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"Deal-breaker" Scientific Inaccuracies


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Initial post: Jul 16, 2012 12:45:12 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 24, 2013 7:37:30 PM PDT
What are some science errors in books or movies (not necessarily exclusive to sci-fi) that are so unforgivable that they kill the illusion for you?

Here are some of the big ones for me:
- every planet is an Earth clone - the climate, atmospheric composition, barometric pressure and gravity are conveniently suitable to human life and comfort
- evolution produces Earth creatures on every planet, regardless of selection pressures
- one ecosystem per planet (ice planet, desert planet, etc)
- one culture per intelligent species, except humans
- no concern regarding cross-contamination or invasive species
- intelligent aliens are all basically humans (anatomy, behavior, body language, emotional indicators)
- alien physiology is human; all drugs have the same effect, regardless of phylogeny

Posted on Jul 16, 2012 3:49:45 AM PDT
Yog-Sothoth says:
I can't even remember the book title (it was that bad), but it had many very basic, common-knowledge errors in it, particularly in astronomy, plus many of what you have listed above. It referred to galaxies being "dozens" of light-years away...and it got worse after that. I couldn't even finish it. Maybe written by a 5th-grader? (Yes - I AM smarter than a 5th grader!)

Another "gimmic" I've come across is some indigenous creatures may not be "earth-like" exactly, but ARE "composites" of earth creatures, or variations. Like an 8-legged "tiger" that the astronaut/colonists call "spigers", or giant birds with fur instead of feathers, monkeys with naked, leathery skin...maybe trying to give a description we can "relate to", but makes it less "alien" as well. Perhaps a "Lovecraftian"-style would be more appropriate?: "What was seen was so alien...so utterly beyond comprehension...to attempt to describe it would drive me mad..."

Posted on Jul 16, 2012 9:02:46 AM PDT
Ada Davis says:
Movie/TV things that bug me:

Sound of explosions during a space battle.

Every shuttle/pod whatever - people stick to the floor instead of floating around, with no explanation of how this "artificial gravity" is achieved. This is especially annoying when the other technology is rather primitive/being developed. Likewise "inertial dampers" that keep people from becoming splats on the wall in a rapid stop.

Treating 3D space like it is 2D - all space ships face each other, right side up, during battles. If you are going to attack a ship, wouldn't it make more sense to attack perpendicular to their plane so you get the largest target (looking at the top or belly of the ship) while maintaining the smallest profile to the enemy?

Confusing the galaxy with the universe.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 16, 2012 9:50:13 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 16, 2012 10:28:23 AM PDT
Tom Rogers says:
Usually the deal breaking is more of an attitude, ie if the science is presented as something that should be taken seriously outside the world the author creates, where there's an implication that the stuff should be considered accurate, but isn't, that's what gets me. Probably the best example I can think of off the bat, is "Accelerando", which in addition to being the obvious product of someone who is functionally illiterate as a fiction writer, has so many wildly erroneous statements that I thought it was an alternate history. Just one example will suffice, Stross stated that the central planning problem could have been solved in the 1970s, which was right about the time I saw a proof that the so called simplified Soviet planning model was beyond the capacity of any computer we could imagine constructing at the time, nowadays, of course, it's possible to imagine a quantum computer with the capability, but those weren't even a gleam in the eye at the time. Along the same lines, he proposes a 'solution' which assumes that the problem has already been solved (it sort of works for a 'small' economy in a larger world where free markets are working). Even in the area where Stross is supposed to know something, AI/computer science, he gets simple things like the implications of strong AI for the mind/body duality problem backwards. Despite all the problems, it probably wouldn't have bugged me, except the stories were so poorly written.

Posted on Jul 16, 2012 2:54:11 PM PDT
Wow--some of you are really picky. I'm with Yog. The only things that bother me are the very basic, common-knowledge errors. I'm pretty forgiving.

I also hate when the people do STUPID things. Prometheus had some of those. (ex. gee, this big thing is falling on me...let me run directly away from it as it falls instead of the short sideways direction. Ooops..smushed!)

