Speculative Fiction Tropes: In Space Everyone Can Hear You Kaboom

It's the first Monday of the month, which means it's time for an entry in my speculative fiction tropes series. Today we'll be taking a look at the infamous use of "noisy space" in science fiction.

One of the most famous scenes in movie history is the climactic battle at the end of Star Wars: Episode IV, in which the ragtag rebel armada executes a cunning tactical assault on the Empire's super-weapon, the Death Star.

Taking advantage of a fatal design flaw, their plan culminates in a surgical strike along the trench-like surface of the base, in which Luke Skywalker "uses the force" to fire a proton torpedo into a small thermal exhaust port, sparking a chain reaction. As the good guys race away in the nick of time, the Death Star explodes brilliantly against the blackness of space with a resounding KABOOM.

As awesome as that scene is, there's one tiny little problem. There are no resounding kabooms in space. For that scene to be portrayed realistically it would have to be completely kaboomless. Now, I know what you're thinking. "But, hey, aren't the stars practically made of kabooms? Space must be a pretty noisy place." Well, most of Hollywood certainly seems to think so. But I'm afraid this is one of the many things they often get wrong.

Sound, as you probably remember from grade school, travels in waves. This might lead to the mistaken assumption that sound can travel through space. After all, light also travels in waves (kind of) and it obviously has no problem making it through space, otherwise we wouldn't be able to see all of those kaboom factories in the night sky. Sound waves are very different though, in that they need a molecular medium of some kind (i.e. air) to reach your dog's confused little ear drums and make him tilt his head all funny like. Unfortunately for Hollywood directors everywhere, space is a vacuum. That means there are no molecules floating around to carry the vibrations of a sound wave. And that means . . . no kaboom.

Most are willing to give George Lucas a pass on inaccuracies like this one, since Star Wars is pretty much one big homage to sci-fi film serials of the '30s and '40s.

But what about a series like Star Trek, praised by nerds everywhere for some of the ways it handles speculative science? Well, turns out Roddenberry got it right in early episodes. Supposedly, meddling network executives stepped in insisting that silent space is boring, and the franchise went on to develop some of the noisiest space on television. It is worth noting, however, that J.J. Abrams' 2009 film addresses this beautifully in some scenes (like the one at right), even while keeping those kabooms.

In A Giant Mess of Darkness, the story I bragged about in my last entry, I address this trope pretty directly. In fact, I use it to play around a little with the expectations of the reader. And that's what I like about tropes like this one, despite how silly they are. When a writer chooses to look them dead in the face in their work, it's almost like sending a wink and a nudge to those reading or viewing without breaking the fourth wall.

I think at the end of the day, this is one of those tropes that science fiction fans are so used to rolling their eyes at that we hardly notice it anymore. In fact, the exceptions tend to stand out more than the adherents. I just hope that our space-faring descendants remember that we meant well with our kabooms, otherwise they might think we were all idiots. And let's face it, they'll have plenty of other reasons to think that. No need to give them one more.

Recommended Reading:
Hunting Party by Elizabeth Moon
Pegasus in Flight by Anne McCaffrey
Space Viking by H. Beam Piper

Recommended Viewing:
2001: A Space Odyssey
Robot Jox
Serenity

Recommended Gaming:
Dead Space
The Orion Conspiracy
Mass Effect 2





Comments

  1. Bahaha! If geeks ruled the world, that show would be called Keeping Up With The Cardassians, and it would totally Kick. Ass.

    *drools over Dukat*
    *again*


    Love the post. You nailed my main peeve with sci-fi movies like a pro (and oh goodie, a bit of physics is in here too!) and managed to brighten my day a bit. Thanks! :)

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    1. Why isn't that a parody video on Youtube somewhere? It must be!

      I thought you might enjoy this one, Vero. Glad it could brighten your day!

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  2. Space can be noisy, if there is, for example hull contact between the source of the noise and your ship. The tricky part is calibrating what should or should not make noise and how it would reach your ears. Say that your cool spacefighter is firing its weapons. Depending on the weapon, you should hear something (although perhaps not the boom of the guns per say) as the vibrations run up the frame, but unless you collide with the debris of your target it should explode in a (relative) silent explosion.

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    1. Absolutely true (and awesomely explained), and valid for those inside the ships through which the vibrations propagate. But in movies, most space fight scenes are filmed / showed from outside the ships, from a distant vantage point, implying that the battle scene which the viewer sees is unfolding as it does in a detached, objective way, as opposed to being perceived as such by a character inside any one ship. :)

      I guess it's a small "twilight" area, where the intention of making the scene compelling (by following one special character involved in that fight) conflicts with their intention of making that scene impressive (by showing it from afar and filling it with superb and loud explosions).

