The 50 Laws of Science Fiction Physics

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Inspired by such mainstays of geek humor as The Laws of Cartoon Physics and The Laws of Anime Physics, I have assembled the following 50 Laws of Science Fiction Physics.

This list was in part inspired by my previous post, Tired Sci-Fi Tropes That Must Be Retired.

Law of Selective Gravitation: All artificial bodies in space generate an internal gravitational field, equal to one gee, with “down” defined as the “bottom” of the body; this gravitational field somehow terminates exactly at the outer hull of the body, even if it is irregularly shaped.

First Law of Gravitational Irrelevance: a spacecraft may travel from a planet’s surface into space in the same manner in which an airplane gains altitude, ignoring the need to achieve escape velocity.

Second Law of Gravitational Irrelevance: a spacecraft may fly directly towards or away from a planet or other large celestial body, ignoring the fact that objects in space must describe elliptical orbits about each other.

Law of Inertial Dampening: No matter how much kinetic energy is directed at an inhabited body (in space or on a planet), the resulting disruption will be enough to jostle the inhabitants and cause minor structural damage – nothing more or less.

Law of User Interface Equivalence: When a spacecraft or space station takes damage to any structural component, the computer screen or workstation used to monitor that structure from the bridge or engineering center will explode.

Law of Ethical Xenopolymorphism: While malevolent aliens come in many forms, beneficent aliens are always humanoid.

Law of Sexual Xenopolymorphism: Humanoid alien females will always have mammalian secondary sexual characteristics (breasts, wide hips, full sensual lips), even if they are non-mammalian (lizard, avian, piscine, insectoid, etc.).

Newton’s Fourth Law of Motion: In space, constant thrust equals constant velocity.

Kubrick’s Law of Motion in Microgravity: all motion in a “zero gravity” or microgravity environment will take place at 22% of the speed it would occur at sea level; this applies to animate persons as well as inanimate objects.

Exception to Kubrick’s Law of Motion in Microgravity: persons in a “zero gravity” or microgravity environment may speak at normal speed.

Allen’s Law of Motion in Microgravity: objects freely floating in a “zero gravity” or microgravity environment will behave as if suspended from a transparent thread within a full gravity environment.

Law of Sound in a Vacuum: Despite the lack of a medium for transmission, sound will travel in a vacuum, with precisely the same properties as in the Earth’s atmosphere at sea level.

First Law of Combustibility: Anything important – spaceships, planets, robots – explodes when it is critically damaged, whether any combustible material is present or not.

Second Law of Combustibility: When anything explodes, the mass of the resulting ejecta will be less than 2% of the object’s original mass; the remainder of the mass ceases to exist.

Third Law of Combustibility: When objects explode in space, all matter that makes up the object comes to a complete stop relative to the observer, whatever its previous velocity. The explosion will then expand in an equal sphere away from the point where the object stopped.

Fourth Law of Combustibility: All objects that explode in space produce a discrete ring that expands ahead of the main shock wave; this is a fundamental principle of Aesthetic Physics.

Fifth Law of Combustibility: The shock wave of an explosion is confined to the visible fiery ball of the explosion; and both will move at 98% of the speed of anyone attempting to fly, drive or run from the explosion. After a certain distance, the speed of the shock wave will quickly drop off for no apparent reason.

Sixth Law of Combustibility: The destructive force of a nuclear warhead, and the resulting deadly radiation, cannot penetrate the skin of a typical 1950s consumer-grade kitchen refrigerator.

First Law of Practical Stellar Physics: as an observer approaches a star, the brightness of the visible light it gives off diminishes proportionally.

Second Law of Practical Stellar Physics: a star will produce no radiation except for (1) visible light and (2) a variety of heat that behaves identically to heat convection in an atmosphere, despite the lack of a transmission medium.

Third Law of Practical Stellar Physics: the dangerous or destructive region of a stellar body ends abruptly at the outer termination of its photosphere, except for the heat and light described in the Second Law.

