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.
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.
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.
Hunting Party by Elizabeth Moon
Pegasus in Flight by Anne McCaffrey
Space Viking by H. Beam Piper
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Orion Conspiracy
Mass Effect 2