All hail the Flux Capacitor!

My wife and I went to see The Source Code the other night.  We really liked it.  It was directed by David Bowie’s son, who sensibly goes by Dalton Jones instead of his more loonie-celeb birth-name possibility Zowie Bowie.  Anyway, Jones had previously written and directed an awesome low-budget sci-fi film I’m really fond of, Moon, and Source Code was similar–intricately plotted, character-driven sci-fi, movies with brains and a heart.

For a Theatre major who flunked high school chem, I’m sort of a science goof–I like to read popular science books, and I like science fiction because I dig the science, even though it’s usually pretty bogus.  In Source Code, the idea is that you can link one person’s mind to the mind of a dead person, but only for the last eight minutes of their life.  I’m pretty sure they actually can’t do any of that, but the movie says it’s because of quantum physics, which is sci-fi talk for ‘magic.’  I think they also use computers, because, hey, it’s called Source Code, right?  Anyway, Jeffrey Wright is convincingly grumpy as the mad scientist running the program, and Vera Farmiga sort of walks off with the movie in what could have been the thankless role of the lab tech who interfaces with Jake Gyllenhaal, who keeps getting sent back into this dead dude’s last eight minutes, so he can kiss Michelle Monaghan.

My wife and I are also fans of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, that old TV show in which two robots and a guy make fun of awful old movies.  And in the wretched sci-fi movies they diss, one constant is the time the movie wastes explaining the science.  There’s always this scene in which some guy with glasses and a lab coat goes into all this detail about how exactly the radio-active isotopes turned that praying mantis into a twenty foot tall killing arachnid.  I don’t actually know that praying mantises are arachnids, but you get the picture.  Point is: we don’t care.  We do in fact know that praying mantises, exposed to radiation, probably just die.  Like radio-active spiders who bite some guy might give him a rash, maybe, but not the ability to climb walls and swing from Manhattan skyscrapers.

It’s like the Star Trek TV series.  (What’s the plural of series? Serieses?)  I always love the moment when they’d be facing some terrible outer-space potential catastrophe, and they’d all look solemn, and then Picard would ask for recommendations, and Data or someone would go “we could reconfigure the warp coil conduit,” or Geordi would go “we could vent plasma from the aft relays,” and Picard would say “make it so.”  As time went on, the explanations got more and more detailed and complex, probably because they knew their Trekkie nerd fan base would go all ballistic if they got something wrong.  I understand it became part of a series of Star Trek TNG drinking games: every time they’d get out of a problem using techno-babble, everyone had to take a drink, same as every time Worf talked about ‘honor,’ or everytime Deanna Troi used her psychic powers to figure out something patently obvious to absolutely everyone:”Captain, I sense deception!” Yeah.

That’s why, for me, the perfect sci-fi movie explanation scene ever is in the Back to the Future movies.  How do you travel in time?  The flux capacitor.  Christopher Lloyd is brilliant anyway as Doc Brown, with all that crazy white hair, and when he shows some idiot diagram and says ‘flux capacitor,’ I’m good. Don’t need anything else.  Done.  And we can spend the rest of the time dealing with character and story and watching Mike Fox solo on Johnny B. Goode.  Which, comes to think of, offers the most disturbing time/space paradox in the whole movie.  (So Chuck Berry hears this song, records it as his own, so that in the future Marty McFly can hear it, learn it, go back in time, so he can play it, so Chuck Berry can hear it wait wait wait my head’s about to explode!)

They don’t overexplain.  Is what I’m saying.  And I think it’s a writing problem those of us who don’t do sci-fi also share.  We set our story in Tahiti, and we do all this research, and we know all this stuff about Bougainville and Captain Cook, and so we try to cram it into our story because, hey, we know it, except maybe it doesn’t fit.  Maybe it feels forced or unnecessary.

So (Mormon lit connection!) I think we do the same thing with Mormonism.  Include material that we don’t need to, that doesn’t advance the story, because we want to fit in the First Vision, or details about who slept where in the Lion House, or our aunt Patty’s funeral potato recipe.  Because we’re Mormons writing about Mormons, we just want people not of our faith to get all the details.  But maybe they just want to know who-dun-it.

