Follow TV Tropes


Awesome But Impractical / Literature

Go To

"A flashy feature that has limited usability for victory."

  • Discworld:
    • Death used to ride a fiery steed, but it set fire to the stable. Then he got a skeletal horse, but bits kept falling off. Then he got a Badass Normal White Stallion, and called it Binky.
    • In Snuff, Col. Makepeace retired from the Pseudopolis military's Light Dragons, which attempted to use the notoriously-explosive swamp dragons in warfare. It never worked, and is the reason his memoirs are titled Twenty-Four Years Without Eyebrows.
    • Advertisement:
    • This is the entirety of Mustrum Ridcully's attitude towards magic. Ridcully is ludicrously powerful, but Discworld magic is unstable and dangerous to everyone in the vicinity. Also, he figures that anything he can't take down with his staff (six feet of bog-oak, swung by arms that box against trolls for fun) isn't going to be deterred by magic either.
  • Bryn's Wolverine Gauntlets from Raised by Wolves. The claws are silver, and extend and retract via a quick twist of the wrist. The only time they're used in combat, the enemy figures out how they work and neutralizes them by grabbing Bryn's wrist and twisting them to the retracted position. Made more annoying by the fact that Bryn was already carrying around two perfectly good silver knives when she got the gauntlets.
  • In Dark Heavens, Emma is unexpectedly able to generate an ultra-rare black chi that can instantly annihilate demons, or turn them human... sometimes. Other times, it does nothing at all. Emma eventually decides that it's too unpredictable to be useful, and stops using it... for now.
  • Advertisement:
  • In Gathering the Enchanted, it would be Calynn's legs suddenly bending backwards. This would realistically cause her to have to crawl on all fours due to the sudden change in her lower body.
  • Honor Harrington:
    • In On Basilisk Station, Honor's ship was refitted with a shiny new weapon that could destroy the protective force fields on other ships. Unfortunately, it had a relatively miniscule range of about a hundred thousand kilometers, and required the removal of most of the ship's conventional missile and beam armanent, making it incredibly ineffective at typical combat distances of up to a few million kilometers. She manages to make use of it, but would have been much better off with the original Boring, but Practical armanent. Her ship was only intended to be a test platform for the grav lance, which was not supposed to be used in a real fight until enough of those issues had been worked out to make it more practical— but since it didn't turn out to even be promising in the wargames at the beginning of the book, the ship was Reassigned to Antarctica (along with its unfortunate commander) to save the Admiral responsible for it the embarassment of having it around. Of course it DID end up in combat, leading to the first of MANY Reassignment Backfire moments for Harrington (the enemy ship was unaware of it and got close enough for the weapon to be effective after her ship was effectively crippled; however, a ship with a traditional loadout would have won at an earlier stage of the battle easily).
    • Advertisement:
    • Admiral Sonja "Horrible" Hemphill was notorious for turning out this kind of military advances. Undeservedly, as it turns out, since any of her advances that weren't in this category were classified so all most people saw were her failures.
    • Once missile pods were invented, they designed warships that were based on the ability to store, deploy and launch large numbers of pods in two classes: Superdreadnoughts and battlecruisers. Pod battlecruisers turned out to be fragile (when the pod core is fully worked out, it takes up the entire interior of the midships portion of the hull, leaving virtually no room for proper armor), easy to knock out of action, cramped, and in order to prop up salvo density, the missiles they carry are cruiser-weight rather than capital-weight. They didn't even try making pod ships of classes smaller than battlecruisers (apart from a few anti-pirate Q-ships) because they wouldn't be large enough to store enough pods to be worth it.
    • Word of God says that LACs are a strategic dead-end, making them this once navies have figured out a counter for them. Unlike BC(P)s, however, LACs still function as working area defense ships, helping larger and more important ships escape harm from extremely heavy pod missile salvos.
