There’s science fiction and there’s “fictional” science. Imaginative fiction of all stripes uses “made up” science on occasion. Whether it’s a magical incantation that halts time, an elixir that enhances strength, a complex machine the propels characters into the past or portals to other worlds built by alien civilizations and discovered by archeologists on earth, fiction is full of solutions to scientific questions that real science has yet to answer.
Although usually associated with hardcore science fiction, creative (or fictional) science is all over paranormal, supernatural, horror, futurist and urban fantasy stories. Adding the gloss of a scientific explanation is a great way to write your way out of an all too real trap. A character’s invented scientific explanation for the impossible (improbable or even silly) enables the writer to jump what I like to call a credibility gap. This is really hard to pull off in a naturalistic setting, but it’s just plain fun & games when you’re writing vampire fiction!
I’m deep into my fourth Candy’s Monsters novella. It’s my Jekyll & Hyde. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, the good Dr. Jekyll creates a drug that enables him to act on his evil (violent and transgressive) tendencies, while maintaining his good persona. His “science” enables him to split off the bad half, but the whole enterprise backfires. The reader is invited to believe that the vials of specialized chemicals that he combines to affect his change work. But beyond the cool color of the liquid he ingests, there’s not much in the way of chemical details.
Today, a writer could opt to frame the “fictional” science in terms of altered DNA. But I’m more interested in neurology. When the current issue of Smithsonian Magazine arrived this week with a cover story entitled “ Born to Be Bad? The New Science of Morality” I was thrilled. It’s not exactly where I’m heading, but the article is exploring similar territory.
More and more behaviors and behavioral disorders are now discussed in terms of neurology and neuro-biochemistry. For most of the 20th century, these disorders were diagnosed as psychiatric or psychological illnesses while in Stevenson’s time, it was all about moral choices and judgments.
The article sent me to a shelf of books about criminality that I collected and read a few years ago. The one that stands out the most is “Guilty by Reason of Insanity, A Psychiatrist Explores the Minds of Killers” by Dorothy Otnow Lewis, M.D. Her collaborator in studies of seriously scary killers was a neurologist named Jonathan Pincus.
I didn’t have to thumb the pages to remember the thing that startled me most in the book. It was when Dr. Pincus was able to ascertain the presence of serious lesions in the brains of killers by observing their gaits as they walked. These injuries, in key portions of the brain, were then confirmed with MRIs. They were old injuries from childhoods filled with accidents, abuse and violence — the environmental influence on the neurological.
This, of course, made me wonder about the people responsible for those childhood injuries and dangerous lives. Neurology, DNA, drug use… and in end moral choices about good & evil actions — and all of this is grist for the “fictional” science mill.