Law of Teleportation: the amount of energy produced when converting matter to energy for the purpose of teleporting that matter to a distant location is an insignificant fraction of the amount predicted by Einstein’s mass–energy equivalence equation; this is a fundamental principle of Convenience Physics.

Law of Technological Complexity: No matter how advanced a technology, anyone who needs to use it will be able to deduce its basic functioning within a few minutes – even if the person belongs to an alien or less-developed culture, or comes from the distant past.

First Law of Aerodynamic Irrelevance: Objects designed to travel solely in space may nonetheless be designed with aerodynamic properties.

Second Law of Aerodynamic Irrelevance: objects designed to travel in solely in space, and which therefore are highly non-aerodynamic, may still travel in an atmosphere as if they were perfectly aerodynamic.

Corollary to the Laws of Aerodynamic Irrelevance (The O’Brien Rule): any object in space that is not designed to alter its velocity, vector or location, such as a space station, may alter its velocity, vector or location through a minor, previously unrealized engineering trick.

First Corollary to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity may be ignored at any time, for any reason; this is a fundamental principle of Convenience Physics.

Second Corollary to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: when light, or any form of electromagnetic radiation, is employed as a weapon (such as with a laser or blaster), its speed is reduced to approximately 35 miles per hour.

Personal Equivalency Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: alternate universes and timelines do not follow the standard laws of contingency – rather, the same individuals will be born in the alternate universe as are born in ours, although their life paths may diverge; this is irrespective of any other changes, major or minor, to historical outcomes.

Ethical Determinism Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: alternate universes and timelines do not follow the standard laws of contingency – rather, historical outcomes are determined by the moral choices of the identical version of the visitor from our universe.

Abrams’ Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: in an alternate universe or timeline, events will conspire to place equivalent persons into the same social groups they occupy in our universe.

The McFly Rule: If a time traveler prevents a key historical event from occurring, he or she has one week to arrange an equivalent event that will restore the timeline.

First Law of Convergent Evolution: any alien species, regardless of the environment in which it evolved, will morphologically resemble an extant Earth species, albeit with changes in size, color, bodily features and level of intelligence; aliens may also resemble chimera of multiple Earth morphologies.

Second Law of Convergent Evolution: despite the fact that closely-related species from the same planet cannot produce viable offspring, any two humanoid species from different worlds may produce viable offspring that will bear blended traits from both species.

Law of Convergent Visemes: when a technological device is used to translate the speech of a humanoid alien, that alien’s lips and mouth movements will nonetheless appear to match the English speech of the translation.

Omegan Law of Convergent Social Evolution: a humanoid species on a distant planet is likely to pass through exactly the same historical eras, and evolve precisely the same social institutions, as the human civilizations of Earth.

Law of Extraterrestrial Euhemerism: any primitive human superstition is the result of contact with advanced alien technology; this includes psychic powers, magicians, ghosts, angels, fairies, vampires, werewolves, demons, dragons, messiahs and gods.

Law of Technological Trajectory: the more hyper-advanced an alien or future technological artifact, the more likely that it will resemble a large, illuminated crystal.

Law of Irradiated Macrofauna: due to mutations triggered by artificial radiation, animals may grow to enormous sizes normally ruled out by the surface-area-to-volume ratio.

Corollary to the Law of Irradiated Macrofauna: irradiated macrofauna will invariably seek out large human population centers and battle each other.

Influence/Malevolence Relationship in Science: the greater a scientific or technological achievement, the greater the probability that the scientist responsible for it suffers from a mental illness and/or ethical deficit.

Diamond’s Law: an advanced spacefaring species will always oppress, absorb or destroy any less advanced, non-spacefaring species with which it makes contact.

Anthropocentric Exception to Diamond’s Law: an advanced spacefaring species will always oppress, absorb or destroy any less advanced, non-spacefaring species with which it makes contact, unless that species is humanity.

Roddenberry’s Law of Cybernetic Omniscience: any sufficiently advanced computer system will contain the sum all of human knowledge down to the most inconsequential detail, even if the computer was constructed by and for aliens.

