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How to Analyze Sci-Fi

Written: 1998-08-01
Last Revised: 2003-10-13

Why should we analyze sci-fi at all?

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "this is ridiculous. Sci-fi is for entertainment, not analysis.You people need therapy." And you'd be right in one sense; it was made for entertainment, not analysis. There are millions of people out there who watch sci-fi without making any attempt to analyze anything, and that's fine. Hell, when I first got involved in these debates, I was one of those people not taking it seriously and poking fun at anyone who did. But it's ultimately a hobby like any other, and if you're going to seriously play this game about whether a Star Destroyer could kick the Enterprise's ass, then you really have no choice but to analyze things.

Is this crazy? Is it a colossal waste of time? Perhaps. But it's not unique; there are people who write whole books analyzing Shakespeare, after all. And why is that any less ridiculous, when you think about it? Did you know that Shakespeare's plays were considered mass-market fluff in his time? So if you want to throw tomatoes and call us loonies, just make sure you save a few ripe ones for the nearest English literature major.

OK, so how is it done?

There are two popular competing approaches: the literary approach and the scientific approach. Both have strengths and weaknesses, although only one is suitable for serious (as opposed to humourous) comparisons of Star Wars and Star Trek. The two approaches can be summarized as follows:


Suspension of Disbelief

Basic approach:

Treats the films and TV shows as a mere "depiction", or "dramatic re-enactment" of a world which exists only in the author's mind.

Pretends that the fictional universe is real, which means that the films and TV shows are considered documentary footage and books are treated as if they were real stories, historical records, official spec sheets, etc.

Asks the question:

"What do you think the author was trying to say?"

"If you saw the shows in real life with your own eyes and found the books in real life in non-fiction section of your local library, what would you think?"

Treats source as:

Subjective data. We concern ourselves only with what we believe the author's intent to be. Films and TV shows are considered a mere "visual representation" of the "real" fictional universe in question, which is assumed to exist only in the creator's head.

The aliens in the hilarious sci-fi satire "Galaxy Quest" considered the TV shows depicting Tim Allen's NSEA Protector to be "historical records", in which they assumed they were documentary footage and analyzed them as such. We copy this approach. In the case of books, we would treat them as history books.

Think of it as being dumped into a parallel dimension in which the rules still generally apply (eg- humans still breathe oxygen and iron is still heavier than wood), but there are extra phenomena which are unknown to us (eg- subspace, hyperspace), and which you must now research based on what you see and read.

Handling of contradictions:

Since it regards the visuals as a mere "depiction" of the "real" universe, it diminishes their value to that of mere hearsay, or dramatic re-enactment. Therefore, the literary method is not perturbed at all by inconsistencies in visual effects.

However, this method does not gracefully handle inconsistencies in narrative or dialogue. Given two contradictory lines of narrative or dialogue which cannot be rationalized away, we must decide which one the author really "intended", and which one was a "mistake" on his part (a task made rather difficult by the fact that many sci-fi authors have absolutely no idea what they're talking about when it comes to technical matters, and many of them just "make it up as they go").

Normally, this choice is made by trying to determine which line makes more sense relative to the bulk of the evidence or relative to actual science (by temporarily applying scientific methods).

Since it disregards the author's intentions and treats the films as first-hand observations, it handles dialogue contradictions more easily than the literary method. After all, we treat the character as if he's real; as far as we are concerned, there is no author pulling his strings. So if he says something that grossly contradicts other established facts, we can simply treat that as we would in real life (by calling the character an idiot), while the literary method does not really allow for the author to be wrong, per se.

However, this method does not gracefully handle errors in visual effects. Given a shot which makes the Defiant appear to be half its normal size (for example) and which cannot be rationalized away, we must decide whether it is an "error" on the part of our imaginary documentary cameraman. Normally, this decision is made by looking at the bulk of the evidence (similar to what scientists do with highly anomalous data points in a real experiment, where the errant point is assumed to be the result of procedural or equipment error unless it is consistently repeated).


  1. By focusing on the subjective concept of "author's intent" and completely rejecting the empirical study of visuals, the literary method is extremely flexible, and can produce endless, lively debate.

