FANDOM


WikEd fancyquotesQuotesBug-silkHeadscratchersIcons-mini-icon extensionPlaying WithUseful NotesMagnifierAnalysisPhoto linkImage LinksHaiku-wide-iconHaikuLaconic
Sci-fi writers cannot determine length or distance.


Anime and Manga

  • The Five Star Stories: The titular Five Stars are most commonly referred to as "The Joker Star Cluster", even though real clusters have several thousand stars, but it's also referred to as The Joker Galaxy, which is even worse, and The Joker Constellation, which doesn't make sense either, since constellations are only called as such by people who can see them from a distance (and from one specific location. If you were to look at the constellation "Ursa Major" from the side, it wouldn't look anything like what we thought it would). It could possibly be a star cluster if the Five Stars are just the only ones with habitable planets out of a cluster of thousands. It could also be a multiple star system of five stars orbiting a common center of mass.
  • The title theme song for the 1963 version of Astro Boy starts with: "Astro Boy, past the stars / On your way out to Mars!" Talk about taking the scenic route....


Comic Books

  • The Marvel Universe, despite usually playing this trope like a fiddle, has an aversion in Captain Marvel. Even though Mar-Vell's Flight is capable of reaching and sustaining escape velocity (7 miles per second) he realizes that it would still take him ten hours to reach the moon roughly 250,000 miles away.
    • Not that reaching escape velocity matters as long as you can maintain that speed. The escape velocity is only important if you get kicked from Earth at the speed and have no other means to propulse yourself.
  • New Avengers #19-20. Iron Man has a space-ready suit that breaks Earth's atmosphere to reach a small asteroid where Earth is seen with enough stars to look like a shot from Hubble. Retreating from a cosmic being who can fly across North America easily, Iron Man flies in an arc that goes behind our view of Earth, which looks like he's traveled more than 1/4 the diameter of the planet. He goes back to Earth's surface on Genosha, an island the size of the country Malawi, that looks like it could be jogged across when Magneto is levitated over it. Iron Man again goes from Earth's surface to space, keeping up with the Sentry near the moon. The Sentry travels from here to the sun and stares a couple feet away from its surface, which looks like a distance shot or a small model. Iron Man goes from space to back on Genosha. This whole sequence takes less than a day.
  • Someone forgot just how far sending reaches in Elf Quest: The Searcher and the Sword. There are two bits worked out here: First, the troll tunnels that are so far underground that sending can't reach them, and secondly, Shuna and her friends being so far away from the hole that Dart must extend his sending "past the limits of his own range". Despite that, a half-dozen elves manage to clamber up a nearly vertical tunnel from the troll tunnels to the surface -- without getting exhausted doing so, or, for that matter, losing breathable air. And just after Dart pushes his thoughts "past the limits of his own range," he leads Shuna in a wild dash for maybe a few blocks' worth of forest.
  • Another Marvel example, this time an aversion: When Quasar (Wendell Vaughn) visits Uranus (stop snickering) to explore the supposed origin of his power bands, the trip takes over two years, requiring hibernation and artificial life-support.
    • He's able to go back in just a few minutes, but that's because on Uranus he discovered The Quantum Zone.
    • In another issue of Quasar, a group of super-speedsters all have a race to the Moon. Despite their very high speeds, it takes them hours to get there. Mark Gruenwald actually did quite a bit of research for Quasar.
  • Lampshaded in Starman. When Jack Knight goes into space in a rocket that can travel faster than light, he assumes that getting to the Large Magellanic Cloud will be a cinch. He is told that it will take in excess of 80,000 years.
  • Antarctic Press: In Gold Digger, the main cast travels to the planet where another cast member's people originally came from to colonize Earth, 50,000 years before, in about one day. The planet is noted as being five hundred million light years away - which would land it well, WELL outside the Virgo supercluster (The supercluster which the galactic cluster which the local group of galaxies which our galaxy is a part of, is a part of, is a part of) - a distance that can be drawn quite visibly on a reasonably-sized map of the universe. The distance has since been amended to five thousand light years. It is also never explained how these people decided to colonize a planet that is so very far away from them.
  • At the start of the Aliens: Female War miniseries, Aliens are running rampant on the Earth, across multiple continents. Our heroes dump a queen alien and a bomb in a bunker in the middle of America, wait for her to call all the aliens on Earth to her, and then set off the bomb, thus eliminating all aliens on Earth. It's implied the waiting is not longer than a few hours. How did aliens halfway around the world get to the bunker in a few hours, given that they're not shown piloting vehicles? Note: In the novel version of Aliens: Female War, the heroes decide to set the bombs timer for six months, to allow the aliens to get there from all over the planet.
  • The Green Lantern corps divides the entire Milky Way galaxy into 3600 sectors, each of which is patrolled by two Green Lanterns. This means each pair of Green Lanterns has to police a region of space equal to a cube 1300 light-years on a side. On average, such a region would contain about a million stars, and that's not even including red dwarfs and brown dwarfs.
      • Even worse: there are some continuities where they are divided into 3600 sectors across the ENTIRE UNIVERSE. Take the ridiculousness of the number of star systems patrolled in the above example, and apply it to entire galaxies.


