Plenty of genre fiction employs hand-waving pseudo-science to move the plot along. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver. Radiation in Marvel Comics. The Force. They’re dodges of Clarke’s Third Law, that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. They’re fantasy masquerading as science fiction. But they all work because, for the sake of the story, we want them to work. It’s not suspension of disbelief; it’s an active engagement in believing.
But there’s one science-y plot trick that’s always bugged me.
It’s the end of Richard Donner’s Superman
. I shouldn’t have to give a spoiler warning for a movie that’s coming up on 40 years old, but: warning, I am about to spoil the end of Superman
. Supes fails to stop cinema’s most elaborate real estate swindle, and Lois Lane is crushed under a pile of California rubble. Distraught, enraged, Superman launches into space and begins flying around the earth clockwise, opposite to its rotation. He orbits, faster and faster. For reasons never explained, this causes the earth to reverse its rotation. For other
reasons never explained, this
causes time to run backward. The earthquake is un-quaked (de-quaked?), and Supes arrives in time to save Lois. Presumably the earth’s rotation returns to normal because I don’t know, inertia or something, and all is well.
It’s a terrible ending to a great movie. It doesn’t follow from anything that’s come before. It violates the laws of physics in about 60 different ways. And it’s sort of ridiculous.
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I knew all this when I sat down to watch the movie with my stepson, Alex, who was eight at the time. I didn’t remember the movie being quite so long, or how much Marlon Brando there was, or that Kal-el doesn’t don the tights until 47 minutes into the proceedings. But Alex was at that great age where he was game for anything, and we don’t watch a whole lot of TV, so movies were a treat, even if they were two-and-a-half hours long.
It’s a brilliant movie. The fact that no subsequent version of Superman on film or television has matched Donner’s is testament to that. And Alex was rapt through the whole thing. But the ending was approaching. And I thought to myself, I’m going to need to have an explanation ready
I struggled to think back to my first viewing of the movie. My father is a high school physics teacher. There was no way I hadn’t asked him what was up with the whole backwards earth thing. This is the same father who explained Einstein’s twin paradox to me when I
was eight. He must have had a brilliant answer for me, if only I could remember it.
But it was too late. Superman was in space. The blue and red streak circled the earth, faster and faster. The earth’s rotation slowed... reversed...
“Oh,” said Alex. “He’s going to make time go backwards.”
That was it. And it was the reason I couldn’t remember how my father had explained it to me: I’d never asked. I never needed to.
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The working title of A Hundred Thousand Worlds
was Unstable Molecules
. It was a reference to the costumes worn by the Fantastic Four. When a fan asked how Mr. Fantastic’s costume could stretch as far as he could, or why the Invisible Girl’s became invisible with her, or how the Human Torch didn’t end up with singed tights every time he flamed on, the writers stated the costumes were made of unstable molecules. No further explanation needed.
We ditched it because it sounded like a book about science, which it isn’t. It broke my heart to give up the working title, because it hit on something at the core of the book: the way children’s logic functions, the way they are on the side of narrative and willing to make great logical (and sometimes illogical) leaps to make it work.
There’s a tendency to think of kids as mini-adults, or adults in training. When we think about their cognition as developing, we mean it in a teleological sense: developmental steps move them incrementally toward adult or proper thinking. Anyone who has kids, or has spent any time around them, can tell you that’s not the way it works. Kid thinking isn’t proto-adult thinking, or worse, flawed and incomplete adult thinking. It’s a thing entirely its own, and it does things fundamentally differently and sometimes better than adult cognition.
One of the most interesting differences, especially if you happen to be a fiction writer, is the way kids interact with stories. It drives me nuts when people try to censor something aimed at kids because “kids can’t differentiate between fantasy and reality.” Kids have incredibly savvy ways of understanding stories; they are high-end users of stories. If they don’t seem to “differentiate” clearly, it’s because they know inherently that the membrane between fiction and reality is incredibly porous. We make stories and stories make us. It’s not a matter of two states in opposition: it’s continuous and dialectical. Stories are of vital importance to kids. They might be more important than eating. They’re definitely more important than sleep; any kid can tell you that.
It’s a truth I forgot about kids for a long time, and it took becoming a stepparent to remind me. I’ve been a big brother, a day camp counselor, a preschool teacher. But by my mid-20s, I didn’t spend much time around kids. I owned a record store, where we also put on shows. Every two months or so, there’d be an album that would completely change my life, or a show that would be the best thing that ever happened. And it wasn’t just me: everyone around me thought the same way. Call it the Years of Hyperbolic Thinking. We were returning to something we’d had when we were kids, a way of consuming stories (I assume I don’t have to belabor the case that songs are a form of stories), a blurring of that line between ourselves and things that were “made up.”
Any kind of fandom, at its best, gets us back to that. Unabashedly loving something that is objectively silly puts us again within that cycle where we’re interacting with stories in a way that makes them part of ourselves, that makes them real. It’s not unhealthy and it’s not, as some might suggest, immature. It’s a way of being in the world, of allowing yourself to change and develop. Its opposite is stasis and stagnation.
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For A Hundred Thousand Worlds
, I chose to approach fandom through comic books and the world of comic cons. There’s a simple reason for this, which is that I’m a huge comic book fan and have been since I was a kid, and then there’s the more complicated reason. Even now, when we may be culturally approaching peak superhero, comic book fandom remains a small subculture, complete with rituals and shibboleths and generally misguided gatekeepers. Comic book conventions are a beautiful rendering in miniature of the blurry line between fiction and reality. When you see people in costumes as fictional characters they love, and realize they’re revealing something real about themselves through that disguise, when you find yourself surrounded by people brought together by their passion for stories, even if you’re not a comic book nerd, or into anime, or a gamer, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the spirit of it. It might make you wish they held conventions for that silly thing you unabashedly love. A ballroom full of Jane Austen devotees (surely there must be), a bar meet-up for people who stay up way too late reading Scandinavian mystery novels (grim, yes, but there’d be booze). A space to talk about made-up things as if they were the most important things in the world. As if they were real. Because of course they are.
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is the author of the novel A Hundred Thousand Worlds