Six Unrealistic Worlds From Popular Stories

The matrix from the outside.

These stories could take place on a volcanic iceberg and still be popular. But having devoted fans doesn’t mean their worlds couldn’t be better. Even when the premise relies on an unrealistic setting, unbelievable aspects can be cured with forethought. Just look at these popular worlds with preventable flaws.

1. The Buffyverse

Buffy in with soldiers

The Buffyverse offers a lesson in why you shouldn’t have world-ending struggles confined to a small town, much less for seven seasons.

The original concept, a high school girl who fights evil in an isolated area, was a fine idea. Buffy fights alone because she’s the chosen Slayer, and naturally no one else believes in all that magic stuff. She has to use a simple, wooden stake because guns don’t work on vampires. Sure, the townsfolk could probably use better protection than a teenager who has to sneak out of her bedroom at night. However, people facing a small problem in a backwards area might not know or care about that.

But this setup didn’t last long. The show writers weren’t satisfied with the low-stakes problems of a small town and even smaller high school. This was a series with action and heroism and horror. They pursued novelty and thrills in episode after episode, until the vampires, demons, witches, and other magical shenanigans piled up to the ceiling. Even as Buffy grew out of small-town threats and began saving the world, the writers clung to their original premise.

This town of Sunnydale has so many vampires that it’s amazing anyone is left alive, much less unaware of supernatural creatures. Powerful demons who aren’t immune to bullets show up again and again, but Buffy still fights them hand to hand.* An entire council of Watchers acts like some back-seat-driving committee for the single, active Slayer. Sunnydale grows every feature a large city could have, including a dozen large abandoned structures, a museum, a university, and a military base. We even find out the US Government has a military arm that fights supernatural threats, but it never helps Buffy save the world.

Buffy’s spin-off show, Angel, finally moves the shenanigans to a large city. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make up for the bad habits it inherited from the parent show. Instead of illustrating how a demon society could hide in a place like Los Angeles, the show depicts a large city inhabited by people who don’t notice when demons openly roam the streets.

How It Could Have Been Fixed

The Buffyverse became a mess because the show runners didn’t think ahead to the type of show they wanted to run. They could have created a teen drama where deaths were relatively uncommon, leaving the show to highlight the growing pains of high school. Or they could have created a crime drama with a teenage hero, one where every episode dealt with a few deaths in a large city. Or they could have created a show where Buffy protected the entire Earth, teaming up with the most talented good guys and traveling around the world to face the greatest threats to mankind. With seven seasons, they even could have done all three, moving from a small-scale setting with low stakes to a large-scale setting with high stakes. They just couldn’t do all three at once.

2. The Matrix Universe

Morpheus Holding Battery

Like so many other dystopian scifi stories, the premise of the Matrix is based on a wide-scale conflict between humans and artificial intelligence. The mentor of the movie, Morpheus, explains that because humans got so desperate, they decided to cut off power to the robots by… blocking out the sun?

Even if the machines were relying on solar power, humans still need it as much as they would. Blocking out sunlight would turn the Earth into an ice cube. If humans were that desperate, why not build bigger EMPs instead? An EMP is used in the movies, and it works just fine. Surely going without electrical devices is better than killing almost all life on Earth.

Once the sun was blocked, machines apparently just switched to a different power source. Any rational person would expect this; the story is set in the future, and even today we have many methods of harvesting energy: hydro, wind, nuclear, fossil fuel, and geothermal. But with all those options available, the machines invent a method that preserves enemies who might destroy them, using a complex and no doubt resource-intensive apparatus. Okay sure, humans do produce energy, energy that we mostly consume to live. In fact, we’ve harvested this energy before. Have you ever seen someone hook a bike up to an electrical grid? It’s an amusing novelty, but it’s not our main power source because it produces almost nothing.