  • In The Elenium, the undead soldiers created by Otha. While they look like an undefeatable regiment of unkillable warriors in Scary Impractical Armor, there turn out to be two crippling problems with them: 1. Their armor really is impractical. The guys making it didn't understand armor had a purpose beyond looking scary, so they made armor that looked really scary but was restrictive, didn't deflect blades properly, and was too thin. 2. Otha is a moron. He has the power to raise the dead, but no idea what to do with it. The soldiers are set to guard the stone they're standing on, and that's all. The heroes win by just walking around them. Then because it didn't occur to Otha that his soldiers should be selective in their targets, they chuck a rock at one soldier causing it to enter the square of another, and the Disaster Dominoes set the entire regiment fighting each other.
  • The Belgariad:
    • In Belgarath the Sorceror, the title character approaches a demon summoner who decides to show off by summoning a demon in a protective circle of fire on the surface of a river. A protective circle drawn in mud is just as effective and has the benefit of not being washed downstream while the summoner is being eaten by an amused demon.
    • Teleportation magic is very draining on the caster and only works within line of sight. For speedy long-distance travel, Belgarath attempts a Multistage Teleport, but gives up and turns into a falcon instead.
  • The Aeyrie, batlike winged humanoids in Laurie J. Marks's Children Of Triad trilogy, are described as such—by one of their own, no less—in the second book: Between the weight of the musculature required to get something roughly human-sized aloft, and the hollow bones and general frailty required to compensate for said weight, they're "too heavy to fly easily, yet too light to do anything else."
  • In The Pale King, David Foster Wallace explains how awesome the Peoria REC looks as you approach its parking lot...except that the design of its road and structuring makes for horrendous afternoon traffic.
    • In essence, the baronial splendor of the REC’s grass was a testament to the idiocy and hassle of the whole thing’s planning.
  • The Wheel of Time:
    • Callandor is an extremely powerful Amplifier Artifact, but it was built without the normal safeguards in place on artifacts of its type. Both times Rand uses it at full power, he ends up with temporary delusions of godhood and starts doing insane things. It's later revealed that Callandor's flaw is actually a deliberately designed trap, and proves crucial to Rand's plan for winning the Last Battle.
    • Earlier in the series, Rand tries to make creating a Flaming Sword out of magic his Signature Move. Just about every magic user he meets lambastes this as a waste of his powers.
  • Many modern writers on Internet culture have noted how impractical William Gibson's idea of "cyberspace" is. Despite forming the core of classic cyberpunk stories like Neuromancer and Burning Chrome, when the Internet finally did become a fixture in everybody's life, cyberspace failed to come with it. The reason, they argue, is that it added a superfluous layer of "travel" to the Internet, when in reality it is simpler to just let the net come to you.
  • Arthur C. Clarke's short story Superiority (Link.) is about Awesome, But Impractical means of warfare hilariously turning almost inevitable victory into utter chaos and failure.
  • World War Z
    • Most of the weapons the US Army uses at Yonkers. They use "Shock and Awe" weaponry against the zombies, which is ineffective against them, in addition to a combat system for infantry that allows you to hear and see everything your buddies are seeing. This does nothing for morale when it is stated that the aerial recon showed a horde of zombies millions strong marching out of New York when they were already having a lot of trouble against the front ranks. Also, a soldier is ambushed and torn apart outside a house, and his camera gets all of the action. This stuff, along with a plan that ignores much of the good terrain, written by armchair generals who had spent decades preparing for World War III with the Soviets, allows the army to be slaughtered. This happens all over the world, apparently—South Korea had a similar incident at Inchon.
    • MHTELS (Mobile Tactical High Energy Laser) and Zeus, anti-missile and anti-mine technology, respectively. Terribly inefficient for anti-zombie work, as they take forever to kill organic targets, but make for great propaganda footage, because they make heads boil apart.
    • Also, the guy early in the outbreak who fights the zombies by strapping on some rollerblades and attempts to mow down zombies with a meat cleaver attached to a hockey stick. He doesn't make it home, as he gets tripped by a zombie, is dragged into a sewer by his ponytail, and then gets mocked by Paris Hilton after a news camera catches it.
    • The tactic used by the US Armed Forces in the American reclamation is almost this: two lines of infantry, stretching the entire continent, moving in synchronicity. The line wasn't in step, for obvious reasons—differing terrain and weather, places that required a grouped offensive, et cetera. Todd Wanio discusses having to wait weeks at a time before bad weather stopped hampering them and mop-up operations in places that the line missed.
