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I've looked and looked for a node on this subject - but it appears that a vacuum obtains....and we all know what Nature thinks about that, don't we?


This node is devoted to nitpicking all the little picayune details in science fiction that just don't live up to a reasonable expectation of the way things work. In other, words, to the errors in scientific fact that have snuck into little nooks and crannies of our otherwise-favourite science fiction books.

Let me just be precise, here: don't do writeups devoted to bad SF books and films - and don't bother to report violations of, say, special relativity, when these violations are rationalised in the story and are an integral plot device.

No, this node is for the sort of embarassing errors (like highly collimated lasers seen edge-on in a vacuum as beams of light) that leave the writers with metaphorical egg on their faces. Call me a quibbler if you like, but I enjoy this sort of thing. Feel free to add your own observations.

Without further ado, let me turn my attention to my first "victim"...

Kim Stanley Robinson

Yes, Kim Stanley Robinson, whose wonderful Mars trilogy (Red Mars - Green Mars - Blue Mars) are genuine masterpieces, in my opinion.

Even so, there are a number of embarassing minor glitches in Robinson's trilogy, namely:

1) The mean orbital velocity of Phobos is misreported (in Red Mars). Not by much - it works out to about 1/10th. Even so, the data are commonly available in textbooks, so....

2) Robinson miscalculates the time it takes for Phobos (at a reported distance of 50 km) to traverse the field of view of one of the characters (in Red Mars). Obviously having misplaced a decimal point somewhere, he reports Phobos as whizzing past - when in reality a viewer at 50 km distance would have about a minute and a half to watch Phobos traverse 120 degrees of arc - hardly something to get whiplash from...

3) Mars is flat? In Green Mars, Robinson describes a character standing on one rim of the Pavonis crater caldera, looking across the 60 km diameter of the crater to the opposite side. He neglects to mention that, due to the curvature of the Martian surface, more than one third of the five kilometer high opposite rim would be below the horizon.

Even though the books are really more philosophical in focus than scientific, Robinson tries hard to keep things as real as possible - so it is really a shame that he slips up once in a while. Perhaps not surprising, though - this trilogy is a massive work, and some errors are bound to sneak in. Though I respect the enormous effort involved, it won't stop me from nitpicking.

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