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How now, Stephen King?

When it comes to life sciences, the master storyteller asks more questions than he answers

By | October 18, 2007

There's no question that, with book sales of more than a quarter billion copies, Stephen King is one of the most popular authors of the modern era. Part of his astonishing success can be traced to his brilliant use of that old science fiction axiom about focusing on one subject and asking the question: "what if?" Along with spot-on characterization, King is an expert at imagining the worst possible consequences for scientific or pseudo-scientific events. The only problem with King's stories is he usually spends so much time answering "what if?" that he doesn't explain how or why. King seems to have a special affinity for life sciences. In his television mini-series The Golden Years (Spelling Entertainment, 1991), King looks into the horrors of growing older and the attempts by modern scientists to reverse or prevent these changes. At the fictional Falco Plains Agricultural Testing Facility, a top-secret Department of Defense military operation is doing research into aging, regeneration of lost limbs, and possibly more, all in an effort to keep soldiers on the front lines longer and longer. A particle accelerator explodes, mice squeal, people fight the blast with ordinary red fire extinguishers. In the end, the byproduct of the explosion is a chemical called K93 that heals wounds, regenerates tissue, makes gray hair white again, restores perfect vision to the elderly -- and, most importantly, reverses the entire aging process. The story's underlying theme is "what if?" What if a particle accelerator blew up and reversed the aging process in humans, or created a miracle chemical that regenerates damaged or lost tissue? King makes no attempt to explain how a particle accelerator works, nor does he explain why main characters near the site of the blast survive it, given that he describes it as more powerful "than a supernova." He does not explain how the K93 green glow makes Harlan become increasingly younger. The sciences of aging and tissue regeneration are never discussed. Life sciences play an equally important role in King's most popular novel, The Stand. At the beginning of the novel, security guard Charlie Campion flees with his family from a secret desert biological warfare lab where scientists have been working on a deadly plague virus. An accident has occurred at the lab and Charlie is the only person to escape alive. But he's been infected with the killer flu, and it's only a matter of time before it kills him and his family. Unfortunately, Charlie survives long enough to reach a gas station in Texas where he infects several more people. One of the hapless victims passes the plague onto his cousin, a police officer. A highway patrolman, he infects a traveling salesman. By then, it's too late for the government to isolate the flu bug. Spreading with the rapidity of a geometric progression, the disease, nicknamed "Captain Tripps," wipes out 99.9% of humanity in a mere seventeen days. King describes the ravages of the disease in horrific detail, but again, there's no scientific explanation or background on the origin of the plague provided to the curious reader. "Captain Tripps" already exists when the story begins, and King is only interested in the devastation caused by its release. It's the same with all of King's major novels that deal with life sciences. His stories revolve around the answer to "what if?" Here are some more: "What if" cell phones cause ordinary people to become flesh-eating maniacs? "What if" the daughter of a religious fanatic possesses incredible psionic powers? "What if" a young girl can start fires by just using her mind? These are questions born in the life sciences but that require only imagination to answer. It's formula writing, but done with style and flair. Hopefully, these novels will raise questions among some readers. And when they naturally look for answers to how and why, they'll discover the life sciences lurking just around the corner of King's most popular works. Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg mail@the-scientist.com Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg are the authors of The Science of Stephen King from John Wiley & Sons, 2007. Links within this article: Golden Years http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0101206/ S.J. Olshansky et al, "The longevity dividend," The Scientist, March 2006. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/23191/ S.J. Olshansky et al, "What if humans were designed to last?" The Scientist, March 2007. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/52872/ Lois H. Gresh http://www.seas.rochester.edu/~gresh/ Robert Weinberg http://www.robertweinberg.net/ Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg, The Science of Stephen King, John Wiley & Sons, 2007. http://tinyurl.com/2y8n96
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Comments

Avatar of: A King

A King's fan

Posts: 1

October 19, 2007

As you said, Stephen King is a storyteller. He is not a researcher and he does not write scientific papers. People want story, and he writes story. It is the same for Spielberg and all these famous authors. People do not care about the true things, the "how" and the "why" when they read his novels. They want to get out of their realty. And what about Michael Crichton who tried to do real in Jurassic Park by using a sequence of pBR322 as a part of a dinosaur's gene? (http://info.med.yale.edu/intmed/education/course/summer_2002/jpresults.html). \nIt's all about that.
Avatar of: Mark

Mark

Posts: 1

October 19, 2007

with over a quarter of a billion books sold, King has shown to be a successful storyteller indeed. And maybe by leaving out the scientific 'so how does this work?', he may actually have reached many more readers then he would have otherwise. \n\n\n\n
Avatar of: unknown

unknown

Posts: 4

October 19, 2007

The reason Stephen King doesn't go into the scientific background behind his stories is that people want stories not facts. The average person will not catch a scientific flaw or lack of an explanation in a movie/book. Most will simply enjoy it for what it is: a decent plot with action, violence, and/or humor. Yes, the scientist in the minority of us will fact check the movie for accuracy and explanations - but this is why we are who we are (and maybe why our social calendars are fairly open)
Avatar of: Deepti Zaremba