Gill’s Law of Alien Impressionability: any humanoid alien species will, upon being introduced to some detail of human history or culture, reconfigure its entire society based solely upon the human example; also known as the Iotian Law.

Law of Atmospheric Inexhaustibility: on a spacecraft, space station or other artificial habitat in a vacuum or near-vacuum, no matter how much air is lost when an airlock is opened or the hull is breached, after the air loss is terminated there will still be sufficient atmosphere to comfortably support the survivors.

Doctrine of Human Psychological Infortitude: any human gifted with transhuman abilities by an alien or future intelligence will initially attempt to perform good works with his or her new-found powers, but will be eventually driven insane and commit destructive acts; also known as the Mitchell Effect.

Doctrine of Hostile Alien Tourism: when technologically advanced spacefaring aliens initiate a war or invasion against the Earth, their first strategic maneuver will be to destroy a number of famous human landmarks, usually ones with no strategic or defensive value.

The ForbinCameronWachowski Corollary to Turing’s Test of Machine Intelligence: it is possible to demonstrate that a machine has achieved genuine intelligence or sentience, as its first act upon gaining self-awareness will be to attempt the annihilation of humanity.

The Lucas-Asimov-Herbert Model of Human Galactic Societal Development: any vast, galaxy-spanning interstellar human civilization will resemble in many or all respects the empires of the species’ ancient pre-technological past.

And… number 51:

Even’s Revision to Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from lazy writing.

Feel free to add your own Laws of Sci-Fi Physics in the comments below.

The Ten Worst Sci-Fi Films of All Time: Alien3

Hey baby, want a kiss?

For more on how I am choosing these films, see my post on Battlefield Earth.

Long long ago, in the before time, during the Carter administration, a plucky young filmmaker named Ridley Scott made a little film called Alien.

Scott would direct Blade Runner three years later. This means one man directed two of the ten best sci-fi films ever made, one after the other. Unfortunately, from there he went on to make movies about women driving off cliffs and painstakingly detailed, painstakingly dull films about gladiators. Please, Sir Ridley, make another sci-fi film before you die. And finish it yourself — don’t let Spielberg get at it.

But I digress. Alien was a science fiction film, but it was more properly a horror film. The Nostromo was the haunted house; Ripley and the crew were the horny young teenagers camping out at the lake; the Xenomorph was Jason/Freddy/Leatherface; and the evil Weyland-Yutani Corporation was… well, the evil Weyland-Yutani Corporation.

Alien was well acted, well scripted, and very well directed. The Xenomorph, designed by Swiss painter Hans Ruedi Giger, was unlike anything the average movie-goer had ever seen. Penny Robinson was in it, as were Bilbo Baggins, Trevor Bruttenholm, and the sheriff from Picket Fences. The actors were older and more experienced that the typical horror film cast, able to lend reality to their characters without too much wordy exposition. And Sigourney Weaver was super-sexy when she stripped down to her underwear.

In 1986, James Cameron followed up his excellent low budget sci-fi action film The Terminator with Aliens, the sequel to Alien. Cameron would go on to direct The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, two very good sci-fi films.

Aliens was not a horror film – it was an action movie. Yet it somehow managed to seamlessly develop out of the first film, despite the difference in genre. This time there were lots of xenomorphs, and lots of heavily armed marines to blow them to bits. But ultimately it’s up to Lt. Ripley to save the day — and when she shows up at the climax in the power loader, it’s one of the greatest moments in any action film.

Get away from her, you BITCH!

Plus it was all, like, feminist and junk.

After Aliens cleaned up at the box office, 20th Century Fox decided they wanted a third film. Before we get into the clusterfuck that was the development process for Alien3, let’s first get through our Bitingly Sarcastic Plot Synopsis, shall we?

By the way, I must point out here that I am working from the 2003 “Assembly Cut,” which is a half hour longer and contains changes to about three-quarters of the scenes. It’s a vast improvement over the theatrical cut.