I mean, yeah, we absolutely need to do research, and we absolutely have to get the details right.  But maybe at times research can get in the way.  Maybe we can just say ‘flux capacitor,’ and get back to the characters and the story.  Because, really, we just want Jake to kiss the girl.  Don’t much care about the computer/quantum mechanics of it.

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17 Responses to All hail the Flux Capacitor!

  1. C. M. Malm says:

    Nice evaluation! But I have to wonder if this would work anywhere except in science fiction. Science fiction readers *expect* to encounter unfamiliar words and concepts that they have to figure out from context, so if you throw a term like “stake dance” at them, they will probably go with the flow. I’m not convinced that the average romance or literary fiction reader is going to have the patience to do that. Of course, I’d love to be proven wrong.

  2. Th. says:


    Absolutely right, Eric!

  3. Davey says:

    Could not agree more.

    One correction–it’s Duncan (as opposed to Dalton) Jones.

  4. Scott Hales says:

    “I’m not convinced that the average romance or literary fiction reader is going to have the patience to do that. ”

    I think we need to keep in mind that all reading is a matter of decoding language. Encountering the unfamiliar is part of the experience. This is especially true with a lot of the literary fiction that intentionally seeks to disorient the reader. Part of the fun is putting the puzzle together and figuring things out. I imagine more readers would lose patience with unnecessary explanations about Church history, practices, and terminology before they would an unfamiliar word or phrase. Good writers explain without having to explain.

    Or they do as Melville does in Moby Dick and devote a chapter to every fascinating, unfamiliar detail.

  5. Jonathan Langford says:

    I like the application to Mormon fiction, and I concur that Eric is quite right about sci-fi movies — but I also feel the urge to argue that what Eric is saying is absolutely untrue of science fiction as a written genre, as opposed to sci-fi as a movie genre.

    Yeah, it’s possible to overexplain in written science fiction, but one of the main characteristics of science fiction is that you actually do care about the ideas, which have something seriously to do with science, technology, or both. For instance, Ursula Le Guin’s hermaphroditic humans in The Left Hand of Darkness are investigated with a profound attention to their potential to tell us something about what it means to be human when you take away traditional notions of gender. (The “science” of Le Guin’s science fiction being in this case partly biology, and mostly anthropology.) And yeah, that’s Le Guin, but I can honestly do the same thing with pretty much everyone who is taken seriously as an sf writer, from Larry Niven to Poul Anderson to Anne McCaffrey to Lois McMaster Bujold to Dave Wolverton to Orson Scott Card to even (heaven help us) E.E. Doc Smith. In contrast, I can’t think of a single sf movie bar 2001: A Space Odyssey that is really about the science fictional ideas in any meaningful way.

    This isn’t meant to argue that science fiction as literature is superior to sci fi as a movie genre, but rather to argue that they are fundamentally different. Integrating information into the story remains one of the big ongoing stylistic challenges of science fiction as written literature, because the information *has* to be there. Maybe not the theory of how the flux capacitor came to be and why it works, but almost certainly what the limits and implications are to *how* it works.

    Writing about the value of fantasy literature — and its difference from drama — Tolkien argued that drama is an inherently anthropocentric genre: “Drama is, even though it uses a similar material (words, verse, plot), an art fundamentally different from narrative art. Thus, if you prefer Drama to Literature (as many literary critics plainly do), or form your critical theories primarily from dramatic critics, or even from Drama, you are apt to misunderstand pure story-making, and to constrain it to the limitations of stage-plays. You are, for instance, likely to prefer characters, even the basest and dullest, to things. Very little about trees as trees can be got into a play.” Aside from the partisan jab, Tolkien has, I think, put his finger here on something fairly important. The very notion that a story should even want to be “about trees as trees” — or about praying mantises as arachnids, or science as science, or technology as a serious object of examination for its own sake, not simply as the setting for a human story — would, I suspect, be foreign to most traditional movie-making, and certainly to the makers (and viewers) of most sci-fi movies. But not to the writers and readers of science fiction.

