Fringe Science delves into the science, science fiction, and pseudoscience of Fringe with a collection of essays on everything from alternate universes to time travel to genetically targeted toxins, as well as discussions on the show’s moral philosophy and the consequences of playing God.
- MIT physics professor Max Tegmark illuminates the real-life possibilities of parallel universes
- Stephen Cass, founding editor of Discover’s Science Not Fiction blog and a senior editor with MIT Technology Review, unravels Fringe’s use of time travel
- Award-winning science fiction historian Amy H. Sturgis walks us through the show’s literary and television ancestors, from the 1800s on
- Television Without Pity staff writer Jacob Clifton looks at the role of the scientist, and scientific redemption, through the ever-shifting role of Massive Dynamic
- Garth Sundem, bestselling author of Brain Candy, explores the mysterious way that memory works, from why Walter forgets to how Olivia remembers
- Paul Levinson, award-winning author of The Silk Code, shows how Fringe re-invents themes from golden-age 1950s science fiction
And more, from lab cow Gene’s scientific résumé to why the Observers should be wearing white lab coats.
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About the Author
Contributors to Fringe Science include: Brendan Allison, Amy Berner, Mike Brotherton, Stephen Cass, Jacob Clifton, Jovana Grbic, Robert Jeschonek, Paul Levinson, Nick Mamatas, Amy H. Sturgis, Garth Sundem, and David Thomas
Read an Excerpt
PARANORMAL IS THE NEW NORMAL
DAVID DYLAN THOMAS
In television and cinema science fiction we're frequently exposed to paranormal phenomena, the source of which the viewer eventually learns is mysticism, the supernatural, or the Occult. Such works, then, belong more in the overarching realm of speculative fiction rather than science fiction. On Fringe we are constantly fed a similar diet of phenomena, like precognition, telekinesis, clairvoyance, and astral projection, but always given a physical basis that defers to the scientific and rational. Based upon this, David Dylan Thomas argues that Fringe rightfully earns its place firmly within the realm of science fiction.
The Fringe Files
On September 9, 2008, Fringe premiered on Fox, the same network that launched The X-Files fifteen years earlier (almost to the day). The two shows seemed to share a lot in common: in both, a specialty division of the FBI investigates paranormal activity, applying scientific rigor and professional investigation techniques to the bizarre and unexplained. There is even a no-nonsense female lead new to all these strange goings-on about to be taken on a journey that will change her life. It seemed Fringe would have little to distinguish itself from its groundbreaking kith, until a pattern — if you'll excuse the phrase — began to emerge.
Within its first season, The X-Files' investigators had encountered ghosts, mediums, reincarnation, faith healing, werewolves, and, well, whatever you call it when a twin is psychically controlled by his dead brother's frozen head ("Roland," 1-23). Within its first season, Fringe covered exactly two of these topics: ghosts ("The Equation," 1-8) and mediums ("The Ghost Network," 1-3) — and in neither case were they faced with the real deal. The X-Files would go on to tackle vampires, the Devil, zombies, and God. In its entire run so far, Fringe has tackled exactly none of these.
Two Flavors of Weird
When paranormal stuff happens in fiction — or real life, for that matter — we tend to blame one of two culprits: the supernatural or the scientific. If we see a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat, either he has mystical powers that science cannot explain or he's simply opened a portal to another universe that is, for some reason, overrun with rabbits. Fringe would prefer to believe the latter. It is not interested in the paranormal as it pertains to the supernatural. In fact, if you look at the title sequence, the show makes itself quite clear on exactly what it believes constitutes paranormal activity. The list of words that go floating by include, in season one:
Psychokinesis Teleportation Nanotechnology Artificial Intelligence Precognition Dark Matter Suspended Animation Cybernetics Transmogrification
And in season two:
Hypnosis ESP Hive Mind Pyrokinesis Neuroscience Clairaudience Cryonics Parallel Universes Astral Projection Mutation Protoscience Genetic Engineering
Nowhere do we see vampirism, lycanthropy, the undead, or spectrology (the study of ghosts).
