Stupid plotholes

by Mark on

If this tumblelog had categories, I’d file this under Verbal Diarrhoea.

Big dumb logical and scientific plotholes in a film, television series or book insanely bug the crap out of me. When something happens for the sake of drama, rather than some even quasi-plausible reason, it feels like the author/writer/producer is saying, “well ain’t you got a real purthy mouth there, boy” to my suspension of disbelief.

If, as sometimes happens, your decision to overlook reality becomes integral to the core storyline, we move from purthy to squeal piggy! 2009’s Star Trek? None of back story involving singularities and supernovae made the slightest bit of sense. 1999’s The Phantom Menace? Stuff mostly happens because George Lucas thought it would be cool.

Blah. Okay. Earlier this week I reread 1980’s Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederick Pohl, the sequel to his 1977 science fiction novel, Gateway, for the first time in over a decade.

Before I continue, I will stress that there will be spoilers to both Gateway and Beyond the Blue Event Horizon. Big, here-is-the-whole-story spoilers. Stop reading if you don’t want either book spoiled…but seriously. If you are a science fiction fan I’d hope that you’ve have read them by now. One novel has been out for 33 years and the other for 30.

<spoiler>

In Gateway, Humanity discovers, purely by accident, a huge alien space station orbiting way out of the plane of the ecliptic somewhere inside of the orbit of Venus. Docked at the station are almost 1,000 functioning starships.

Skip forward a few decades. We can kinda, sorta make the starships fly. It is known that if you turn these dials until you get that colour, you’ve entered a valid galactic destination. Put the button and off you go!

Well, mostly.

We don’t know where the starships will go. The Heechee (the aliens who built both the starships and Gateway) neural structure and cognitive perceptions are so different to ours that the output from the screens on the starships is mostly just meaningless garbage to a human. We don’t know where the starship will wind up. You could transit back into real space inside the gravity well of a neutron star or within a few AU of a collapsing hypergiant…and die instantly. You might be sent travelling clear across the galaxy (a twenty year journey when you only have a year’s worth of food and water)…and die slowly.

People do die with depressing regularity: One of the central fulcrums of Gateway’s story is that a full 15% of starships sent out either do not return at all, or come back full of dead people. This human toll is hammered home again time and time again through the story.

Nitpickery:

Before the opening of Beyond the Blue Event horizon, it transpires that when a Heechee starship approaches a Heechee station, they are programmed to shut down and automatically dock. This happens to one prospector mission which arrived at a Heechee food-processing station some twenty-four light days out into the Oort cloud on the edge of the solar system. The prospector involved signals her position back toward Earth and then commits suicide. About a decade later, a spaceship crewed by the Harter-Hall family is dispatched to investigate the Food Factory by the now-wealthy protagonist of the first book.

My gripe? He put them in a spaceship and had them spent four years burning their way out of the solar system in a retrofitted in-system spaceship. The numbers really, really do not add up to me, as a geek:

How fast was the expedition travelling?


24 light days = 6,220,800,00,000km
Journey time = 1,300 days
622080000000/1300=478523077km/day
478523077/86400=5537km/s
5537km/s

Five thousand, five hundred and thirty seven kilometres per second. London to New York and back in under two seconds. Or, more viscerally, roughly 2.4% of c.

The Harter-Hall expedition had to travel at a minimum 2.4% of the speed of light to cover that distance in thirteen hundred days. I say minimum because the 5,537km/s velocity assumes that the Harter-Hall expedition was able to start and stop on a dime. This is just plain ridiculous considering the level of extant human technology detailed in the books. In the real world you would need a reasonable amount of time to accelerate and decelerate at either end of the journey so as not to pulp the crew. Think of it like a big, graceful bellcurve on a graph: At the beginning and end of the journey they’d be travelling at much less than 2.4% of c and mid-journey they’d be travelling at much more than 2.4% of c.

Just…how ridiculous was that?

I work better by breaking things down, so I am going to try and convey the amount of energy required to accelerate a hypothetical 1kg Inanimate Carbon Rod (ICR) from 0km/s (relative to the sun) to 5,537km/s. I’m going to ignore things like gravity wells and escape velocities – this is pure, simple acceleration.

Kinetic energy is “the work needed to accelerate a body of a given mass from rest to its current velocity”. That is: What does it take to get me from A speed to B speed?

Luckily it is pretty easy to calculate – there are even plenty of tools out there, such as this one.

Let us begin!


KE = 1/2 (M * (V * V))
M = 1,000g(rammes)
V = 5537000m/s

(1,000*(5537000*5537000))/2 = 15329184500000j

15,329,184,500,000 joules of energy to get our plucky ICR up to the requisite velocity. O.o

Joules are maybe just a big and nonsensical number to most readers, so again I’ll take the dramatically visceral path by expressing it as kilotons of energy:


3.663763026kt, or: 3.7kt

Fat Man, the nuclear device used to bomb Nagasaki was 21kt. To accelerate 5.7icr to 5,537km/s you’d need energy equivalent to the bomb that devastated Nagasaki. Twice that actually – you’d need to decelerate and stop your ICR again at the end of your journey. It was mentioned in the course of the novel that the Food Factory was very slowly moving perpendicularly to the plane of the sun’s ecliptic or, from the point of view of someone standing on the sun, keeping a steady distance. Therefore you definitely would need to stop your ICR at the other end.

So? SO?!

It simply doesn’t scale, not in the setting of a book where technology isn’t much farther along than our own (it is in fact hinted to be taking place in the 2030’s due to references to World War 2). The Harter-Hall vessel is mentioned to be carrying multiple 10,000kg thrusters so as to push the Food Factory back into the solar system.

That’s 73 freaking megatons of energy to accelerate and decelerate one thruster strapped to the hull of the ship. One. That’s almost one-and-a-half Tsar Bomba’s-worth of energy.

I’m ranted out. Point has been conveyed: Ridiculously stupid numbers were used by the author. Add a zero to the years of the journey and take a zero off their velocity.

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