Cowboy Pilots

There are some obvious things to take into consideration when talking about science fiction. Especially when you want it to be interesting science fiction. However, some people take their artistic license just that teensy bit too far and it jumps from science fiction to steaming garbage.

It doesn't take much for it to happen, but generally it all centers around suspension of disbelief. Obviously, there are some people (such as hardcore engineers and science teachers) who look at science fiction and say, "you're breaking the laws of thermal expansion again" or "Newton hates reactionless drives".

But this is where that previously mentioned artistic license comes in. Skipping around the galaxy might go against conservation of momentum or other fundamental scientific principles, but it makes things interesting.

Then there's going too far. Consider the following:

Skruggar was excited. Pushing forward the throttle, he launched his ship into the air. A sharp bank to the left and he shot across the outlying buildings of the space port, then over the city proper. A couple of quick jerks with the nackle rod and the ship skipped effortlessly over the rooftops. It was an old ship, but he knew how to handle her.

Okay, sounds fun and exciting - right? Now consider it this way:

Captain Smith was excited. Pushing forward the throttle, he launched his plane into the air. A sharp bank to the left and he shot across the outlying buildings of the airport, then over the city proper. A couple of quick jerks with the steering column and the 747 skipped effortlessly over the rooftops. It was an old plane, but he knew how to handle her.

See a bit of a difference? Many of you will be saying "wtf? That just ain't right!"

And you know what? You would be totally correct. There is something fundamentally wrong in the way the Boeing pilot's behavior was described when compared to our perception of how he should behave.

Why?

What's the difference between going on a jaunty day trip with a four hundred ton 747 and a four hundred ton space ship?

I don't know why we seem to have this perception that a space pilot (or space captain or space whatever) can just arbitrarily fly around nilly-willy and go where they like. If there are so many regulations to follow with a flying a simple 747, why wouldn't there be even more rules when it comes to ships capable of relativistic velocities?

Like Farmer Joe used to say, "that pig don't fly".

Except that it does. No idea why, but that's what we have.

Of course, the medium will make a huge difference to what can be included and what can't. In a movie, you need to focus on the plot and the visuals. With a limited, 120-page script, you can't take time to stop and deal with the municipality. Not to mention that bureaucracy paper-pushing is downright boring. A novel is a totally different beast.

But that doesn't mean that you can't have it in there as part of the 'world' (or galaxy or universe as the case may be) or acknowledge that it should be there.

Case in point: in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi we have our intrepid band of heroes in their stolen ship trying to land on Endor. What happens? The Super Star Destroyer acts as Traffic Control and basically says 'what are you doing here?'

There's nothing really wrong with this, until you realize that this exchange means that the SSD has to be constantly parked next to the Death Star until it is completed. It makes much more sense for the moon base that is projecting the defense shield to act as Traffic Control instead.

Why didn't they do it that way? Easy: because Darth Vader needed to be in on the conversation. So a tiny script tweak and now the SSD acts as Traffic Control while it's around (since it has the advantage of elevation and maneuverability) and while it's not around the moon base acts as Traffic Control instead.

It fits within the world, it makes sense and it looks good. Nothing wrong with that.

Then you get other films. Case in point: Serenity.

Now, don't get me wrong. I like the movie, I love it. I bought the DVD. But there are some little details that are just glaringly wrong. After the merry little band rescue Inara, they take off and drop some decoys. The Operative calls his ship, asks them to track the fleeing heroes and finds out that he can't. They got clean away.

But this is a large, inhabited planet, presumably with millions of tax paying citizens and some type of governing agency in control of things. Like, you know - The Alliance! And space ships aren't exactly rare. There are lots of ships coming and going. If nothing else, you just know that somebody is going to step in and guide ships around, for a price.

But there is no such system. Nobody is watching the skies. There is so little control that the Operative has to call his own ship (that he brought with him) to try and keep tabs on who is flying where.

Okay, you can rationalize it by saying that the Operative, as part of the Alliance told local traffic control to turn off their systems and that he was confident that his military ship with its military systems would be more than enough. But that's a horrible strategy. If you have two systems, use both!

But we know that there isn't a central control since our merry band just decided to show up. Sure, we may not have seen them get approach or landing permission to save film time, but if they knew that the system was there, they would have had to think of a better method of getting away than dropping a few decoys out of the hatch.

Because that's the other thing so many people forget: in space, there's nowhere to hide! You know what's in between planets? Nothing. Literally, nothing at all. Okay, so there are a few hydrogen molecules, a few trillion photons and some of the usual galactic debris in the form of comets and asteroids. But nothing that you can really hide behind. Except another planet. But getting from one planet to another with the intent to hide behind it is just sad. You are pumping out energy as you fly along.

And the energy signature of a space ship is huge. We can see black rocks roaming through near space with basic, present-era technology. A big chunk of hardware pumping out energy radiation in the form of thermal, infra red and who knows what else will be a big freaking beacon in the sky. You don't even need an active system to spot it.

Oh well.

Here's hoping that science fiction eventually finds a nice balance between artistic needs, scientific merit and logical reasoning. Because it just isn't happening at the moment...

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