Posted on Jul 16, 2012 3:18:55 PM PDT
When I was a kid, I really dug space dog fights, then as I got a bit older and learned some stuff I realized how utterly stupid that was. Still pretty cool, but completely unrealistic and shouldn't be in any film that even wants to be considered Hard Sf.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 16, 2012 3:24:35 PM PDT
The Weasel says:
Anything Crichton did after Andromeda Strain -- OMG he used Chaos Theory to explain why the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park couldn't remain restrained? Chaos theory has nothing to do with life trying to be free. Why the heck would he use a mathematical theory when the simple "urge to be free" that all life forms are endowed with would have sufficed and been more poignent

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 16, 2012 3:26:06 PM PDT
The Weasel says:
CV64

That's straight out of movies 101 -- it usually involves a car on the street or in an alley though -- yup just keep running in front of the car - maybe you can outrun it - not.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 16, 2012 5:40:14 PM PDT
For books: everything you mentioned.
For movies and TV shows: none of the ones you mentioned. Otherwise, there would be almost nothing left to watch.

Posted on Jul 16, 2012 6:37:33 PM PDT
On the hearing explosions in space thing, someone pointed out years ago (I wish I could recall who it was) that if you wanted to design a system that gave you a simple, easy to grasp understanding that (1) something had exploded and (2) how near or far away it was, having the system generate the sound of an explosion in the proper direction and at differing volumes would convey that information very quickly and clearly in ways that our instincts are primed to respond to. Same for hearing a shot go by. You could hang symbols on a heads-up display, but how much more effective to have your system generate the sound of a shot whipping past in the place where it came closest to you. Or if your systems saw the shot coming they could generate that sound before the shot got there so you would know to duck and which way to duck before the shot even reached you. But if your systems are doing that, someone in the story ought to mention it.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 17, 2012 2:44:24 AM PDT
Ashwood says:
Matthew F. Tabor says: What are some science errors in books or movies (not necessarily exclusive to sci-fi) that are so unforgivable that they kill the illusion for you?

Ash : Not sure if it counts as a science error, but super-intelligent aliens/A.I.s that make really obvious mistakes.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 17, 2012 3:10:58 AM PDT
Eric Pyle says:
In that one Mars movie with Tim Robbins, they showed that as soon as your fuel runs out in space you stop short.

Posted on Jul 17, 2012 5:48:48 AM PDT
Time travel movies invariably get stuff wrong, but it's not a deal breaker for me.

Also, there are some errors, that I'm pretty sure even the dumbest writers are aware of, and break the rules anyway. I'm really not that hung up on stories with cavemen and dinosaurs sharing space together.

Posted on Jul 17, 2012 6:41:51 AM PDT
Okay, as a 'newbie' SCi-Fi writer, this forum brought up some valid points that I will try to keep in mind as I write more Sci-Fi novels. However, let me make a few points of my own.

1) As to new creatures/aliens. Two thoughts come to mind, a)- you have to be able to explain to your reader who and what the aliens are. Easier said than done. As to the exampled 'six-legged tiger creature' - unless a scientist discovered such a creature, someone (ie a grunt) would name it something funky like a spiger. People tend to take the path of least resistance and naturally compare the unknown to the known. Its Human nature. b) its harder to come up with completely alien creatures than you might think.
2) One of the rules in writing goes something like -- if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck - call it a duck. Yes, we (as writers) can give it a different name and twist it slightly but again the reader will naturally compare it to a duck.
3) Space travel. I am not a scientist, I'm a writer. I strive to write fiction that is believable but is character/adventure driven. Those are the stories I like to read, hence what I strive to write. Yes, many movies have inconsistancies - thinking 2D vs 3D when space battles, gravity issues, hyperspace, running away from a falling buildine or trying to outrun a car, etc. But as a writer, when I mention hyperspace, do you as a reader know what I mean? Do I really need to get into the theories involved? No. Should I explain my 'tweaks' to the system? yes. As to the the running away thing...it is proven that we (as humans) have 2 really basic instincts - flight or fight. The flight response is stronger. It is primal and it is not logical. I have seen suspects try to outrun a police car. Is it logical? No. Do they escape? Sometimes. This is what I think the writers (books or moives) are trying to show. Do they always accomplish that? No...but then, we tried.

