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A Willing Suspension of Disbelief

September 10, 2014

The key to a good fictional work, whether a book or film, is a willing suspension of disbelief, a phrase coined by English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge is known especially for his epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This 1798 work has elements much like a science fiction story of today, with a sailing ship set off course to Antarctica, a place so foreign at the time that it might as well have been the Moon.

Gustav Dore Illustration from an 1876 edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Gustav Doré illustration from an 1876 edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridgepoem.

According to the poem, the Mariner's ship was driven to Antarctica by a storm.

The subheading for this section in the 1878 American edition is "The land of ice, and of fearful sounds, where no living thing was to be seen."

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)

There is a genre of science fiction called hard science fiction in which the author strives for scientific accuracy. In such works, there is just a stretching of the imagination, but no breaking. My two novels are hard science fiction, but some fictional works take great liberties with the reader's or viewer's suspension of disbelief. Examples would be most of the many "B movies" found on the Syfy channel.[1]

I was reminded of the lack of accuracy in science fiction films while viewing the 1970 film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes,[2] last weekend on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). My wife and I enjoy TCM, since it shows films, albeit older films, with no commercial interruption. With Zardoz[3] as an exception, I don't enjoy watching apocalyptic and dystopian films. However I had seen this particular film at its theatrical release, and I was interested to see why I enjoyed watching it forty years ago.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes is the sequel to the 1968 film, Planet of the Apes.[4] The first film is based on the 1963 novel, La Planète des Singes, by French author, Pierre Boulle. The plot of the first film is that the surviving astronaut of a crash landing on a planet, supposedly far distant from Earth, finds that the planet is ruled by intelligent, talking apes. The roles of humans and apes are reversed, with mute humans hunted by the apes. At the end of the film, it's found that the planet is actually Earth about 2,000 years in the future after a nuclear war.

The plot of the sequel is that the surviving astronaut of an expedition to trace the fate of the first expedition crash lands on the same planet. He finds that he's landed on the future Earth, near New York City, in the middle of the movie. He discovers the first astronaut, and they team in an attempt to stop a race of telepathic humans from detonating a doomsday nuclear device that they worship.

I'm as willing as most to suspend some beliefs while watching science fiction films. As a Star Trek fan, I need to believe in faster-than-light travel, transporters, and the idea that the Klingons didn't destroy themselves long ago. The Ape movies, however, had serious problems that are hard to dismiss, as I'll recount.

First is the idea that the astronauts don't immediately know that they're on Earth, and not on an earthlike exoplanet far distant from Earth. Anyone trained as an astronaut should be familiar with even a few constellations, so a single night's passage would have raised the possibility. Even someone not familiar with the constellations should recognize the appearance of the Moon.

Full Moon by Gregory H. Revera

Like an old friend.

Our Moon is quite unlike any other in our Solar System, and it's probably unlike the moons of extra-solar planets as well.

(Photo by Gregory H. Revera, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Second, everyone speaks English. Since this facilitates the plot of these movies to such a great extent, I don't really object. A second-order problem is that the English language did not change in 2,000 years. Just read the 700 year old Canterbury Tales to see how much the English language has changed in a shorter time. Even if the apes had been taught perfect English 2,000 years prior, it would have been easier for them to vocalize certain sounds than others, so there would be a rapid evolution of the language.

Although the spacecraft in the films were bound by light speed, there was still the misconception that radio communications with Earth would be instantaneous. Also, everyone arrives at the same place. Earth is a big place, but the two ships, the ape city, and the telepathic humans are quite close to each other. How many 50 mile x 50 mile patches of land exist on the Earth? The land area of the Earth is about 57 million square miles, so (57,000,000/2,500) = 22,800.

I'm actually somewhat open-minded about telepathy. Not that it exists, today, but that it might evolve. The human brain is rife with electrical activity, and we have the example of electric eels producing intense electric fields. Technologically-assisted telepathy would likely be easier to accomplish.

US Nuclear test Ivy-Mike, the first hydrogen bomb explosion

United States nuclear test Ivy-Mike, the first hydrogen bomb explosion, October 31, 1952.

The explosive energy was a little more than 10 megatons.

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)

One major problem in Beneath the Planet of the Apes is the doomsday bomb. The "cobalt bomb" meme, so popular in science fiction, is invoked, and the bomb is surprisingly small. The biggest problem is that the bomb has been kept for two millennia without degradation. Aside from the stability of the chemical explosives used in all such bombs, electrical and electronic components will fail from innocent things like diurnal temperature cycling.

The half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,100 years, but the half-life of another bomb component, tritium, is just 12.4-years, so it needs to be constantly replenished. It would not have been possible for a small group of humans to maintain the weapon, even if they knew how. It costs the United States billions of dollars each year for stockpile stewardship.

It's easy to take potshots at science fiction film and television. At the same time, I realize that they're not intended as science lessons, but as entertainment. However, a little less "deus ex machina" would be refreshing.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed the Syfy series, Eureka, but the days for quality shows like that seem to have passed; Eureka (2006-2012) on the Internet Movie Database.
  2. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970, Ted Post, Director), on the Internet Movie Database.
  3. Zardoz (1974, John Boorman, Director), on the Internet Movie Database.
  4. Planet of the Apes (1968, Franklin J. Schaffner, Director), on the Internet Movie Database.

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