  • The LIGHT annihilation device in The History of the Galaxy series. Originally developed as part of a project to build an Antimatter drive, it was adapted into a projector that fires a stream of anti-particles at the target. The problem? They never figured out how to control the yield. The first battlefield use resulted in the loss of both fleets, as well as the weapon itself. Oh, and the enemy had more fleets at their disposal, while the side with the device was left with a grand total of 8 warships out of hundreds. The weapon is later placed on their flagship-class cruisers, taking up a good fifth of the size (a flagship cruiser is about 7 kilometers in length). It's almost never used in battle due to unpredictable results and is mostly there as a show of force. Think Death Star, but even less useful.
  • The Reynard Cycle: The Muraille, a series of fortresses connected by a wall over a hundred miles long. It's been breached so many times that it's been completely abandoned.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire:
    • The Iron Throne. It's a throne for the King of the Seven Kingdoms to sit in...but it's made entirely out of swords and is reportedly extremely uncomfortable to sit on. And dangerous! Aegon the Conqueror (the first king of Westeros, who commissioned the throne) wanted his successors to never forget that a king's duty is a burden, not a privilege. Hence a throne that always hurts you while you sit on it. Too bad nobody seems to get this. It's believed that any King who cuts themselves on the Iron Throne, as has happened, is unworthy to rule, such as Maegor, who died on the throne and may have used its blades to kill himself.
    • Harrenhal is another example. On the face of it, it's an awesomely solid defensive construction, most of which has managed to stand the test of time — if rather badly scorched, melted and battered. However, it's also a massive ode to hubris writ in stone. Even if it hadn't met ruin-by-unforeseen-dragons trimming its available living space a fair bit, it'd still have been an impossible castle to supply, maintain and run properly thanks to the sheer scale of the damned thing, and due to the army of servants and/or serfs needed to keep it going. Let alone anything else, like unsupportable supply lines in a notoriously politically unstable region given to being the standard battlefield of choice for the whole continent. The Riverlands and the Iron Isles would probably have been beggared and/or partiality depopulated and deforrested in just a couple of generations trying to make it work at its peak. As it is, even in its partially-used state, it's still The Millstone around the neck of any poor, unsuspecting Family that gets given it as a "reward" for services rendered. The Whents are only the latest Family to go under primarily due to its financial and logistical weight making them sitting ducks in the Game at the start of the series. The total list of Houses to fall to the place: Qoherys — totally extinct; Harroway — extinct (King Maegor had the entire family executed for treason); Towers — extinct; Strong — extinct (although the name does resurface from time to time, probably stolen), Lothston — extinct; Whent — extinct in the main, male line, although a side-branch still struggles along; House Slynt — new and still going, although utterly stripped of the title, though Lord Slynt was sent to the Wall and executed; and, last but not least, Baelish — gods alone know how that's going to play out, but he's so far studiously avoided going anywhere near the damn thing and at one point mentioned plans to have it torn down and the materials used to build something saner. Also, misfortune tends to find those who just hold it, entitled to or not: Vargo Hoat, upon being captured by the Mountain, had pieces of himself cut off each day and fed to him; the Mountain himself suffered shortly afterwards upon getting wounded and began dying from an incredibly painful but slow poison, though he may have survived via necromancy; Roose Bolton's plans haven't been going so well since he left the place... and his erstwhile patron, Tywin Lannister, has also succumbed to Hoist by His Own Petard. All this, in combination with the burning backstory and other notable historical disasters unrelated to actually running it, is why the common folk (and a few not-so-common) consider the thing under an unspecified, if incredibly potent, Curse. Selection biases and tall tales or not, Harrenhal does seem to buck statistical trends by having a fairly regular stream of both major and minor incidents of misery at more frequent intervals than most places in this Crapsack World do.
