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The Flying Snowman in Science Fiction Films like “Star Trek”

I generally avoid pointing back to my personal site from here — it’s that whole “don’t cross the streams” thing — but this week I had a discussion there that I want to expand upon, on the subject of the “Flying Snowman.”

That’s my term for implausible elements or events in science fiction or fantasy works that throw you out of the story, even if you’ve accepted other, previous implausible elements or events. I got the term after my wife, who was reading a storybook to our daughter in which a snowman came to life, ran about, and even ate hot soup, objected to the idea that such a snowman could fly. She could handle a snowman spontaneous gaining life, but flying? That was going too far.

My question for her, and to everyone who encounters a “Flying Snowman” in science fiction or fantasy, is why she objected to that
particular implausible thing, and not all the other implausible things
before it, which she accepted without question. It’s not to suggest that
if you accept one implausible thing you have to accept them all (you
really don’t), or that you’re somehow wrong to have a Flying
Snowman moment, because suspension of disbelief is not something that
can be legislated, and it differs from person to person. If I had been
reading that snowman story to my kid, I would have been thrown out of
the tale on the page where the snowman was eating soup.

reason to ask the question is to discover whether your Flying Snowman
moment is about your own personal quirks (in which case it’s about you,
and there’s nothing the creator of the work could have done about it) or
whether it’s brought on by poor world building (in which case there’s
something the creator of the work could have done about it, and
he or she was just falling down on the job). I should additionally note
that “good world building” in this case doesn’t necessarily mean
conforming to reality, although it can (more on that soon). It does mean
being consistent, however; basically, if you’re going to create a world
with a set of rules, then you stick to the rules, or at least break
them in a way that adds value to the story.

Let’s now apply this to science fiction films. Science fiction is the branch of fantasy storytelling (and it is
a branch of fantasy storytelling, make no mistake about it) that gives
itself the responsibility of presuming a rational basis for its
fantastic elements. So, for example, instead of bolts of lighting
shooting out of magic wands activated by speaking made-up Latin, phaser
beams zap out of guns because somewhere along the way humans discovered
the universal physical laws that explain how they can exist and built
the tools to harness those energies. Only a wizard can use a wand, but
anyone who can point and shoot can use a phaser. There’s science — a
rational basis — in the fiction.

What that means is that, in general, while science fiction is
able to speculate and imagine elements as wild as any to be found in any
other branch of fantasy, it does have a foot in reality — our reality. It can imagine all sorts of things that we don’t know, but when it comes to the things we do
know, it has a responsibility to get those right — or, from a
practical point of view when it comes to science fiction films, get them
as right as possible while still being entertaining to the large mass
of audience who neither knows nor cares that there’s no sound in the
vacuum of space and other such things.

This is why my own Flying Snowmen come more frequently in
science fiction films than they do in fantasy films. I’m willing to
accept spiders the size of trucks and insufficiently dense lava in the Lord of the Rings
series, because at the end of the day in Middle-earth, non-rational
rules apply and standard known physics are more like guidelines than the
rule. On the other hand, when in the most recent Star Trek
film, Spock, a former science officer (!!!), has a five-minute
monologue that begins, “A star exploded, threatening the entire galaxy”
and only gets worse from there in terms of basic, known science, well.
Let’s say that snowman isn’t just flying, it’s at warp factor 7.

I’ve noted before that after 45 years of bad physics, you just have to let a lot of things in Star Trek
go, but some things are just aggressively stupid world building, and
this is an example. It wouldn’t have been difficult to get that basic
stuff right, without penalty to the story. I’m singling out Star Trek here, because it’s an easy target, but it’s not just Star Trek that stacks up the Flying Snowmen. Alas

Flying Snowmen can happen no matter what filmmakers and
storytellers do; you can’t please everyone, and people will always find
something to suspend their disbelief. But if you’re a science fiction
filmmaker or storyteller, part of the job is not to help that process. Get the basic stuff right, or at least right enough. Do what you can to keep the snowmen firmly on the ground.

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