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In my work with SF authors, and as an avid reader of SF, I run into a lot of concerns about how Hollywood “does” SF. In this post, I offer a few thoughts on that for your consideration.

Space battles

How objects move around is fundamental to how we engage with the overall presentation. If you’re going to swallow the idea of FTL drives, tractor beams and shields — among other things — then it’s not really that much of a stretch to swallow the idea of inertial control, too. Which would make space battles not resemble a game of asteroids at all. Any particular vision of in-space technology tends to pick and choose from these things, and that selection, it seems to me, legitimately controls what’s reasonable and what’s not in the movie’s context.


Presuming your vehicle maintains internal atmospheric integrity, if onboard, you’d hear anything that causes the the craft’s atmosphere to be jolted into motion via mechanical coupling to its framework.

Debris hitting your vehicle, the stress caused by a sealed compartment being ruptured, people screaming when they get fried, crushed or otherwise insulted as a consequence of direct or indirect battle damage or loss of, for instance, inertial damping, equipment failures and power supplies having problems.

You would also hear something if a force field of any kind was imposed upon your vehicle in such a way as to deliver any kind of uncompensated-for energy in mechanically coupled framework(s) producing direct or indirect vibrations in the audio range.

Furthermore, presuming a ship has sensors to detect things like the energy outputs of other vehicles as they maneuver, it seems to me that converting that to audio as a handy sound cue/warning would be hardly any trick at all. This also goes for status alerts, etc.

So what about if you’re not onboard?

About that point of view thing…

Along the lines of what we accept and what we don’t, if you are blase’ about the idea of a magic camera floating around your space battle and instantly changing perspective from A to B to C, perhaps it’s just a little bit silly to complain about, for instance, a whoosh, or what “lasers” can do. Such camera views are well outside of what might be realistic in terms of what the movie’s subjects are up to, barring a swarm of drones or some kind of trans-space focal point establishment capability in service of some form of historical log, something which I have yet to see incorporated in a movie.

Lasers, beams and so on

We can’t focus a laser right now post-collimation, but that’s not an inherent limitation of lasers even by today’s known physics. That’s a limitation of our technology, so the objection to non-spreading beams in some speculative future is kind of dead on the doorstep, so to speak. Not that a visible future beam weapon is necessarily carrying its punch in the form of light anyway. A visible beam could be just a side effect, or an aiming aid. This is the future, we’re talking about an imaginary scenario resulting from science and technology we don’t presently have and so may speculate upon (using only current knowledge… that’s pretty boring… we can barely get off the planet’s surface, much less engage in space battles… that’s why most SF has at least a few pure fantasy elements in it.)

So yes, it’s perfectly ok to think about these things, but don’t let someone else do your thinking for you and thereby spoil your entertainment. If there are space battles as depicted in most SF (many of which are actually thinly veiled fantasy) movies, the rules as we know them right now have long since been trashed, so there doesn’t really seem to be any reason to worry about it overmuch.

All of the above is why I can really enjoy the technologies in Star Wars, Firefly, Trek, etc, btw. Even though I’m fairly well grounded in how we think things work at present.

Character errors are more troublesome

In the recent re-work of the Star Trek franchise, in the context of a serious, time-critical emergency, the show presented a long, boring discussion in the captain’s ready room completely aside from dealing with said emergency, all the while the bridge crew was left to fend for themselves. This kind of outright dereliction of duty is something I find very difficult to swallow — particularly in a supposedly serious, quasi-military context. It didn’t matter that it was Star Trek; I would have had the same problem with such nonsense on the bridge of a naval ship, or with firemen standing off to the side discussing trivialities while someone’s house was burning. Sometimes we have to face it: there is definitely some pretty lousy storytelling going in.

And then there are actual technical slip-ups

I have considerable trouble with obvious errors that don’t take into account technologies we already have. For instance, in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, some of the characters hide from satellite surveillance by moving over long distances inside a large hollow boulder, something we could spot very easily today by the simple expedient of image subtraction: Take two shots under the same or similar conditions but separated by time, align them, and subtract them using absolute value. Everything that’s in the same place turns to black; anything that has moved will be bright both where it was, and where it is now. This is trivial satellite surveillance technology, a basic technique that has been in use since at least the 1970′s. The kicker is this would work even better on Mars than it does here — Mars has a considerably thinner atmosphere.

And then there’s the “we’ll just ruin the book” Hollywoodism

The poster child for this kind of thing is the movie Soylent Green, a big-screen “adaptation” of Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room. The movie Soylent Green is one of the worst insults to an SF novel produced thus far.

Soylent Green, the food, was not people. It was algae.

The book was a wonderful story about overpopulation, love, criminality, loyalty, honor and courage.

The movie was an unmitigated heap of product not unlike that which emits from the south end of a northbound horse.

(Try to) relax and enjoy

Being entertained is very closely coupled to your ability to suspend your sense of disbelief. We know where we are today; but we really don’t know how much further along we will be tomorrow. If you establish or bring into play your own set of future rules for a movie (which are almost certainly just as speculative as the movie’s will be — unless you’ve read the book first) you’re probably not doing yourself any favors. If you actually want to be entertained, it’s almost certainly best to enjoy the experience rather than spend any energy at all attempting to out-think it. For my part, I leave that to the movie critics: they are paid to do that kind of thing (and I simply ignore what they say… so it works out very well for both myself and the critic in the end.)