  • Star Wars Legends
    • Han Solo at Star's End: The Corporate Sector Riot Gun can fire a constant stream of energy (used for mowing down a crowd as "crowd control") that can clear a room of combatants in a hurry. However, it has very poor aiming characteristics, as Han Solo found out when trying to shoot at ESPOs using its single shot mode. It can only hit effectively on "constant fire", which dramatically increases the chances of friendly casualties in a pitched battle. Contrast with the obsolete blaster carbine (no designation mentioned) in the same book that was "rugged and extremely durable", "with simple telescopic sights", with "no moving parts" and "if left against a tree in the jungle, would still be fully operable ten years from now."
    • In Destiny's Way, Han uses this argument as a Take That! against the Empire (and the author uses it as a Take That! against the Bantam books, sometimes called the "Superweapon-of-the-Month Club"). An Imperial Navy officer claims that, were Palpatine still around, the Yuuzhan Vong wouldn't stand a chance because Palpatine wouldn't pussyfoot around and deploy the Imperial Fleet at the first sign of trouble. Han argues that the Empire wouldn't do anything of the sort and instead try to beat the Yuuzhan Vong by building some Awesome, But Impractical superweapon to scare them into backing down. It didn't work on the Rebellion, and it wouldn't work on the Yuuzhan Vong.
    • The Lancer-class frigate (seen in Dark Force Rising and Rogue Squadron) is a 250-meter warship bristling with quad laser batteries designed as a counter to the starfighter-heavy Rebel/New Republic fleets. Unfortunately it required too many crew and proved too expensive for wide deployment, and didn't have any way to defend against capital ships, so most admirals scorned it in favor of the old standby of TIE swarms. Grand Admiral Thrawn does eventually find a very good use for such ships by pairing them up with the equally over-expensive Interdictor cruisers and using them to ambush small convoys that normally rely on starfighters for defense.
    • By the time of the Legacy comics ships of the scale of the Executor-class star dreadnought are seen as this. Without a tax base the size of a galaxy, they cost too much to operate.
    • Several books treat blaster weapons this way. The plasma/laser bolt of a blaster technically does more damage than a rifle bullet, but it's slower and brightly-visible. Blasters are also said to foul up in bad terrain, like swamps, almost instantly, while your trusty slugthrower won't stop firing until you throw it under a tank tread. The prevalence of armor-piercing blasters also made body armor much less common throughout the galaxy, with armies favoring lightweight uniforms so troops could move faster; this is the exact kind of target slugthrowers excel at fighting. Most of all, though, blaster bolts can be deflected by a Jedi's lightsaber, but slugthrower bullets can't. (Other books emphatically do NOT treat blasters this way, of course. The bit about lightsabers not deflecting slugs is just plain not true in other works, for one.)
    • Double-sided lightsabers have shades of this, as discussed in Darth Bane. Despite its impressive appearance the weapon has a number of obvious drawbacks. For starters its advantage of having more options is an illusion. The second blade greatly obstructs the user's movement, limiting them mostly to swings while making other moves harder. Requiring specialized training and a lot more stamina than a regular blade. The enlarged hilt is also an easy target for enemies. The weapon's real advantage comes from how little most know about it, and thus these weaknesses. Anyone who is familiar with the weapon can easily exploit these weaknesses.
  • Harry Potter:
    • Offensive magic generally falls under this trope. The Killing Curses, Forbidden Curses and even more mundane magic attacks tend to pale alongside modern firearms save for situations where the target are immune to anything else. Rowling herself maintains there's a reason muggles with guns still rule the world (well, one of two reasons).
    • The fact that even Avada Kedavra is only single-target means that the entire wizarding world is childishly outclassed by a technology dating to the Renaissance, namely "grenades". That could have to do with wizard culture preferring duels, though.
    • It's the mundane aspects of the wizard world which are less practical than what muggles use. Like kneeling down at a fireplace and sending your head through it for a conversation instead of simply using the phone. This is even lampshaded at one point concerning the use of owls in the Ministry of Magic, due to the problem of owl droppings. Enchanting the missiles into paper birds which fly to the right place instead is certainly a solution, but a computer system would be an even better one. Somewhat justified due to the "magic is an EMP" subtype of Magic Versus Technology being in play: you have to choose between the advantages of using tech and the advantages of using magic in any given area. Want to teleport to work and skip the commute? Then you'll have to deal with sharing the elevator with a bunch of enchanted paper airplanes, because email won't work. It's not at all clear why they can't use magic to get the same effect however, especially since making mundane objects intelligent and at least partly sentient is commonplace. For instance, the students occasionally used the paintings to run messages and at least two of the dorms were protected by paintings asking for passwords.
