Jul 12 2012 1:00pm

In Praise of Red Matter

Call it whatever you’d like. Phlebotinum. Kryptonite. The X-Gene. Nanotechnology. Unobtanium.

Red matter is... the stuff that explains the science fiction in your story. Or, rather, the stuff that refuses to explain anything and just excuses the science fiction in your story. A single source origin story for everything impossible that you want to include, no matter how disparate and bizarre.

Do you want to write about an invisible woman this week? Well, lucky for you, the Hellmouth makes some people invisible. What about a demonic computer program? Hellmouth does that too. How about kids becoming hyenas? Still Hellmouth. What about?—Hellmouth. And?—Hellmouth. Bu?—Hellmouth. Hellmouth. Nothing but Hellmouth, all the way down.

Personally, I think red matter is great. It does away with so much exposition and moves the plot along. In the seminal novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelly skips blithely over how Dr. Victor Frankenstein animated his creature (with an off-hand, “No, no, it is far too dangerous for you to know,”) and gets right into an allegory for God’s relationship to Man. Even when James Whale’s later movies delved a little more into the how, it basically stopped at lightning and “chemicals.” Which chemicals? The ones that worked.

Yes, some really great science fiction is about how the impossible is happening in this story, particularly the works of Jules Verne and Isaac Asimov. Chris Roberson’s iZombie has a brilliant single origin for zombies, vampires, ghosts, poltergeists, werewolves, and possessions, involving the ancient Egyptian belief in over-souls and under-souls. 

But most science fiction isn’t really about the how. Most is about why we want the impossible to happen, and what the consequences are if it does. Wells, and Orwell, and Bradbury, and L’Engle used the impossible to comment on society, and government, and family, and love, and used only the barest explanation of how any of this was done. 

And the red matter in Star Trek (2009) is my favorite example of just cold not explaining anything. First off, it does not try to hide the fictional nature of the substance behind a scientific sounding name. It’s not a dilithium crystal. It’s fucking “red matter.” (Ironically, in giving it a dumb name, it sounds more like real scientific concepts like dark matter and the Big Bang.) Secondly, red matter is a big ball of red... let’s say paint? That makes black holes. That are also sometimes wormholes into an alternate timeline. Why? Because that’s what the writers needed it to do.

Obviously, any thinking about red matter will find faults with it. Any thinking. At all. If the wormhole spat out two ships, why didn’t it spit out the energy of the galaxy destroying supernova it was created to absorb? Why does a little amount destroy a planet, but the great big ball destroys only one ship? 

But the Star Trek franchise is full of red matter. Transporter accidents. Holodeck accidents. Warp speed accidents. And that’s not getting into the series of Omnipotent Space Douches who show up just to rewrite the laws of psychics on a lark.

By calling their plot device “red matter,” the writers basically held up a neon sign that said, “No. Stop. Don’t think about it. Abandon all disbelief ye who enter here.” Just accept that it works like we say it does, sit back, relax, and enjoy shots of Chris Pine hanging from things. (Seriously, he does that a lot. A drinking game involving that and lens flare will kill you.)

I wrote a post about why I hate X-Men’s mutant gene, and one of the reasons I hate it, besides it undermining the metaphor of the X-Men, is that it explains too much. You could just say “they’re mutants” and move on to Wolverine bitching at Cyclops, and it’d be fine. But instead you get bogged down in how the gene works, and how it gets passed on, and why it causes this mutant to be big, blue, and furry, and that mutant to turn into ice. But really, the entire Marvel universe can be explained by “Cosmic radiation hit the Earth that one time, and that’s why things are weird.”

In short, it does not matter how Superman flies. It only matters that Superman can fly, and how he chooses to use that power. Unless there is a really good story there, getting into the how of the impossible is just... hand-waving.

Steven Padnick is a freelance writer and editor. By day. You can find more of his writing and funny pictures at

1. Tesh
Except at that point it may as well *be* magic. "Science" fiction can do better than that... but that's a different animal from the Star Trek/Wars/Gate fictional universes anyway.

My biggest complaint with red matter isn't that it's some funky new magic handwavey techy tech, it's that it's not used consistently. The science in that movie is awful, but of all of it, red matter being some sort of super black hole inducer is actually one of the easiest things for me to swallow, indeed, partially because they don't get bogged down in the *how* and they just let it work.
2. Howard Tayler
I love the included comic. Kate Beaton's work is delightful.

How come she wasn't credited? Was this used with permission?
Ruth Vincent
3. LadyAtarah
The use of "red matter" in the Star Trek movie was fun.
This was not the first time J. J. Abrams used a big, red sphere of... something, either. Alias used a big, red, sphere, too-- though I think that was more about the weird machine than the red ball-- and was also fun.
Mordicai Knode
4. mordicai
"A wizard did it!"

