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Artistic License – Engineering
In Real Life
, an engineer's job is to design machines or structures that perform a certain task, and perform it efficiently, reliably and safely. It's a challenging job, involving analytical thinking and mathemathics as well as creativity – and last but not least, common sense
Not so in fiction. When you let a writer of fiction dream up a machine, odds are good that you'll end up with something that is horribly inefficient, unsafe
, or just plain impossible
The reasons for this vary:
- Many writers will not even think about functionality when designing a machine; they're more concerned with the "look" and "feel" their machines convey rather than whether they actually make sense given the function they're supposed to perform. This is often the case with spaceships in softer Science Fiction.
- Even those writers that pay some attention to functionality often can't be bothered to think things through. Fuel consumption? Maintenance needs? Heat dissipation? They're the last things most writers worry about.
- And then there's failure to think outside the box – that is, failure to consider that there might be other, perhaps less spectacular ways to get the job done. Even machines that have been properly "designed" and thought through will make no sense whatsoever if there is clearly another, much more efficient way to do what they do.
If the work is set in modern times, you're supposed to ignore it
, but if it is in a sci-fi or fantasy setting, it's a toss-up whether it will be ignored completely, explained as being made of Unobtainium
or Applied Phlebotinum
of some nature, or only working because A Wizard Did It
or a Higher-Tech Species
show us how.
frequent cause of Awesome but Impractical
. Cool, but Inefficient
is a subtrope. Related to No OSHA Compliance
, as process safety is a pretty big issue for most engineers in Real Life
See also: Artists Are Not Architects
, Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale
, Square/Cube Law
Anime & Manga
- Most Humongous Mechas except for these:
- Shirow Masamune, is in fact, an engineer. (Even he applies Artistic Licence though.)
- 20th Century Boys features an engineer who gets kidnapped to build one and rants at his kidnappers about just how undoable it really is. Eventually, it does get built, but it's a barely-functional one just for show so that the Big Bad can steal credit from the hero for saving the world from it.
- Full Metal Panic! actually used this in an interesting way: One Humongous Mecha fell apart once the Applied Phlebotinum allowing it to ignore its own weight failed.
- Mecha in general often touch this trope. A bipedal machine is, with anything resembling modern technology (or in the near-future sans Handwavium), a horribly complex, inefficient, and dangerous way to design a war machine. Just the stabilizing and moving systems alone would be a nightmare.
- Add a double dose of this when considering combining or transforming mecha. The sheer number of moving parts alone would give any engineer worth his salt a drinking problem let alone connecting the control systems and electrical circuits from two or more separate craft into a cohesive whole. Also consider how hard it is for pilots to refuel in mid-flight through a fuel line and then imagine ramming another mecha in order to combine...
- While Anime/Neon Genesis Evangelion narrowly averts this, it still gets caught in bad physics and impossible anatomy. The titular mechas, the Evangelions are actually giant humanoid gods/aliens cloned from a giant alien that is linked to the creation of man. They were also placed in armor so tight and confining that they couldn't move without being piloted. However, the Square/Cube Law would still keep the evangelions from moving fast at all. Also, the midsections of the evangelions are very thin, being even more narrow than their heads. So, they shouldn't even be able to stand, let alone move around.
- Star Wars: There is a lot of debate of how possible/impossible the city-planet of Coruscant is, and not least the concept of miles-high buildings and the infrastructure required to maintain them and the population they contain.
- One notable offender is the Senate Building. Its central chamber is so large that unless the air inside was kept extremely dry, clouds would condense in the upper tiers.
- There's also the issue of how a city-spanning planet could possibly void all the heat that it generates, and the gaseous exhaust of trillions of vehicles, building systems, and industrial facilities. It's even mentioned in one novel that Coruscant somehow still has ice caps, and the characters go skiing.
- The supposed ice caps are actually an area which was built as a ski resort for anyone rich (or famous) enough to use. Although in the same book it explains that there are apparently a network of stations in orbit which are giant mirrors which HEAT the planet. Given the above mentioned exhaust though this really doesn't make much sense as making the planet warmer would seem to be a really bad idea.
- Another: The Square/Cube Law notwithstanding, the buildings are so slender in comparison to height, that the slightest breeze would probably cause them to buckle.