    • Animagi. On paper, transforming yourself into an animal is definitely awesome. However, each wizard's animal transformation is fixed according to their traits, which means they can only change into a specific animal all their lives. Obviously, some forms are more useful than others; small animals like rat or cat are preferable, while transforming yourself into an elephant is potentially destructive. There is also the fact that the Ministry require Animagi to register, making it useless for law-abiding wizards to spy on other wizards (McGonagall successfully spies on the Dursleys before delivering Harry Potter using her cat form, but that is because they are Muggles).
    • The Fiendfyre curse allows the user to conjure extremely powerful, possibly sentient fire that can destroy anything in its path. It's also nearly impossible to control and can kill its user, as Crabbe finds out the hard way.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home features a post-industrial society where most societies manage without advanced technology. One expansionist state decided to look up ancient weapon designs on the Internet (there are AI's maintaining a version of it - in a book published in 1985). Since their society has a religion based around condors, they make a few military planes. However, it's a Post-Peak Oil world, and they find out rather quickly that it's very hard to expand when all the food has been converted into biofuel...
  • The Star Risk, Ltd. team once tried to hang onto a destroyer they bought and crewed for one of their jobs, but then one of their accountants took Freddy von Baldur aside to explain to him that they couldn't afford to maintain it if it wasn't earning any profit.
  • Invoked in The Stars My Destination: Mind-activated teleportation has made all forms of travel and communication apart from teleportation, couriers and spaceships obsolete. This means that rich people compete to have the most awesome methods of transportation to display their wealth ("I can spend huge wads of cash on things I don't need") and power ("I don't wait for other people, they wait for me!") One character arrives at a party in lavish style by driving a steam train complete with a team of navvies laying track in front of it. Another character has a manual telephone switchboard in his office, not because he needs it, but to prove he can put up the cash for an expensive piece of complex, difficult-to-repair electronics- and the required operators and repair staff- to do something he could do himself with minimal effort.
  • The Cosmere:
    • The Stormlight Archive:
      • Kaladin's spear katas in The Way of Kings. He himself admits that they're only designed to stretch the muscles and get you used to handling a spear, and would be totally useless in an actual fight. On the other hand, the Awesome part proves to be of some practical use, as demonstrating his Master Spearman skills and his shiny new Surgebinding powers helps cement the loyalty of his followers.
      • In Edgedancer, Lift discovers that summoning your living Shardweapon in fork form to show off might be cool, but Absurdly Sharp Blades are a pain to eat with, since they keep stabbing through the plate.
    • The Empathic Weapon Nightblood from Warbreaker is one of the most dangerous things in the universe, capable of physically and spiritually annihilating almost anything it cuts. It also drains its wielder's Investiture at a ferocious rate, followed by their life if they don't sheathe it in time. Also, Only the Pure of Heart can touch it without Nightblood forcing them to kill themselves.
  • Flowers in the Attic and its sequels mention a swan bed with custom made sheets.
  • Moonwatcher, a protagonist in Wings of Fire, has telepathy and limited precognition. Has she won the Superpower Lottery? Not quite- many dragons she meets can shield their minds, often without realizing they're even doing it. Also, her visions of the future are short, infrequent and mostly plot-driven.
    • The NightWing species have black and dark blue scales, which allows them to hide well at night. During the daytime, this same colouring is easily spotted.
    • The SandWing species have poisonous barbs on their tails...which are useful for fighting, but make it difficult for them to gather in large numbers (as everyone will be bumping and jostling and accidentally poisoning each other). When Sunny enters a SandWing town, she notices that most shops there sell the antidote.
