This is a cross-post from a CG forum I frequent, spurred by discussion relating to the size of weaponry on ships in Star Trek. It’s highly nerdy, but it’s something I care a great deal about.
Three comments spurred my response. The first comment mentioned how small the weapons on a particular ship seemed, when compared to something like battleship guns from a WW2-era seagoing ship. The second comment, in response, defended the smaller size by pointing out that phasers don’t need to worry about bullet or shell size, and so can be smaller. The third comment, posted by the same person that posted the first comment, then said:
You could also say that the beam generator IS huge, but is inside the hull, and all we see is the final beam steering mechanism. That’s kind of like the way that all you see of a WW2 gun system is the turret housing and barrels, not the spaces beneath devoted to powder storage, shell storage, powder and shell elevators, and rotation/elevation gear.
I just find it a bit irritating that so much stuff in science fiction is so SMALL. 20-foot fighters, shuttlecraft with no place that you could fit a modern car engine, stuff like that. Apparently, I’m in the minority with these thoughts, though.
I think there’s a certain balance to be struck.
On the one hand, a lot of designs are all style and no substance, which gives rise to your examples of tiny fighters or shuttles with no place for internal machinery. I absolutely agree with you about this: an artistic rendition of something intended to represent a real thing in the context of the world in which it exists should have some level of engineering sense behind it, not just aesthetics.
That’s not to say things can’t be built impractically because of aesthetics — look around at the world for plenty of examples of this! But at the very least, the thing being presented should be internally consistent enough with its setting so as to stretch suspension of disbelief to a minimum. This is something I feel strongly about and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard or read someone use “Well, it looks cooler this way” as a justification for a nonsensical design decision. I cry a little (on the inside, where no one can see) every time I see someone say something along these lines. Breaking reality “because it looks cooler” rarely ends up being true; reality has a lot of really cool stuff to offer if one takes the time to explore the “real” options!
On the other hand, I think this particular comparison is unfair for a few reasons.
- First, Starfleet’s ships are military vehicles in part, not wholly warships as WW2 battleships were and modern Navy vessels are. It is reasonable that their armament would not be their primary focus.
- Second, we’re talking about very different mechanisms with very different engineering requirements (see my tirade above). A large-bore projectile weapon needs to follow certain design guidelines to address: containing the propulsive explosion that propels the projectile (i.e. big, thick barrels); guiding the projectile’s path so that it can predictably hit its target (i.e. length of the barrel, rifling?); a turret motor strong enough to turn this large, heavy barrel or set of barrels (one governing factor in the size of the turret); and a turret mounting fixture robust enough to handle the recoil of such a large-caliber explosive. All of these factors inform how big the guns are on a battleship.Flip it around and look at the design requirements for a phaser. Phasers are either pure beam weapons or some form of accelerated particle beam (they’re often referred to as “nadion beams” in the shows and are explained in the TNG Tech Manual as dependent on the “rapid nadion effect,” though it makes no explicit mention of these being part of the final beam). In either case, they’re described as using plasma as an energetic first stage. If they’re “special lasers” (i.e. beam weapons), then one may suppose they’re some form of gas laser; if they’re “nadion particle beams,” then they’ll have the requirements of particle beam weapons. In either case, there’s a lot less recoil; the “barrel length” equivalents are a lot shorter; and the resulting machinery necessary to move the “barrel” equivalent is a lot smaller.
- Third and finally, history shows that as technology advances, things get smaller per unit performance they provide as operating and design principles are better understood, manufacturing technique improves, and dependent technologies advance alongside. Suppose materials science introduces a manufacturing medium that provides all of the necessary resiliency requirements of the materials that go into big, heavy ship turrets, but at a tiny fraction of the size and mass. This will lead to a reduction in turret size with no loss in performance. When we’re discussing a ship ostensibly built 200-300 years from now, and compare the technological advances to the state of the art from 1713 or even 1813, supposing that “heavy guns” take up less space is not entirely unreasonable, so long as the earlier point about accounting for the underlying design holds true.
The key quote in all of that, though is this. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard or read someone use “Well, it looks cooler this way” as a justification for a nonsensical design decision. I cry a little (on the inside, where no one can see) every time I see someone say something along these lines. Breaking reality “because it looks cooler” rarely ends up being true; reality has a lot of really cool stuff to offer if one takes the time to explore the “real” options.
This isn’t just true in the realm of visual arts, either. To stick with a Trek example, take the recent Star Trek reboot/alternate universe/alternate timeline/whatever movie. For me, one of the biggest science issues in the movie was the reference to a “supernova” that threatened to “destroy the galaxy.” Supernovae are huge explosions that absolutely can release enough energy to wipe out life…in the immediate area. Also, this energy travels at the speed of light. Even if a star did go supernova, the faster-than-light society of Star Trek would have a great deal of advanced warning about it, and no supernova is going to threaten the entire galaxy, or even the entire Federation or Romulan Empire.
Sure, the movie had things like warp drive, Red Matter, time travel, transporters, and so on, but those are part of the setting: they are inventions that the creators request that we, as an audience, suspend our disbelief and accept. We do so because it is plausible that, in the framework of the narrative they’re presenting, such devices might exist. It is not plausible that a supernova–a real thing that we know something about–would threaten the galaxy. It’s a single line of dialog and most people aren’t scientifically literate enough to have even noticed, which I often see trotted out as an excuse to not worry about changing it. That’s just it, though: tweak a single line of dialog by consulting with someone who knows a thing or two about supernovae and other energetic spatial phenomena and you can change that line into something that doesn’t ruin the plausibility of your narrative for those that do know how supernovae work.
Justifying things and understanding the functional underpinnings of your fictional mechanisms that stand to challenge your audience’s suspension of disbelief is good for maintaining that suspension of disbelief, but make sure your justifications and explanations don’t break reality, unless you have a very good explanation for why and understand the consequences thereof.