I'm willing to buy into a premise. You don't have to soak me with implausible details. Just hit me with a MacGuffin & get on with it!
Mordicai Knode
5. mordicai
2. Howard Tayler

If you mouse-over, you'll see that the comic links to Ms. Beaton's site.
6. That Neil Guy

Why couldn't he just stick with The Force and be done with it?
Nathan Martin
7. lerris
This is why I've grown to prefer fantasy over science-fiction.

I know enough about science that a bad scientific rationale bothers me. Ironically enough, I started to feel that the magic systems I was reading or watching were more internally consistent than some of the science. While I still appreciate a good science fiction tale, bad science breaks the immersion, whereas inconsistent magic does not, hence fantasy became a safer bet.

Give me something like red matter and I know what to expect. It's a storytelling device that lets me enjoy the movie for what it is, even if it doesn't survive the inevitable post-movie deconstruction.
Michael Grosberg
8. Michael_GR
I don't know. "red matter" just sounds so dumb. Dark matter I can understand. It's literally unknown - it's a big question mark in science, not a specific material. But red matter is an actual known material. When Marie Curie discovered radium, did she name it "Glowy stuff"? hell no. Scientists love to give interesting names to new discoveries - they can be proper scientific sounding names, or quirky names like "charm" or "strange", or names taken from pop culture (there's a trilobite named after Mick Jagger!), or imaginitive names like the Noctis Labyrinthus on mars. I can even see someone naming a material "uunobtanium" in real life, as an in-joke. But not red matter. It's worse than lazy - it's like the writers WANT to break our suspension of disbelief.

I'm OK with writers coming up with imaginary stuff. It's a lot of fun to come up with something and extrapolate how it would affect people and what can be done with it. But inventing some stuff with mutable characteristics that does whatever the plot demands is another thing altogether. Wells invented his Cavorite out of whole cloth, but once defined, Cavorite remained what it was, an anti-gravity mineral. It was not later discovered that it also allowed ships to travel through time. It did not suddenly give the characers super powers when they were taken in by the lunarians. It was not suddenly able to move mountains where once it could only move a single space vessel. It did that one thing, which was get the characters to the moon and back, and that was it. Red matter on the other hand was used as a Deus Ex Machina, just like any other kind of tech in ST. That's just bad writing. Not that anyone would expect differently from Star Trek with its ever expanding particle-of-the-month list (which if memory serves me only started after Rodenberry passed away - TOS was mostly particle-free).
9. James Davis Nicoll
But really, the entire Marvel universe can be explained by “Cosmic radiation hit the Earth that one time, and that’s why things are weird.”

That's more the New Universe. The main Marvel setting is more "jerkass aliens tamper with human genetics; hilarity ensues". The Celestials make the old Hain look like kindly humanitarians. I strongly suspect if we could understand what the Celestials say, a suprisingly large percentage of their statements would be variations on "Hold my beer and watch this."
10. rowanblaze
I think Steven has a point, though. So much science fiction is about exploring the human condition, and much of the "technology" is magic. A perfect example is Frank Herbert's Dune, between the "Holzmann Effect" enabling everything from personal shields and lights to interstellar travel and the idea that the most valuable substance in the universe is essentially worm poop, there is no real explanationof any of the tech. But it's a hell of an epic story that a lot of about geopolitics and the dangers of fanaticism. Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" even has a pantheon of Angels, but no one is calling it fantasy.
11. rowanblaze
And @8 Michael_GR: I'm pretty sure "radium" is basically Latin for "glowy stuff." :)
Jack Flynn
12. JackofMidworld
Sometimes it's fun to watch somebody hang a lampshade on it, too. One of my favorite parts of SG1 was watching Carter try to explain it and watching Macyv - er, I mean O'Neill just cut her off in mid-sentence because he really doesn't care how it works, just if it will or not.
13. DHMCarver
I enjoyed this post, and it got me to thinking about some points raised in the post a few days ago on the blog about Robert Heinlein. Some of the many posters on that excellent thread were wondering about the seeming preponderance of fantasy novels versus science fiction novels in the present day, versus when Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov et al. were writing. My thought (which I should have also posted to the Heinlein thread, but I came to it late) is that we know so much about more about science now -- space travel, genetics, etc. The freedom to speculate is perhaps more restricted now for hard science fiction, whereas fantasy has a wider latitude for imagination. (In fantasy, everything is phlebotinum?) Just a thought. . . .
14. Tesh
I love that interaction between O'Neill and Carter, and it's played out several times in different ways over the years. I like that Carter's role in that exchange suggests that there's a techy tech reality to things, but we can go on without digging into it.
Jack Flynn
15. JackofMidworld
@ Tesh - exactly! It was that kind of an interaction that made me actually really start to pay attention to the tech of it all (which, sadly, made me glare at some of the "technical made-up-word-of-the-week" episodes of shows that will remain nameless)