Films -- Live-Action

  • Not so much a problem of distance as of volume, but Starship Troopers the movie has starships flying so close together (while in orbit!) that one of them crashes into another when shot. Space is big, there's plenty of room. If you're flying within visual distance of another ship and you're not trying to dock with them (or ram them, which is another problem entirely), something is wrong.
    • There's also the issue of the bugs directing an asteroid at a planet half a galaxy away and hitting. They're also patient enough to wait centuries (if not millennia) for that to happen, given the asteroid's speed.
      • It's hinted at that the asteroid impact was a coincidence and that it was used to fuel a propaganda campaign and help to launch an aggressive invasion of the bug planet.
  • The titular Paul has said that he comes from the "northern spiral of the Andromeda Galaxy". Aren't there plenty of nice spirals in the Milky Way? Not to mention that, if "northern" means "galactic north", then the "northern spiral arm" of a galaxy is sort of like the northernmost point on the equator...
  • In the original theatrical and VHS extended cuts of Star Trek the Motion Picture, the V'Ger cloud was described as "82 AUs" in diameter. In the DVD director's cut, the "eighty-" part is removed. While at first glance, it seems like 2 AUs is a bit too far in the other direction, when you consider (a) the fact that an AU (astronomical unit) is the distance from the Earth to the Sun, 150 million kilometers or a little over eight light-minutes, (b) that the Star Trek Encyclopedia pegs the Enterprise's top sublight speed around 0.25c, and (c) the amount of time spent just sitting there... the math actually (kinda) works!
  • And then, in Star Trek Generations, Malcolm McDowell's fiendish plot involves blowing up a star.. with a dinky little rocket that is perhaps maybe 12 feet long, tops and does not at all appear to have a warp drive - based on its contrail and that it doesn't immediately blink out of sight upon activation, and yet still somehow manages to hit the sun about 8 seconds after being launched. Red Letter Media calls this 'Wile E. Coyote Logic' and it's kind of hard to deny it.
    • This was a movie in which stopping all fusion in a star caused its mass to be reduced to zero. Even Wile E. Coyote can see what's wrong with that logic.
  • The 1997 movie Contact gets distance ridiculously wrong in its intro sequence. It's supposed to be a montage of Terran radio signals that get older the farther away from Earth the viewing audience gets, except that "Boogie Oogie Oogie" from 1978 can clearly be heard near Mars (which is actually only about four light-minutes from Earth).
    • Not to mention that the planets themselves are waaaay too close together in that sequence. It's still fun to watch, though.
    • Even The Bad Astronomer is willing to overlook the inaccuracies in that opening sequence, in acknowledgment of the Rule of Cool.
    • It wasn't trying to show the passage of time, it was just someone flipping to an oldies station.
  • Neill Blomkamp, the director of District 9 claims that the Prawns come from the Andromeda galaxy to mine ore from alien planets, and live on their ships for thousands of years at a time. Unless they've stripmined the entire galaxy, which sounds impossible considering their technological level, it makes little sense that they'd have anything to do in the Milky Way. It would be so much easier to say that they're just a few dozen lightyears away from home.
  • Spoofed in The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, when Betty comments that the aliens came "over a thousand miles" to get to Earth. You might say that...
  • In Prince of Space, the Phantom of Krankor mentions that his planet is "half a million miles" from the Earth. For reference's sake, the moon is about a quarter of a million miles away.
  • Star Trek 11 opens with the discovery of a Negative Space Wedgie. On radio chatter, we hear discussion of whether or not it's due to the Klingons. The response is "No, the Klingon border is 75,000 kilometres away!". That's orders of magnitude less than even the distance to the star in the same shot. For comparison, telecommunications satellites in geosynchronous orbit around Earth are at about half the stated distance.
    • In fairness, it's like standing a few feet away from the US-Mexico border fence. It may seem like a completely insignificant distance, but it's still there.
  • In the Sean Connery film Meteor, a manned Mars probe is redirected to investigate a comet passing through the asteroid belt. This "slight" course correction takes them a few hours out of their way, suggesting they're either traveling several million miles an hour, or that they'd begun their journey to Mars from Jupiter.
  • In Superman III, the villains hack into a weather satellite, and then send it to planet Krypton's original location to do an analysis of the kryptonite. So apparently someone built a weather satellite that can do geological surveys, and also fly across the galaxy faster than light. Not to mention finding Krypton in the first place. It's also capable of controlling the weather, rather than just observing it. That's some satellite!
    • Worse, in the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie, Krypton is stated to be in another galaxy. This weather satellite isn't merely crossing interstellar distances, it's crossing intergalactic distances.
      • With a movie as preposterous as Superman 3, it's hard to care about this howler, but even in Superman 1, here's the chain of "logic" Lex Luthor follows to (correctly!) deduce that some of the fragments of Krypton must have drifted to Earth: "Superman says his planet blew up in 1948. He took 3 years to come here. Given the precise location of the galaxy that he mentions...". Whether Krypton is in another galaxy or just around the celestial corner, there is no way that anything could have "drifted" that far, let alone just happen to move in exactly the right direction.
      • At least, the cartoons show that when the cradle/starship opened the jump window to get to Earth, some of the green rocks flying alongside entered the window along with the ship.
  • In Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings Gandalf somehow travels from the Shire to Isengard (a distance compareable to going from England to Germany) in the same time it takes the hobbits to walk from Hobbiton to Buckland (maybe a day's journey). And this is before he gets his magical steed Shadowfax!
    • This because in the book it takes longer for them to travel to Buckland. Also after Gandalf leaves, Frodo sells his house and several of his things. Obviously none of this happens in the movie.
  • While Mission to Mars gets many things wrong (you can find a pretty comprehensive explanation here), there are 2 pretty glaring misconceptions of scale in the movie. First, when the second crew's spaceship gets damaged, they bail out in their spacesuits and try to make their way to an autonomous module orbiting Mars, which just happens to be a few kilometers away from their ship. Not only would there be an extremely low chance of that, but any normal astronaut would keep their ship far away from another object while performing difficult maneuvers such as orbital insertion. The other example is when they show the Martians leaving en masse after their planet is ruined, and their ships are shown to be heading for another galaxy. What's wrong with this one? Didn't realize the Milky Way was a bad neighborhood. It's not exactly the same as moving to another town. Let's not even mention the fact that you can clearly see the other galaxy with the naked eye.
    • Ok, so it's not made explicit that they actually went to another galaxy but could've simply went to another star. Then why show a galaxy where there isn't one and make it look as if they're doing it?
  • In The Empire Strikes Back the Millenium Falcon, with a disabled hyperdrive, decides to head for Bespin for repairs. One problem: The ship was in the Anoat System to begin with. No, Bespin is not in the Anoat System. That means the Millenium Falcon had to go from one star system to another without a working FTL drive. A trip like that is going to take YEARS. Maybe MANY, MANY years depending on the exact distance, but in no case would it be a short trip. Bad enough for the passengers and crew of the Millenium Falcon, but one wonders how Boba Fett passed the time in Slave-1 as he followed them there. The early RPGs went so far as to introduce the concept of Backup Hyperdrives to compensate for this. It's not quite made clear why they didn't just use that when they were being chased by the Star Destroyers, though a little bit of Fan Wank can massage it into being too impractical to hook up under battlefield conditions, especially given the ramshackle nature of the Millenium Falcon.