I hope I haven't offended anyone with my comments. I just wanted to give you a different viewpoint, one from a 'newbie' sci fi writer. But also keep the ideas, comments and problems with Sci Fi stories/movies. I, at least, am listening.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 17, 2012 7:01:54 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 17, 2012 7:02:59 AM PDT
W.T. says:
It all depends on the story you're trying to tell. If explaining technical details adds to the richness of the story, then a writer ought to spend a little time on it, but on the other hand, if it's the kind of story where the science is really beside the point (space opera, for example), then too much extrapolation can get in the way. It's all about finding the right balance. To use TV examples, I want technical details when I watch Star Trek, especially the "Next Generation" era where technobabble was a key part of the show. And when I watch Stargate:SG-1, I want Sam Carter's scientific explanations to be to be either correct or at least logical extrapolations of real theories (and they generally were), but at the same time, it didn't bother me when both shows side-stepped the alien language issues almost entirely by either using ill-defined "universal translators" (Star Trek) or just saying, "Hey, it's only an hour show. Do you really want us to waste fifteen minutes every week learning to talk to one another?" (Stargate: SG-1) How earth people communicated with these other worlds was not central to the story being told, so why waste time unnecessarily?

Posted on Jul 17, 2012 7:09:51 AM PDT
David J. Nix says:
The recent YA hit "Across The Universe" about a generation starship has a glaring error in its premise. *Spoiler Alert* The ship is behind schedule because it is "slowing down" due to a malfunction of the drives. In any long-distance space flight I assume you would continue accelerating for about half the journey, flip the drives in the other direction, and the decelerate at about the same rate for the other half. The only time you would "slow down" is when you were trying to slow down. A more likely problem would be running out of fuel before you could fully decelerate, and you would not be able to "stop" at your destination, but drift onward indefinitely. Also, the ship is constructed like a sailing ship, with ascending decks where everyone sticks to the floor - no explanation for the downward gravity nor the lack of being pulled toward one end of the ship due to acceleration. Come on, author! This is basic high school physics, and your target audience is high schooler level! Afterward I read "Non-Stop" by Brian Aldiss, which described a much more realistic generation ship - one that rotated to create gravity-like pull toward the outer hull.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 17, 2012 7:25:33 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 17, 2012 7:29:45 AM PDT
CV64: <That's straight out of movies 101 ... yup just keep running in front of the car >

Or when somebody is pulling away in a car, the hero almost invariably chases the car ON FOOT, even if he has another car to jump into.

But as to the running away from [the falling object, the car, whatever] instead of taking sideways evasive action, agreed it is stupid, but maybe deeply ingrained into the DNA. Many is the time I'm walking along and get within the discomfort zone of a bird or few, and off they go .... a little ways in the same direction.

Posted on Jul 17, 2012 9:07:28 AM PDT
Re...straight out of movies 101

Yeah..maybe I just can't stand something done over and over and over again (with no variation). My most recent bug-a-boo is in horror movies where the 'creature' yanks someone by the feet and drags them off screaming. I've only seen that like a bazillion times. It's one of the reasons I never went to see "Apollo 18" since they had a scene like that in one of the trailers.

Posted on Jul 17, 2012 9:36:28 AM PDT
Again good points. When it come to 'techno-babble' I always think of Tom Clancy novels. Are they good? Yes. Bestsellers? Yes. Are they something I prefer to read? No...why? Because at the end of the novel, I almost feel as if I can disarm a bomb or break down an AK-47. To me, he goes overboard on the techno-babble. But hey...he's doing something right. He's a best selling author and I'm not (yet).

CV64 mentioned about doing something over and over without variations. I agree. Hence, one reason I hate 'horror' movies. They are too predicable or too unrealistic for my taste. Most seem to go for the 'shock or scare' factor - quick camera angles, creepy music, blood, gore and screaming but very little suspense. Take the original Aliens movie for example. It was a Sci Fi horror movie. It was almost the very end of the movie before the audience saw the creature. It was suspenseful and groundbreaking (in its time).