Towards the end of explaining all this nonsense, Morpheus says off-handedly, “Combined with a form of fusion, the machines had found all the energy they would ever need.” WHAT. The machines have fusion. They have fusion, and they are building huge, elaborate structures with near infinite virtual realities, just to squeeze tiny amounts of energy from enemies that occasionally escape and form renegade cities. Right.

How It Could Have Been Fixed

This silliness justifies why machines are keeping humans in the Matrix. Obviously that premise is important; the movie wouldn’t work without it. However, all the writers needed to make this believable was to abandon their big cliché. Instead of having the same-old bloody fight between artificial and organic life, what if the robots’ reason for enslaving humans was more rich and complex? Maybe they wanted what was best for us and thought the Matrix could give us optimum life experiences. What if they thought we were dangerous to ourselves and other lifeforms on Earth and decided we needed to be locked up?

The second and third movies make a point of showing computer programs that we can relate to, even depicting a refugee family of software. The Animatrix shorts compare the early oppression of AI to America’s dark history of slavery. The lesson is clear: computers are people too. A partially benign reason for the Matrix would have fit that theme perfectly. Neo could have learned from Morpheus that robots were harvesting humans then discovered this was a lie. Instead, the movies undermined their own theme with a flimsy explanation for ruthless behavior.

3. Panem

The problem with the world of the Hunger Games is… the games. The dystopian dictatorship of Panem is designed to make the games as central as possible, even when doing so makes no sense.

Here’s a multiple choice question: You’re an oppressive leader managing a compound of people you really don’t want to rise up against you. To prevent them from grabbing their pitchforks, you…

  1. Give them addictive, mood-altering drugs to reduce their motivation to fight and make them dependent on you as their supplier.
  2. Convince them that the people living outside the compound are the source of their problems, and you just want to protect them.
  3. Steal their children, make those children kill each other, and put the killing on big television screens that everyone is required to watch, all while you joke about it in clothing they can’t afford.

Then when someone uses their forced performance on television to rile up the people you don’t want to rebel, you…

  1. Leave her in peace, so she quietly vanishes from the public eye and eventually people forget about her.
  2. Secretly assassinate her, making it look like an accident.
  3. Put her in the spotlight again and hope she dies this time, because no one’s ever been inspired by a martyr.

You might do option A or B in these scenarios, but you wouldn’t do option C because people would get angry and pretty soon you wouldn’t be their oppressive leader anymore. You would control others with fear, but you’d use the type of fear that gets them on your side: I’m taking away your rations because if I don’t everyone will starve. You don’t want other people to starve, do you? No one is gorging on the rations we take. If you think so, it’s because you’re an agent of the enemy that wants to destroy what little we have. You’ve forced me to punish you. I am brutal because I love everyone, and it’s the only way we’ll see another year.

Finally, when the parents of those murdered children inevitably go after you, would you try to wipe them out as efficiently as possible, or would you spend extra time and energy setting up elaborate traps, thereby reminding them of the television programming that made them angry in the first place?

How It Could Have Been Fixed

The Hunger Games were the center of Susan Collin’s novels, but they didn’t have to be the center of Panem. Instead of being broadcast to the whole population, they could have been conducted in secret. The Capital elite could have used them as a sadistic form of gambling, placing bets on which kid would die when. That could have slowly lead into the larger rebellion plot. What if Katniss sparked the rebellion by exposing these secret games to the populace?

4. Star Wars Universe


In its early days, this universe featured an adventuring party lead by a rogue and some monkish spellcasters. They go on an epic journey to rescue a princess and battle evil sorcerers. This sounds like every fantasy ever – but surprise – it’s in space! If only the minds behind these movies knew anything about space.

Apparently no one told them you can’t just walk out onto a large asteroid without freezing or getting the bends, even if you’re wearing a breathing apparatus and somehow things are living there. And despite the creators’ inevitable familiarity with the only known life-bearing planet (ours), they didn’t realize that such planets have more than one ecosystem. Then in The Force Awakens, they somehow missed that even if you blow up a whole planet, people outside that solar system absolutely would not see the explosion without a telescope, much less as it happens.

Let’s not forget the technical innovation required to get huge numbers of people safely into space, much less moving those people faster than light speed. This society has also created countless AI that miraculously haven’t rebelled against their oppressive overlords. Yet stormtrooper weapons and armor can’t withstand a legion of teddy bears wielding miniature spears. The Empire also hasn’t realized that blowing up an entire planet is a waste of energy; if they want to kill everyone, all they have to do is contaminate the surface.

Sure, the Death Star is an icon that could make everyone too afraid to rebel. That is, the first time it’s built. After it’s been destroyed once, it loses some of that intimidation factor. After it’s been destroyed twice, you’ve gotta ask yourself: What are you compensating for by building another planet destroyer, and why is that thing worth the galaxy to you?

How It Could Have Been Fixed

Unlike most of the examples here, the premise of Star Wars doesn’t rely on these mistakes. Lucas and the other creators just had to do a little research and deviate from a fantasy sea adventure once in a while.

This isn’t hard. They needed a brief shot of Dagobah’s many ecosystems before showing Yoda in a jungled area. They just had to give the Millennium Falcon an actual hatch and let Han go out onto the asteroid in a space suit. They could have ditched the scene where people viewed an event from across the galaxy; The Force Awakens didn’t need it.

While scientific accuracy may seem constraining at first, it’s more believable and often provides another source of nuance and conflict.

5. The Dreamworld of Inception

hotel room with sleeping people

The movie Inception uses an alternate reality for zero-g fights, Escher stairs, impossible landscapes, and deaths that send people back to the beginning of the game level. In this alternate reality, the heroes confront love and loss, live out entire lifetimes, and pull off one smashing awesome heist. The alternate reality they’re in? Normal dreams.

If only dreams worked how the movie says they do.

First, the movie outright states that dream time happens faster than real time, hence why people can live out entire lifetimes in their sleep. This is based on a common impression people have about their dreams,* but science has demonstrated that it isn’t true. Scientists figured this out by running studies with people that are super good at lucid dreaming – knowing they are in a dream and taking control of it. While those people are sleeping, they can send signals to observers. They do it by looking around in distinctive patterns, because generally, our eyes are the only voluntary muscles that aren’t paralyzed during sleep. When your use your eyes during a dream, they move in real life.

Does the heist team in Inception use this nifty communication tactic to coordinate between those who are asleep and those who are awake? Of course not, they communicate by playing music that sleeping people wouldn’t hear to give a warning that no one will heed anyway.

Then Inception suggests you can go into a deeper level of dream by dreaming in your dream. Then again, and again. Each time your brain gets faster! Not only that, but the host of the dream must hold a planned landscape in their mind for everyone to explore. Designed to ensnare hundreds of NPCs, these dream levels include all sorts of sensory details, and they can be as big as a city. No one fails to hold this layout steady or ever forgets they are dreaming. Their mental processing power exceeds human limits.

How It Could Have Been Fixed

Inception was a great movie on many levels. Even though the worldbuilding was unrealistic, it was well established and consistent. All they had to do was make their altered state of consciousness different from normal REM sleep. If this state was a recently invented “hyper sleep” of some kind, they could have created new rules for it without contradicting what we already know. Just by establishing that most people can’t distinguish this special sleep state from normal dreams, they could have preserved all the dream conventions they wanted.

6. The Potterverse


The Potterverse is so absurd it almost isn’t worth mocking. Almost. First, why do mages insist on hiding their existence? They have a huge advantage over muggles; any poor mage would become rich by doing magic for hire. With such a large incentive to break the big secret, even extreme efforts from magical governments couldn’t stop it from happening. Plus, why don’t mages use technology? Beside the convenience of daily life, imagine what a magical computer could do. Let’s not even start on how plot-convenient the spells are.