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    2. Absolutely, Rafael. Solids carry sound, too! If there's direct contact, the hull becomes the medium for the sound waves. But as far as explosions go, you'd only be hearing the sound of debris striking your hull, so still no kaboom. If your ship was close enough to hear the actual sound of the explosion . . . well, you'd be in trouble!

      Vero, you're right! I was mainly referring to the cinematic choices made by directors, where the camera's perspective is outside the ship itself and hearing every kaboom (and pew pew for that matter) as though it were in-atmosphere.

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  3. One of the things I really like about Firefly is the silent space. The exhaust effects may have been slightly overdone to compensate, but the series really had a nice touch with where they didn't put sounds.

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    1. I agree, for sure. That was one of my favorite parts of Firefly! It was Joss Whedon's little nod to nerds everywhere. I wonder if he had to fight to get that in?

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  4. In space, no one can hear you explode.
    I had fiery explosions in my books but no kabooms.

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    1. Good on you then, Alex! I'll let you slide on the fireballs on the merit of your kaboomless combat.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  5. I see someone beat me to my praise of Firefly. The lack of space sounds actually made everything so much more compelling, I thought.

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    1. Absolutely. It's too bad that show didn't last longer! I'd love it if they revived it in some way.

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  6. GREAT observation here, JW. The whole super-kablamo-bang-bop-boom outer-space dog & pony show drives me nuts. Completely agree with you on your Star Trek point, as well. You're a smart guy-- you always hit the nail of these tropes right on the head! As usual, thanks for a most excellent read.

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    1. Thanks so much for the awesome compliments Randi! I'm really glad you enjoy the tropes series; they're fun to write. :)

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  7. Love dead space series. As far as I can recall, the series doesn't have noisy space. Mass Effect did, which saddened me a bit. I don't think I can ever get used to noise in space. Good article, happy to see these are back.

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    1. I agree, Dead Space is great, and I'm usually not a fan of horror games. You're right, the gameplay segments that take place in a vacuum are completely silent except for your breathing and when things come into direct contact with your suit. And those scenes are some of the creepiest, since you can't hear the aliens coming!

      Although Mass Effect did have kabooms and pew pews, Mass Effect 2 has an awesome moment that portrays things more realistically. They seemed to have gone the J.J. Abrams route with the sequel, using sound effects when the camera was showing space battles, but doing things more realistically when your perspective was with Shepard. Much better than the first one, which had that lame Halo-esque "muffled" effect during the battles in vacuum toward the end.

      Thanks for reading, magic mint!

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    2. And now that I'm remembering, in Mass Effect 3 you actually get the "computer audio emulator" explanation if you overhear the right conversation. That is, apparently the ship emulates what sound you would be hearing in order to give the crew better feedback, or something. A lot of books use that explanation as well.

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    3. PS--did I thank you for the re-tweet? If not, thank you!!!

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  8. Excellent post - love the topic. Must rewatch Serenity, off the back of this post.

    Found you in the Absolute Write forums btw, hope that's okay - been reading them for a bit and will have to get a handle and join in!

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    1. Thanks, VikLit! I've been thinking of giving Serenity a rewatch myself after writing this entry. Now that Joss Whedon is the director of what might go down as the most successful blockbuster of all time, maybe someone will let him revive the franchise!

      And of course it's okay! AW is a great resource for writers and an awesome community. By all means, jump in. Pleased to meet you!

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    2. I would love a sequel to Serenity! Cross fingers.

      Will get myself a login for AW today :)

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  9. Alden, this is a common complaint that I usually give a pass. Especially since as brilliant as shows like Babylon 5 and Firefly were without explosions the scenes just felt hollow. Funny I never noticed the lack of sound in Star Trek 2008. Brilliant direction.
    - Maurice Mitchell
    The Geek Twins | Film Sketchr
    @thegeektwins | @mauricem1972

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    1. I usually give it a pass as well. But we'll have to disagree on Babylon 5 and Firefly. I never thought the quiet space scenes felt hollow. The fact that the creators of the shows went the extra mile for accuracy gave them extra points in my books, and I think silent space can add an extra level of tension when handled well.

      Thanks for reading, Maurice!

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  10. Kaboomless. I like that wordish. I am now imagining a world without kabooms and how that might work for me.

    First time here.

    Teresa

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    1. A world without kabooms might be a better place to live in. Then again, without earthside kabooms we'd never have made it into space ourselves!

      Welcome aboard, Teresa! Pleased to meet you.

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Thanks for reading!