Why is it that nobody in science fiction, especially the bad guys, can shoot straight?
In all my classes on writing, including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, I belabor the point that SF and fantasy are inherently unrealistic, but that audiences crave plausibility. The rules for faster-than-light travel or the biology of the dragon are set by the author, but once set, must be plausibly maintained. A few things I’ve seen lately have made me start thinking about the plausibility of gunfire.
Starting with a bit of “full disclosure”: I do not own a gun and have never fired a gun in my life. I have never served in the military and have not been trained in firearms. That being the case, like many other people, I have to rely on some degree of common sense in order to figure out if it’s plausible that this character can hit that target while another character’s shot goes astray.
Here are a couple of cases, one from real life and one from fiction that we can look at.
In April of 2009 Somali pirates stormed the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama and kidnapped the captain, who they held for ransom aboard a tiny enclosed lifeboat that was later taken under tow by the US Navy vessel Bainbridge. SEAL Team Six—the same guys who would later kill Osama Bin Laden—were called in to engineer a rescue. A couple of them laid down on the rolling deck of the Bainbridge and shot the pirates on the rolling lifeboat through tiny portholes, killing all of the pirates and leaving the Maersk Alabama’s captain completely untouched.
Had I seen that in a Hollywood action movie I would have groaned and told everyone I know how “unrealistic” that movie was—no way (based on my total lack of specific knowledge or experience) could anyone shoot that well under those conditions and achieve a perfect result.
But it did actually happen. No stunt men, no special effects.
And then there are the Imperial Stormtroopers of the Star Wars Universe. Are these guys the Galactic Empire’s version of SEAL Team Six? If so, no wonder the empire was so easy to beat. These men in white couldn’t hit the broad side of a space barn. And this in a high-tech universe with targeting computers (which are not as good as the Force, but still . . .) and so on. How can we have smart bombs and super soldiers and they don’t?
I’ve seen interviews with military helicopter pilots and tank crews who’ve said that they hit everything they aim at. The technology has basically put them in a can’t miss situation, here in 2013. But the crew of Star Trek: Enterprise’s Enterprise NX-01, a hundred years from now, flail around, along with their even more high-tech enemies, shooting at walls and bulkheads with energy beam weapons you can dodge? How would a phaser or blaster ever replace a gun if the projectile not only moves more slowly than a bullet but so slowly you can just step out of the way?
This is straining plausibility in service of . . . what?
Well, that’s actually a pretty easy question to answer: The lives of the heroes.
If the Imperial Stormtroopers were the Galactic Empire’s answer to SEAL Team Six, Luke Skywalker would never have made it off Tatooine.
And yes, here I am again, using the multi-billion dollar Star Wars franchise as an example of what not to do. Believe me, I am fully aware of how that must sound.
Yesterday my daughter and I watched the documentary The People vs. George Lucas, which was hilarious—a must-see—and throughout the movie I found myself jerking back and forth between a full-throated support of the pissed off fans and a full-throated support of poor beleaguered George Lucas.
One of the myriad complaints about the 1997 reissue of Star Wars (and no, I will not call it “A New Hope”) is not just that Greedo shoots at Han first in the cantina but that Greedo misses from about three feet away. I found that fascinating. Most of the interviewees complained about the damage that did to the character of Han Solo, but then is the complaint that, if Greedo shot first, Han should have died before ever lifting off from Mos Eisley?
For what it’s worth I agree with everyone but George Lucas on that point. Having Greedo shoot first changed the very nature of the story and the character Han Solo, and did so by stretching plausibility by making Greedo such a pitifully bad shot.
And at the same time, I have to ask those same fans who railed against Greedo’s inability to shoot straight: What about the Stormtroopers?
I can buy that Greedo is a low-level thug and might not have much facility with firearms, but the character who acts as the movie’s primary source of information and wisdom, Obi-Wan Kenobi, identifies the Stormtroopers as being “precise” in their attack on the jawas. But then Luke and Leia can swing across the Death Star chasm without even being grazed? And here the Stormtroopers, unlike the Navy SEALS in April 2009, are on a stable platform. Really?
There’s a question you never want your readers to ask:
Really, George Lucas?
Unlike the rescue of the captain of the Maersk Alabama, we, as authors of science fiction and fantasy, don’t have reality to fall back on. To me it seems impossible, but they actually did it.
Stormtroopers blindly shooting hither and yon without a single on-target shot, well, that’s just as difficult to believe, and Mr. Lucas doesn’t have reality to fall back on.
In a movie like Star Wars, to quote another movie from the same era (The Big Chill) audiences can be content to “just let art . . . flow over you” if the rest of it is as f-ing cool as Star Wars, which, in the spring of 1977, was absolutely the coolest f-ing thing ever in the history of everything.
But most of us won’t get that pass. We have to sell stories to science fiction and fantasy readers. And to quote yet another movie from that time, Ghostbusters, “they expect results.”
SF and fantasy readers will keep track of the number of bullets fired and will begin to hate your story, and you, if your hero’s six-shot revolver fires a seventh round. They will wonder, like me, why these soldiers can’t shoot someone just because the target is swinging on a rope, let along sitting at the other side of a restaurant booth.
Research, people. If your story is set in the real world find, like I did in Devils of the Endless Deep, the detailed description of a real gun online and not only know how many rounds are in a clip but keep track of the shots fired as you write.
Did a character who knows how to shoot (a soldier, a cop, or just a gun enthusiast) miss his or her target? Okay, but why? And is that why plausible? Maybe his hand is shaking because he’s wounded or in pain. Is there something about the environment? It’s foggy so he’s having trouble seeing, or the gravity on the planet is heavier than on Earth and he’s having trouble lifting the gun? Those are the things that can save your hero’s life without having to just fall back on, “Um, well, I guess they just, y’know, missed.”
SF and fantasy readers are smart and critical and we demand results!