- On the subject of Darths & Droids and this trope, the players decry Naboo as being unrealistic for structural reasons...except for Jim, who it turns out is a postgraduate student getting his Ph.D. in geophysics, and actually goes to the trouble to work out how such a planet would be feasible.
- The chicken walkers (AT-ST's) are just walking targets. The Hoth walkers (AT-AT's) make a bit more sense, if we take into account that repulsor coils big enough to make something as big as an AT-AT float would be such an energy drain that the power plant wouldn't be feasible for mass production. The only reason two AT-AT's got taken out at all was more Luke's Rule of Cool then anything else. note
- Wookiepedia suggests that the reason for the legs was two-fold. First, a giant walking death machine is really scary, and second, Repulsor-lift vehicles are vulnerable to mines, while the extremely long legs of the AT-AT means the blast never reaches the vital components.
- Various books have suggested that walkers were designed for regions where ground-level repulsorcraft were unsuited such as very uneven ground or unstable gravity. Interesting, but Tanks seem more effective.
- They did in fact have tanks, but like most Imperial weapons systems, they were Awesome but Impractical, having huge wheels and being very unmaneuverable.
- The prequels and Clone Wars series make this worse, since the earlier designs were much more effective. The Clone equivalent to an AT-AT could walk straight up cliffs, had a lower center of gravity distributed further apart on more limbs, and had weapons that didn't all face forward just for one example... and vulnerable to the above-mentioned mines that the AT-AT have long legs against. For the record, the disadvantages of low height actually came up in the first Clone Wars cartoon, where Durge and his lancer droids were able to trash the AT-TE walkers with their lances.
- This is likely due to the Emperor rejecting less intimidating designs in favour of something more likely to cause fear. He prefers to rule through terror and epitomise We Have Reserves than to actually keep the system stable, and would thus put intimidation much higher on the priority list than practicality.
- Architecture and machinery that fits, or appears to fit, this trope is common in Dr. Seuss books, which are nonsensical anyways.
- Trantor, the capitol of the Galactic Empire in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, is a planet-spanning city like Coruscant in the example below (in fact, it's been suggested that Trantor was the inspiration for Coruscant). The engineering problems might be somewhat averted by the fact that unlike Coruscant, most of Trantor is underground. However, in later books in the series, people seem to have no trouble at all stripping away entire sections of the city, with apparently no concern for what it might do to the structural stability of surrounding parts of the city. Well, they do call that period "The sacking of Trantor". There had been said at some point in the books Trantor was inhabited by 40 billion people whose entire way of life depended of fleets of spaceships bringing in foodstuffs each day and taking trash out.
- Averted in the Vorkosigan Saga; all the engineering is realistic, and the 5-space theory expounded in Komarr sounds plausible.
- Averted in Honor Harrington, where the characters are fully aware that their architecture of multi-hundred-story skyscrapers is only possible because of countergrav. Grayson, which didn't have it, has low buildings (Also, high is bad on a Death World).
Table Top Games
- Revolution: Electricity isn't the only thing Monroe needs to get his helicopters flying from episode 10 onward. These machines have sat idle for 15 years, and fuel and lubricants do not last indefinitely. There's also a good chance that the avionics have physically degraded with time and exposure to the elements.
- Star Trek: Routinely violates sound engineering principles. If you took a drink for every time the TNG Enterprise was nearly destroyed because something like the reactor failsafes failing, you'd be comatose within a few episodes. Limited (or lack of) systems redundancy, no compartmentalization of critical systems, lack of surge protectors that cause control consoles to explode just about every time the Enterprise gets shot, using active measures like force fields for biohazard containment (instead of, say, a freaking box marked "biohazard") ... the list is endless.
- Star Trek also misuses terms such as "alloy" and "compound".
- But averted in TNG when Scotty tells Geordi that he wrote the original regulations conservatively. It's not (just) that it makes him look good when Kirk asked for more and Scotty could deliver, it's also that it's simply a good idea to not run the device at redline the whole time (reduces wear and tear, for one thing).
- On a more philosophical level, the franchise generally doesn't seem at all clear on the vast differences between engineers, spacegoing engineers, scientists, and so on. Presumably an artifact of having The Main Characters Do Everything... on the other hand, this might explain a lot about Starfleet.