    • There's also Peril, who has a birth defect that makes it so that, instead of breathing fire, the fire is inside her body, making her scales super heated. It's made her the perfect fighter, since she's immune to heat and no dragon can touch her without horribly burning themselves. The problem is, she can't turn it off, so it's impossible for her to read scrolls or sleep on beds, since her touch would instantly incinerate them. She's also feared by the SkyWing society, to the point where After Queen Ruby takes over the Sky kingdom, she banishes Peril from the kingdom for being a danger to her subjects.
  • In the Uplift universe, the Tandu races get around by using Episiarchs, a race that has the ability to temporarily alter reality by force of will. They open short-lived portals that allow Tandu ships to travel instantly to different areas, making them faster than about anything else in the Five Galaxies. It sounds awesome, but the other starfaring races refuse to use this method of travel because it's unstable beyond belief, sometimes randomly destroying ships or even whole fleets. The first time we see Episiarchs in action, they get the Tandu to a battlefield hours before anyone else. The second time, they cause a Tandu warship to implode. Krat notes that the Tandu are the only major race crazy enough to think that the reward outweighs the risk.
  • A lot of superpowers in Wild Cards count. They seem useful on the surface, but quickly prove to be next to useless except in specific situations. Some good examples include the Sleeper who gets a new power every time he sleeps (but can't control when he sleeps or what power he gets, often being saddled with useless ones), Sewer Jack who transforms into an alligator (but only an alligator, making it useless for most conventional problems), and Veronica who can induce crippling fear and weakness (but only in men, which leads to her getting the shit kicked out of her when she encounters a female supervillain).
  • Mordant's Need: Most people go mad when passing through a "plain glass" (that is, a mirror reflecting a location in the world of Mordant as opposed to a location in another world). Those rare few Imagers who can do so while keeping their sanity can effectively teleport themselves to any place that they possess a glass that carries an Image of it - however, since it's note  impossible to determine before creating a glass what Image it will hold, and there is no note  way of making the return trip without having to physically travel back to the site of the mirror by mundane means, the ability has few practical applications except for providing a really good means of making quick escapes. Even so, it's considered the most difficult thing you can do with Imagery, and someone who has the ability is known as an Arch-Imager.
  • In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one of the stories about Willy Wonka was him building a palace out of chocolate for an Indian prince. All fine and dandy, but it's HOT in India. As Wonka warns the prince, the sun will melt it and melt it it does.
  • In Below, the quest leader Gareth uses an unpredictable wand of polymorphosis to attack a large squad of goblins that outnumbers the party, with the goal of creating a monster too big for them to handle. One hit turns a goblin into a giant beetle that keeps the others busy, but another creates a cockatrice that threatens the goblins and the party alike.
  • In The King's Avatar, the "Dragon Raises Its Head" Battle Mage technique is a signature move associated with Ye Xiu. However, it is extremely difficult to execute as well as the damage it inflicts is about the same as other easier-to-perform techniques. Which is why Ye Xiu rarely uses it.
  • In the Inheritance Cycle, Zar'roc is a magical sword with a perpetually sharp and indestructible blade. However, Eragon finds it to be unwieldy, short, and ill-suited to any techniques other than those that can be performed with one hand. When Murtaugh takes Zar'roc, Eragon specifically asks for his next sword to be designed to fix the problems he had with Zar'roc. The problems Eragon had, however, are due to the fact that it was meant to be a custom weapon for the deceased Morzan, and thus didn't fit properly with his fighting style or in his hands. There was nothing wrong with the blade, he just preferred a slightly larger weapon suitable for one or two handed use.
  • Villains Don't Date Heroes!: CORVAC keeps bugging Night Terror for a giant robot, which she only built grudgingly. The whole idea was impractical from the start, got worse when CORVAC insisted on "improvements" like a single vulnerable eye stalk, and became completely obsolete once Fialux showed up. Night Terror never actually told CORVAC that Fialux could easily handle the robot, which is why he still tries to use it when he goes rogue.
  • The Traveler's Gate: All the Dragon's Fangs are massive swords nearly seven feet long and capable of cutting through anything. They are so heavy you need Super Strength to pick them up and even then they're so long they're very difficult to wield properly. Even if you don't care about accidentally cutting everyone around you, it's easy for a skilled opponent to get inside your reach.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: