Star Wars Design Flaws

Writer John Scalzi has posted a collection of “design flaws” in the Star Wars universe. I understand that this is just harmless fun, but his criticism seems typical of the mindless “what a bunch of idiots!” the ignorant like to level against experts with specialized knowledge and extensive experience. In this case, fictional engineering experts. Okay, so I’m taking this too seriously. Anyway, my rebuttal:

R2-D2

Sure, he’s cute, but the flaws in his design are obvious the first time he approaches anything but the shallowest of stairs.

Apparently Scalzi isn’t aware that (due to a retcon in the prequels) R2 has jets. Oh, wait, he is aware of that:

Also: He has jets, a periscope, a taser and oil canisters to make enforcer droids fall about in slapsticky fashion – and no voice synthesizer. Imagine that design conversation: “Yes, we can afford slapstick oil and tasers, but we’ll never get a 30-cent voice chip past accounting. That’s just madness.”

Everybody in the Star Wars universe can understand R2. The only people who can’t are the viewers of the movie. I always thought making that work so well was an indication of just how well the (first two) Star Wars movies had been scripted.

C-3PO

Can’t fully extend his arms; has a bunch of exposed wiring in his abs; walks and runs as if he has the droid equivalent of arthritis. And you say, well, he was put together by an eight-year-old. Yes, but a trip to the nearest Radio Shack would fix that.

We have no idea what purpose 3PO was built for. If his only job is to stand around and serve as translator or advisor, one presumes that physical mobility was nothing but an afterthought of design.

Also, I’m still waiting to hear the rationale for making a protocol droid a shrieking coward, aside from George Lucas rummaging through a box of offensive stereotypes (which he’d later return to while building Jar-Jar Binks) and picking out the “mincing gay man” module.

If a system were designed to warn people about subtle breaches of etiquette, then it wouldn’t be terribly surprising for life-threatening breaches to cause it to respond with loud and insistent panic.

Lightsabers

Yes, I know, I want one too. But I tell you what: I want one with a hand guard. Otherwise every lightsaber battle would consist of sabers clashing and then their owners sliding as quickly as possible down the shaft to lop off their opponent’s fingers.

Except that, you know, that doesn’t happen. Appearances indicate that two lightsabers can’t slide along each other at all—there’s a lot of friction (or other such resistive force) between the two. Adding a crossguard would address a problem that doesn’t exist, and would undermine the sleek shape of a retracted lightsaber, which is really the coolest part.

Blasters

A tactical nightmare: They’re incredibly loud,

Because noisy weapons would never catch on.

especially for firing what are essentially light beams.

Lightning is quite loud, too, and that noise is just caused by suddenly-superheated air.

The fire ordnance is so slow it can be dodged,

There’s no evidence of this. You can dodge where a blaster is pointed just as you can dodge where a gun is pointed. (The Jedi reflect-the-blast technique is supposedly based on their magical powers of precognition, but I really just chalk it up to suspension of disbelief and Lucas’s focus on cool Jedi tricks after the first two films.)

and it comes out as a streak of light that reveals your position to your enemies.

Regular rifles emit flashes of light that give away your position as well. Snipers use special weapons with flash suppressors to eliminate this problem; there’s no reason to believe the Star Wars universe doesn’t offer similarly-specialized weapons.

Let’s not even go near the idea of light beams being slow enough to dodge; that’s just something you have let go of, or risk insanity.

They’re called blasters, not lasers. The fact that something is really bright doesn’t mean it’s light—in fact, the light you see from incredibly powerful lasers is not the laser light.

Maybe blasters are spitting out bursts of plasma. I don’t know. But I think if you offered the US military a lightweight weapon that never runs out of ammunition they’d take it in a heartbeat.

Landspeeders and other flying vehicles

Here’s the thing: In the Star Wars universe, there are no seatbelts. And maybe if you’re flying your hoity-toity vehicle on Coruscant, you have, like, a force field that keeps you flying out of your seat. But Luke’s X-34 speeder on Tatooine? The Yugo of speeders, man. One hard stop, and out you go.

I’m having trouble even seeing the “design flaw” here. The fact that Jedis and farmers don’t tend to wear their seatbelts?

Stormtrooper Uniforms

They stand out like a sore thumb in every environment but snow, the helmets restrict view (“I can’t see a thing in this helmet!” – Luke Skywalker),

Luke is the only one who ever had this problem, for the simple reason that the helmet didn’t fit him. (“Aren’t you a little short for a stormtropper?” – Princess Leia.)

and the armor is penetrable by single shots from blasters. Add it all up and you have to wonder why stormtroopers don’t just walk around naked, save for blinders and flip-flops.

As armor, the stormtrooper uniform is terrible. But you do have to dress them in something.

Death Star

An unshielded exhaust port leading directly to the central reactor? Really?

It was not a straight blaster shot to blow up the reactor; you needed to get a “proton torpedo” into the port, at which point the torpedo changed direction and self-navigated down to the reactor. It’s a flaw, as was readily admitted, but a flaw that was only discovered through lengthy analysis, and that required the construction of specialized weaponry to exploit.

And when you rebuild it, your solution to this problem is four paths into the central core so large that you can literally fly a spaceship through them? Brilliant.

At this point we can only conclude that John Scalzi never watched the film to which he’s referring. The second Death Star was only half-built; huge portions of the spherical structure were entirely missing. That was part of the plan: make it look vulnerable to bait the rebels into an attack. Defense of the space station was left to a deflector shield projected from a nearby moon. The shield was 100% effective until it was blown up. The script for this film was atrocious, but none of the above elements constitute design flaws.

Sarlaac

A monstrous yet immobile creature who lives in an exposed pit in the middle of a lifeless desert, waiting for large animals to apparently feel suicidal and trek out to throw themselves in? Yeah, not so much. Not every Sarlaac can count on an intergalactic mob boss to feed it tidbits.

This assumes a lot of things about Sarlaac that we don’t know. Not every duck can count on tourists to feed it bread. Somehow wild ducks manage.

That Asteroid Worm Thing in Empire Strikes Back

So, large space worm lives in asteroid, disguises itself as a cave and waits for unwary spaceships to fly by so it can eat them? Makes the Sarlaac look like a marvel of natural selection, it does.

As above. There’s no indication that the worm, or Sarlaac, actually have any interest in eating people (or spaceships); for all we know they feed on rock, or their “live under the surface in a cave” behavior is just part of a lengthy hibernation.

Reframing the previous rebuttal: not every fountain can count on tourists to feed it coins.

Midi-Chlorians

Oh, man, don’t get me started. Except to say this: If in fact a high concentration of midi-chlorians is the difference between being a common schmoe and being a dude who can Force Choke his enemies, the black market in midi-chlorian injections must be amazing.

If having the right genes is the difference between being a common schmoe and being Usain Bolt, the black market in Bolt DNA injections must be amazing.

The Moral

If you know something about science and you watch sci-fi, you may think “that’s impossible”. If you’re a scientist at heart, you think “what would it mean if that were possible?”

If you know something about engineering, you may think “that couldn’t work”. If you’re an engineer at heart you think “how does that work?”, or even “what would you need to do to make that work?”

Being a scientist or engineer is more about grappling with questions than knowing a collection of answers.