The title itself expresses the limit of the show's paranormal jurisdiction. Fringe refers to the term "fringe science." The phenomena the team explores are on the fringe of science, but are still, by definition, within the boundaries of science.
A Ghost by Any Other Name
The focus of the series can be best expressed by the episodes in which Fringe Division ostensibly concerns itself with supernatural phenomena, only to explain it away using science. In "The Ghost Network," the team encountered Roy McComb, a man who believed his ability to predict horrible events came from communication with the Devil. What was actually happening was that Roy, experimented on earlier by Walter Bishop, had a compound in his blood that allowed him to receive transmissions on a secret radio frequency used by normal human beings who were planning these events. The "medium" was simply a living antenna. In "The Equation," a boy believed he was seeing his dead mother come back to life but was in fact strapped to a machine that created hallucinations. In Fringe, ghosts are just electrical impulses in the brain.
Even your garden-variety monsters take on some weird scientific ontology in the Fringe-iverse. The closest the team has ever gotten to a vampire was a spinal fluid–sucking victim of experimentation ("Midnight," 118). The closest it has ever gotten to a werewolf was a designer virus that turned a man into a beast ("The Transformation," 1-13). Shape-shifting, common in many folklores (including vampire and werewolf myths), manifests itself in the series as cybernetic soldiers from an alternate universe who take on the forms of friends and loved ones to infiltrate our world. Even though they are explicitly referred to by the more mythical-sounding moniker "shape-shifters," their technological roots are quite literally skin deep, as demonstrated whenever an injury reveals the mercury that courses through their veins.
The Post-Paranormal World
So why not do an episode about zombies that are actually zombies or ghosts that are actually ghosts? It worked for TheX-Files. Why would a show limit itself to the narrative possibilities offered by science fiction and not include the potential plot twists available in supernatural horror? Part of the reason may stem from the difference between telling spooky stories in 2008 versus telling spooky stories in 1993.
In 1993, a vampire was a vampire was a vampire. In the popular culture, Francis Ford Coppola's gothic take on Dracula had hit theaters the year before and Neil Jordan's film adaptation of Interview with a Vampire was still a year away. We were just beginning to wrap our minds around treating a vampire as a sympathetic character, or at least as an antihero, but at the end of the day, a vampire was a scary (albeit sexy) dude who sucked your blood.
In 2008, a vampire is, if not everyman, then at least eminently relatable for a number of reasons. First off, they're all over television, novels, and movies — True Blood,Twilight, and The Vampire Diaries, and in years prior, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Blade. Secondly, they're all warm and cuddly. Each of those titles I just mentioned contains sympathetic vampire protagonists. Not antiheroes. Just plain old heroes. Thirdly, and most importantly, vampires are unliving out loud. In the world of True Blood, vampires are a part of everyday life. If a character runs into one, they don't have to worry about someone else not believing the encounter took place. Vampires are just ... normal.
Pop culture's attitude adjustment toward the undead doesn't stop there. Zombies are the new vampires. They're the stars of the critically acclaimed, ratings record-breaking television series The Walking Dead, itself an adaptation of a wildly popular comic book. The 2004 film Dawn of the Dead found both box office and critical success. It was considered to be one of the few horror remakes worth watching, and launched the career of director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) to boot. They've even been woven into the literary fabric with the best seller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which itself has launched a subgenre of horror/classic mash-ups including Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and, of course, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which, like Prejudice, will be made into a feature film. And zombies can do more than scare us now. They can make us laugh. Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, Fido,Dead and Breakfast, and Dead Snow all represent entries in the new "Zom Com" or "Zombedy" subgenre.
There seems little sport — and even less fear — in doing an episode about zombies or vampires when they all pretty much have their own agents now.
