Bad science in science fiction

Better science education wouldn’t fix Star Trek’s bad science, argues John Scalzi. But it doesn’t matter.

. . . even movies with bad science can still inspire the science-minded. Aside from James Kirk, the main characters in Star Trek are a science officer, a linguist, a mathematical whiz kid, a doctor, an engineer and a starship pilot who’s good at fencing. Which is to say they’re all geeks. If you think real world geeks don’t look at that, say I want to live there, and then work to make it happen, you’ve not been paying attention to all the technical progress of the last few decades.

. . . most of super-educated and science-positive folks I know love their Star Trek and Star Wars and Matrix and what have you, even when they know the “science” is complete nonsense.

I saw Star Wars In Concert a few weeks ago in Boston. Anthony Daniels (C3pio) narrated the film clips. I had to wonder once again why the Jedi knights use light swords instead of guns.

On the plane on the way home, I watched The Big Bang Theory, which features Trek-loving brainiacs and the blonde girl across the hall.  I wondered why two CalTech professors are sharing an apartment in a building cheap enough for the blonde waitress to rent her own place.

My husband can’t get over the lighted helmets the Viper pilots wear on Battlestar Galactica.

One needs to think less at times.

About Joanne


  1. Don Bemont says:

    “If you think real world geeks don’t look at that, say I want to live there, and then work to make it happen, you’ve not been paying attention to all the technical progress of the last few decades.”

    The claim that the technological progress of recent decades can be traced to Star Trek et al has to deserve a nomination for the Overreach Hall of Fame.

    Movies and television entertainment find it notoriously difficult to portray brainy people doing brainy things during the course of an entertaining story. Thus, the intellect is so often symbolized by weird speaking patterns (Yoda), hapless eccentricity (Back to the Future), and bizarre spewing of mathematical formulas (Beautiful Mind).

    In past cultures, children grew up choosing from among the social roles they could observe personally. Now, the screen holds great sway over what they perceive to be the choices, and I am skeptical that, on the whole, brainy comes across as attractive, or particularly possible. Model? Detective? Sports hero? Rock star? Slacker? These make for very good visual roles on screen, and thus attract increased consideration from those growing up in our society. Intellectual? Brainy? I am pretty sure that, on the whole, screen depictions suppress rather than encourage the selection of such social roles.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I think Jedi use swords because they’re modeled on the samurai.

    Ever since I was 8 and I read an Encylcopedia Brown story (or was it an Alfred Hitchcock story? I had a book of those, too) about a faked picture that was faked because you could see someone falling outside a window when it was dark outside and extremely bright inside, I, too, have wondered about the Colonial Viper helmets.

  3. In my experience, the greater problem is bad fiction in science fiction.

  4. Roger Sweeny says:

    Of course brainy can come off as attractive. What are the CSI shows? In fact, just about every tv detective is pretty bright.

    Where tv goes so wrong is that most every case is solved in a few days with a few insights, a few tests, and some travel and confrontation. In real life, major cases take much longer and there is a lot of tedious and repetitive work. But then tv doesn’t show all the tedious and repetitive practice necessary to become a rock star or a sports hero, either.

  5. Mike Curtis says:

    Television and movies must be visually mesmerizing to keep your attention. Eye-popping visual effects trump science and logic patterns everytime at the box office. If you want to know if the tale alone is worthy of scrutiny, just close your eyes.

    Why do you think there is usually an abundance of disparity between movies based on novels, and what the author(s) actually wrote? You can stop and think while reading; but, movies wait for no one and demand that you keep up with the scene changes.

  6. Eric Jablow says:

    I always wondered why the Imperial Stormtroopers had no hand grenades.

  7. greeneyeshade says:

    Not to mention all this wonderful technology and nobody seems to have mastered the wheel.

  8. Then there’s elected queens, a society dominated by the genetically-superior, a story line in which democratic institutions are relatively easily destroyed by literal caricatures of evil, resource wars carried out across interstellar distances, slavery existing quite comfortably alongside the technology to build autonomous, general-purpose robots, a military that seems addicted to massed charges even though they have precision-guided weapons, energy weapons, armed, bipedal, autonomous, tactical robots.

    The list goes on but why bother? George Lucas’ universe and story line are the universe and story line of the average twelve year-old with an unlimited special effects budget. If it’s cool it’s in no matter how little sense it makes. If it’s boring it’s out no matter the sense it makes.

    The original was fast-paced, fun and didn’t take itself very seriously – thank God for Han Solo – but as Lucas grew up the thin areas of the plot had to be papered over and the repairs weren’t pretty. The Star Wars story arc is to science fiction what the average Hop-a-long Cassidy cowboy flick was to Gun Smoke.

  9. Movies and television entertainment find it notoriously difficult to portray brainy people doing brainy things during the course of an entertaining story.

    Odd claim, as they do so much of it. The big advantage of having a brainy person doing a brainy thing is that the brainy person, or persons, can figure out the villain’s evil plot so the action hero can foil it (the brainy person and the action hero can be one and the same). This is what the brainy people do on Star Trek, Willow and Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, McGyver in McGyver, Kit in KnightRider, and of course any detective on any detective show. Or, if you’re telling a hustle sort of movie, the brainy character can figure out the good guy’s plot and foil it (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Ocean’s 11, Hustle). Or can just figure out how to solve the problems (Dr House in House).

    Now all of these characters have their eccentricities, but that’s the way of characters. These are shows, they need interesting characters. There tend to be, in my experience, two exceptions to this rule – one is the bland character in the middle of it all that the audience can identify with (Tintin) and the other is the “ordinary character swept up in insane events” where the contrast is the ordinariness of the individual trying to survive whatever bizarre situations the writer has come up with. Where is where the slacker comes into their own as a character type.

    Now there is a disadvantage in that there’s often plot holes in the portrayls of brainy people, but I think this is down to the writers often not being that smart rather than any intentional decision. And look at the other shows – sports hero, rock star, how often do shows and movies depict the hours and hours and years and years of practice going into what rock stars and sports heroes do? How often do shows portray the musical knowledge or a top sports hero’s grasp of team tactics? How many sports movies come down to a rousing story about just believing in yourself?

    And as for depictions of models, I can only think of two shows about models: American Top Model which is basically a game show (and thus should be set against Weakest Link, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, etc), and Zoolander, in which to keep the plot moving they threw in a planned assassination.

  10. Props Department: “Here is the helmet you will wear in the flight sequence.”

    Actor: “Cool, looks very sharp. Mind if I try it on?”

    Props: “Sure, give it a try.”

    Actor: *Dons helmet, looks in mirror*

    Props: “Looks great on you!”

    Actor: “Uh, I can’t see my face, it’s too dark in here.”

    Props: “Well, that’s realistic, you see. Have you noticed those pictures of Neil Armstrong on the moon? His face …”

    Actor: “What the bleeding hell do you think I’m doing in this space opera, charity work? I’m here to act! How the hell do you expect me to act if the audience can’t see my face?!”

    Props: “Well, maybe we could have some lights in there, you know, kinda ring your face…”

    Actor: “Now you’re talking, sparky, you get right on that.”

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    There is a real question of how a reasonably intelligent writer would write a hugely intelligent character.
    If you will watch the brainy folks, they don’t show their intelligence by figuring stuff out that the rest of us couldn’t. If they did, we still couldn’t follow it. They show their intelligence by finding stuff out. That’s like looking stuff up.
    In fact, on CSI, the machines do the analysis. What’s fun about analytic chemistry?
    One CSI show had an interesting sub plot where a suspect, eventually exonerated, was a registered sex offender on account of having gotten wasted in college and run naked on his lawn in front of kids. Cleaned up his act, got hammered by being found out once, recovered with a fake name, and CSI outed him again.
    He threatened suicide.
    That’s good plotting. Giving superhuman powers to the machine on the table isn’t.

  12. Mark Roulo says:

    “If you will watch the brainy folks, they don’t show their intelligence by figuring stuff out that the rest of us couldn’t. If they did, we still couldn’t follow it.”

    Arthur Conan Doyle has this character named Sherlock Holmes … 🙂

    It is often quite possible for a reader to follow the explained thought process of a very smart character, while also realizing that they (the reader) couldn’t do the same thing.

    -Mark Roulo

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    I like Holmes. But I have a problem with your description. I say this because I’ve been involved in a couple of issues which require the same kind of thought process.
    The problem is that first intervening conclusion is, say 95% likely to be right. The second is, too. The third is, say, 100%, followed by the fourth at 80%. A sequence like that will give you about 70% likelihood of being right.
    Doyle simply decreed that Holmes was right. Good stuff, of course, and not for a dummy to write or follow, but not really, really bright.
    At one point, I was taught to solve problems by figuring out the end state and working backwards. What did I need for the step immediately preceding the end state? What was necessary to enable that step? And so on backwards.
    If you’re thinking out a problem like that, there’s no way the failure of the dog to bark in the night would escape you. You’d figure the dog would bark and you’d have to have a plan. What would that be? Whatever it was, somebody did it. Had to.
    Not genius, but a method of problem solving.
    Taught in all the best schools. Or at least at Ft. Benning.

  14. Isn’t figuring out stuff so the rest of us can follow what really intelligent people do in real life? Eg Darwin, Newton?
    Although I admit that I can’t tell the difference between a really intelligent person who sucks at communicating and a random idiot.

  15. green: I think it’s road building they haven’t mastered. Wheels are of pretty limited use until someone smooths out a path for them to run on.

    Road building is low tech, but requires a large, forward-looking organization. Criminal gangs are unlikely to look that far forward, and I’d count both the Empire and it’s predecessor, the Senate that ruled the Republic, as essentially equivalent to very large criminal gangs. Not that there’s any reason an interstellar government should be concerned with road-building. That would be the job of either planetary and local governments, or of private organizations building toll roads. The way Lucas paints the Senate and the Empire, they’d wouldn’t like local governments strong enough to build infrastructure – they could become centers of resistance.

    As for some company building toll roads for profit: (1) They’d be ripe targets for thieves – whether Senators, Imperial governors, or Jabba the Hutt. Jabba would probably be the cheapest to buy off, but isn’t powerful enough to protect a company big enough to build a road network from the bigger sharks. (2) How can you make money off a toll road when people already own transportation that can zip off the road and float around the toll booths?

    OTOH, the movie scenes are all set either in the capital, where population density probably makes ground transportation useless for further than walking distances, or in fringe areas of the Empire and Republic, such as Tattooine, where even basic law enforcement seems to be missing. It’s quite possible that Princess Leia’s home planet (Aldebaran?) had effective local governments that built a road grid – until Darth Vader demonstrated the Death Star and eliminated a potential threat at the same time…

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    Tracy. That’s what they do. The question was whether somebody less intelligent could write a really bright person well, and whether the rest of us could follow.
    For abstruse thought processes, didn’t somebody get an idea for DNA by dreaming of a snake eating its tail?
    Try to get that past an editor as fiction.

  17. Eric Jablow says:

    Richard Aubrey,

    Instead of DNA, that was Kekulé and the benzene ring.

  18. Richard Aubrey says:

    I had that thought about a nanosecond after I hit “submit”, but my unfortunate encounter with organic chemistry was decades ago.
    Thanks for the update.


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