  2. By its ambiguous nature, it appeals to people with a liberal-arts mindset (remember that in liberal arts, the only wrong answer is to say that there's a right answer).

  3. Well-suited to novels.

  4. Good for thematic analysis, dissection of social messages, etc.

  1. By ignoring "author's intent", the "suspension of disbelief" method removes a huge source of ambiguity and subjectivity, so it can be far more objective.

  2. It is actually possible to convincingly defeat someone in a debate where all participants use this method, since the endless stalemates over semantics and speculative interpretations of the author's intent are removed.

  3. By allowing us to make verifiable direct measurements of things, it permits scientific analyses. As a result, it appeals to people with an empirical mindset (eg- scientists, engineers).

  4. Well-suited to movies and TV shows.

  5. Is not limited to the author's scientific comprehension (most sci-fi authors, after all, do not know anything about science).


  1. Poorly suited to movies, which are mostly visual. In fact, it is so poorly suited to movies that its practitioners tend to sneak in "suspension of disbelief" methods when convenient.

  2. Heavily dependent upon semantics.

  3. Its inherent ambiguity tends to create endless debating stalemates (this might be considered a good thing if you think debates are for entertainment rather than resolution of disputes).

  4. Poorly suited to scientific analysis of any kind, since the notion of scientific analysis of an author's intent requires that the author himself must be scientifically competent. An author cannot intend to convey a message beyond his own comprehension.

  5. Is limited to the author's scientific comprehension by its very nature as an attempt to divine his intentions. If the author is an ignoramus, then there are many intelligible explanations for phenomena which become off-limits because the author wouldn't understand them.

  6. Has a penchant for explaining things by going "out of universe" for an explanation based on the author's motives and literary conventions. For example, the argument that "the good guys have to win" is a classic example of literary analysis.

  1. Not good for novels (where the nature of the source is inherently subjective, you cannot directly observe anything at all, and you are restricted to a particular observer's testimony). In real life, stories written in an entertaining style are considered a rather poor historical source when compared to official documents or diagrams.

  2. Poorly suited to thematic analysis, dissection of social messages, etc. Historians try to figure out what happened and scientists try to figure out how things work. Neither is out to assign higher meaning to anything, so their methods are simply not geared to doing so.

There are cases where literary methods may be more appropriate, depending on what you're analyzing and the purposes of your analysis. But there are two huge problems with the use of literary methods in a sci-fi crossover war argument such as Star Wars vs Star Trek:

  1. How can we base arguments off "author's intent" for a scenario which neither author ever intended? By pitting one sci-fi universe against another in mortal combat, we are already completely violating both respective authors' intents. So how can we appeal to author's intent, when an accurate representation of author's intent would not allow the conflict to occur at all?

  2. Crossover war arguments cannot rely on story, because the crossover never took place in any canon source. Instead, they must rely on technical arguments, proving that one side's ships have more firepower or faster engines, etc. However, any attempt to divine the author's scientific intentions automatically requires that the author actually had scientific intentions, and that he knew what he was talking about. Neither is known to be true in this case.

In general, when someone tries to perform scientific analyses while simultaneously employing a literary approach to the evidence, he is guilty of something known as the "stolen concept" fallacy (that's where someone mixes and matches methods which are mutually contradictory in order to arrive at a desired conclusion). This is why most people who participate in the "Star Wars vs Star Trek" game tend to employ the "suspension of disbelief" method. Otherwise, you have people earnestly trying to divine the scientific intentions of writers who don't know the difference between a watt and a joule; a rather absurd situation to say the least.

Having said that, literary approaches make more sense when dealing with novels, so in a universe with both movies and novels such as Star Wars, a different approach is warranted when dealing with the two types of sources. However, the use of literary methods when dealing with the primary film and TV sources is not justifiable.