Literature

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh invokes this trope without leaving the surface of Earth. When you add up all the distance that Gilgamesh and Enkidu crossed to reach Humbaba and his cedar forest, you shoot way past Mesopotamia and end up in northern Siberia or the tip of South Africa or something. And yet they have no trouble floating the timber back home on a river when they're done. And you can't even say that they got lost and traveled more distance than they needed to, because they simply had to follow that same river upstream.
  • While it's not science fiction, George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire qualifies. Although it's set on a continent about the size of South America (to judge by the distances given), distances are treated as much smaller when the plot demands.
  • David Eddings' Tamuli trilogy justifies something similar. The protagonists cover massive continental distances in short periods of time (as in, less than several months). An in-universe historian trying to explain it comes up with a Hand Wave about different calendars. The real answer is that the goddess traveling with them was cheating with space and time a bit.
  • Anne McCaffrey's The Death of Sleep has the protagonist's ship gets damaged, and she has to put herself into cryo in a lifeboat to have any chance of being found. The book goes out of its way to point out that if some benevolent aliens hadn't basically led a guy in a ship to her, she probably would never have been found.
    • In another McCaffrey work, distances between places on the planet Pern appear to vary as the plot demands. In one story it can be several days travel by horseback ("runnerbeast") from point A to point B, in another, a few hours. The fan community calls this Anne's "rubber ruler".
  • One of James White's Sector General stories features victims from a space collision -- and spends nearly three pages, A6 paperback, detailing the series of coincidences and bad judgment calls that managed to make it happen.
  • Sneakily averted by Douglas Adams, who concocted the Infinite Improbability Drive to get around the mind-boggling odds against Ford and Arthur being saved by another ship in the vastness of space, by making mind-boggling odds the very thing that powers their rescue ship. And then bumped those odds up to Infinite by having both Ford's semi-cousin and Trillian, the apparent only other survivor from Earth, be piloting it: something he couldn't plausibly have pulled off otherwise, again due to space's sheer size.
    • Also both averted and brutally lampshaded in the form of the Total Perspective Vortex, a device which, when hooked up to a person's mind, will give them a perfectly clear conception of both the entire universe (as extrapolated from a small piece of fairy cake) and themselves in proportion to it. This has the effect of instantly and painfully annihilating their mind unless that person is Zaphod Beeblebrox and the Total Perspective Vortex is inside a simulated universe created entirely for his benefit, conclusively proving that the last thing anyone living in a universe this size needs is a good sense of proportion perspective.
  • A misunderstanding of the title of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea would imply Nemo diving by more that the diameter of the planet. Verne used a metric league, equaling four kilometres. Verne intended, and contemporary readers understood, the title to mean a journey of 20,000 leagues while under the sea. This is equivalent to two complete circumnavigations of the Earth.
  • The Hunger Games: Each district of Panem is portrayed on a map as being the size of at least one or more real-life US State. Regardless, the inhabitants of each district seem to be concentrated in a single town or city. What are they doing with all that extra space?
  • Belisarius Series: The Malwa are pictured sending orders trying to direct covert operations in Constantinople. Given the technology of the time period they might as well have been sending orders to the moon.
  • Alan Dean Foster's Humanx Commonwealth has a thriving merchant trade. There would have to be literally millions of ships running nonstop routes between every star system to deliver even a fraction of the goods required to sustain an economy the size of the Commonwealth's. On the other hand, The Tar-Aiym Krang posits a concept both unique in space opera and brilliant; it is impossible to patrol interstellar space! If you don't travel within sensor range of a monitored system, you can go anywhere you want.
  • The aforementioned Starship Troopers: The Movie example occurs in the book too. Johnny explains that the ships were attempting to drop their Mobile Infantry in a meaningful formation... though he does not mention if one of them was hit by G-to-A, only that they collided, which opens the door to major piloting error. (This is also just one disaster in a battle where everything goes wrong. "I've heard it called a strategic victory... but I was there, and I claim we took a terrible licking.")
  • This is certainly older than space opera. Rudyard Kipling wrote a couple of science fiction stories about air travel in the 21st Century, and made his atomic powered airships pretty convincing given that hydrogen blimps were still cutting edge technology. But when it comes to speeds and distances, he treats them as if they were steamers in the English Channel. In one memorable howler, a captain gets so mad at another airship's dangerous handling that, too angry to use the radio, he opens the cockpit (Kipling also overlooked pressure changes with altitude, which was pure Did Not Do the Research, because any mountain climber could have told him) and yells at the other captain across the intervening space.
  • In Journey to the West, Sun Wukong is able to leap 108,000 miles In a Single Bound -- or about four times the circumference of the Earth. This is actually a translation error, as "miles" here refer to li, which are only about 1000 feet... but in that case, Wukong should still wind up in California or someplace...
  • Writers in the Star Wars Expanded Universe generally are aware that space is big, and they try to avert this (although a depressingly large number keep revisiting the planets established by the movies for no good reason). In the first book of The Thrawn Trilogy, Luke flees from a Star Destroyer by going into hyperspace, and since his X-wing is damaged it falls back into realspace after he's gone about half a light year - and he's stranded impossibly far from anything, only likely to be found on accident since his communications systems have gone out. On two occasions TIE fighters, which have no hyperdrives, struck out on their own and couldn't really get that far before life support ran out: an alien fleeing genocide nearly died before reaching the nearest system, and a handful of deserters had to turn back to the ship they'd abandoned when they ran out of atmosphere scrubbers.
    • In The New Rebellion, after casually lampshading the idea of 2-D Space, Wedge takes a turbolaser cannon and shoves aside the targeting computer - he doesn't have The Force, but he's confident in his own abilities and, while normally targets are too far away to get a visual, this one is close enough to see.
    • Some authors apparently decided to balance these efforts by putting in some Egregious errors. For example in New Jedi Order Sernpidal, a planet that orbits its star at the same distance our moon orbits Earth. While this could potentially work were Sernpinal's star a White Dwarf it is also the third (or fifth, there are conflicting accounts on Wookiepedia) planet of that star system.


Live-Action TV

  • Blake's Seven showed someone laying mines all around the Milky Way galaxy to keep out aliens. This is simply impossible. By the time you gathered enough matter to build this minefield, there'd be no Milky Way galaxy left.
    • Blake's Seven uses "galaxy" and "solar system" interchangeably. Travis on one occasion spots the Liberator and crows, "There he is! I knew he'd have to return to this galaxy!"
    • Despite traveling from Earth to the edges of the galaxy and back, there was a part of the galaxy it would take them centuries to travel across.
    • Blake's Seven is awful with this trope. Almost every single exterior shot shows a dozen planets in the frame, all big enough to make out surface details and arranged more-or-less completely randomly. Another technique they used was having the alien-designed Liberator measure speeds using a completely different system than the Federation, presumably due to having a different type of FTL engine (Standard by X, as opposed to Time Distort X). Due to the unfamiliar cockpit, none of the Liberator crew seems to ever figure out exactly how fast "standard" is, all they know is that it maxes out at Standard By 12, which is (evidently) faster than anything the Federation has. Even more confusing, the Time Distort measure seems to be non-linear, while the Standard measure is linear.
  • A Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode featured a mine field around a solar system. While this is much more plausible than mining an entire galaxy (in the way that swimming across the Atlantic is more plausible than swimming across the Pacific), they did it in a 2D plane, so that anyone trying to avoid this minefield could simply fly over or under it. Even then, they were building it at a rate that would have taken them hundreds of years to complete. A later episode averted this with a space minefield around a very small area (the opening of a wormhole) with a realistically long time spent laying it (or rather, using matter replicators to let it lay itself - but that just gets into Energy usage, below).
    • All the antagonists would have to do to make this possible is only mine certain areas that space traffic is known to traverse. Since most species' sense of scale would naturally be developed on a planet, it's actually likely that space traffic use common routes, if only for safety reasons (it's handy if you need help to be near where other ships are likely to be).
    • The trope for distance is undermined by the fact that in-universe examples often have in-universe reasons for things to be as they are. For example, in Star Trek you have ships travelling many times the speed of light, but equipped with sensors that are capable of detecting anything at long ranges even while at warp. This makes any argument about distance irrelevant in Trek when talking about FTL. Most critics of sci-fi like to complain that space is 'just too big' for anything interesting to happen, but then forget that even at many, many times the speed of light it would still take quite a while to travel even a short galactic distance. So no, even at FTL speeds no ship would ever run into anything else by accident, whether another ship or a stellar body.
  • In the pilot episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine the station starts off in orbit over Bajor, but Sisko orders it moved to a position near the mouth of the wormhole. That must have been a considerable distance, since never again is the station seen to be close enough to Bajor that the planet is visible from the station at any angle. Not bad for only having 6 working thrusters considering the trip was completed in only a few minutes. Later in the series it's mentioned that the trip back to Bajor was a few hours by Runabout. One wonders whether the Runabouts used their warp drive for the trip...
  • In the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Renaissance Man," The Doctor complies when aliens capture Captain Janeway and demand Voyager's warp core in exchange for her release. His justifcation: "Voyager can survive without its warp core... but not without its captain." No. The ship was in interstellar space, and the warp core is a critical component in the ship's warp drive. Without it, the ship can only travel at sublight speed using its impulse engine. In interstellar space, losing the FTL drive is a death sentence. And you thought their trip to Earth was a long one WITH the warp drive... That's nothing compared to a sublight journey to the nearest star! Surely losing Janeway, while tragic, would be preferable. At most, one can claim they could rebuild the warp core, like they managed to keep rebuilding those warp-capable shuttle craft (possibly from those warp-capable shuttle craft).
  • In Stargate Atlantis, First Strike, six "tactical" nukes take out sizeable portions of a planetary surface covering several hundreds of miles. Not only are "tactical" nukes of small size compared to strategic weapons like the 15mt Titan II, the area covered by each detonation is far too large for any single nuclear device that has been detonated by man. Above 15mt, dampening effects begin reducing the effective radius of the explosion with increasing energy of the weapon. It's not a straight-line or even inverse square relationship as a result.(The 1961 50mt Tsar Bomba was not tremendously larger in areal extent than the blast radius of the 15mt Bravo blast, but it did dig a MUCH deeper hole and vaporized a tremendous amount of permafrost. Interestingly enough, it didn't appear to create EMP in nearby Scandinavia) Even strategic MIRV weapons cannot cover the type of area shown in the episode, as it would require hundreds of warheads. The MX by comparison was ten 303 kiloton warheads for a total yield of 3.03 megatons. It's possible that the continent-sized city below yielded most of the explosions from industrial and power generation being destroyed, rather than the actual warheads, which would explain the scale of the devastation, but the episode's footage displayed single explosions.
    • Naquadah Did It
    • The elaborate, these were Mk. IX missiles. Six of them. They're referenced before as "Gate busters," and usually detonated on the gate. In this configuration they were air burst to minimize the amount of yield wasted on the ground. The low estimate for their yield is 35 gigatons. The high estimates for their yields top out at around eight to ten teratons. They're a bit like hydrogen bombs today, but replace hydrogen with refined naquadria, naquadah's bigger, nastier, ugly, unstable stepbrother. It gives each Mk. IX missile a blast radius of over one hundred miles. This tropper can't believe there was anything left of Asura.
  • The original Battlestar Galactica Classic did this as well. Adama says that Earth is located in "a galaxy much like our own" ...not to mention that in the last episode, the basestar is apparently the only one in the galaxy in which the Galactica is located, and the rest of the Cylon fleet is spread throughout the universe looking for the Galactica's fleet! They'd have greater success looking for an electron-sized needle in an haystack the size of Jupiter.
    • Not only does Adama say that Earth is in "a galaxy much like our own", but he prefaces that by pointing out that the Earth is in a different solar system. While perfectly true, it's kind of like saying that your friend lives in a different house, in a continent very much like the one you live in.
    • Also factor in that the show stated that Galactica's top speed was "light speed" and they spent the bulk of the series traveling at the pace of the slowest ships in the fleet.
    • The pilot episode for the original show also had a spaceship's location described as "20 microns and closing." Yes, this was later explained as an invented unit of time, rather than the very small unit of length, but they clearly Did Not Do the Research.
  • While the new Battlestar Galactica avoids most of this kind of silliness, it still has the familiar problem of spaceships flying in formation about two meters away from each other, and fighting battles far too close to the enemy. They try to justify it early on - the Cylons have to jump in as close to the human fleet as possible to maximize their chances of destroying their ships before they jump away - but later on, they lost the justification and kept the shoddy tactics.
    • Although how would you then justify realistic distances when the only way to move between ships is by non FTL shuttle and apparently the only way to communicate is radio? At realistic distances it would take days to move goods and food around. Additionally, with things so close, those shuttles can burn back to the ship should they be attacked and not left to die.
    • In later seasons, the Cylons discover the planet that the humans have settled because they detected a nuclear explosion from one light year away, which happened a year ago. From that distance, even the sun would appear as only slightly brighter than the other stars in the system (think Alpha Centauri). Yet the Cylons conveniently manage to detect and isolate the radiation of nuclear explosion which would be insignificantly small by comparison? Keep in mind that they wouldn't even know to look at this particular star, or they would have simply investigated it up close and discovered the human territory a lot sooner. So that means that their scanners would have to be searching for something infinitely insignificant from an infinite number of directions.
    • They're Cylons. They could have been lying. Two far more possible explanations present themselves: First, Gina, who was the one who used the aforementioned nuclear weapon, managed to be resurrected and transmitted the coordinates, despite the "Jamming Effect," that the nebula supposedly had. Second, Deanna, a Cylon who was never exposed until the Cylons showed up, could have told them... somehow.
  • At one point in Babylon 5, a ship that has been supposedly lost deep in Hyperspace is reached by a chain of less than twenty fighters with only one thousand kilometers between each of them, meaning that the supposedly distant ship is less than 20,000 km from the jumpgate. This can be hand waved by saying "Well, it's Hyperspace", but...
    • Mostly this was averted by not mentioning numbers at all. "How fast?" "Fast."
    • J. Michael Straczynski acknowledged the problem of space's true scale when talking about showing space battles on TV, pointing out that TV viewers want and need to see the ships in the same screenshot pounding away at one another, but that any actual kind of space battle would likely take place at distances far too extreme for this (thousands of kilometers at minimum). The battle between the Shadows and the Narns in "The Long Twilight Struggle" attempted to acknowledge this on the screen; most of the fight consists of the ships simply accelerating towards one another, and only the last (catastrophic) few seconds includes any visual proximity. Nonetheless, most of the series' remaining battles gave in to the Rule of Cool anyway.
    • The fact that space battles take place at ridiculously small ranges is partially justified by the nature of the FTL device used and the fact that most of the capital ships of the major powers carry said device. Attacking from several light minutes away with missiles would be useless, as the target could jump into hyperspace, then out of hyperspace near the shooter, completely avoiding the missiles. Also beam weapons and plasma weapons are realistically presented as not having an effective range of more than a few thousand kilometers due to dispersal, and an actual kill range of barely a few hundred, because of targeting issues (the famed Minbari stealth device actually prevents the targeting of the ship, not its detection). In "A Call to Arms", one of the characters orders the beam weapons of his ship (some of the most advanced in the setting) fired at a target 10,000 kilometers away, to which the firing officer replies that it would be ineffectual because of beam dispersal.
    • At one point a scout was sent into hyperspace and failed to detect a whole fleet sitting nearby, so it does seem that hyperspace messes with sensors, thus making 20,000 kilometers a long way when someone needs to find you. An example involving distances in real space is the exploration ship (with no FTL) that managed to go from Earth to a site of Human and Minbari conflict to Babylon 5 (which is 2 days of hyperspace travel from Earth) in the space of a century. Considering that the rim of the galaxy is talked about as the frontier, Babylon 5 is certainly more than 100 lightyears from Earth.
      • Actually, see another point below: Babylon 5 is only located about 10 lighyears from Earth, though this itself raises other issues (like how it's located in neutral space rather than smack dab in the middle of the Earth Alliance).
      • For Babylon 5, distances and even relative positions in hyperspace do not directly correlate with realspace. Otherwise, how could anyone get lost within it or why would they need beacons to travel along it? No "normal" ship in B5 can actually go FTL, distances are truncated within hyperspace allowing for interstellar travel and it has no "landmarks" by which to determine relative position in realspace. As such even being slightly off course is pretty much lost deep in hyperspace.
    • As most sci-fi uses energy weapons or projectiles of some sort, it makes perfect sense that nobody would simply waste their time taking potshots at ships that are light-minutes away. You might be able to get a targeting resolution at that distance depending on how good the setting's tech is, but why shoot? Your energy weapons are going to lose resolution and decohere way before they get to the target, and any pilot worth his salt would simply nudge the ship out of the way of missiles or torps (at these distances, you would have all the time in the universe to move your ship and be nowhere near the original target point). It's better if your ordnance is self-guided or otherwise smart, but this gives the enemy eons to deploy any and all countermeasures, and to begin using them as your ordnance slowly crosses into firing range. It also means a fighter group could easily pick them off, as they will know exactly where they are. So it actually makes sense that the ships would close to a more optimum range and fire at speed (if you're continually moving it means you'll be a target for less time). Also, in most sci-fi the distance the ships appear to be apart on-screen is MUCH further than it appears. Even on Trek, where ships have to be within a certain distance to transport between them, the distance is going to be measured in thousands of kilometres. This isn't much compared to the vastness of space, but it is a lot when considering the size of a ship (two ships a few hundred metres in length safely interacting at up to 10,000km). This is actually a lot more than the distances most naval vessels maintain, so actually in this respect sci-fi is playing it safe.
      • Word of God (and the show itself, in the episode "And Now For A Word") place Babylon 5 as orbiting a planet in the Epsilon Eridani system - just over 10 light years from Earth.
  • The moon in Space: 1999 was variably described as being billions of kilometers, miles, and light-years from Earth, resulting in roughly equal difficulty in returning despite the fact that the first case would put the moon closer to Earth than Saturn, while in the latter case the moon would be vastly more distant from the Milky Way galaxy than the Great Wall, currently the largest known feature of the universe. It (the moon) passed between star systems at speeds fast enough that the passengers went through a star system per week, yet remained close enough to each and slow enough to reach a planet via shuttle for days at a time.
  • Firefly was ambivalent as to whether action was taking place in a "system", presumed to be a solar system, or the galaxy. It was finally pinned down into a series of five star systems, four of which were orbiting around a single giant star, which was reached from Earth by Generation Ship. The show was admirably vague about distances and speeds, e.g. "How fast can it go?" "Standard short-range."
    • The followup movie Serenity has a barely noticed and 'lost' planet on the edge of the system. However, this planet appears to be known -- it is in Serenity's navigation computer, but all reference to its name and population are wiped from the records, so no one knows what it is, nor do they want to approach it to check it out due to the presence of Reavers.
      • The Official Map of the Verse confirmed that Miranda was indeed on the very outer edge of the Blue Sun system, orbiting its own protostar, Burnham, at about fifty AU from the main star. At the time of the series, it was the outermost world in the entire Verse.
  • Probably the most spectacular example is in the first segment of the Doctor Who story The Trial of a Time Lord, where Earth was apparently hidden by moving its entire solar system several million miles, which is the celestial equivalent of hiding from your date in an empty movie theater by leaning an inch to the left. For scale, Mercury never comes within 28 million miles of our Sun, despite being its closest planet.
    • The distance that the Time Lords moved Earth is given in various Doctor Who literature as being "Two light-years". Whilst slightly more plausible than several million miles, this is still only less than half the distance to Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighbouring star. It would be equivalent to hiding from your date in an otherwise empty cinema by moving one seat to the left.
    • In Castrovalva, when the Tardis is flying through space out of control, Nyssa says it will fly until it crashes into something, and as "star density in this galaxy is very high", it will. Well, no. Just no.
    • In The Wheel in Space the Cybermen divert a meteor storm in the direction of the titular space station by sending a star nova in the Hercules Globular Cluster, which is 25,100 light years away. The disparity in scale is at least 12 orders of magnitude.
    • In the 1996 TV movie for Doctor Who, Gallifrey is stated to be some 250 million light years away from Earth, on the other side of the Milky Way. For reference, the diameter of the Milky Way Galaxy is estimated 80-100 thousand light years. It is even sadder being said by the Doctor himself.
      • the above might not be an example as galifrey was never stated to be in the milky way, and the stated distance would still put him within the Pisces-Cetus Supercluster Complex.
    • In "The End of Time" A spaceship is described as 105,000 miles above Earth. The shot of Earth is far too big for it to be at that distance, which is nearly half-way to the Moon.
  • In the Groundhog Day Loop episode of Stargate SG-1 ("Window of Opportunity"), Teal'c mentions that a planet called Alaris is "several billion miles" away from Earth. The fact that the next closest star to Earth after the sun, Proxima Centauri, is approximately 25 trillion miles from Earth is, apparently, not relevant. Then again, the actual distance wasn't important (O'Neill was hitting golf balls through the stargate for fun) so Teal'c likely just made up something to the effect of "really far away."
  • Wizards of Waverly Place episode 5. They zap themselves to Mars and just happen to land right next to a Mars rover. Mars is a pretty big place and this is vanishingly unlikely (though as a comedy it runs by Rule of Funny anyway).
    • This incident kind of belongs in the same category as the "landmark-seeking asteroids" in Armageddon, which only hit places like the Eiffel Tower.
  • Power Rangers Lost Galaxy the Terra Venture is traveling to the next galaxy, but they have used more than half their fuel a mere 14 light-years into the journey, and if they had traveled the entirety of the distance between the last time they gave an update on how far from Earth they are in 1 day (and they didn't) it would take over 500 years to get to the next galaxy.
  • The Invaders are aliens from a dying planet. They are coming to earth. They intend to make it their world. They originate in another galaxy... Considering that they'll need to do a partial terraform anyway, you'd think they'd have found something closer.
  • In the Farscape pilot episode, a Peacekeeper ship is chasing Moya, and Aeryn says that its weapons' effective range is "45 metras." Elsewhere, it's established that one metra is about a kilometer. A 45-kilometer range on a space-based weapon system would be like having a gun that was too short-ranged to hit somebody standing next to you.


Music

  • Europe's "The Final Countdown" contains the lyrics "We're heading for Venus... with so many light-years to go." Maximum Earth to Venus distance: approximately 0.000027 light-years.
  • The music video for "The Ghost Inside" by the Broken Bells features a toll booth in space.
  • In "Written In The Stars" by Tinie Tempah, he sings "Written in the stars, a million miles away..." A million miles wouldn't even get to the closest planet, let alone stars. In fact, the nearest star from Earth that we know of (after the sun), Proxima Centauri, is about a quarter of a billion times further than one million miles.
  • Katie Melua's "Nine Million Bicycle In Beijing" featured the lines "We are 12 billion light-years from the edge. That's a guess — no-one can ever say it's true," until a writer/scientist corrected her. She went on to record an alternate version, changing the line to "We are 13.7 billion light-years from the edge of the observable universe; that's a good estimate with well-defined error bars,".


Radio

  • Planet Man referred to the Astro Drive, which would enable the hero to travel the "millions of light-years to Alpha Centauri." Alpha Centauri is just 4.37 light-years away -- in fact, it's the closest star system to our own. Actually traveling "millions of light-years" would be a lot more impressive.
  • In Orson Welles's Radio Drama adaptation of War of the Worlds, rocket-launch explosions on the surface of Mars precede the Martian invaders' arrival by only a few minutes, as allowing any more time for their multimillion-mile journey would've run too long for the broadcast.


Tabletop Games

  • BattleTech was originally hit pretty hard with this, as the game stated that a Hex is roughly thirty meters, meaning that no weapon short of artillery had a range equal to or greater than a single kilometer. Catalyst Games, the present owners of the license, have kept the Hex and range measurements, but have gone on record saying that Battletech Weapons are really not that short-ranged.
    • The problem with this stance being something like twenty years' worth of novels saying that they most certainly are and various plots and tactics that more or less hinge on this fact to work at all. At some point it really is just better to go "Yeah it's kinda silly, but this is a game about giant walking tanks a few dozen of which are considered an entirely reasonable force to invade a planet, just go with it."
  • Very carefully averted with the Warhammer 40000 space battle Gaiden Game Battlefleet Gothic, for all its joyful use of Space Is an Ocean and the Rule of Cool in general. The actual models are completely out of scale with the rest of the game, but the manual itself explains that, in scale, the ship the model represents would be somewhere in the stand holding it up. Thus, distances are measured based on the center of the ships' bases so that you can have nice looking miniatures without also requiring a spare country to play the game in. Base-contact in the game is "close range," generally of the order of tens of thousands of kilometers. This is also the reason you need a command check to ram another ship - the captain not only has to order a potentially suicidal course of action and make it stick with the crew, he also has to hit a target equivalent to headbutting a pinhead from a mile away...
    • Also Warhammer 40K Background fluff has reinforcements taking years sometimes decades to reach a planet.
      • Of course, given that it's The Warp, there are also accounts of ships arriving at their destinations before they left. One story about an Ork warlord has him somehow arriving back at his starting point before he left, so he attacks and kills his past self so he could have two of his favorite gun.
  • Half-averted in Mage: The Awakening. Though its unlikely players will ever actually experience space travel, it is possible to experience a version of it in the Astral Realms. In the Tenemos (the Dream World of humanity) it would be mostly played straight, because of human conceptions of scale and space travel. In the Dreamtime (the Dream World of the Earth) the conceptual representation of the universe is mostly to scale (since the Earth is devoid of any kind of romanticism). The sheer scale of the Solar System alone is presented as staggering, and since there is no FTL in the Dreamtime (though there is the rare shortcut), travel between conceptual planets has to be taken the slow (read, years long) way. And that's not even getting into traveling beyond the conceptual Solar System. The only reason any of this is practical is because of the Year Inside, Hour Outside nature of Astral Space.


Videogames

  • In Star Wolves most of space is empty, and you almost never visit space where inhabited planets are. Instead, you spend most of your time visiting out-of-the-way systems that have a couple space stations in them, if anything. And yet, for some reason, these space stations, which are placed five minutes away from each other, are treated as though they're light-years apart in terms of communication and physical contact.
  • 7 Days a Skeptic by Yahtzee revolves around an old locker discovered floating in another galaxy by an exploration ship. Ignoring the staggering improbability of finding anything that size in an entire galaxy, the locker was launched from Earth four hundred years before the game starts, in the modern day. The Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy, our galaxy's closest neighbor, is 25,000 light years away. This simple metal box would have had to travel at multiple times the speed of light to make it out of the Milky Way in such a short time.
    • This can probably be explained as the work of Chzo. Indeed, the supernatural nature of such an astronomically unlikely event is implied (though not stated outright).
  • Eve Online - distances in solar systems are realistic: from any particular planet, all other planets seem like points, and are several AUs away. FTL technology is required to get anywhere. There are even two types of FTL: short range warp drives which are used to travel within systems (fitted to ships), and long range star gates for traveling light years between star systems. Combat is frequently with ships that are only visible by their targeting icon.
    • Interestingly, they also point out the sheer size inherent in a single system. The game's equivalent of dungeons and hideouts are not actually hidden, per se. It's just that there is no conceivable way to locate them without acquiring the specific co-ordinates. Complexes are reached by short-range intra-stellar "acceleration gates", which catapult you into the location. Of course, why a society with casual FTL drive lacks halfway decent sensor ranges is a mystery.
    • Even so, ships don't need FTL technology to travel in-system. A ship would travel 100AU (i.e. out of the solar system) in a mere 12 days even at just 10% SOL, and 1AU in under 3 hours. Even at 5% SOL you would clear the solar system in 23 days (these figures are based on actual physics, not in-universe 'facts'). Couple that with the fact (se below) that some ships are capable of picking up objects within 14AU, and it seems as though the size of the system should not be such a problem but it's a game and most people aren't that patient (especially considering EVE's Griefer population).
      • EVE ships have incredibly powerful sensors - the maximum range for onboard sensors is around 14 AU - and they can find all the stuff in that radius (a sphere) immediately (very FTL sensors for those of you counting). This is also the problem - there is a lot of stuff in the systems. You need to isolate the stuff that actually concerns you. Even when you do, you still don't have the coordinates - you need to use scanner probes and by positioning them in space (again, at very FTL speeds) can you get accurate coordinates for warp-in. However, it isn't a complete aversion - due to technical limitations, this doesn't apply to missions - those generally pretty much create your own piece of space on demand and destroy it again as you complete the mission.
      • With ships capable of picking up everything within 14AU on sensors, it wouldn't take particularly long for the entire solar system to be scanned. Our solar system is quite large at 100+AU.
    • Eve also falls victim to this trope, with the asteroid fields that tends to consist of a few dozen asteroids tightly packed into a crescent shape. In real life the average distance between asteroids is 2-4 million miles. However, since a realistically depicted asteroid field would be impossible to implement in a playable fashion, this counts as an Acceptable Break From Reality.
  • Ratchet and Clank: Clank said early into the first game that Drek was going to 'Destroy the solar system'.
    • The second game gave us a moon approximately 200m in diameter. It has its own atmosphere (probably; Ratchet has a helmet supplying him with air, so everybody else could have one too), and a fairly substantial city. Giant Clank can jump high enough to significantly reduce its size.
    • Ratchet & Clank's cosmology and physical constants have extraordinarily little to do with our own.
  • Wing Commander was never all that clear on what units of distance to use, depending on the game, but pretty much all of them were ludicrously wrong. Less than 100km between planets in a system (Privateer)? Um, no. Just... no.
    • There are also the shenanigans it plays with measuring speed, by using a variable "klicks" (which, unlike in Real Life, isn't slang for kilometers) for the distance portion of stated speeds...
    • Let's face it: Pretty much every space shooter gets the distances wrong, assuming you don't vaporize enemies far outside of visual range.
  • Freelancer is often just as bad or worse about it as Wing Commander; some planets being within tens of kilometers apart from one another and sometimes as close as 20 kilometers from their system's star(s). Said planets are sometimes visible from one another as sizes larger than the area the moon fills in the sky.
  • Free Space gets this wrong in the other direction for once. Earth gets cut off from the FTL network at the end of the first game, and a major plot point of FreeSpace 2 is the chance of reestablishing contact with Earth, since nobody has heard from it in the intervening 30 years. However, we still have FTL access to Alpha Centauri, so in the 30 years between games, there would have been plenty of time for ordinary radio messages to and from home.
  • The Minecart Madness level of I Wanna Be the Guy starts with a sign indicating the distance of 10,000 kilometers to The Guy's fortress, which you reach in 78 seconds. That gives you an average speed of 286,786 miles per hour, or 373 times the speed of sound.
    • Though it also means The Kid, as compared to the track's length, must be several kilometers tall. But then there's the issue of the apartment-sized moon that randomly falls to Earth...
  • The Space Engine-Free Universe Simulator as well as the program Celestia, available respectively here and here, demonstrate just how big space is, and how close one has to be in order for anything to look like more than a dot.
  • Raul in Fallout: New Vegas remembers that in the great nuclear war, he could see Mr. House's defenses shooting down the nuclear bombs heading for Las Vegas... from Mexico City 2,800 km away. [1]