- Star Trek: Voyager:
- They decided that it would be a great idea if instead of metal wiring, most of the ships utterly vital systems are connected with gel packs, which are basically biological goo. Not only does it open up engineering weaknesses that no good old copper wire would face (such as one instance where it was poisoned by Neelix's cooking) but also cannot be replicated or grown. Yes, they chose the one system that couldn't be made on the fly with their replicators. They also have have other engineering slip ups like have no emergency lights and manual door overrides that don't work if it doesn't have power.
- And perhaps the most incomprehensible engineering choice in all of Star Trek, making the power supply for the Voyager holodeck incompatible with the rest of the ship. A power generator built into Voyager is somehow incompatible with the rest of Voyager. Why any engineer would design such a baffling system has never been explained.
- Just about every single thing to come out of Warhammer 40k is either made out of shot traps, should collapse in on itself, or both, even the more reasonably designed Imperial Guard tanks, like the Baneblade, are literally built out of shot traps, with short ranged guns that have bores nearly as large as their length as standard armament. It's only that tabletop rules forbid doing so that stops anyone from simply shooting the Baneblade in it's Demolisher cannon and destroying it.
- Digging into the lore of Battlefleet Gothic produces quite a few more of these. Among other things a "torpedo" is an eighty-metre long self-steering engine that overloads its reactor core when it gets close enough to something, which sounds reasonable enough...until you realize it gets transported from the magazine to the tubes by armies of serfs with pulleys and a trolley.
- This trope came back to bite the creators of the latest Red Faction game. Apparently the combination of their famed Geomod engine with a realistic physics engine caused the outrageous "futuristic" buildings they planned on using in the game to collapse under their own weight, forcing them to go back to the drawing board with more sensible architecture. Explained by Volition themselves here.
- The Sims, falling under acceptable breaks of reality, since house building can take a long time without you thinking how many pillars to put to support the entire structure. Of course, there is also the bugs that allow things like a floating house.
- Minecraft doesn't so much have an artistic license as it has entirely separate laws of physics from reality. On one hand, sand, gravel, and most living things will respect the laws of gravity while most other blocks ignore it entirely, enabling floating continents and fortresses to be built and naturally generate with a little effort. Yet on the other, most anything electronic baring mods follow the laws of electronics mostly swimmingly (well, minus the fact that redstone torches produce seemingly infinite power.)
- Dwarf Fortress. An entire fortress held up off the ground by one single brick of soap? They've been done, and that's considered relatively insignificant. Then again, without Dwarfy physics, we wouldn't get the mind-bendingly complex Death Traps and megaprojects that Dorfs have been known to build. Case in point, DOMAIN, a suborbital Kill Sat defense network that works by pumping magma up to dozens of Z-levels above ground level and dropping it on opponents, is still making the rounds on the Bay 12 forums.
- Rado's Annex, a free-standing two story subtower connected to Darm Tower by a walkway on the sixteenth floor in the Ys series is pretty much structurally impossible. Yunica actually points this out when she first sees it in Origins.
- In Starcraft II the Viking transforming assault fighter can flip from starfighter to ground-walking mecha. The background description in the game strongly implies that transforming can kill an insufficiently agile pilot somehow, which is just plain idiotic. There's no call for the interior of the cockpit to be somehow involved in the transformation, nor would you ever want to field something that could kill the pilot as part of its normal performance going right.
- The Metal Gear series makes heavy use of Humongous Mecha in general. Notable in that one of the games actually lampshades how impractical the design is.
- The Scorpion tank of Halo has what is probably the single stupidest tank design in all of fictional history. The Scorpion is apparently a "Light tank" with a 90mm cannon the same size as the Panzerkampfwagen VII Maus. Here's a scale comparison between the Scorpion, afforementioned Maus, and the sanely designed M1 Abrams◊(NSFW By Virtue of it's URL). Note that both the Maus and Abrams are armed with much larger guns than the Scorpion, (128 and 120mm respectively). The Scorpion also features the most idiotic decision of all, to put the cockpit on top the tank with giant windows. Just top top it all of, said glaringly vulnerable cockpit is inside a shot trap when the cannon is facing forwards, so any shot that doesn't damage the equally vulnerable gun mechanisms, will promptly fly into the cockpit, killing the pilot.