Fringe Knows What Scares You
The other difference between telling scary stories in the early '90s versus the late '00s is what scares us. In the early '90s our obsession with technology was, relatively speaking, nascent. The internet was only just taking root (The X-Files was, in fact, one of the first television shows to benefit from online fandom), and our gadget-mongering was still limited to the relatively new innovation known as the mobile phone (a staple Mulder and Scully accessory). Today, the myriad ways in which we interact with technology both fascinate and unsettle us. In the last ten years, the human genome has been mapped, computers have been placed in virtually every object (including our own bodies), wireless communication has infiltrated nearly every corner of the map, and the rate of data accumulation has accelerated to five exabytes every two days (that's as much data as was collected between the dawn of man and 2003). Each of these advances gives us as much cause for trepidation as celebration, resulting in a sort of mystical reverence for technology: a veneration that combines both senses of the term — respect and terror — and which supplants the mysticism of the truly mystical. Put simply, the supernatural is no longer as frightening as the technological.
The X-Files had its share of technophobia — computers gone mad ("Ghost in the Machine," 1-7), genetic tampering ("Young at Heart," 1-16), engineered superviruses ("F. Emasculate," 2-22), bioengineering ("War of the Coprophages," 3-12) — but these were only a part of the mix. Fringe devotes itself exclusively to the ways in which technology can kill us. In particular, it dwells on the question of what happens when we experiment on ourselves. In many cases, the root cause of the phenomenon being investigated is an experiment Walter had a hand in himself. It is as if, when offered the classic universal monster tableau that includes Dracula, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man, the writers chose to focus exclusively on Frankenstein.
As if to drive this point home, one of the ongoing mysteries of season one was the meaning of the letters ZFT, which were revealed in "Ability" (1-14) to stand for the title of a book, Zerstörung durch Fortschritte der Technologie. This translates roughly to "destruction by advancement of technology." The title amounts to a Fringe narrative mission statement. And, as the show demonstrates, there are many different ways in which that destruction can unfold.
Your Own Worst Enemy
A decade into the twenty-first century, we know more about the human body than ever before. But with that knowledge comes the ability to cause more damage than ever before. This tension makes body horror — a horror subgenre in which terror derives from the degeneration or mutilation of the body, often via disease or experimentation — a particularly potent vessel for Fringe plotlines. From the flesh-dissolving contagion of the pilot to the grotesque body-mods of the time traveling Alistair Peck in "White Tulip" (2-18), what can happen to our bodies — or what we can do to our own — is a pervasive fear.
A particularly striking example appears in "Ability," in which a toxin was synthesized to cause all of a victim's orifices to seal shut, thus suffocating them. This resonates in two ways: One, the toxin worked by causing the body's scar tissue mechanism to go into overdrive, sealing any gap in skin tissue, thus using something that is meant to heal us to kill us. Our own body used against us. Two, it left its victims effectively faceless, echoing our own fears about being rendered without identity by technology. In both ways, we were betrayed by the very technology meant to save us.
Even major characters have technology-related health issues. Recurring season-one villain Mr. Jones found himself dying slowly after using a teleportation device invented by Walter. Nina Sharp lost an arm to Walter's universe-crossing machine. Walter's own mental issues were traced back to having parts of his brain removed and added to other people via advanced technology.
In the Army Now
One of the scariest stories we can read in the newspaper is that a terrorist organization or enemy country is closer than we are to developing some sort of technology that can cause us harm. Even when our own country develops formidable military tech, we can't help but wonder how long it will be before that same tech is used against us.
These anxieties manifest in interesting and sometimes paradoxical ways on the show. Not only does the idea of shape-shifting take on a strictly scientific form, as stated before, but it takes on a peculiarly militaristic one as well. Here, the imagined tech reflects a military fear that is, ironically, not the result of technology in the real world. The threat posed by the shape-shifters is that you'll never know who one is until it is too late. This taps into the very basic military fear of not knowing who the enemy is (a pervasive J.J. Abrams trope). In the War on Terror, the fear abroad is not being able to distinguish civilians from combatants, while at home the paranoia centers on being unable to distinguish sleepers from citizens.
