Bad biology is much worse than bad physics

17 May

I’m a keen science fiction fan. I’m also an electrical engineer which means I know a fair bit of physics – and very little biology. Nonetheless, it’s bad biology in a story that upsets me much more than bad physics.

Taking as an example, the following three books.

“A Princess of Mars”, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1917)


Here’s an example of the “physics” in APoM.

The building in which I found myself contained the machinery which produces that artificial atmosphere which sustains life on Mars. The secret of the entire process hinges on the use of the ninth ray, one of the beautiful scintillations which I had noted emanating from the great stone in my host’s diadem.

This ray is separated from the other rays of the sun by means of finely adjusted instruments placed upon the roof of the huge building, three-quarters of which is used for reservoirs in which the ninth ray is stored. This product is then treated electrically, or rather certain proportions of refined electric vibrations are incorporated with it, and the result is then pumped to the five principal air centers of the planet where, as it is released, contact with the ether of space transforms it into atmosphere.

It’s strange. It’s silly. But who cares.

However, here’s some of that biology rearing its very ugly head.

In a golden incubator upon the roof of our palace lay a snow-white egg. For nearly five years ten soldiers of the jeddak’s Guard had constantly stood over it, and not a day passed when I was in the city that Dejah Thoris and I did not stand hand in hand before our little shrine planning for the future, when the delicate shell should break.

That’s right – our Earthman has bred with a native Martian, resulting in a hybrid egg.

“Triplanetary”, E E (doc) Smith, 1938.


Here’s an example of what can only be called interesting physics. The scientist heroes have built a machine which removes all the effects of inertia from mass.

Rodebush drove his finger down, and instantly over both men there came a sensation akin to a tremendously intensified vertigo; but a vertigo as far beyond the space-sickness of weightlessness as that horrible sensation is beyond mere Earthly dizziness. The pilot reached weakly toward the board, but his leaden hands refused utterly to obey the dictates of his reeling mind. His brain was a writhing, convulsive mass of torment indescribable; expanding, exploding, swelling out with an unendurable pressure against its confining skull. Fiery spirals, laced with streaming, darting lances of black and green, flamed inside his bursting eyeballs. The Universe spun and whirled in mad gyrations about him as he reeled drunkenly to his feet, staggering and sprawling. He fell. He realized that he was falling, yet he could not fall! Thrashing wildly, grotesquely in agony, he struggled madly and blindly across the room, directly toward the thick steel wall. The tip of one hair of his unruly thatch touched the wall, and the slim length of that single hair did not even bend as its slight strength brought to an instant halt the hundred-and-eighty-odd pounds of mass–mass now entirely without inertia–that was his body.

Again, it’s strange, but one can read the story without getting to upset.

I don’t have an example of bad biology from the text (Smith usually stayed away from it or handled it well) but there’s a rather glaring biological side effect to the inertialess drive which doesn’t get mentioned. What happens when a molecule within the body touches against another molecule? If the same “the strength of a hair stops the whole body’s movement” effect applies, all the chemical processes in the body will fail badly, which bodes unwell for the heroes.

Now, here’s the poster boy for bad biology in Science Fiction.

“Kemlo of the Space Lanes”, E C Eliot, 1955


As to the so-called physics, here’s the first paragraph:

‘Kree … oww!’ The slim flat space craft screamed across the blue void. The gravity pulse set up by the armour of holding rays rippled and bucked around its hull – man-made gravity in space which gave colossal speeds and equally terrific braking power to all craft, apart from acting as invincible armour against hurtling meteors, cosmic rays, and solar penetration.

It’s gobbledegook. But, who cares. It’s a spacecraft. It moves – somehow. We don’t really need to know how.

As to the biology – the key thing to know about these stories is that Kemlo, the young man from the title, was born in space. And therefore … here it comes … HE DOESN’T NEED TO BREATH OXYGEN!

`Oxygen, of course,’ said Kemlo. `We can’t take too much oxygen.’

`Not only oxygen.’ Calvin Lester laughed softly as he added `Let’s not start quoting all the long words and medical terms loved by the experts. There are some things we ordinary chaps have to accept, and the most obvious of these is that here you are – standing beside me in space, breathing naturally, looking strong and healthy and immune to solar penetration. But if I were to shut off my oxygen and diathene and remove my helmet I should die.’


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