5 Reasons Science Fiction Hates Actual Science

Science fiction is cool. It’s got lasers, spaceships, and sassy goddamned robots. And sure, there are actual lasers and spaceships and sassy robots in our boring nonfictional world, but they kind of suck, don’t they? They’re all just highlighting interesting facts on whiteboards or vacuuming our rugs instead of fighting space wars like they should be. They’re nothing like the infinitely radder versions you find in sci-fi.

In fact, a huge chunk of the “science” in science fiction is nothing of the sort — the equivalent of someone in a hat with stars and moons on it waving a wand around. But there’s a reason for that. These semi-magical bits of technology serve absolutely vital narrative roles. Without them, some huge chunk of our best science fiction would implode like a star made entirely of suck. Here then, for your tongue-clucking pleasure, are some of the most impossible science fiction technologies around, along with a detailed explanation of precisely how much we don’t care.

5

Faster-Than-Light Travel

This is the big one, the single technology which parks so much science fiction in the realm of “laser fantasy.” Spaceships capable of hopping from star to star while their occupants have exciting adventures seducing and murdering aliens. Whatever the actual technology is called — warp drives, hyperdrives, jump drives — it always has one thing in common: It’s fucking impossible. Nothing can travel faster than light. It’s not a rule so much as something woven into the fabric of reality; there wouldn’t be light, or a Universe, or your dumb ass in it if things could go faster than light.

Which hasn’t stopped people from at least trying to figure it out. But even after centuries of effort, “impossible” is more or less the only reasonable answer we have. Maybe someone with a lot of food in their beard might wave their hands about vaguely while muttering something about “wormholes,” but even that’s not too promising (and again, with the beard and all, that’s approaching space wizard terrain).

But Science Fiction Uses It Anyway, Because …

The whole reason faster-than-light travel was invented for fiction was so that writers could reuse all the old stories they had about sailors and deserted islands and colonies and pirates and just recast them on a galactic scale. Which is kind of the main problem — the human scale all our existing stories take place in will probably never play nicely with the galactic scale. We’re just too small and squishy. In fact, it’s kind of ridiculous that we even keep trying. We don’t feel the need to tell compelling, character-driven soap operas about what happens when the electron probability densities of two atoms start to overlap, and yet that’s not much less realistic than trying to tell the story of a starship captain banging his way across the stars.

A more realistic galactic-scale story, about post-human robot thingies who inch across the stars over millennia, might get around this problem. But it’s hard to be sure if post-human robot thingies will be compelling enough characters for our old storytelling tools would work. Can Drone 367834345 feel love? Enough to chase Drone 365742423 through the gates of an airport to tell it how it feels? Will they fuck?

Because I don’t have time for a story where they don’t.

4

The Rocketry Problem

“A-ha!” I hear some of you nerds saying, sweatily. “We don’t need faster-than-light travel to tell science fiction stories!” And they’re right, sweatily. There are varying degrees of “hardness” in science fiction, and there are in fact many stories which take place at slower-than-light speeds, using relatively plausible inventions like fusion engines. These take place entirely within the Solar System, or aboard slow-ass spaceships that inch across the galaxy, but that’s fine. Realism, boom, another Cracked article successfully refuted. Well done, you. Hit the showers.

But almost all of those stories run into another, subtler problem, and then quietly sweep that problem under the rug. That problem is the rocketry equation. Since any rocket needs fuel to burn and has to carry that fuel with it, any fuel you need late in your journey — for shooting or hooking up with aliens or whatever — means you need a heavier spaceship to accelerate there in the first place, which takes more fuel to accelerate, and so on. It all goes exponential very quickly. The most far-ranging human-occupied spaceships ever flown are still the ones we made for the Apollo missions, and only a small percentage of the weights of those things were the actual spaceships. The rest was fuel and huge fuck-off engines, and yes, a lot of the problem in that case was just getting off Earth’s gigantic ass. But even if you build your ship in orbit, the central problem remains: Fuel is heavy, and you need it.

But Science Fiction Uses It Anyway, Because …

Imagine the scene in Star Wars in which they’re playing Space Chess and practicing the lightsaber. Good scene, right? Except now imagine it takes 15 months, and they’re floating the whole time, and the chess pieces get everywhere and kills one of them. That’s what realistic space travel would look like, even with fancy, high-tech fusion engines. You can still tell interesting stories in this kind of universe, but anything that travels has to take a lot longer, which shuts out a lot of the space opera stuff.

Same deal with space battles. All those dramatic twists and turns require fuel that spaceships just wouldn’t have. A space battle would involve a lot more coasting than you imagine — hours and days worth — followed by what would essentially look like a few seconds of frantic wiggling. Which is cool if you get excited by things like wiggling and/or the momentum equation. But it’s not super cinematic, which is the reason that even realistic sci-fi just ignores the problem entirely.

3

Cyberspace

In the hands of a competent writer, computers can do anything. In the hands of an incompetent writer, they can do quite a bit more. Fictional hackers can learn any piece of information in the world, open any door, and shut off anything, anywhere, electronic or not. Security systems, lights, a tree — anything. This will of course all be accompanied by glowing icons and progress bars and laughing skull GIFs. And that’s ignoring all the infinitely more rad possibilities when we dive into the Matrix, or cyberspace, or anyplace where a hacker might have more in common with a martial artist than the bearded database admins they are in real life.

Obviously, real-life hacking is about a million times less exciting than the way it’s depicted in most works of fiction. Even if you set aside all the obviously fake stuff with UIs based on glowing cubes (which would probably be terrible to actually use), there’s the simple fact that hacking often isn’t done in real time. It involves a lot more painstakingly poking and prodding at a piece of software until it breaks, and then looking at the crap that falls out. Hacks are almost always developed in advance, and when deployed, rarely require fast typing or thumping electronic bass lines to work.

But Science Fiction Uses It Anyway, Because …

We need those thumping bass lines. We need them so bad.

Fiction, and visual fiction in particular, just cannot process the act of someone working quietly at a computer. That’s why science fiction has gone to such incredible lengths to make hacking look like anything else. Here’s a quick test you can do if you work in an office to see the problem. Just sit there, quietly watching a co-worker tap away at their computer. Do it for six or seven days. Get weird about it. That’s what hacking looks like. You can’t make a movie about that.

HR has talked to you about this.

2

Deflector Shields

You know how these work. The bad guys shoot at the good guys with a brightly colored whatever, and the good guys’ ship shakes, and everyone on the bridge lurches in roughly the same direction. The shields are almost down! And the tension, oh boy, the tension. It’s something.

Of course, there’s just no conceivable way any of this makes sense. There are sort of ideas to use magnets to protect spaceships from cosmic rays, which is fine. It’s just … ooooh, cosmic rays. Hardly a Klingon bird of prey. Some students with calculators and fire in their eyes also have considered using magnets (again) to contain bubbles of plasma which could maybe do something shieldy. But it’s all still very, very vague, which is why most science fiction works that have energy shields don’t even try explaining how they work.

But Science Fiction Uses It Anyway, Because …

Deflector shields let you put a character in peril without having them die. It’s the same reason action movie guys keep getting shot in the shoulder, or why Rocky keeps getting punched in his face. You’re hurt, but not really, so get back in there. Shields also allow for big cinematic battles with brightly lit ships wailing on each other. So much of our science fiction just kind of assumes space combat will look like dogfights, or 18th-century naval battles, or some other terrestrial combat, which just doesn’t seem likely. Real-life space combat will involve a lot more asking your computer to shoot at another computer several million miles away and waiting to be told what happened. The beep on your coffee maker has a similar level of dramatic tension. You’d just sit there, existing, until you didn’t, at which point you were dead and you lost.

Again, you can tell good stories with this technique. It’s just they’re kind of “chin-stroking” good and not “roller coaster sex” good. You remember how well everyone reacted to the finale of The Sopranos? That is what every space battle ever will look like.

1

Giant Robots

Giant robots are awesome. They can punch our enemies and kick our enemies and hold us in their arms. I love them, and you should too.

They also simply do not work.

I’ve talked about the square-cube law before, but it basically says that as something grows in size, it becomes heavier faster than it becomes stronger, and will eventually not be able to support its own weight. Its why elephants have a different shape than horses, why insects can fall from any height, and why office buildings so rarely fight battles for us.

Even if you get “science” to invent some new super-strong metal — “finewhateverium” — you’ll run across a bunch of other problems. Your cooling system doesn’t scale up properly, or your robot’s foot sinks several meters into the ground with each step, or its heart grows so large that it can’t do anything but love. As much as you might want them to work, giant robots simply don’t.

But Science Fiction Uses It Anyway, Because …

Who’s going to fight Godzilla? Humans? We made Godzilla, you idiot, we’re the real monsters, weren’t you paying attention?

And that’s basically the crux of the problem: Humans need giant robots in our fiction because humans have giant problems. And if we do succumb to the inevitability of giant robots, they need to be fake as heck. Any attempt to realistic them up will find them getting stuck in the mud, or breaking their own legs, or getting murdered easily by tanks or just some kids with a rope. Realistic giant robots suck, and it was humanity’s greatest folly to even consider the idea, which means we will probably be destroyed by them. That’s just how these things go.

Chris Bucholz is a Cracked columnist and your best friend. As the author of the amazing novels Freeze/Thaw and Severance, he thinks you should definitely go buy both of those now. Join him on Facebook or Twitter.

You can’t play this cool tiny version of Star Wars space chess but you can admire it and then throw it at someone who tries to tell you about how space fantasy needs more realism.

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