The most potent examples of this dilemma defined the initial arc of seasons two and three. Season two opened with Agent Charlie Francis being replaced by a shape-shifting soldier from the alternate universe, deceiving everyone, including Olivia Dunham, who was closer to him than any of the other regulars. Season three opened with an even more intimate and prolonged deception, when Olivia from the alternate universe replaced our own, deceiving her lover, Peter Bishop, who had grown closer to the real Olivia than anyone. Fringe takes the paranoia of not knowing if the stranger in the airport is a terrorist and extends it to the person sharing your bed.
Of course, technology need not be new to be scary. Suicide bombers have been around since at least the 1880s, but their prevalence in modern warfare has put them front and center in the public amygdala. It is no wonder, then, that the concept of a weaponized human has appeared in several episodes: "Fracture" (2-3); "The Cure" (1-6); and "The Road Not Taken" (1-19). "Fracture" was the most explicit of these metaphors. The victims, injected with a serum that turned them into living explosives that shattered when a particular radio frequency was transmitted, were in fact being used to send a message by a rogue military commander. Olivia and Peter even traveled to Iraq to find the root of the serum, which originated as an attempt to counter chemicals used by Saddam himself.
That technology can turn us into weapons, even without our knowledge, is an all-too-real scenario that Fringe exploits. Peter himself is the greatest human weapon the show has produced to date. The doomsday devices that dominate season three are inextricably linked to him, unable to function without at least some of his DNA. When he was fully integrated with one of the machines in the season-three finale, "The Day We Died," it destroyed an entire universe. The design of the devices suggests that in modern warfare, it is the complete integration of man and machine that holds the greatest destructive — and redemptive, given Peter's ability to use the machine to bridge the universes — potential.
What's in the Box?
Then there is, of course, what we usually think of when we think of technology: iPads, cell phones, laptops, camcorders. You know, gadgets. Or, in the world of Fringe, killer gadgets. The mysterious cylinders of "The Arrival" (1-4); the window that Walter ultimately used to cross over into a parallel universe in "Peter" (2-16); the doomsday devices both sides built throughout season three. This flavor of technophobia is as old as the atomic bomb, but its pervasiveness in the show suggests that there is no scientific leap forward that cannot cause untold, if not unforeseen, damage.
Perhaps the most deliberately metaphorical instance of this fear was represented by "The Box" (3-2), in which a mysterious container killed those who opened it (and anyone nearby). On any other show, we'd be dealing with something mystical, like Pandora's Box or the Ark of the Covenant, but this box did its damage using an ultrasonic wave. Given the mystical reverence we have for technology, though, the "how" is almost beside the point. Most consumer technology today comes in the form of a closed box. An iPod, a laptop, a DVR. We don't know what's inside, and we don't particularly care, as long as it does what we want it to. But the mystery inside the box has never been greater. Even if you can't guess what all the parts of a car do, they're at least differentiated. Break open an iPod and you simply see more "boxes." That the eponymous box caused harm using invisible waves simply enhanced the mystical aura and echoed the very real fears people have about modern technology causing internal, invisible harm. A thresher can rip your arm off, but a cell phone can give you brain cancer.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fringe Science"
Copyright © 2018 Kevin R. Grazier.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction Kevin R. Grazier
Paranormal Is the New Normal” David Thomas
In Search of Fringe’s Literary Ancestors” Amy H. Sturgis
The Return of 1950s Science Fiction in Fringe” Paul Levinson
Parallel Universes” Max Tegmark
Déjà New” Mike Brotherton
The Malleability of Memory” Garth Sundem
Fringe Diseases” Jovana Grbic
The Fringes of Neurotechnology” Brendan Allison
Of White Tulips and Wormholes” Stephen Cass
Moo” Amy Berner
Waltered States” Nick Mamatas
Fringe Double-Blinded Me With Science” Robert T. Jeschonek
Massive Dynamic” Jacob Clifton
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Amazing show, definitely one of my favorites :)