There’s something we’re all guilty of. I’ve done it, you’ve probably done it. There’s someone probably doing it right now. Somewhere out there, they’re having a laugh at the ridiculous science that’s all over silver age comic books. Square-jawed men falling into vats of chemicals, or being bathed in radiation, and coming out of it as square-jawed men with superpowers. It’s all completely ridiculous and we need to acknowledge the fact we both don’t do enough of it, and yet also do far too much of it.
That might seem like a contradiction, and it kind of is one, but allow me to elaborate. Picture a silver age superhero who falls asleep in his laboratory, inhales some strange fumes from an experiment gone awry as he slumbers, and awakes with the power to run at supersonic speeds. By now many of you are chuckling at the idea of someone inhaling mysterious chemicals and winding up with anything but severe organ damage, but stay with me. Now picture a modern superhero, who is caught in a blast of dark matter from a particle accelerator disaster, the exotic quantum energies permeating his cell structure to cause him to function at a hyperaccelerated rate!
Both of these imagined heroes are speedsters, to use a bit of comic book parlance, and they have one other thing in common: their origins are both completely stupid. Each one relies on pseudoscientific nonsense, it’s just that the first hero uses deprecated terminology, while the other uses more hip and modern buzzwords. Particle accelerator! Dark matter! There’s absolutely nothing in dark matter that’s going to allow a human being to run at supersonic speeds, any more than huffing chemical fumes. All that’s happened is that people’s general understanding of science has grown to the point where it’s impossible to just say “radiation” did it.
We, collectively, have been thoroughly educated on the subject of radiation and other such topics. We are no longer mystified by it, we no longer think that radium’s pleasing glow is a tonic for any ailment, and we’ve explored the subject so thoroughly it’s pretty obvious that it won’t turn your garden variety dinosaurs into fifty-meter monstrosities with fire breath. But subjects like nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and so on? All new, mostly unexplored, and very fertile ground for the new era of pseudoscience.
We still laugh at the idea that getting caught in a nuclear blast can turn someone into anything but a pile of radioactive ash. We scoff at the oozes, serums, and vats that worked their magic on a generation of characters. But at the same time, we’re open to the idea that the wizardly “genetic engineering” can make someone capable of lifting a truck one-handed. Because we don’t have the same understanding of the limits of that branch of science, compared to the others.
I’m not saying that there’s no place or no purpose for modern pseudoscience, just that we need to stop pretending that we’re somehow better just because we use nanotechnology instead of cosmic rays. We need to accept that there’s room in this world for both the modern and the retro, and that it’s ok if writers sometimes decide to use the atom bomb instead of a smart-gene neurochemical. It’s all just as stupid and ignorant as each other. After all, we’re writers, not scientists, and even if we’re both it’s often necessary to sacrifice accuracy for good storytelling.
As writers, we need to understand that it’s all the same nonsense, but as an audience, we need to be more open to that nonsense. Maybe we’d have to sit through less long, rambling bits of exposition about prehistoric pulsars or tachyon phase-shifting if we could just accept that maybe sometimes, a radioactive spider can give you super-powers.