It’s an old argument among comics fans: aim for realism, or enjoy the fantastic? Some wonderful science-type boffins have been checking the maths of various DC and Marvel superheroes including The Flash, Wolverine and Mystique. I highly recommend these papers as not so light reading material. ( In the same vein, does anyone else remember a series of tv shorts called Hollywood Science with Robert Llewlleyn (yup, Kryten from Red Dwarf) and an actual OU academic called Dr Jonathan Hare?)
I am not a purist about realism, as a critical theorist I get a bit subjective about terms like ‘reality’. However, I hope for a measure of internal consistency in fiction that is rarely rewarded. I like a collaboration between the arts and STEM and enjoy what is often termed ‘hard sci-fi’. I hope that comics writers and designers read the sort of analysis in the linked article from the University of Leicester, and incorporate it into their fiction. I bet plenty of PhD and academic bloggers would love to get asked fact-check questions by writers and fact checkers for comics – however, film and television studios pay academic and medical advisers seemingly just to ignore them when its inconvenient.
Once upon a time, a lot more of our fictions were designed to be accurate, to be educational – as well as entertaining. Dr Who was originally supposed to teach the viewers about science, space, and history. Anyone who’s read Jules Verne knows he liked a good ‘info dump’ as well as any modern sci-fi author. I don’t necessarily want to have to look out for ‘educational programming’ I would just appreciate it if, when a fictional character states a fact or observation, that it is not completely incorrect. After all, I hate it when film characters turn right on Charing Cross Road, and are suddenly outside Horseguards Parade – that’s just factually incorrect. I imagine mathematicians and scientists feel similarly about the shoddy use of their work on screen and on the page.
One of the many reasons to enjoy fiction is the way it expands our boundaries and our understanding; whether that’s through pure escapism from drab and boring daily life, or whether it inspires and encourages us as children to pursue interests and careers in later life. I stopped studying science at 16, after my GCSEs. In England, you get to choose between 3 and 5 a-level subjects, and I choose social sciences and humanities as my focus. The only science I encounter now is in magazines like Wired, and popular science books like those by Marcus Chown. Very often, it’s people like me to go on to write, as well as read, pop fictions – and there’s just no excuse for bad fact checking in the era of the internet. Just as I would like researchers in the natural sciences building to listen to experts on cultural and implicit bias when recruting new staff and students, I also want writers and researchers in popular culture to be aware of research into quantum states and climate science.
After all, once we get done fighting about the precise parameters of the properties of adamantium and vibranium, we might have actually learnt something. Probably something about atomic mass, alloy formation, and the tensile strength of steel, but maybe also something philosophical about the nature of truth, and the place of art in the formation of identity. Either way, if you can be inspired in your studies by what you love, then what you love can maybe inspire you to engage with something new.