Another example--the recent John Carter movie. I am an avid fan of the series and was distressed to see the movie flop. When I watched it, I enjoyed it but felt that if they held a bit truer to the original book and promoted it better, it would've been a better movie overall. The writers of the movie tried to explain 'why' John Carter got transported to Mars instead of it just happening and it being a mystery (as it was in the book). This shifted -- IMHO -- the focus too much to John Carter trying to return home instead of the personal sense of honor that JC brought to the world of Barsoom or the friendships he developed.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 17, 2012 10:17:58 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 17, 2012 10:21:56 AM PDT
W.T. says:
"Another example--the recent John Carter movie. I am an avid fan of the series and was distressed to see the movie flop. When I watched it, I enjoyed it but felt that if they held a bit truer to the original book and promoted it better, it would've been a better movie overall. The writers of the movie tried to explain 'why' John Carter got transported to Mars instead of it just happening and it being a mystery (as it was in the book). This shifted -- IMHO -- the focus too much to John Carter trying to return home instead of the personal sense of honor that JC brought to the world of Barsoom or the friendships he developed."

I thought much the same thing. I liked the movie very much overall, but one of the flaws was that the story was stripped of much of it's pulpish mystery. The nature of the trip to Mars was only one example. Also, they completely ignored John Carter's status as an immortal human being. In fact, he was both highly warlike and immortal before he ever went to Mars, where everyone was warlike and immortal too. Taking that away really hurt the sense of John Carter being destined to end up on Mars. And that was one of the themes the movie really tried to play up, so without that bit, they kind of shot themselves in the foot. Just goes to show you that even the most successful writers can sometimes misstep, since the John Carter screenplay was written by Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Michael Chabon.

And in the movie's defense, some of the updates really did work. Being a PG-13 movie, the addition of more clothing on the characters was a reasonable compromise (though it would have been an experience to see Dejah Thoris in that Frazetta outfit...ah well...). Toning down the Tharks worked to some degree (for me, anyway) because it make them more relatable as characters. The extreme culture of the Tharks in the book works well on paper, but I can understand how hard it would be to translate that to the screen. Without the written word to explain the nuances of the culture, they would have come across much worse than the book would intend. Playing up the role of Edgar Rice Burroughs in the story was a nice tribute also, I thought.

Oh, and tying back to the original post, I didn't mind at all that life on Mars is a major scientific inaccuracy!

Posted on Jul 17, 2012 10:49:51 AM PDT
Off topic for a moment: I am really enjoying the discussion. I have rarely found intelligent open-minded discussion forums. The few that I have posted on ended up being one person's viewpoint either a) being blasted apart rudely b) being a platform to preach someone else's viewpoint...not a discussion. And I agree W K - the tribute to Edgar Rice Burroughs was a nice twist. Your other points are also valid, although seeing Lynn Collins in Frazetta outfit (as you call it) would've been sweet :-)

On topic: earlier the topic of 'universal translators' came up. This was a smart 'plot device' Gene Roddenberry came up with. Does anyone else have a 'logical' suggestion that could be used to explain the same situation? My next Sci Fi novel will be introducing other alien species. Right now, other than AIs doing the translation or the aliens themselves wanting to properly communicate with the Terrans, I havent come up with a plot device that I like and I'm open to suggestions....

Posted on Jul 17, 2012 3:14:57 PM PDT
Lord Baal says:
The one that always bugged me was the Founders from DS9 OK so let's assume I'll swallow the possibility of an amoeboid race of shape shifters but what happens to the mass ? How does a 200 lb humanoid become a tiny flying bird, it should either dump 99% of it's body mass in a protoplasmic puddle before flying off or it'd be a 200 pound bird with all the aerodynamic properties of a lead ingot.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 17, 2012 3:19:41 PM PDT
The Weasel says:
Well let's see e=mc^2 so when coverting to the bird there was probably a huge release of energy in the form or heat or light - when converting back the opposite.

Posted on Jul 17, 2012 4:05:45 PM PDT
Lord Baal says:
Nice try but there was no obvious energy release shown in the transformation scenes, I suspect that much mass being instantaneously transformed into energy would have been quite spectacular and as to "the opposite" perhaps we need a physicist I think it would have some Entropy issues.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 17, 2012 4:49:15 PM PDT
Matt says:
Physicists lol'd at Albert Einstein when he presented his theory and shook the foundation of science that had been held to be true and absolute for hundreds of years prior.

My point being, what we know today as 'science' is simply the best guess we can come up with for what we are capable of observing with our extremely limited scope. It is not wise to blindly accept what you're told is a fact.

Just food for thought.
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Discussion in:  Science Fiction forum
Participants:  38
Total posts:  155
Initial post:  Jul 16, 2012
Latest post:  Aug 8, 2012

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