Deepti Zaremba

Posts: 2

October 19, 2007

Near the end of his life, my rocket-scientist dad turned away from technical periodicals and began to catch up on the leisure reading his science career had pre-empted.\n \nI asked him if he enjoyed science fiction, to which he replied a definite NO. He found the lack of the authors' understanding of even basic science frustrated and irritated him, both with its illogic and lack of feasibility. \n\nHowever, feasibility wasn't a problem with magic: much to the astonishment of his family, this hard-boiled scientist thoroughly enjoyed reading Harry Potter.\n\nA good story entertains and may even instruct. It certainly feeds the need for the miraculous and the mythic. Most people really don't care if the science, the action, or the romance is feasible. \n\nBut if reality gets in the way of the enjoyment, fault not the tale-teller. Instead, let us promote good science through great articles in both popular and technical media -- and for leisure reading, let the frustrated find another genre!
Avatar of: jessie

jessie

Posts: 1

October 19, 2007

I am curious of the purpose of the article. It initially appears to be a King bashing article but ends in an interesting way of implying that kings stories could be utilized to promote interest in science. I am a biomedical researcher, and I do not read much science fiction. I too get frustrated with Sci fi writers that do a poor job of describing science as it related to their story. One of the reasons I generally ONLY read King?s work, over and over again, I might add, is the story telling. One reason the story telling is so good is that he doses not get wrapped up in the science details. The science details could never explain his stories because they are such spectacular fiction! I noticed that the authors did not mention Roland the gunslinger. How much respect would scientists have for SK, if he had tried to explain how modern science could allow for a man to live nearly forever as in this story (and among many other currently scientifically impossible things). The reason the story is so fabulous is because it is not limited by what modern science can try to explain. These authors words, I feel, would be better utilized to discuss and solve all the scientific errors and inaccuracies on TV CSI shows since they are supposed to be based from real science. Please leave the best Sci fi composer alone so that he can prepare us another spectacular story not bound by modern science.
Avatar of: Kameko Suigami

Kameko Suigami

Posts: 1

October 19, 2007

Most laymen would neither understand nor be interested in an extensive scientific explanation for everything that happens in a story. I'm sure if King bothered to provide such a thing, his books wouldn't be nearly as popular.
Avatar of: yamuna

yamuna

Posts: 1

October 20, 2007

Most people read novels for entertainment. They do not care what are the actual scientific facts as long as it sounds "logical". If you want to know "how" and "why", fiction is not the right place you are looking for. There are specialized books for that purpose and they demand some scientific background knowledge from reader. If a book is targeted to a larger section of people, it better be simple and easy to follow rather than boring with all technical details.
Avatar of: Robert Pytlík

Robert Pytlík

Posts: 7

October 20, 2007

I can imagine that Mr King knows well that it must be quite irritating for an expert in a particular field to be confronted with inaccurate, simplified or stupid explanations of technical details from his area of knowledge. Beside this, I am sure he knows even better that too many technical details might effectively ruin the plot. Therefore, I believe that his avoidance of technical explanations is in fact fully intentional. As any other masterful craftsman, he simply turns a weakness into an advantage. Omission of unneccessary details helps to keep the tempo of his novels fast, so the reader is more obsessed with the question what happens next than how it will be (technically) possible.
Avatar of: Ron Coffey

Ron Coffey

Posts: 1

October 20, 2007

Stephen King's novels are FUN. Most scientific articles are NOT. Whenever I put catchy adjectives into my papers, the editors took them out. Besides, King's novels will always be germane (well, maybe not "Christina," since privately owned cars will surely become obsolete one day. Scientific facts will not always be correct. When I was born, all matter was composed of protons, neutrons, and electons. Now look at all the smaller guys! "Scientists sit in a circle and suppose; the SECRET sits in the center and KNOWS."
Avatar of: Dave

Dave

Posts: 3

October 23, 2007

Stephen King does not pose as a scientist. \n\nUnfortunately, some other entertainers do. \n\nWhile their story-telling (and star appeal) may do much to bring attention to an issue, they do not always bring facts, and occasionally bring misinformation. This can adversely affect policy and funding.
Avatar of: NYAS

NYAS

Posts: 1

November 19, 2007

On November 29th in New York City, Lois Gresh, author of ?The Science of Stephen King: From Carrie to Cell, The Terrifying Truth behind the Horror Master's Fiction? will lecture on her exciting novel and sign books during a post-lecture reception. \n\nThis exciting lecture, followed by a book-signing reception, will take place on November 29th; 6:00 PM - 7:30 PM; at the New York Academy of Sciences located at 7 World Trade Center, 250 Greenwich Street, 40th Floor, NY, NY. \n\nFor more information, visit http://www.nyas.org/events/eventDetail.asp?eventID=10641&date=11/29/2007%206:00:00%20PM \n

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