Western Animation

  • In Justice League Unlimited, an Egregious case occurs in the second AMAZO episode, where the android, on an interstellar journey to Earth, destroys Oa --or rather, teleports it out of the way-- rather than make what is, given the scale involved, a ridiculously minor course adjustment. This is meant to showcase just how ridiculously powerful AMAZO has become: given two choices (remove planet or go around planet), removing the planet is more convenient.
    • Not so egregious when you actually think about it. The scene is there for two reasons - one is to make the audience and the League believe AMAZO has become evil (they don't find out it was only teleported until later), and also to demonstrate his aforementioned power level. The power level showing also works for this reason - AMAZO is in a hurry, and is only thinking in terms of "what is the quickest way back to Earth?" At his power levels, moving the planet might actually take less time than going around it. Only a few seconds, true, but in his mind he might not care whether he is delayed by seconds or days - a delay is a delay, and the shortest period of time to his destination is the only course of action. A human equivalent might be brushing aside a strand of spider silk hanging down from the top of your doorway, rather than carefully walking around it.
    • Not to mention that it establishes his power level by using the Worf Effect on the entire Green Lantern Corp!
  • Challenge of the Superfriends was never known for its rigorous scientific accuracy... or even for being terribly coherent. In the episode "Conquerors of the Future," a distress call arrives from the planet Santar, and Superman announces: "Santar is trillions of light-years from Earth. We'll have to leave immediately!" (For comparison, the edge of the obervable universe is a mere 13 or 14 billion light-years from Earth.)
    • In another episode, the Legion of Doom cut the moon in half, requiring Superman and Batman to come out and help. Batman and Robin fly to the moon in the Bat Rocket, a trip that lasts less than one minute. The Bat Rocket must have had some kind of inertial dampeners, because making a quarter-million mile journey in that kind of time would have required them to accelerate at roughly 20,000 g.
      • Never mind the fact that Superman pushed the two halves of the moon back together, and then welded them with his heat vision.
  • Futurama parodies broken physics very very often, often screwing with perspective, logical sequences of events, and so forth. It shouldn't come as a surprise that scale is messed with, too:
    • Occasionally planets in Futurama will be shown to be several SHIP LENGTHS away from each other.
    • "Just a few.. more.. hundred.. thousand.. miles!"
    • In the episode When Aliens Attack, the camera starts at Earth, spends about 10 seconds panning through our solar system (with all the planets bunched together as usual), and once finished, takes 2 more seconds to pan to "Omicron Persei 8 (1000 light years away)".
    • Also used comically in one episode where Bender was contemplating the conquest of Earth as they headed to the planet. Leela quickly points out that said planet wasn't earth, and the ship promptly leaps over it.
  • The beginning scene of Bionicle: The Legend Reborn messes up not only the canon continuity, but has scale and distance issues to boot. When the Mask of Life flies through space, we are treated to a montage of the object traveling past planets and whole galaxies under seconds, after which it curves around a bunch of other planets, and then finally lands on the planet Bara Magna. The scene didn't make any sense, thus the writers Retconned it for the official storyline, so that instead of traversing who know how many light years, the mask only flies from Bara Magna's "planet moon" to the planet itself. This also prevented Makuta's eventual journey from said moon to the planet from having distance issues, though the scale was still off.
  • In episode 12 of Green Lantern, our heroes need to go through an asteroid belt on the way to Oa. Not only is the belt shown as an Asteroid Thicket, but asteroid belts are things on solar system scales and they are travelling on a galactic scale--it wouldn't make sense for the asteroid belt to be so big that avoiding it would be a noticeable course change. This not even considering that an asteroid belt is in a flat orbit and it would be easy to go around one in a spaceship even on a solar system scale.
  • Some early episodes of The Transformers where it was implied Autobots and Decepticons flew between whole galaxies in a few hours and under their own power.
    • Played with in Transformers Animated. Space is still really big and crossing it via even Cybertronian starships takes a considerable amount of time but they do have Space Bridges to cut down on travel time.
    • Averted in Transformers Prime. The opening mini-series is centred around Megatron bringing an army to Earth via his Space Bridge only for Bulkhead to damage the interstellar targeting relay aboard the Nemesis. As a result, Megatron has to get an alternate targeting system to properly aim the Space Bridge because even being off by a single decimal point could result in the portal opening light-years away from Cybertron.
  • Ben 10 has a lot of scientific flaws and holes in its writing but the most egregious is claiming the energy build up from the Omnitrix's self-destruct would release enough power to destroy the universe. Considering the size of the universe, its expansion and the build up of dark matter, that's a pipe dream at best.

Real Life

  • This sort of went the other way the week of 8 November 2011, when the asteroid 2005 YU55 came past the earth. While 201,700 miles is indeed close on a solar system scale, you could see years of science fiction and Did Not Do the Research clouding the media into thinking this was an Asteroid Thicket and it was right on top of us. (Indeed, the astronomy community had known for some time that there was absolutely no danger.) Jet Propulsion Labratories even added to the public confusion by stating that the asteroid was "the size of an aircraft carrier", which is an oddly non-scientific description for something round, and did not apply to its mass, volume nor shape. There was even a comment on JPL's facebook feed saying that there was no standardized "Aircraft carrier units".
  • There're some ways to imagine how large (and empty) the Universe is. One of them is to imagine the Sun with a diameter of just 1 centimeter (comparable to that of a pea). With this scale, the Earth would have 0.1 milimeters of diameter and would orbit at 1.07 meters away from the Sun. Alpha Centauri, the closest star, would be at roughly 300 kilometers and the Milky Way would have a size of 6.8 million kilometers, nearly five times larger than the real Sun. At this scale, light -the fastest thing known in the Universe- would move at just 7.75 meters per hour.

Return to main.

Notes

  1. Taking into account the Earth's radius (6,371 km aprox), from the ground level a surface distance of 2,800 km would be aprox 605.5 km below the horizon; in other words to see Las Vegas from Mexico City you would need to be at a Low-Earth-Orbit altitude; now assuming that the bombing was done with ICBMs the visibility of their interception still doesn't sound feasible as the re-entry stage of an ICBM is at 100 kms of altitude, well below the 605.5 km of horizon depth.
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.