Thursday, 16 October 2014

Why Can't Science Fiction Get Space Right?

I've previously discussed how science fiction often tends to botch up the whole science part with regards to terminology. There's a lot of things to know if you want to write good science fiction. Among other things, you should know what a galaxy is and you will need to be able to recognize the difference between a black hole and a wormhole. Trust me, you do not want to get those two very different things mixed up.

Still, there's a lot of things science fiction gets wrong and I think it's time to address some of these further facts. Let's begin with one of the most obvious problems, and that is the lack of microgravity. We've all seen so many films that feature this it would be far easier to list the films that actually do take the time to depict weightlessness. Unlike many errors, however, there actually is a practical reason for this particular one to be invoked. After all, science fiction movies are generally shot on Earth. It takes time and money to be able to produce convincing weightless effects. When you have a great director and a ginormous budget (as was the case for 2001: A Space Odyssey) you can produce some amazing effects, but otherwise the strings will be visible.

However, very rarely does this issue ever actually get addressed, and when it is, it's usually in little more than a character offhandedly mentioning "artificial gravity". No explanation is given for how this future technology is supposed to work. At present, there's really only two known ways artificial gravity could be generated, and neither one is usually shown to be at play. The first and less feasible option would be to have the ship moving at constant acceleration, which can temporarily create its own gravity (something like in the launch sequence from Conquest of Space). The second and far more plausible method would be to construct a centrifuge, like in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Contrary to popular believe, there is in fact gravity in outer space. In fact, gravity is more or less the primary force that prevents all matter from being torn apart by the expansion of the universe itself. Ryan Stone was not so much floating as she was falling around the Earth's curvature. Gravity is also what keeps the moon in orbit around the Earth, the Earth in the orbit of the sun, and the sun in our galaxy. Putting it quite simply anything that contains matter exerts a gravitational force of some kind, the strength of which corresponds to the object's mass.

Now for an extremely frustrating one that very few movies ever seem to be able to get right. Space is a vacuum. We've all seen plenty of science fiction stories that involve great big space battles with lasers. Star Wars is especially guilty of this and it is really annoying. SOUND CANNOT TRAVEL THROUGH SPACE! There is no way that is possible. It's frustrating how few movies actually pay attention to this detail: Destination Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Gravity being among the few exceptions.

While we're on the subject of Star Wars, I think it's worth bringing up how asteroid fields actually work compared to what we see in the movies. In The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo tries to evade a number of pursuing Imperial ships by flying into an asteroid belt, leading C-3PO to claim "the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1". Actually it's not. Real asteroid fields are ridiculously easy to navigate. Generally there is a huge distance between the asteroids, so the only way you could crash into one is if you are an idiot or if your intention was to crash into one.

So here are yet more scientific concepts that science fiction can't seem to get right. For a genre called science fiction there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of... you know... science. No where is that clearer than in science fiction films about outer space, where the most basic facts are tossed out the window. Why is it that there seems to only be three major films that actually show space as silent that are each released decades apart (Destination Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Gravity)?


  1. I love your articles, they are always fascinating reads. For me, it boils down to putting story-teling ahead of being factual. In lots of cases it's warranted because cinema is an audio-visual medium. Showing what combat would really be like in space or a nice leisurely flight through an asteroid field would be incredibly boring to most movie goers. Showing space as a vast and silent vacuum would also be extremely dull. As much as Gravity got right, it took liberties to become a compelling story. I always admire your seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of outer space, but sticking to the facts wouldn't make for the most entertaining movies. So yeah, fiction is always going to be the dominant part of the phrase science-fiction.

  2. If the film makes stuck more to the facts, people would not see the films. The average film goer loves noise, bang em up crap and could care less if it is real or not. When one even watches action films, there is no way the Schwarzenegger or Stallone personas would ever live through certain events. Most people have no clue who the prime minister is or even who the president is. These are the same people who buy tickets to see films. I would love to see some more fact in the science fiction films but Gravity sank in that one too. You really know you stuff!:)

  3. Now I agree with you in part. Any movie claiming to be Science Fiction should really try to have a science advisor or a writer who knows how to look something up on the internet handy. Because there are some inaccuracies that are just plain silly and could be easily avoided.

    However (you knew this was coming right?), I will accept some inaccuracies for artistic license. Sound in space is one of them. Especially if you are tackling a space opera type of story, sound in space adds to the excitement. And for a space opera, adventure and excitement are the main goals.

    This brings me to Star Wars. I don't think of that series as science fiction. Hell, I'm pretty sure George Lucas wouldn't consider them science fiction either. These are essentially fantasy stories set in space. The whole "Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Far Away..." is a fantasy/fairy tale set up. Because these are primarily fantasy films, rules of science just don't have to apply. We can have sound, we can have snuggly close asteroids, we can have gravity on small ships.. because it is all fantastic.

    In my mind the goal of a science fiction story's themes and the goal of a fantasy story's themes are very different. And when you come down to science fiction and its themes, accuracy for the science in imperative. When it comes to fantasy, you can make up your own rules - and hell sometimes you don't even need to stick too them (but that usually makes the audience angry).

  4. We, the audience, hear the ships rumbling through space, lasers blasting, the explosions, etc. However, the characters do not necessarily hear these sound effects. Just like we hear the dramatic music being played but they do not.