BEGIN BITINGLY SARCASTIC PLOT SYNOPSIS (spoilers)

Something is wrong aboard the Space Marines ship U.S.S. Sulaco — and I don’t just mean a terrible rewrite. Look — there’s a xenomorph egg on board! Because God knows Ripley and Hicks wouldn’t have bothered to search the ship before taking off for home! That’s just crazy talk!

How the hell do you miss that???

The Sulaco is passing right by a planet called Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161, because (a) it needs to slingshot around Fury 161 to get to Earth, (b) the Sulaco has drifted off course dangerously close to a star, or (c) the plot demands it and who gives a crap about science?

The Sulaco ejects an escape pod, which happens to land right next to the Fury 161 penal colony, and not anywhere else on the whole friggin’ planet. The inmates of the penal colony all suffer from XYY aneuploidy, the symptoms of which, according to the film, appear to include being working class, loud and British.

Actually, the film operates under the conceit that men with double-Y syndrome are more violent than the rest of us. This isn’t true — the actual symptoms of double-Y syndrome are learning disabilities and acne. But the filmmakers can be forgiven — Wikipedia didn’t exist in 1992.

Ripley is taken to the infirmary by the prison doctor, who is played by the guy who was the villain with the fake eye in The Last Action Hero. You don’t remember that movie? Lucky you. Think The Purple Rose of Cairo, but starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Scary, I know.

Ripley learns that Hicks and Newt are both dead, thereby rendering the entire 154 minutes of the previous film entirely moot. (More on this below.) Ripley is initially very upset about this, but manages to get over it pretty quickly. Please note that, at this point, nobody performs a simple medical exam of Ripley. This is because (a) the doctor is incompetent, (b) the infirmary is not properly equipped, or (c) the plot demands it.

The Warden of the penal colony, played by a guy who seems to be Bob Hoskins but isn’t, demands that Ripley be confined to the infirmary to protect her from the prisoners, some of whom view violent rape as a kind of gentle foreplay. Ripley of course does the logical thing — and wanders freely all over the place. This is because (a) Ripley is retarded, (b) — oh, we all know the answer is (c).

Meanwhile, one of the facehuggers from the Sulaco impregnates a space yak with a chestburster. (In the theatrical release, it was a dog. The space yaks are cooler.) The chestburster bursts from the space yak’s chest, and grows into a quadrupedal variant of the usual anthropomorphic xenomorph.

Ripley demands an autopsy on Newt, to make sure the little girl wasn’t impregnated by a facehugger. She wasn’t. This would naturally lead to the question of whether Ripley was impregnated, yet this never comes up (c). Ripley doesn’t tell anyone about the xenomorphs, even after inmates start getting killed.

It’s somewhere around this point that a bunch of inmates try to rape Ripley, who only escapes because a messianic religious leader, played by that guy who starred the TV series Roc, schools the would-be rapists with a lead pipe. What, you don’t remember Roc? It lasted three seasons on FOX!

Stop rape -- consent!

Ripley decides to jump-start the damaged android Bishop, who reveals that yes, there was a facehugger on the Sulaco. Bishop asks to be deactivated, since he’s too damaged to be top-of-the-line anymore. What is he, an Apple product?

Ripley tells everyone about the aliens, but no one believes her, except maybe the doctor, whom she had sex with, although we didn’t get to see anything. This makes it all the more poignant when the doctor is torn to bits by the xeno-yak, who sniffs at Ripley but doesn’t kill her. The reason for this is obvious to anyone who’s not a character in the movie.

Snausages! Do you have Snausages?

Our heroine returns to the smashed escape pod, which nonetheless has better medical facilities than the prison, and discovers — GASP! — she has a chestburster in her chest. What a surprise! It’s a twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan — in that the audience figured it out 90 minutes ago.

Using her five dots in xenobiology, she determines it’s an Alien Queen chestburster. Ripley asks the messiah guy to kill her, but he refuses because his religion forbids killing. Not maiming people with a lead pipe, just killing.

