August 3, 2009

When lousy science meets an otherwise cool story

In my recently acquired collection of late-70s/early 80s back-issues, among some of the titles was a previously unknown (to me) DC title called Timewarp. It collects short science-fiction yarns; some are really good, some not so much, and some just plain suck. Nevertheless, in issue #4, George Kashdan's story "The Uncommon Cold" contained such grievous science blunders that it totally ruined an otherwise decent story.

It begins in a future Earth where a centuries-old (human) space probe crash lands on the surface. Inside, a horrific creature emerges! The humans present wonder how an alien got onboard a human probe; but, all this pontificating is set aside as the monstrosity whips out a tendril and touches one of the humans on the arm. Within seconds, the human lets out a massive sneeze -- much to the horror of his fellows! Why horror? Because the common cold had been eradicated on Earth centuries ago! The creature is carrying "cold germs," as the panicked humans call it.

And this is where the science nonsense begins. First, how does a mere touch on the arm by someone carrying "cold germs" cause someone to sneeze virtually immediately? "Cold germs" infect a person via the nose or eyes -- hence we're always told to wash our hands frequently during the winter months, and to keep our hands away from our eyes and nose (and mouth). Even if the common cold hadn't be around for hundreds of years, it would still infect humans in the same manner. Especially so, I believe.

Soon we see some higher-ups discussing the issue before them. One scientist says, "The so-called common cold can easily develop into an epidemic or pneumonia, influenza, or other related maladies!" In response to a query as to whether there is a cure, the scientist says, "No -- when the final disease organism was wiped out hundreds of years ago, antibiotic production ceased!"

Which is fine, except ... the common cold, influenza and several types of pneumonia would not be affected by antibiotics at all!! Why? Because they're caused by viruses, not bacteria! How could an advanced future Earth not know of these fundamental science facts? And, lest you think this was just a mere oversight on author Kashdan's part, nope! He sticks withe the premise: It's discovered that the creature in the probe was actually once human, but the "cold germs" it was carrying caused her to "mutate" over the centuries into a massive walking "cold germ." (Seriously.) The higher-ups dispatch a couple agents to travel back in time to the probe's launch -- to inject the female astronaut with ... penicillin!! But penicillin is an antibiotic! The common cold, again, is caused by a virus. Pencillin would have no effect on the common cold virus!!

Yeesh. Not only did these supposedly intelligent future humans bungle this whole time-travel "rescue," the pencillin -- which miraculously cured the astronaut of the common cold VIRUS -- comes back to bite the future Earth right in the ass: The astronaut from the past planned on mutating into a massive cold-carrying entity. It was to prevent a massive "cosmic cloud" from destroying the Earth centuries in the future -- which just now happens to be enveloping the globe! (How's that for timing?) DOH! Hence, the Earth is wiped out by the organisms contained in the cloud because the "antidote" -- the common cold virus -- is no longer available thanks to our time-traveling "saviors!"


Paul Smith Jr. said...

I always had the same problem with war of the Worlds. (Not that I blame HG Wells; he didn't know about germs yet.) But in the updated versions, these aliens are powerful enough to travel across space, quickly take over the entire planet, but aren't smart enough to get their shots before coming?

ShadowWing Tronix said...

It could be that those germs/viruses/whathaveyou didn't exist on Mars, so they wouldn't know to defend against it. The characters also believed that the germs were God's way of protecting us from Martians, although I think it would have worked much sooner that the time it takes to devistate the planet.