  6. Who’s to know whether a “stake dance” is dancing around stakes in the ground or not, unless someone makes it clear that it’s a dance involving people from several congregations, and not just a dance at the stake center (which is not the middle stake in the ground that people are dancing around, nor is it the place Mormons go to eat beef).

    As Jonathan points out, performance literature has different constraints from written literature, for all that there are plenty of similarities, and convenying information that the viewer (or reader) needs to know can be pretty challenging in either form.

    And arachnids means spiders, not praying mantises.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      True, o muse. I suppose we’d be safe, though, if we discussed praying mantises as arthropods…

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      My male protagonist explained “ward” and “stake.” There was just no way to get around that because they’re so different in our usage that I didn’t think it was fair for the reader to try to figure that out on his own and take up half the book doing so.

      Of course, I used a nonmember female protagonist for the express purpose of seeing our culture through her eyes and have her report her observations.

  7. “Ward” is an interesting term. I think it might have been used at one time (if not any more) for political divisions in cities back east, or somesuch, and it got carried over and adapted to help set the geographical boundaries of congregations (when they got big enough in the early LDS church).

    If that is the case (and the origin for the term), it makes some sense, at least. “Stake” is much older (as in tent stake) and biblical, at least, where “ward” is not, so far as I know.

    End of off-topic comment. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

    • C. M. Malm says:

      Our small town, near Nauvoo, has “wards” as political divisions. And yet somehow it never occurred to me until just now that “ward” as a political division and “ward” as a congregational division might have had an origin as the SAME unit in early Nauvoo. Anyone familiar enough with Nauvoo history to clear this up?

      • Dennis says:

        Richard Bushman does a good job of explaining it in *Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.* And it is exactly what it seems like: a ward is a geographical subdivision of a stake, just as a ward in, say, Chicago, is a geographical division of a city, and that term is still in use in its political and geographic senses. Our use is an abberation, but only because our cities are no longer “Mormon” cities.

  8. Jonathan Langford says:

    According to the LDS Family Encyclopedia, “Wards were first organized in Nauvoo, Illinois, where they corresponded to political divisions or ‘wards’ of the city.” In the interests of full disclosure, I believe that I wrote that entry…

    I suspect that it’s often possible to slip in just enough information for non-LDS readers to follow without going at it in any length. The key is to figure out what’s really needed and make sure it’s there.

    • C. M. Malm says:

      Well now, I feel silly! I guess that’s what I get for not reading ALL the entries before responding. *hangs head in shame*

  9. Wm Morris says:

    Wards are still in use as a political division in Chicago:

    I was pleased to see a recent news release which use the paranthetical that stakes are similar to a diocese because I’ve been using that a lot here in the Twin Cities — people actually get that. And, of course, for ward I use congregation (rather than parish).

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      Yes, “wards” as in city political districts, and as in hospital sections, e.g., “the maternity ward.”

      I had my character(s) say a ward is analogous to a parish, and a stake is analogous to a diocese; Mormon bishop is analogous to a priest, and stake president is analogous to a Catholic bishop. Didn’t go into any details as to why this is so. There’s way too much about our surface culture people don’t know to start digging into the esoteric whys and wherefores.

  10. Scott Hales says:

    I realize this conversation is pretty much finished, but I found this paragraph the other day in Edwidge Danticat’s “The Dew Breaker,” and it made me think of this post:

    “‘Papa and I saw a kolibri today.’ Her mother liked moving from one subject to another. Her parents loved birds, especially hummingbirds, and never failed to report a sighting to her. Since every schoolboy made it his mission to slingshot hummingbirds to death, she was amazed that there were any left in Port-au-Prince, especially in her parents’ neighborhood.”

    I like how Danticat lets me know that a kolibri is a hummingbird without having to explain it through an awkward narrative aside. Nothing in the paragraph seems forced or out-of-place. It’s a seamless explanation.

  11. Dennis says:

    I believe that series is already plural, although it is singular as well. You would need to talk about “a series of series” to achieve the meaning you are shooting for, as “seriesacea” is already taken — to refer to the giant ants of “Them.” So you could talk about “the series of Star Trek series” if you wanted to. Or you could just talk about the “Star Treck dreckages” and let that plural carry your meaning.

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