In the mess hall, Ripley tries to get everyone interested in killing the xeno-yak, or at least in not getting killed by the xeno-yak. The Warden gives a speech trying to calm everyone down, but the xeno-yak pops out of the ceiling and eats him. This is very much like the scene in Deep Blue Sea where Samuel L. Jackson gets eaten by the smart shark in the middle of his speech, except Deep Blue Sea was supposed to be kind of cheesy (I hope), while Alien3 wasn’t. (The only reason to watch Deep Blue Sea is to check out Saffron Burrows before she stopped eating.)

Wait -- this isn't Alien 3. It's motherfucking Samuel L. Jackson being eaten by a motherfucking shark.

Anyway… Ripley works out a convoluted scheme, whereby a planet’s worth of chromosomally-damaged murderous religious nutjobs will coat the insides of the steam tunnels with an explosive chemical. It doesn’t matter why she suggests this, because it goes as badly as you’d expect — one of the nutjobs gets attacked by the xeno-yak, drops his torch, and half the prison blows up.

Still, they manage to get the xeno-yak trapped inside a toxic waste containment unit, which features a giant sign that says “toxic waste” in a wacky font, just in case you forgot what it was. If the xeno-yak had seen Alien: Resurrection, it would have known to just bleed on the floor and use its “molecular acid” blood to escape (isn’t all acid made of molecules?). But alas, like most moviegoers, it hadn’t seen Alien: Resurrection, even though it had Winona Ryder in it, and she’s incredibly cool.

Now for some reason the Eighth Doctor is in this movie, playing the craziest and nutjobbiest of the crazy nutjobs. He helps the xeno-yak to escape, but never once explains that whole “half-human, half-Gallifreyan” thing.

With the xeno-yak back on the loose, Ripley and Messiah Guy work out their most convoluted plan yet — in fact, it’s pretty much impossible for those of us in the audience to figure out what the plan actually entails. Basically, if enough religious wackjobs run around through an inexplicable maze of tunnels, randomly shutting doors, the xeno-yak will somehow die in a pool of hot lead. The fact that the prison has a giant betunneled lead smelter is something it might have been good to establish earlier, rather than having Messiah Guy pull this important information out of his ass.

This is when a group of Weyland-Yutani scientists dressed in plastic trash bags arrives on the planet. The exciting footage of religious nutjobs being chased by a xeno-yak through tunnels is intercut numerous times with exciting footage of scientists walking. Jesus, why didn’t they just park closer to the prison?

Somehow the plan comes together, and Messiah Guy and the xeno-yak are buried in molten lead. Unfortunately, the xeno-yak makes his saving throw versus liquid metal, and pops out of the smelter, now totally pissed off. Only Ripley and a minor character we never paid attention to before are left alive. Hmnn — I’d better give him a name: Minor Character We Never Paid Attention to Before. He’s played by that guy who was in that one episode of Doctor Who where Satan lived inside a planet orbiting a black hole.

So Minor Character We Never Paid Attention to Before tells Ripley to spray cold water on the xeno-yak, which is the first smart suggestion made by any character in this entire movie. The water cools the molten lead on the xeno-yak’s exoskeleton, and the alien explodes. Conveniently, the giant cloud of molecular acid this releases doesn’t hurt anyone or destroy anything.

Now the scientists show up. One of them is played by Lance Henriksen, and claims to be the creator of the Bishop android. (Apparently he went to the Noonien Soong school of robotics.) He says he was sent by the company so Ripley would see a familiar face.

This makes no sense, and here’s why. Weyland-Yutani knows that Ripley was betrayed by the Ash android in Alien, leaving her with a deep bias against androids. They can’t possibly know that Ripley developed a friendship with the Bishop android in Aliens —  she was still on her way back when this movie started.

Anyway, Lance tries to convince Ripley to let them remove the chestburster from her body, promising not to use it for military research. Ripley knows he’s lying — and takes a double-gainer into the furnace, killing herself.

So Ripley is totally, completely dead — until Alien: Resurrection, when Bones returns her katra to her reincarnated body from the Genesis Planet.

END BITINGLY SARCASTIC PLOT SYNOPSIS

Alien3 isn’t aggressively terrible, just long, dull and pointless. It’s on this list because expectations were so high after Alien and Aliens.