Dialogue vs Visuals

A lot of people argue over whether one should place more emphasis on dialogue or visuals. However, this argument is really just a roundabout way of approaching the argument over literary vs suspension of disbelief. Remember that the "suspension of disbelief" method requires that we treat dialogue and visuals the same way we would in real life, and in real life, we don't take verbal communication at face value. After all, real people are much more careless when speaking than writing. Moreover, they are prone to leaving out crucial details (for example, there are a wealth of unspoken technical caveats hidden in a stereo amplifier rating of "200 watts per channel"). They are prone to outright errors (for example, a lot of people mix up "gigabytes" and "megabytes" while describing computer hardware, and others might not even bother correcting them because they know what the person meant to say). They may even describe things in a manner which they know to be technically false (for example, even highly qualified physicists will often describe lightning bolts coming down from the sky, even though it is fairly common knowledge that the incandescent bolt actually moves upward, from the ground to the clouds). And of course, real people are not infallible, which is why the "appeal to authority" is a fallacy.

The opposing argument comes from the literary analysis camp, and holds that dialogue is a better indicator of the author's intentions than visuals. This argument is flawed on many levels. First and foremost, if it is being used to justify technical arguments (hint: any argument which involves characteristics of technology or scientific units such as "joules", "watts", or "megatons" is a technical argument), then the use of literal methods forces the inherently self-contradictory exercise of trying to magically divine meaningful scientific intentions on the part of a scientifically ignorant author (note: very few sci-fi authors actually have a science or engineering background). Moreover, it is generally predicated upon the argument that dialogue is more consistent than visuals, which is simply untrue in this case. For every mistake you can find in special effects (eg- bad compositing that puts element A in front of element B when it should be behind, or inconsistent scaling), you can find ten horrible mistakes in dialogue (eg- sonic weapons in space, 4.3 kJ shields on a space station, power measured in watts per second, warp core output measured in teradynes, machines to alter the laws of probability, similar numbers being given for yield on both starship weapons and hand weapons, etc). It's not at all unreasonable to say that more attention is paid to visual consistency than dialogue consistency in TV shows and movies.

There is another facet to the "dialogue vs visuals" debate, and that is the fact that people tend to think visually when they write screenplays (which are full of very specific instructions for the appearance of scenes, the layout of events, etc). As a result, they usually plot out events in shows so that, if you were to greatly modify the visuals, they would no longer make any sense.

Case Studies

The infamous "no lasers" argument.

In one particular episode of TNG, we heard the following exchange:

DATA: Sensors report a minimum range combat craft of the Squadron Class, twenty-six crew.
WORF: Captain, they have locked lasers.
PICARD: Lasers?
RIKER: That won't even penetrate our navigational deflectors.
Literary method: they seem to be saying that their navigational deflectors are immune to lasers, probably because lasers are supposed to be less advanced than phasers. Some people feel that this means any Federation ship could shrug off any laser, even a monster laser that can blow up planets. Others feel that Riker was factoring the ship's small size into account, and that his statement was not meant to be so over-arching. However, it is impossible to conclusively resolve this argument one way or another unless we can get some kind of official statement from the author on the episode, and that's not forthcoming.
Suspension of Disbelief: it is scientifically impossible for any kind of shield to block infinite amounts of laser energy, because the second law of thermodynamics prohibits 100% efficiency devices and light carries momentum equal to U/c, so there are two mechanisms through which increased power levels would eventually overwhelm any blocking system. Therefore, Riker was either an idiot or he was taking the enemy ship's small size into account when he made his statement. Case closed.
It should be noted that Graham Kennedy (ditl.org) has concocted a bizarre rationalization for his infinite laser protection argument, where the ship simply becomes transparent to lasers and they pass right through. Needless to say, he cannot present actual evidence of lasers passing through the ship ...

Combat-effective ranges for Star Trek ships

Onscreen Star Trek combat has always taken place at short range ever since ST2.
Literary method: the author probably intends for Star Trek combat to take place at very long ranges of hundreds of thousands of kilometres. The ranges are shortened in the visual effects, but they clearly state in dialogue that they can hit targets at very long range. A cloaked Bird of Prey once prepared to hit the Enterprise at 40,000 km, and Gul Dukat once ran a weapons test on an asteroid 400,000km away. On the other hand, there have been many incidents (eg- every single onscreen display of combat since ST2, for that matter) where the ranges appeared to be very short. In many of those incidents (eg- "Valiant", "Redemption", "The Die is Cast"), the short ranges were even stated verbally onscreen. Worse yet, many events (such as those in "Arsenal of Freedom" and "Equinox", in which ships avoided attack by plunging into planetary atmospheres and putting themselves out of range unless the enemy followed into the atmosphere) make no sense whatsoever if these ships are truly combat-effective at ranges greater than a few dozen km. This appears to be contradictory, but the author was obviously just trying to create a visceral, exciting experience for the viewer. Realistically, we know that the author intends space combat to normally take place at far greater ranges. Unfortunately, there's no way to conslusively resolve this dispute without some kind of official statement from the producers on why they do this, but I think that if you were to ask them, they'd say what I'm saying.
Suspension of Disbelief: we can see them fighting at short range. We can even hear them ordering attacks at short range (eg- Sisko's "500 metres" order in "The Die is Cast"). Longer ranges generally involve either long-range missiles or static/unsuspecting targets, which are a lot easier to hit. Therefore, they're obviously fighting at short range. Case closed.

The power of the Death Star

The Death Star destroys Alderaan so violently that the release of energy can be estimated in the range of 1E38 joules: a staggering figure.
Literary analysis: George Lucas obviously never intended for the Death Star to be that powerful. He obviously doesn't know how much energy is required to make a planet blow up like that. He probably doesn't even know what joules are. On the other hand, if you told George Lucas that it takes 1E38 joules to blow up a planet like that, he's not going to say "OK, then I guess Alderaan didn't blow up like that". But in the interest of being reasonable, we might want to lower the figure to 2.4E32 joules, which is the absolute minimum. Lucas just didn't want to show the planet taking half an hour to blow up because that wouldn't be very exciting for the audience.
Suspension of Disbelief: Like it or not, we saw the planet blow up, and it blew up very violently. The question of whether George Lucas understood the technical ramifications is irrelevant. Case closed.

Do phasers vapourize people?

Phasers supposedly "vapourize" people, but a flash-vapourization of a human being would be an extremely violent event, almost like a bomb going off. If you take 80kg of organic matter, ¾ of which is water, and vapourize it, you will have a steam explosion!
Literary analysis: the authors obviously intended the phasers to vapourize people. They just didn't understand how violent such an event would be. Therefore, we can conclude that they meant phasers to vapourize people. They even use the word "vapourize" onscreen. On the other hand, the Technical Manual describes nuclear disruption forces and nadions and funky chain reactions and subspace, so maybe the word "vapourize" is used onscreen as a Federation short-form to signify something else.
Suspension of Disbelief: no vapour, therefore no vapourization. The subject disappears, but transporters do that too, and they don't vapourize anything. Sorry, but there's no evidence for phasers actually vapourizing anything. Case closed.

"True Q" and "gigawatts per second"

In "True Q", the following exchange is in the script:

AMANDA: It's hard to imagine how much energy is being harnessed in there...
DATA: Imagination is not necessary; the scale is readily quantifiable. We are presently generating 12.75 billion gigawatts per second.
Literary analysis: the writers must have meant 12.75 billion gigawatts, and they just threw in the "per second" part because they don't know much about physics. Besides, in the actual televised version, Data was cut off before he could say "second".
Notice the careful juxtaposition of both methods in the above literary analysis; it disregards the part of the script which was not shown onscreen even though it was obviously the author's intent, and it dismisses Data's "per second" foolishness due to the author's scientific ignorance while simultaneously assuming that the author comprehends the scientific numbers he's throwing around. This is a classic and oft-repeated example of the literary analyst's tendency to employ "stolen concept" fallacies when convenient.
Suspension of Disbelief: the idea of generating 12.75 billion gigawatts per second is scientifically meaningless, since gigawatts already incorporate a "per second" term. Not only that, but if we completely disregard the script (which would assume that the scripts are treated as totally non-canon) and assume he just meant "12.75 billion gigawatts", the laws of thermodynamics dictate that the ship must be radiating that much power to its environment if it's generating it, and it was not. Therefore, Data's obviously an idiot. Case closed.
Notice for those who bristle at the idea that Data is an idiot: this is the same supposedly super-intelligent droid who once lost a chess match to Deanna Bubblehead Troi ("The Masterpiece Society"), who once "verified" a computer's data by simply asking it if its own data was correct ("The Child"), who expressed force in units of "tons per metre" ("Final Mission") and stress in units of kilodynes ("The Loss"), who completely forgot recent historical precedents (in which he had participated!) for shipwide system failures and false sensor images ("Evolution"), and who once blew a simple grade-school math problem of spherical surface area calculation by 1000% ("Relics"). Does the idea of Data's stupidity offend you? Too bad.

Did Han Solo shoot first?

In the original Star Wars movie released in 1977, Han Solo fired the first shot in the infamous cantina scene. This was also in the novelization. But in the new and supposedly improved "Special Editions" released 20 years later, the film was digitally altered so that Greedo fired first, and the shot looks awful. When you see it in slow motion, it is simply terrible-looking: extremely and obviously fake. So who shot first?
Literary analysis: in 1977, George Lucas obviously intended Han Solo to shoot first. In 1997, George Lucas obviously intended Greedo to shoot first. Therefore, the answer depends on whether you believe that an author's intent at time of original writing is most important, or whether you accept an author's perogative to revise his creation at a later date for some reason.
Suspension of Disbelief: we have two conflicting pieces of film from the same source, both of which were supposedly verified authentic at one time, both depicting the same event. In real-life, we would have to determine if one of them is a fake. Careful analysis of the SE version shows that it is obviously a fake. Solo's movements are physically unrealistic and were obviously digitally altered. However, if one accepts the argument that the original versions no longer exist due to Lucasfilm fiat, then there is no conflict between film versions and Solo fired first.
This is one anomalous case where both methods produce similarly ambiguous results, because of the highly unusual situation of a film being revised long after the fact by its own creator.

How big is the USS Reliant?

Careful scaling of onscreen sizes reveals that the size of the Reliant seems to fluctuate from scene to scene. Now we have to decide what the "true" size of the ship is.
Literary analysis: the size of the Reliant changes from scene to scene, but the author obviously didn't intend for this to happen (except in the case of that stupid "Honey, I shrunk the starship" episode from DS9 for which the author should have been strung up and shot). Therefore, the Reliant has a true size, but it was never stated onscreen. However, we can scale the ship by assuming that its most common appearance onscreen is most indicative of the author's intent, and dismiss outliers.
Suspension of Disbelief: there is no known scientific mechanism through which the size of the Defiant could actually change from scene to scene. There was a technobabble shrinkage process in that horrible "Honey, I shrunk the starship" episode, but it is extremely doubtful that it is being constantly used in order to grow and shrink the ship. The more reasonable explanation is that there is a legitimate conflict between two pieces of canon footage, so some of the footage must have been fabricated by our imaginary cameraman, presumably in order to fill in gaps in the record (this is what we would conclude in real life if this situation came up). This calls into question the integrity of our imaginary cameraman, but given that we know that most of his work seems to be genuine, we have little choice but to accept it and move on despite this unfortunate revelation. We can then assume that the bulk of the footage is genuine due to its consistency, and dismiss outliers as errors and/or doctored shots.
Both methods produce messy results in this case and force us to fall back onto the "take the bulk of the evidence and dismiss outliers as errors or fraud" method, thanks to the rank incompetence of the special-effects teams in Star Trek. It is an unfortunate reality that any attempt to analyze any form of literature or film footage has serious problems dealing with a poor-quality source in which outright self-contradictions exist.

Please note that this particular problem is often cited by "literary analysis" people as an attack upon the "suspension of disbelief" method, but they conspicuously fail to explain how their method does any better, since it comes to essentially the same conclusion about what should be done: use the bulk of the visuals onscreen, and dismiss the ones that don't make sense.

How big is the Executor?

The Executor was designed by the modelmakers to be 11 times as long as a regular mile-long Star Destroyer. The special-effects work on TESB and ROTJ was first-rate in terms of scaling consistency, and it does indeed appear to be roughly this size onscreen. You can also see how tiny the bridge tower is relative to the rest of the Executor (and how big it is on a regular Star Destroyer) to further confirm this 11 mile length.

However, for many years, the official literature stated that the Executor was only five miles long. The 5x figure is absolutely ludicrous when you look at the ships onscreen or the physical models, but it was consistently stated in every source until the "Behind the Magic" CD came out, in which the number was revised to 8 miles (halfway between the old figure and the onscreen size). So how long is the Executor? 5 miles, 8 miles, or 11 miles?
Literary analysis: the modelmakers explicitly stated that they intended the Executor to be 11 miles long (and DS1 and DS2 to be 100 and 500 miles in diameter respectively, as a minor aside), which strongly supports the 11 mile figure. However, it is unclear as to whether they received direction from George Lucas himself on this. Since the 11 mile figure has never been repeated in any publications which were officially sanctioned by his Lucasfilm organization, it's possible that the modelmakers actually exceeded his mandate, and that his original intent was to make the Executor either 5 or 8 miles long, not 11 miles long. Of course, George Lucas could resolve this by making a statement on the matter himself, but that seems unlikely.
Suspension of Disbelief: seeing is believing. The ship always scales to 11 miles long, therefore it's 11 miles long. Case closed.

Inept tactics

Without going into the gory details, there have been many, many examples of inept military tactics in Star Wars, Star Trek, and just about every other sci-fi series to boot. We've seen horrible decisions, insane strategies, huge opportunities wasted, etc. So what does this mean? Does it mean that the tacticians are idiots? Does it mean that the there's some hidden technical reason for these tactical decisions which we're not aware of? Or does it mean a combination of both?
Literary analysis: the authors obviously don't know much about military tactics, and they wrote these battles to be exciting, not realistic. Realistically, these characters wouldn't be making these kinds of mistakes, so I think we can just chalk up these situations to bad writing and assume that in a crossover scenario, they will be competent tacticians. Alternatively, if you must restrict yourself to the stories as written, then I suppose we just have to deal with that.
Suspension of Disbelief: the characters made some decisions which seem pretty horrible, but just we just have to deal with that.
Notice how the literary method differs from the scientific analysis in this case only by virtue of its noncommital attitude. Also note that there are many methods of dealing with bad military tactics in sci-fi. One might argue that there are limitations to their technology which we are not aware of (we have only a very superficial understanding of its capabilities, after all) and which forced their hands. It may also be that they were simply incompetent or inflexible; it took decades for military tacticians in real-life to adjust infantry tactics to the advent of the machine-gun. And finally, it may be that their errors look more obvious to us with hindsight, which is also not unprecedented. In hindsight, people have been able to say "they should have ..." about a great many real-life military battles and campaigns.

TIE fighter solar panels

We all know that TIE fighters have big black panels on each side of the cockpit pod. In some of the early literature, these panels were written up as "solar panels" and implied to be the fighter's only power source. However, recently released cross-section diagrams (in the original ICS, or "Incredible Cross-Sections" book) show that TIE fighters have an integral fuel tank in the underside of the pod, so they obviously have some source of power besides solar energy. On the other hand, the recently released Visual Dictionary still states that the ion engines are "energized" by solar panel wings, and even the ICS labels them as solar collectors.
But solar power at Earth's orbit around the Sun only provides a meagre 1.4kW for every square metre of receiving surface even at a perfect angle of incidence, so those panels simply aren't big enough to provide more than kilowatt-range power (we're talking about a few horsepower here, to use more familiar units). That's not even a tiny fraction of what a TIE fighter would need in order to achieve orbit from the ground: a feat which TIE fighters can accomplish quite easily.
Literary analysis: the authors obviously don't know anything about the limitations of solar power or the energy requirements of achieving orbit. Therefore, TIE fighters do rely heavily on solar power, but it must generate much more power in the Star Wars universe. It's a different universe, with different rules from ours.
It should be noted that the "rules" alluded to in this common argument are never explained in any consistent manner by anyone. The author obviously doesn't know what they are, and neither do the fans. And if their only means of rationalizing a sci-fi universe is to conclude that even the most fundamental rules of reality do not apply and they make no effort to replace them with new, equally consistent, intelligible versions based on the show, then they can't generate predictions about what would happen in some hypothetical crossover scenario (or any other event for that matter), because such predictions require extrapolation based on ... the rules.
Suspension of Disbelief: solar power would be a mere drop in the ocean of a TIE fighter's power requirements, and not even remotely worth their negative impact on visibility, construction cost, deployment flexibility, etc. The panels make far more sense as radiative heat sinks than solar energy collectors. The bad information in the official literature is probably due to incredibly poor New Republic intelligence-gathering and/or a deliberate campaign of New Republic propaganda against the TIE fighters (remember that under "suspension of disbelief", all official literature is presumed to be published by some in-universe entity with his own agenda, just as it is in real life).

Why is everyone speaking English?

Good question. No matter what someone's actual language is supposed to be, they are shown speaking English onscreen. It is possible that they really are speaking English (this is most likely the case for citizens of the Federation), and one might even surmise that the people in Star Wars are speaking English as a galaxy-standard language (the coincidence is nothing compared to the coincidence of humans existing in another galaxy, so we must assume either common ancestry or direct lineage from us to them somehow), particularly since English lettering is used on the tractor beam power controls which Ben Kenobi disabled in ANH.

However, the Star Wars literature describes a language called "Basic", although there are numerous puns, nicknames, and even acronyms used in that same literature which only make sense in English, so "Basic" might very well be English. On the other hand, we have Star Trek 6, where General Chang is speaking in Klingon while Kirk and McCoy listen to translator devices, but the scene transitions to English in what is apparently an attempt to make the scene more intelligible for the viewer. At one point, Chang even shouts "don't wait for the translation, answer me now!" to Kirk in English. And of course, there are countless scenes where Romulans or Klingons are talking to each other with no humans present, and they use English rather than their native languages.
Literary analysis: the author intended these people to be using a different language, but he depicted them using English for the sake of the viewer.
Suspension of Disbelief: either these people really are speaking English, or the film was dubbed (and digitally doctored) to make it look and sound as if they are speaking English.
This is one case where the scientific technique arguably produces a klunkier explanation than the literary method, but the outcomes are still the same.

Sound in space

Why do we hear sounds during space battles?
Literary analysis: we're not supposed to. That's not the author's intent. It's just added to enhance the enjoyment of the film.
Suspension of Disbelief: somebody must have dubbed realistic sounds onto the footage (this has been done in reality with silent film footage from the early part of the 20th century). Alternatively, it's possible that there's some kind of system in the cockpit of a SW starship which uses sound effects to inform the pilot of what's happening around him (this has been suggested in some of the literature).
As with the previous example, both methods produce similar results, but the scientific method has to jump through a few more hoops to get there.

Warp drive and hyperdrive

Obvious question: how can they travel faster than light? If they can violate the laws of physics which prohibit this, then why should we assume that any scientific laws apply at all?
Literary analysis: because the author says so. He doesn't know or doesn't care that it's impossible. And physical laws do not apply ... unless I want them to apply, eg- when I assume that a high-megaton explosion should take down a TIE fighter.
Suspension of Disbelief: we don't know. If we saw a UFO in real-life that could definitely exceed the speed of light, we would say "we don't know how it works, but it obviously does work." We would not say "well, I guess all of the laws of physics which work perfectly for everything we currently do must be garbage", and start burning science textbooks.

From these case studies, we can see that in general, suspension of disbelief methods tend to produce more conclusive results (far more conclusive in some cases) and often with less complexity. Even in worst-case scenarios where it is impacted by inexcusable sloppiness on the part of a show's producers, it is merely reduced to the same conclusions forced upon us by the literary method anyway.

Frequently Asked Questions about "Suspension of Disbelief"

How do you handle errors in published literature?

The same way we handle them in a real-life history book. Historical sources are nowhere near as accurate or useful as direct flim footage, but they're not useless either, and we simply apply the same approach here.

How do you know which laws of physics apply and which ones don't?

All laws of physics apply unless it is absolutely impossible to rationalize events with them. Remember that in real life, if we saw an antigravity vessel, we would try to generate scientific theories which explain this new phenomenon while simultaneously remaining consistent with thousands of years of scientific observations prior to its discovery. We would not say "hmmm, I guess none of the laws of physics apply any more" and start over from scratch. Instead, we would do something like the following:

  1. Try again to rationalize it within existing scientific theories. This must not be understated; people are often far too eager to assume that something violates physical laws when it does not.

  2. Attempt to modify an existing theory or select between two previously equal competing theories to account for the new observation, while still maintaining consistency with previous observations and general scientific laws such as the first law of thermodynamics.

