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TV Tropes Monday: SciFi Writers Have No Sense of Scale


Tweet of the Day: Modern Fantasy Sub-Genre Bingo

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First a few fun facts:

  • Diameter of our galaxy: 100,000 light years
  • It takes 1,400 years for Sol (our star) to orbit the galactic center
  • Light travels at 1,07,900,000 kilometers per hour (671 million miles per hour)
  • Distance from the Earth to the Sun- 150 million kilometers (8 light minutes)
  • Distance from the Earth to the Moon – 300,000 kilometers (1 light second)
  • Estimated age of the Observable Universe: 13.75 Billion Years
  • Estimated Age of the Planet Earth: 4.54 Billion Years
  • Homo Sapiens appeared one Earth around 250,000 years ago
  • Recorded Human History: 6,000 years or so

In other words, the Universe is very, oh so very big and also very (again), very, (say it with me) very old.

Which brings us to today’s trope: SciFi Writers Have No Sense of Scale.

On television, movies and books you tend to have casual space travel (covering dozens, hundreds and even thousands of light years in a matter of hours or even seconds) space combat occurs at point blank range (with ranges sometimes measured in inches, even modern combat is measured in miles/kilometers) and you can have a nice conversation with someone a few solar systems down the local star group with less static that a long distance call to Europe in 1950.

The reason for this is the very reason quoted above: “the Universe is….” which makes it difficult to tell a story (unless the story is about working your way around these limitations) without some shortcuts. If it takes centuries to reach the nearest star with a habitable planet, you can’t very well have your dashing captain sexed up a green skin alien in one episode on Planet X while confronting a enemy armada in Planet Y the next. Admiral So and So can’t control his mighty fleets if it takes decades to say hello to his nearest warship.

Unless you’re going for the hard side of the scale, a writer will introduce a few ways to work around these very real limitations, such as Faster Than Light Travel (for when you must be in Alpha Centauri by tomorrow afternoon). The problem comes when the author doesn’t even bother to give actual science a nod because it interferes with the Rules of Cool or Drama. In fact, portraying things closer to our current understanding of how the universe works can make for very interesting story telling. I prefer to see space combat as portrayed in say Babylon 5 or BSG than say Star Wars. Using Newtonian principles for non-atmospheric combat (in space) just looks cooler.

A well written sci-fi story should have a nice balance between actual science and story telling.

Because you can have the best of both worlds.

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The Interview With A Character Writer’s Challenge is going strong. Check out the latest entries:

Gypsy’s Entry
Beth’s Entry

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One comment on “TV Tropes Monday: SciFi Writers Have No Sense of Scale

  1. [...] System: Often seen in stories on the harder side of the sci-fi scale, because the universe is a really big place. Travel between planets can take from days (to an orbiting satellite) to years (nearby planets.) [...]

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