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Comic-Con Fans Continue The Epic Battle Between Science And Fiction


At the San Diego Comic-Con now underway, toys, comic books and costumes fill the exhibit floor with color and light. It's a crush of bodies buzzing on adrenaline and fan joy.

But there's another dimension of Comic-Con tucked away in the quiet conference rooms of the San Diego Convention Center. It's a world where conversation dominates, not products or movie stars. And that Comic-Con might surprise you. NPR's Glen Weldon visited these rooms and found an old debate - a serious one - that's still going on.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: There are over a thousand panel sessions at Comic-Con every year where attendees gather for a Q and A with their favorite author, a behind-the-scenes peek at the craft of comic book-making or a discussion of some nerdy academic topic. And this year, several of these panels are devoted to the same issue - the interplay of science and storytelling. It's something attendees like Jody Meadows care deeply about.

JODY MEADOWS: One of the great things about science is that we don't know everything yet. We're still learning. So there are people who want to know how to make warp drives, so they're trying it. I think that science fiction inspires more science.

WELDON: Her friend, Cynthia Hand, thinks about how to balance science fact with science fiction.

CYNTHIA HAND: I think that if you can get us to believe in the reality of the story based on the real facts, then it's easier to make this sort of jump when you want something to be unreal.

WELDON: Many here strongly believe that the science in science fiction should be firmly grounded in reality. They are devotees of what's called hard sci-fi, which emphasizes technical detail and scientific rigor. If you've read Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke or Catherine Asaro, you've read hard sci-fi. Andy Weir's "The Martian" is a recent example.


MATT DAMON: (As Mark Watney) I'm going to have to science the [expletive] out of this.

WELDON: Of course, there's more to science fiction than hard sci-fi. Writers like Samuel R. Delany, Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. Le Guin are more interested in how technology changes people than the technology itself. For the two most successful science fiction franchises in history, scientific rigor isn't really what they're about.


WELDON: Light sabers in "Star Wars," transporter beams in "Star Trek," and faster-than-light travel in both of them - all scientifically impossible today and likely tomorrow as well, which is why some here - like attendee Steve Hendricks - say neither "Star Wars" nor "Star Trek" is science fiction at all.

STEVE HENDRICKS: Well, "Star Wars," of course, is complete fantasy (laughter). "Star Trek," the whole bit about transporters being able to work - A, it's pretty far-fetched, being able to work without a mechanism at the far end. It's almost a deal breaker for me. But I could figure - what the heck, you know? We can - I can let that one slide.

WELDON: For these folks, it comes down to storytelling. Tell me a story, is what many fans here say they want. Assert the rules for the reality you're creating. Don't explain them, and be consistent. Do that, and readers will buy it - most readers, anyway, not all. There will always be fans who insist on strict accuracy. "The Simpsons" knew that when, almost 20 years ago, they set a scene in a conference room at a convention a lot like this one.


HANK AZARIA: (As Doug) In episode 2F09, when Itchy plays Scratchy's skeleton like a xylophone, he strikes the same rib twice in succession, yet he produces two clearly different tones. I mean, what are we to believe, that this is some sort of a (laughter) magic xylophone or something?

WELDON: That's, of course, a parody of the inflexibility of nerds. But for the nerds I talked to, they're OK with a little magic in the mix. Glen Weldon, NPR News, San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.