  3. Attempt to generate an entirely new theory to account for the new observation, while still maintaining consistency with previous observations and general scientific laws such as the first law of thermodynamics. Quantum mechanics is an excellent example of this methodology in action: they needed a theory which would explain the odd behaviour of particles at quantum scales while simultaneously maintaining consistency with classical physics at macroscopic scales, so they invented one. It worked, and it has since been applied in order to design many technological devices.

In sci-fi analyses, we must often resort to option #3. We are forced to theorize about new and heretofore undiscovered concepts which can coexist with existing theories while simultaneously explaining the new phenomena. Hence, we end up with rationalizations like the Star Trek "mass-lightening" trick and NDF theory.

Why should we use suspension of disbelief instead of literary methods?

See the previous section. Suspension of disbelief is far more likely to produce conclusive results which can be objectively defended. Moreover, it is the only method which is appropriate for any argument which contains words like "joules" or "watts" or "megatons" or "kinetic energy", because arguments which refer to such principles intrinsically require the application of science to the fictional universe, and you cannot apply science to a fictional universe without treating it as if it's real. If you refuse to let go of the fact that it's just an idea in some writer's head, then you can hardly apply scientific principles to it, any more than you apply scientific principles to events which occur in your dreams.

A lot of your rationalizations involve the assumption that certain characters are stupid. Do you really think this is reasonable?

Take it up with the writers. They're the ones who made the characters say stupid things. I'm just pointing it out.

I see you sometimes mention a "New Republic bias" when talking about the novels. Doesn't this violate suspension of disbelief?

No. Bias must be accounted for in real-life analysis of historical documents too. That's one of the reasons that real-life science is considered more reliable than real-life history. Historical methods are often our only way of determining what happened long ago (we have no way of knowing how many soldiers died on D-Day through scientific means, for example), but if an historical story cannot be reconciled with science, there is no question that we classify it as inaccurate (for example, the historical story of the Biblical Great Flood is impossible for many reasons, so we conclude that it did not literally happen as written. Instead, we look at the fact that smaller, more localized floods are possible (and there are even some candidates for specific mechanisms through which a regional flood might have occurred at the right time and place), and try to reconcile the historical record with our understanding of science.

The writers don't know anything about science. Why should we analyze their work as if they do?

We're not. It is the "literary analysis" people who are acting as though the writers must know about science by interpreting their intent on such matters. The "suspension of disbelief" method, on the other hand, can stray from the author's intent by noting what is visible in his creation, even if he did not consciously intend it to be interpreted that way. While this may strike you as wrong on some level, ask yourself how you can involve yourself in a crossover debate at all without exceeding the author's intent. How can you claim to respect an author's intent when you are trying to pit one sci-fi universe against another in mortal combat: something that their respective authors obviously never intended?

Consider the following analogy: suppose you write a story about a huge dragon. A biology expert analyzes the story and determines that this huge dragon must be composed of some incredibly strong material rather than conventional flesh and bone, because the specified size would require a very high minimum weight, which would in turn create enormous pressures in its limbs and internal structures. He also determines that the feats you describe this dragon performing would require flame-breath of some enormously high temperature, with various implications for the necessary biological systems and fuel substances. Now, the question becomes: did you think about any of this when you wrote the story? Probably not. Therefore, none of it fits under the rubric of "author's intent". But does this mean it's not true? Ahhhh, there's the rub, isn't it? Even if you did not intend the consequences, you did write the story that way, and the scientist is merely pointing out the ramifications of what you wrote.

The visual effects people don't know anything about science. Why should we analyze their work as if they do?

See previous answer.


Quite frankly, a person's preferred method of analyzing sci-fi tends to be reveal quite a bit about his mindset for approaching reality. Those who espouse a scientific approach tend to be more scientifically knowledgeable or technically inclined, while those who espouse a totally non-scientific approach tend to be ignorant of science (gee, what a shock).

One could argue that no one can tell anyone that his perferred personal method is "wrong", and that's true. But we can say when someone is guilty of the "stolen concept" fallacy, and the minute you hear someone using scientific terms like "joule" and "watt" or invoking facts such as the energy density of matter/antimatter reactions while simultaneously espousing literary methods and rejecting suspension of disbelief, he's guilty.

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