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Praise and a Complaint About "Prophets of Science Fiction"

From the "I'm Only Three Years Late" files....

Steph and I just binged on the first season of Prophets of Science Fiction, which is available on Netflix Instant until October.  It's an excellent show if you're interested in science fiction, emerging technology, and/or the ways that writers can influence other people.

Each episode focuses on a single science fiction writer / personality and basically does two things: provide a generalized biography and discuss new experiments, research, or products that mirror their stories.  The end result is a show that's a bit light in terms of hard facts, but overall extremely fascinating.  It's a lot like Mythbusters in that respect; the value is not so much in direct educational content as it is in inspiring the viewer to explore a topic in greater detail.

A good example would be their episode on Robert Heinlein.  I'm not deeply familiar with either Heinlein's writing or his life.  Having watched the show, I would say that I'm still not deeply familiar, but I have a better concept and a greater appreciation for his creative output.  I've already made a point to read more of his work (some of it's cued up on my Kindle now) and I was, at the very least, surprised and intrigued by his involvement in actual government projects such as the Strategic Defense Initiative.

The Heinlein episode also interviewed a researcher who has been conducting experiments on neurological modification.  I guess if you wanted to be alarmist, you could call it "morality adjustment," but the intent of the research is less to actually control people's decisions and more to understand how decisions are made.  Anyway, the point is that they found a part of the brain where moral judgments are made, and by giving it a good zap, they can temporarily cause people to rethink their morality.  It's an incredible technology that I'm amazed to learn exists.

The first season only has eight episodes, so the producers wisely decided to focus primarily on a cast of Greatest Hits.  They cover classic writers like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne as well as more modern writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick.  There aren't really any surprises except maybe for the season finale - and that's where the show loses a few points.

The final episode, which focuses on George Lucas, is by far the weakest.

First of all, Lucas is the odd one out.  Up to this point, the show is focusing on science fiction writers.  Novels, short stories, articles... actual literature that, despite some feedback and edits by other well-wishers, was produced by individual storytellers who were principally responsible for the ideas within.  Lucas, by contrast, was a film director, and regardless of what proponents of the auteur theory say, films are never the sum of a single person's work.  The actors, set designers, special effects artists, and other producers had just as much to add - if not more - to the final products that are the Star Wars films.  To put it as an analogy: Lucas is to the other writers as the CEO of a medical technology company is to the scientists working for him who just cured a dozen diseases.

But, fine, whatever... let's ignore that for the moment and give him the benefit of the doubt.  We'll pretend everything in Star Wars was purely his own invention.  How was the episode?

In a word: disappointing.  The technology and research they discuss is nothing new, nor is very much of it directly applicable to Star Wars, nor was any of it actually original in Star Wars.  For example, the episode focuses on hologram technology.  But holograms have been a science fiction concept for over a hundred years at this point and the technology to produce them has been in development for decades - in fact, they predate Star Wars itself!  There's nothing prophetic about it, so why bother to even mention holograms at all?

On a similar note, the episode attempts to explain Dark Matter by way of The Force, which is such a bullcrap comparison it makes my head hurt.  Dark Matter is an intriguing mystery, sure, but The Force is an awful, terrible starting point for that discussion.  Dark Matter is a thing that we're trying to figure out.  The Force is just plain magic, pure and simple.

Actually, it's worse than that.  The Force is described as an "energy field" that the Jedi can alter by using psychic powers... in other words, the same kind of nonsense definition of "energy" that con artists use to market vitamin water, magnets, and a whole host of scams.  The Force is not only not science, it's actually anti-science.

I understand why the show wanted to end on Lucas because the overall message is one of inspiration.  Scientists today are inspired by stories they heard in their youth, which gives them a sense of hope and excitement that encourages them to create new technologies.  I get it.  That's a worthy concept to discuss and Star Wars is a great example. But when you end your show by conflating something like The Force with actual science?  That's a huge let-down and works against the wonder that the rest of the series had set up.

Overall the show has more hits than misses, so I'd still recommend it if you haven't already checked it out.  But my recommendation is that you just stop at the Heinlein episode while it's ahead.