Six impossible things

Hollywood science

The trip continues; we have reached LA after a stop in Las Vegas (neither of us did any gambling, but we ate some great food and saw Cirque du Soleil’s Mystere). And in justice to my father, I have to point out that when he ran off the road in the mountains, a) he was eighteen and b) the steering wheel had just come off in his hands (he was driving a “junkyard jalopy” that he and my uncle had built themselves out of spare parts). So it really wasn’t his fault (unless he was the one who’d tightened the bolt on the steering wheel, and at this date, I don’t think he remembers. It’s been 74 years…)

Anyway, since I’m now in the vicinity of Hollywood, I thought I’d talk a bit about “Hollywood science” and its uses and abuses.

Hollywood science is the term many folks use to refer to the improbable, outlandish, and just-plain-wrong “science” that appears in a lot of Hollywood films and TV. The attitude often appears to be that it’s only a movie (or worse yet, only a science-fiction movie) and therefore things don’t have to be accurate. This annoys those of us who feel that even if it is only a something, it’s still science, and ought to be as accurate as possible (and, at the least, ought not to be significantly INaccurate).

Unfortunately, this is one of those areas where opinions differ as to how accurate things need to be, and how accurate they can be, given the constraints of whatever medium the writer is working with and the type of story the writer is telling. There are also differences of opinion when it comes to projecting the possibilities, which is always some aspect of science fiction. Nearly every science fiction writer I know has at some point been approached by someone who’s said “I don’t think X thing you have in your book is possible,” and then, on being told what science the author based it on and why, has said “I still don’t believe it.”

Such differences of opinion about what is and isn’t possible often lead to accusations of Hollywood science, and it’s impossible to say who is right or wrong. I choose to think that if the author did his/her homework and has a logical chain of arguments in favor of his/her projected science, then even if I don’t think it works, it doesn’t qualify as Hollywood science. But that’s me.

Where I think the line goes is when an author gets the easy stuff wrong. Confusing star systems with galaxies (or vice versa), using “lightyear” or “parsec” as a measure of time, rather than distance…those sorts of things are Hollywood science at its worst, and there’s no excuse for them. They’re pure laziness on somebody’s part.

And getting the easy stuff wrong to no purpose weakens the story. It gives the reader a reason to disbelieve, and at least some of them will take advantage of that (and then quit reading). Which is why ignoring reality, and especially ignoring real things that can be easily checked via Google, is not the best idea for most authors.

Sometimes, however, sticking to real science (and real reality) is detrimental to the story, and when that is true, the story comes first. This is, after all, fiction; by definition, it ignores reality on some basic level. There are two obvious ways I can think of for sticking too closely to real science to be detrimental to the story: 1) when doing so requires more skill in explaining than the writer possesses or the medium can bear, and 2) when the basic premise of the story is contrary to what we currently know of reality, as with fantasy or faster-than-light travel.

#1 is to some extent a judgment call, I admit. It also varies by media; what is an acceptable one-page explanation in a novel can be impossible to translate to a movie screen without slowing the story to a crawl and/or boring the audience to tears. This, I think, is one of the reasons hard SF (which SF practically requires all the whizzy science-fictional gadgets to have some solid foundation in physics-as-we-know-it-to-date) is so difficult to turn into movies or TV without warping totally out of shape. Space opera usually fares much better.

It is, however, also true that the ability to write an interesting infodump is a learned skill, and learning to do it can take a while. A writer who hasn’t yet developed that skill, and who knows he hasn’t developed it yet may be better off using handwavium that does exactly what the story requires, rather than embarking on a two-page infodump detailing why cesium, when subject to the proper pressures, behaves in exactly the same way.

#2 is also to some extent a judgment call, though it seems more obvious than #1. A lot of fantasy is intended to mimic reality in many ways except for the existence of magic or magical creatures. Where it’s supposed to seem real, the author has to stick with reality or start losing readers. Horses have to act like horses, not bicycles or motorcycles. But there are also totally surreal fantasies where the whole point is that anything is possible: flowers talk, china dolls move, monkeys can have wings and fly, woodland streams taste of lemons, etc. For those, sticking too closely to reality can ruin the fun.

What it comes down to is, as usual, not to make careless mistakes. If one is going to break the “rules” of reality, one ought to have a good idea what they are and why the particular story needs those rules to be broken. It is also a good idea to have a backup explanation for use when cornered by a fan who objects to whatever liberties one has taken with the laws of science.

  1. As much as I adore Star Wars, I have to admit I do now cringe every time I hear “made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs.” I’m not sure WHEN I first learned that a parsec was a measurement of distance, not time, but once I did, I have never been able to forget it or forgive it in that iconic line.

  2. Your father was in a junkheap, and it was not his fault? Ah, foolish youth.

    “It gives the reader a reason to disbelieve, and at least some of them will take advantage of that (and then quit reading).” I disagree with you on that. It is not giving the reader a reason; it is pushing the reader out. At least, it works that way with me. I can buy a certain amount of “nonsense”, but once it hits a certain level, “I WAS PUSHED!”

    One convention that gets mention in rec.arts.sf.written from time to time is that you can have one thing in your science fiction story that is not per current science (say, FTL), but from then on, you tell the story straight. Much more and you are telling a fantasy despite the trappings.

  3. I think we have pretty similar views about this. I’m all for stretching reality and adding magic – as long as the writer has done their homework 🙂

  4. “…good idea to have a backup explanation for use when cornered by a fan who objects to whatever liberties one has taken with the laws of science.”


    @Louise I’m with you on the Star Wars faux pas. I love the original, but I was 16 when it debuted and I knew what a parsec was. I cringed there the very first viewing and continue to do so. If Lucas *had* to do a re-make, couldn’t he have fixed that gaffe?

    @Gene Wirchenko I agree! As you say, I was pushed!

  5. The parsec thing has been retconned to be about plotting the route through hyperspace – so a record distance means cutting corners, taking risky shortcuts, etc.

    Either that or Han was talking out his you-know-what in order to make some money. After all, it’s some dumb farm kid that’s just insulted his ship!

  6. That is, it’s been retconned in fanon.

  7. @Brenda Thank you for sharing that piece of mental gymnastics. It helps! I’ll have to watch the DVD this weekend and see how I react with the new angle on board!

  8. The line between science fiction and fantasy can get pretty thin.

    Why is “28 Days” science fiction and “Shawn of the Dead” fantasy?

    “Snow Crash”, “Do Androids Dream” are science fiction “13th Child”, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” are fantasies. “Pride and Prejudice” is a romance. They’re all fiction and don’t need to be “true.” On the other hand, having the sun rise in the west, for no purpose, does get in the way of the story.

    All fiction requires the reader’s Suspension of Disbelief. To use a mathematical phrase the “Suspension of Disbelief” set should be necessary and complete. Adding more things to suspend the reader’s disbelief gets in the way of the story.

    Adding “spice” to the “Dune” novels is necessary. Making “square root” a unit of time would not be necessary for most anything I can think of.

    The story can, usually does, must have stuff unnecessary (e.g. sewers of Paris) to make it interesting. But that stuff doesn’t require a suspension of disbelief. That’s where a story gets into trouble. In addition, using “telephone” to mean “yak” is just annoying to anyone who knows anything about telephones and yaks.

    The most annoying “Hollywood Science” is the yak stuff. But adding ge-wiz stuff to replace something that is necessary is bad, too. That why I’m not particularly fond of “Blade Runner” or “Total Recall.” If I didn’t know about Philip K. Dick, they probably won’t be annoying, but there you are. When your audience knows you’re missing the entire content of the story, they won’t like you.

    The bad “Hollywood Science” is either deliberate (the director assumes the audience doesn’t know anything) or accidental (the director doesn’t know anything). Both are really annoying to those of us that have a clue. The errors are unnecessary to the story and makes the story less complete.

    That’s how I usually think of it, when I get analytical. I like “Dr. Who” because my accepted set of suspended disbeliefs are pretty large. My set for “Star Trek” is a lot smaller. So I don’t like it when a movie in that franchise gets something wrong.

  9. One example of good Hollywood science is sound effects in space. Unjustified scientifically, but without them the viewer would feel lost.

  10. According to this Darths and Droids strip (, Han’s line was INTENDED to be a gaff, but somehow did not come out that way.

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