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The Biology Of Science Fiction Cinema by Mark C. Glassy

01/01/2012. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy The Biology Of Science Fiction Cinema in the USA - or Buy The Biology Of Science Fiction Cinema in the UK

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pub: McFarland. 296 page illustrated indexed small enlarged softcover. Price: GBP29.95 (UK), $35.00). ISBN: 978-0-7864-4835-7).

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Have you ever had a debate as to the accuracy of biology in Science Fiction films and wished there was a book available to point out how accurate or inaccurate it was when a scientist explains something, uses his laboratory equipment or even experiment?

Then look no further as with ‘The Biology Of Science Fiction Cinema’ by Mark C. Glassy, released in 2001, you have such a book. Although it’s a decade old now, it is still available, and Glassy covers all the major films that ply heavily on this subject area until that point. Glassy admits to being both a SF buff and a cancer research specialist, so can enjoy and be critical at the same time. It’s also a bonus that he also writes well and explains things that even the novice should understand. Mind you, as I’m not a novice, I did find this book rather easy to grasp but I don’t expect this to be a big stumbling block for none of you non-scientific types. If anything, you should come away from this book with a better grasp of scientific analysis and biology which isn’t a bad thing neither.

The book is divided into fifteen subject matters covering seventy-six films and one TV episode (‘Space: 1999’ of all things) so you do have a wide selection to choose from. It is written in such a way that it can be read either straight through or as a reference. With two columns to a page, this is not a light read but neither is Glassy repetitive nor boring. If a subject is covered in better detail with another film, he points to that one for further reading. Neither does he short change you on any information and will often quote from the films involved, a clear sign that the man is not out to ridicule our subject but rather to give a point of accuracy. If anything, he does it like any SF fan eager to point out the mistakes in what he’s seen but with forty actual working years in the subject to back himself up with up.

Do any of the films covered escape relatively unscathed? A few. He praises the 1964 film, ‘Frozen Alive’ and the ‘Alien’ films. I might draw him to task on whether the queen alien requires a mate to breed though. Apart from the fact one was never shown, all the adults after the face-hugger stage look the same. As it is also likely that the alien ‘drones’ are probably all female and only one gets the special treatment of longer gestation allowing it to breed tends to support that.

There are a couple things that are always going to cause problems. With science, there is always going to be a delay in getting the results for anything and both film and TV has a habit of condensing time rather than twiddling thumbs waiting and rarely is there any ‘A few weeks later’ captions used to explain the time gap cos it reduces the tension of the moment.

The translation of a novel into a film where liberties are taken by the scriptwriter or producer or director with the source. Using the 1993 film ‘Carnosaur’ as an example, the late John Brosnan, who wrote novels under the name of Harry Adam Knight, in his ‘Starburst’ magazine column actually explained the liberties with his novel made in the Roger Corman take on his book. Granted, as an American, Glassy might not have had access to this source, especially as he didn’t know the pseudonym, but it is easy to fall into such traps as to who was responsible for changing things to make it cinematic. Far too many hands between script and finished production can misdirect blame for any mistakes.

Although I doubt if Glassy would have had time to re-watch all the films he writes about in this book, when it comes to the 1966 film ‘Fantastic Voyage’, he did miss a scene where it was pointed out that the miniaturisation process would not work on radioactive matter so the fuel for the Proteus was already a minute particle waiting for the submarine to reach a size it could be used. Granted even that still sounds a little odd considering how all other elements can be reduced and all elements have some unstable isotopes but if you’re going to nit-pick then that should have been covered rather than saying the nuclear pile was also reduced.

His final chapter on laboratory equipment had me chuckling, especially as so many film laboratories have the ever ready Bunsen burner flame going and I agree with Glassy on that subject. It should also be required reading for anyone in the film laboratory as what not to do although saying that, I hope Glassy considers writing a book pointing out what equipment to have in a laboratory for cinema uses. Two pieces of equipment he neglected to include were fume cupboards, although considering the noise of the extractor fan I can’t see the sound crew not being happy, to extract or contain dangerous gases from all that famous Bunsen burner flame and cabinets to store away equipment, especially the glassware. Fire extinguishers seem to be optional considering how many labs get burnt down.

Science subjects outside of biology, Glassy tends to point towards ‘The Physics Of Star Trek’ by Lawrence Krause as the best reference a decade ago. Granted that it is a good book it still is, it’s just a shame that there were no other books around at that time that could be used as a reference than one that just focused on the final frontier.

The more I read, the more time I had to ponder on which films Glassy should have covered in his criteria. He admits with the insects section that he only used a selection to make a point. However, it’s a shame he didn’t use any of the Quatermass films or even ‘The Andromeda Strain’ in his deliberations as I’d loved to have known his thoughts on their depictions.

Considering that many modern films have scientific consultants to ensure there is some accuracy with what is shown on the screen, it is hardly surprising how things are now looking better for the film laboratory, most notable is the absence of the constantly burning Bunsen burner, even if it does give some light (sic) and movement to an otherwise peaceful environment.

As you can tell from the length of this review, this is a book that I enjoyed reading. It is not a stuffy analysis and in many places, even Glassy goes tongue-in-cheek with some of the practices he witnesses. Those of you who read this book should come away with fresh insight and more than a passing knowledge of some of the sciences.

GF Willmetts

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