What's funny? I spent the last 5 hours discussing possibilities and maybes...there was a lot of phlebotium thrown around, plus some time dilation and maybe even some neutronium. The general consesus was "if you deal with it and explain it, no matter how flimsy it may be, the reader will be okay with it, just because you addressed it and offered some type of explanation."
16. martianarts
I stumbled on this after idly googling "red matter" whilst watching the Star Trek movie again (which I love btw). I like what you're saying (and yes That Neil Guy! midichlorians! aargh!!), but I have to say on the "red matter" example I really disagree.

The problem with the "red matter" in Star Trek is exactly the problem you're talking about: it tries to explain itself far too much. By taking a concept from theoretical physics and showing it in a dumb, misunderstood way, it gets in the way of an otherwise engaging plot. And by showing something that looks like paint that you can put in a teeny-tiny syringe and carry around and only creates world-destroying black holes when you feel like it, the writers created far more problems than they needed to. Their half-assed explanation was far worse than no explanation, and sticks out badly in a film that otherwise doesn't attempt to deal with the science at all.

If they'd just used a big black box with "Black Hole GeneratorTM" written on it, we wouldn't even be having this conversation.
Harry Burger
17. Lightbringer
The Force was enough, it was the Unobtanium, and that was fine. Then they tried to explain where the Unobtanium came from with real science, but using the wrong word that sounds kinda close and we know that the real science doesn't do that.

I want some level of explanation of how it works, why doesn't matter so much, but at a minimum be consistent and rational. If a drop of red matter can wipe out a planet, why would any sane person store that much of it in one blob? And why isn't it really well protected so the bad guys can't just walk in and use it? They should have needed to hack Spock's computer or something.
S.J. MacMillan
18. S.J.MacMillan
Red Matter fits well with my three main SFF viewing/reading tools...

The Donut Mind
If I want to enjoy the work I leave a large hole in the center of my mind for all inconsistencies and ridiculousness to just pass through. (But if I want to rip a work to shreds there is no hole large enough for even the slightest detail to pass through.)

They Meant To Do That
This one I use most when I ask questions such as "Why does this character look so goofy?" or "Why is this sacred belief or song or ritual so shallow or badly written or dumb?" The answer is: "Because the alien/high priest/singer-o-songs meant for it to be just like it is!"

Here's how I applied that tool in an actual situation:

Why does Neelix look like he's wearing really silly makeup?

Because he is wearing really silly makeup...That's what
Talaxians do! They also like to wear clothing that looks as if it's made from upholstery usually only seen in hip 20th century Earth airport lounges.

It's Always Water
Humanity faces its greatest threat and it definitely looks like extinction or enslavement and then we discover the one thing that will kill the aliens/robots/diseased hoards. Yay!

My name for this rule came from the movie Signs when I heard complaining from some peoples that the aliens were destroyed with (SPOILER ALERT!) water.

"It's always water," I pointlessly tried to point out to the complainers. "There's a long battle or giant threat and then we find out that the Martians can't stand up to bacteria or you if you shine a light on them they burst into flames or if you play Slim Whitman records real loud..."
19. EzioCauthon
Interesting thoughts in here. One thing I can't help but "correct", if that's the right term(and it's probably not), is when you ask "Why does a little amount destroy a planet, but the great big ball destroys only one ship?" On this, I have to say that my idea for the resoning behind that disparity is that, sure, the little drop makes one planet-swallowing black hole, so therefore the big ball should make a massive, system-swallowing hole, and, in fact, it does. But, just after Spock destroyed the drill, he warped off somewhere, forcing Nero to chase after him. I suspect that, since the Enterprise was fairly hot on their tails, and knew enough to transport "three people from two places onto one pad", they seemed to have some vauge sort of plan that the advanced ship(and the Red Matter) would be somehow destroyed, maybe along with Nero's ship. So, who's to say that Spock didn't warp off at a ninety degree angle to the solar plane(?), thereby taking Nero off into deep space? And, therefore, who's to say it wasn't a massive, system-swallowing hole? It was simply far enough away from anything to give it any sense of scale, beyond Nero's ship. Yeah, I know, a little bit of a stretch, but maybe not as much as some stretchs Trek movies have done before...

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