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Now, Wait a Minute – Nerdgassing About Science Fiction Movies

Recently I was thinking of that thing science fiction geeks do when they complain about science or continuity errors in books, movies and TV shows. Try as I might, I couldn’t think of a specific term for it, so I made one up: Nerdgassing.

Here’s how I first described the term on my blog:

Definition: The venting nerds emit when some (often minor) detail of a book/movie/TV show/comic book/etc. either conflicts with canon and/or handwaves through some suspect science.

Example One:
“In the third show of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Data clearly says that the Glorithian flagship was constructed in orbit around that planet Norgar, but then in the 15th show of the sixth season, it’s said it was constructed in the Buterian space docks! How do you explain that, hmmm?”*

Example Two: “Ringworld is unstable! Ringworld is unstable!”

Secondary Definition: What happens after too many Cheetos and Mountain Dew.

(*Note that Example One is a fictionalization — “Glorithians” do not exist in the Star Trek universe, as far as I know. Don’t nerdgas me about it.)

SciFi Movies: Nerdgassing Heaven
While any and all of science fiction media lends itself to nerdgassing, science fiction film in particular is a rich field for it — thanks to all the shortcuts and compromises filmmakers take with science and series continuity in science fiction films, there’s hardly a scifi movie that comes out that doesn’t have hardcore geeks throwing up their hands in exasperation. And while on one hand the expression, “Dude, it’s only a movie,” is not a bad one to apply here (getting your science from Hollywood is just not smart), one thing to remember is that geeks like to nerdgas about this stuff. It lets them (oh, hell, us) feel smug and superior for once. So all the rest of you: Let us have our fun.

To give you examples of nerdgassing in action, allow me to share with you two of my “favorite” nerdgassing moments in recent science fiction film. And as a warning: Some of these might be spoilery if you’ve not seen these films. (But, honestly, if you haven’t seen these films, why are you reading this column?)

1. The Matrix: The
stock of this film has gone down, thanks to the film’s slogtastic
sequels, but for my money it’s still one of the recent classics of the
genre. For all that, there’s one thing that always makes me yell at the
screen — when Morpheus is explaining to Neo that the machines use
human body heat as a power source. What he actually says is that the
machines use human body heat “combined with a form of fusion.” Fusion,
you know, being the form of nuclear energy released by the sun, and
which both releases far more energy and is massively more energy
efficient than sucking BTUs out of the human metabolism. Saying the
Matrix runs on body heat and “a form of fusion” is like saying your car
runs on a combination of body heat and “a form of internal combustion,”
since body heat is required to move your muscles to push down the
accelerator pedal.

2. The Phantom Menace:
The Matrix example is one where the “science” annoys the geeks; The Phantom Menace is an example of where continuity is messed with. The sins of George Lucas in Phantom
are many, but chief among them is the sudden, pointless appearance of
“midi-chlorians,” tiny little creatures that channel the Force, the
mystical life force of the Star Wars universe. In the original Star
trilogy, the Force didn’t need no stinkin’ midi-chlorians to work,
and no one thought to even hint that they existed — not even Obi-Wan
Kenobi, who clearly would have known about them. Why didn’t anyone
mention them? Probably because George Lucas tacked them into
the Star Wars universe at a later date, when he wrote his prequel
trilogy, and decided he needed a “logical” explanation for the Force,
and for the wholly unnecessary “virgin birth” of Anakin Skywalker (who,
we are to believe, is birthed by the midi-chlorians themselves,
because, you know, why not).

If you visit WookiePedia (the Star Wars wiki), you’ll find that folks have created an excuse for why midi-chlorians were never mentioned in the original trilogy. This is known as “retconning”
— creating a “retroactive continuity” for the series to account for
the discrepancies caused by someone not thinking about something in the
real world until much later. Star Wars fans know all about retconning, since they’ve been doing it ever since they had to explain away why Han Solo says he ran the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs.

These are the things that make me whine and kvetch and, yes,
nerdgas. Because, yes, I am a geek. What things in science fiction film
make you do the same thing? Share your nerdgassing moments in the

scalzi.pngWinner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies as well as the novels Old Man’s War and the upcoming Zoe’s Tale. His column appears every Thursday.

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