So what went wrong? So horribly, horribly wrong?

First, the producers hired famed cyberpunk author William Gibson to write the screenplay. Handed 110 pages of sheer sci-fi gold, the producers then shat all over it by hiring one team of writers after another, doctoring the script until nothing from Gibson remained. Seriously, why hire talented people if you’re just going to ignore what they give you?

Then Sigourney Weaver, previously committed to never appearing in an Alien film again, finally accepted enough cash (reportedly $4 million) and came on as star and as a producer. She insisted that Ripley die in this one, so she wouldn’t have to star in another one. I guess she should have talked to Leonard Nimoy first.

The incredibly talented David Fincher was brought on board, very late in development, to direct Alien3 as his first feature. Fincher decided to become a filmmaker when he saw Alien as a kid, so this was his dream gig. Unfortunately, the studio and the producers and the star wouldn’t let him just direct the damn thing, and Alien3 turned into one of those typical Hollywood “too many cooks in the kitchen” clusterfucks. The 27-year-old Fincher didn’t even have a finalized script from which to work.

To this day, Fincher hates hates hates Alien3, won’t talk about it, and wouldn’t contribute to the special edition DVD features. (The 2003 Quadrilogy set even edited out part of an old documentary in which Fincher blasted the studio.) That’s okay, he made Fight Club, a film they’ll still be teaching in film school 100 years from now.

But people don’t just dislike Alien3, they despise it. And I can tell you why.

Aliens was a great film. It was fun, exciting. and action-packed. The plot gave us plenty of heavily armed people running around, trading quips, and getting torn apart by aliens. But the story is what mattered — and the story was about Ripley overcoming her fears and building a family unit with Newt and Hicks. By the end of the film we’re happy and relieved that the survivors are going to make it home.

Now obviously, any sequel starring Sigourney Weaver has to involve Ripley getting chased by aliens again. What the sequel did not need was Newt and Hicks slaughtered unnecessarily, offscreen, during the opening credits.

That’s right, moviegoers — screw Aliens, and screw you too. We just offhandedly killed your favorite characters. And we won’t even show it to you. It’s not even in the movie. It’s like The Empire Strikes Back, where we find out Han and Leia were killed off during the credits roll. Or Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in which Bones, Scotty and Uhura get killed during the Paramount Pictures flying logo. Oh wait — that doesn’t happen!

Jesus Christ, if you have to kill off Newt and Hicks (which you don’t), then make it part of the movie! This might be difficult, since Carrie Henn selfishly insisted on growing up — so how about just not doing it at all?

In fact, a number of cast and crew from the series, including Aliens actor Michael Biehn and director James Cameron, expressed disappointment with the film’s story. Cameron said the decision to kill off the characters of Bishop, Newt, and Hicks was “a slap in the face” to him and to fans of the previous film. Biehn, upon learning of Corporal Hicks’ demise, demanded and received almost as much money for the use of his likeness in one scene as he had been paid for his role in Aliens.

Then there’s the setting, which is basically just the Nostromo with crazy religious people instead of space truck drivers. None of the prison inmates are compelling or interesting characters. We feel a slight emotional twinge when the doctor gets killed, but that’s only because he slept with Ripley. The other characters are just a bunch of asshole cyphers — even with the extra half hour of character development edited in.

After upping the ante in Aliens, going from one alien to hundreds, Alien3 tries to shake things up by going back to just one xenomorph. One small, quadropedal xenomorph. A small, quadropedal xenomorph that was shot as a puppet against a blue screen, and optically composited into the film. This was so we could see the xeno-yak running at high speed. Unfortunately, the composite effects are really, really poor.

We don’t see very much of the xeno-yak, and even when we do, each shot is identical to one we’ve already seen in Alien or Aliens. There’s nothing new. Even Alien: Resurrection has some original visual ideas, as crazy Ripley/Xeno clone interacts directly with the xenomorphs.

Unfortunately, what Alien3 boils down to is a poor remake of Alien. Which is too bad, because there was so much possibility there.

Next: Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull