Banazîr the Jedi Hobbit (banazir) wrote,
Banazîr the Jedi Hobbit

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Yet Another SF inconsistency: Star Wars, The Matrix, and Star Trek

Today I'd like to pose a question for anyone who watches or reads popular SF (speculative fiction), particularly films, books, and fanfic from big sci-fi franchises such as Star Wars, The Matrix, and Star Trek:
What do you think is the biggest inconsistency or blunder in the canon? Leaving aside plot inconsistencies for another day: what premises of the setting, and technical inconsistencies, bother you the most about the story universe? Do they make the show unwatchable or do you manage to ignore them, or at least suspend disbelief?

Here are my answers. Be warned: some are "extra crispy geeky", as lonsolo might call them. ;-)
Feel free to apply this to Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, or anything you like.

Biggest inconsistency of premise

  • 1. Star Wars: You can quibble about the Sith and Jedi philosophies, or the stereotyping of species, but for me, the biggest one is related to a technical point. In a galaxy with 100,000 years of history, where faster-than-light travel has been around for 25,000 years, and where energy sources as powerful as fusion are not only commonplace but handheld, the favored forms of government are local constitutional monarchies and feudal states under a constitutional democracy. I claim that plentiful energy, a galaxy spanned by a few weeks of FTL travel, and the implied proliferation of humankind throughout the galaxy's locales, makes this fundamentally implausible. Any of you cultural anthropologists or political historians (professional or armchair) care to share your opinions?

    I've said it before, but it bears repeating: I realize that SW is camp, that this is necessary for the nostalgia and romance of the Lucasverse, but you'd think that the backstory would be a little more imaginative in its explanation of how the Old Republic was formed. Even Asimov had a bit more to how we got from Spacers and Settlers to Empire.

  • 2. The Matrix: This one is actually entirely cultural. Here we have humans with a technology that lets them simulate worlds: any period in history, replete with food and drink, books, music, weapons, and disciplines of art and science from the martial to the creative. The only limitation is the designer's imagination (note that I don't say "programmer", because it isn't really clear that that's what the Matrix architect is doing) and the relative disbelief and experiential judgement of the person living in the artificial world. Jolly good.

    And all they can come up with is a dojo? Even as a metaphor for "learning to resist the Machines", it's rather limited. Yes, it looks cool, but I've always approached the Matrix looking for deeper implications (again, NB: I didn't say "meaning") than what looks cool. On the visual score, it disappoints. Most of my well-educated friends remind me that it's really just about the trenchcoats, shades, and bullets, and that I should suspend my disbelief regarding the rest; but like the more interesting denizens and escapees of the Matrix, I've tried to wake up.

    The premise of the Matrixverse is that humans, having lived in captivity for centuries before the One, have never experienced the pre-holocaust Earth, and so have no memory of the outdoors, of a cloudless sky, save what the Machines have supposedly shown. But have the machines shown them how to fly? To stop time and halt bullets in their path? The fragmentary awareness that the people of Zion have of history, of concepts such as a "sunny blue sky", shows that they know how to express it in words. Such experientia could have been shared by beings such as the Oracle, too. If you are familiar with Dan Simmons' hyperion_cantos, consider the Stables among the Stables/Volatiles/Ultimates triumvirate of the Technocore AI. I can accept the premise that Matrix-born humans such as Neo have a world metaphor constrained by what the Machines have let them see; but what about long-liberated humans such as Morpheus, or the Zion-born? Even a hollow Earth microcosm like the Genesis chamber in Star Trek II would give people a taste of what it was like to live on the surface.

    I suppose this is all answered in the new Agents of Everquest plug-in for The Matrix Online. I'm just disappointed that a promising franchise was rehashed and warmed over in the latter movies, with so few of the intriguing and fascinating aspects even being explored. I'd like to see some of the questions at least posed, if not answered.

  • 3. Star Trek: I've always hated the universal translator. Here again is a technical inconsistency writ large. ST's writers have retconned it into canon, starting with Star Trek: The Next Generation (it is mentioned in "Darmok") and continuing Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. Listen: the idea that an electronic implant can learn a language model, or even the basic lexicon, of an alien language after sampling just a few phrases is ludicrous in the extreme. "Keep talking," says one of the bridge officers in DS9 ("Sanctuary"), when members of a new species comes through the wormhole, and the UT starts working before the opening credits roll! That was perhaps the biggest groaner I've ever seen on any show of the franchise.

    Enterprise is much more interesting: Hoshi Sato is the ship's interpreter, and does an impressive job establishing communications with new species, especially before and during first contact missions. And by the way, I don't just say that because she's kind of cute! Deanna Troi was kind of cute, but "Captain! I feel pain!" as a large alien creature is being disintegrated is just GalaxyQuest silly.

    To add insult to injury, though, they made Hoshi one of the inventors of the device that would apparently make linguistics "obsolete" as more than a hobby science, until the bridge crew had to rediscover it in TNG ("Darmok"). "What the hell is going on here?" shouts Riker. Indeed, WTH?

Biggest technical inconsistency

  • 1. Star Wars: Most people go on about the implausibility of lightsabres, blaster bolts traveling slower than sound, turbolasers capable of exploding a planet, and giant nematodes living on asteroids. Some wax pensive about the Ewok Holocaust that the Second Death Star's explosion would have caused that close to the forest moon of Endor, and others boggle at the materiel and effort required to build the Executor (a 17.5 kilometer ship!) or the Death Stars.

    I will take up the biologists' quibble and say that too many hominids are the biggest implausibility. More to the point, the nice, even adaptation and "similarity within diversity" that you need even to have a galaxy of mostly oxygen-breathing beings at compatible levels of technology is farfetched. This is discussed in an MSNBC article on the science of SW in May, 1999 (revised in 2002). Seth Shostak, a SETI Institute astronomer and author of Sharing the Universe, observes: "They’re all obviously pretty much on the same level, and they at least get along well enough that they could share a cantina... but that’s nonsense, you see, because the universe is about 15 billion years old, and the chances that two civilizations could have ever arisen within a million years of each other is not very high".

  • 2. The Matrix: "Humans as batteries" is a ridiculous concept. 120 volts? A tank of electric eels is much more efficient: higher charge, better current, and no need for a complex simulated world. Take it further: yeast, or cyanobacteria as dashamus suggested on Friday, are much more plausible. Anything with mitochondria: the smaller the eukaryote, the better. Or, as gondhir pointed out, putting up more of the orbital solar panels that the Machines were already using would do quite nicely.

    As I've always said, we'd have gotten, and will get, much more interesting movies out of the premise that the Machines are using humans as a large compute cluster, or if you prefer, a cognitive cluster or "imaginarium".

  • 3. Star Trek: Well, of course there are too many to count, but I'll be boring and show my admiration for Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Straczynski's Babylon 5, and Whedon's Firefly by noting that sound doesn't travel in a vacuum. It's much more challenging to fill silent minutes with meaningful music or striking visuals than with cheap CGA and whooshing and puttering noises!

    Even the Battlestar Galactica has some foley artists that make it sound like a large ocean-faring battleship, and it gets worse where there are exploding asteroids and starships. The opening sequence of the first season, with the Vipers and Cylon raiders engaging to that eerie Armenian duduk overture, and nothing else, is much more evocative to me. The second season's vocal theme is good, too.

    Don't even get me started on the wraith darts from Stargate: Atlantis. "Nyyyyyoooom," even in atmosphere, belongs in a three-year old's playroom!

In other news:

  • So many people are putting bayesnets on resumes that an IT commentator actually felt it necessary to argue that they aren't a core CS topic (they aren't, of course; my comments here). As one of our senior professors, Dave Schmidt, said, though: a day is coming when computer science (CS) and software engineering (SE) will fission into the theoretical, scientific and technical fields that they are already becoming in practice. That's the idea behind the CS tracks we are looking at partitioning our curriculum into. Here's a roadmap to past discussions on CS/IT education in this weblog.

  • Windows Vista is to come in seven editions, according to this Slashdot article: Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, Small Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate. "Ultimate" must be the one that bluescreens only once a month. Or is the edition that bluescreens the most frequently? As I've often said, Windows users are becoming increasingly tolerant of insability and fragile or quirky functionality, and this should not be the price of an applications-rich, transparent OS. My comments appear here. One kernel, seven distros, one brand - all the monopolization of SCO and none of the POSIX compliance. ;-)

  • masteralida pointed me to this site about a hobbit-style bar in Manila. Does life imitate art or the other way around, I ask you?

Tags: anachronisms, anthropology, cs education, culture, hobbits, inconsistencies, microsoft, science fiction, star trek, star wars, the matrix, windows vista

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