later revealed that Beck is little more than a disaffected Stark employee and a pretender to Tony's throne, utilizing advanced tech to manifest the monsters threatening Earth, in order to build himself up.
Spider-Man is no stranger to incredible creatures born of some unrealistic scientific snafu. Becks' monsters, though, are just smoke and mirrors born of a swarm of drones and some holographic tech.
Drones have becomes an everyday part of our lives. You can get them for just a few dollars. Many of you probably bought one for your friends or family, to celebrate the winter holidays. More expensive versions can be purchased, equipped with cameras and VR headsets which allow you to pilot them as if you were on board.
Holograms aren't quite to the level which Beck employs, but they're getting there.
The level of technology available in the MCU (or Sony's tangential films) is of a higher caliber than we're accustomed to, but when compared to the usual Marvel fare, it's downright realistic. Coupled with the up-and-coming deep fake technology, the notion of using false images and sounds to manipulate the populace feels a little too close to home.
The Good Place
The Good Place isn't strictly a sci-fi show, though we'll allow it for its use of inter-dimensional gateways and time travel. The series opens on the first day of the afterlife for Eleanor (Kristin Bell), who is told she's lived a good life and has earned herself a place in the titular good place.
It's quickly revealed that Eleanor isn't who they believe her to be. In fact, she's not a good person. She is, in her own words, a trash bag from Arizona, a selfish person, who has landed herself in the Good Place by mistake. She latches onto Chidi, her supposed soulmate, in an attempt to prove she deserves to stay and avoid an eternity of torture. And over time, she actually becomes a good person.
Whether or not The Good Place gets the afterlife right is a matter of conjecture, and one we won't speculate on here, but it lands pretty solidly on its use of philosophy.
Creator, Michael Schur, has obsessed over specific philosophical ideas for quite a while, specifically the question of what we owe to one another.
Amid the jokes (of which there are many) and the tongue-in-cheek look toward the world's many religions, there are some very real philosophical questions being asked on the show, and references to and explorations of some of humanities greatest thinkers.
You can absolutely watch The Good Place purely for its entertainment value, but you might find yourself thinking deeply about what it means to be a person living in the world. And that's pretty impressive for a sitcom.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
There's a lot going on in the finale to the latest Star Wars trilogy. Some people like what he's done, others don't. So it goes. But there's one thing happening between the opening crawl and the end credits which hints toward some real-world science. Fair warning: minor spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker follow.
One of the major plot beats of the film revolve around a hidden planet, a Sith safe-haven, unknown to the rest of the galaxy: Exegol.
It might be difficult to imagine a planet that could remain hidden from a society so tech-savvy as the one presented in the Star Wars universe, but it isn't all that bizarre.
There are many things which could hide a planet from those without the knowledge to find it. Space is dark and vast. Large bodies don't just reveal themselves, something has to light the way. When it comes to finding planets outside our own solar system, we often rely on measuring the light from the parent star, looking for anomalies that suggest something orbiting.
When that fails, we look to gravity. Massive bodies orbiting a star exert some force (no pun intended) and reveal their existence in that way, by causing the parent star to wobble. Still, there are very likely a great unknown number of worlds in our galaxy, and in the universe, which we've not yet seen. Which we might never see.
Moreover, we're not even certain of the construction of our own solar system, here, close to home. There has long been speculation of a ninth (sorry Pluto) planet orbiting our sun, which we've yet to discover.
One might expect that, at this late stage in our astronomical growth, we'd have our own system pretty nailed down. But that might not be the case. When we crunch the numbers, there is some data to suggest a world, roughly ten times the mass of Earth, hanging out in the outer reaches of our own solar system.
Something so far distant doesn't play well with our telescopes. When we look out at the night sky, we're relying mostly on light. Light from the Sun has to travel to a planet, reflect, and come back. But very little light reaches that far out, making things difficult to see.
Looking further out, while gravity sometimes reveals other worlds, it can also hide them. Gravity affects all things, even light. As photons approach a massive object, they bend toward them, altering the path of things we can see. This is known as gravitational lensing.
If an object is positioned just so, in relation to another massive object, its presence can be hidden as the light which would usually hit it on its way to us, is moved along another path.
Worlds can exist in a sort of universal blind spot, making them very difficult to detect. It isn't outside the realm of possibility that an intelligent species, or group of individuals like the Sith, could even intentionally hide their presence through one or more of these means. Hidden planets, it seems, might be more common than we suspect.
As we enter a new decade, and our technology continues to advance, it becomes more and more likely that our science fiction will align with our science fact. Sci-fi has an important role in our society’s development, in that way. It isn't just entertainment. It's a way for us to look ahead and speculate on what is possible. It's a way for us to look at ourselves and imagine a different way of living, for better or worse.
At the very least, no matter what the future holds, it's fun.