But even the spells pale in comparison to the glorious unrealism that is Hogwarts. Every year parents willingly send their beloved children to live where they could be eaten by giant spiders, beaten into pieces by bludgers, or thwacked by a violent tree. Yes, I’m talking about the Whomping Willow. The decision to plant it on the schools grounds apparently went something like this:

Dumbledore: Now that I’m headmaster, I will ensure this werewolf child has a chance to attend school.

Teacher: But his illness would endanger the other kids.

Dumbledore: Worry not. Whenever there’s a full moon, we’ll put him in this abandoned house near the school grounds.

Teacher: That’s… very innovative, but another student could go into the house and get bitten.

Dumbledore: Ah, but I’ve thought of that! The entrance will be protected.

Teacher: With a shield?

Dumbledore: What? No. I’ll plant a giant murderous tree that will kill anyone who comes close to protect them from the werewolf.

This isn’t the only time faculty bring murderous things into the school. In the first book, Dumbledore warns students away from a corridor with a giant three-headed dog that could kill them. To prevent anyone underage from getting too close, all he had to do was create an age line just like the one he used in the fourth book. Imagine the letters the Hogwarts headmasters must send to bereaved parents.

Dear Mrs. and Mr. Windsor,

We regret to inform you that your eleven-year-old daughter, Maggie, passed away as the result of a fatal assassin-flower bite. This was an event we never could have foreseen. After all, we put the plant right outside her dormitory door to keep students from going out while the floors were being polished. We never imagined she’d be so foolish as to fall within reach of its poisonous fangs.

Our Condolences,
Headmaster Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore and the faculty of Hogwarts.

How It Could Have Been Fixed

Rowling had a compelling reason to make the faculty irresponsible: she wanted more conflict at Hogwarts. If she made the castle safe like a normal school, she’d lose much of the tension in her books. What the story needed was a danger the faculty couldn’t avoid. For instance, what if having a bunch of incompetent mages in close proximity was a danger? Every time a student failed to cast a spell, uncontrolled magic could leak into the surroundings, eventually building up enough to create random hazards.

A real-world example is sanitation in hospitals. Hospitals can hold a lot of infectious pathogens simply because that’s where sick people go. Hospital staff are trained to sanitize everything, but occasionally outbreaks still happen. Similarly, the faculty of Hogwarts could be specially trained to deal with ambient magic, even if they couldn’t remove the threat entirely. Because of the faculty’s advanced training, attending Hogwarts could even be less dangerous than practicing at home.

To avoid big worldbuilding problems, think critically about your setting. Read up on the science behind its most important aspects, and compare them to similar things in the real world. Share your world with inquisitive friends; just by answering questions about it, you’re likely to find its weak points. If you discover something unrealistic and you can’t figure out how to solve it, ask others to brainstorm with you. Most of all, do this while your story is in its early stages, because the more you flesh out your plot, the harder it will be to make a change.

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  1. Geroto

    “Maybe they wanted what was best for us and thought the Matrix could give us optimum life experiences.”
    But that is the reason, is explained in the Animatrix Second Renaisssence.

    • Hunter-Wolf

      Yeah, i remember something like that too, that’s why (and plentyof other reasons) i consider the Animatrix shorts vastly superior to the live-action movies.

  2. Yora

    I really don’t think Star Wars and Inception would have been in any way fixed by making them scientifically realistic. All it would do is making them pointless. Neither of these works is meant to tell a rational plot. They are movies about emotions, atmosphere, and style.
    Complaining about them depicting the world in an unrealistic way is like complaining that Picasso and Dali couldn’t paint things accurately. I admit that people regularly treat Nolan movies as being puzzles to logically unpack and rationally figure out, but that’s really not what they are. And with Star Wars it really couldn’t be made more obvious that it’s all meant to be breathtakingly over the top without any second thought for realism.
    It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. It’s in fact the whole purpose.

    • Hunter-Wolf

      An equivalent of Inception (and possible inspiration for it) is the fantastical anime movie Paprika by the late genius Satoshi Kun, he didn’t bother at all to explain how the dream machine works or how does Paprika or the villain do all the the stuff they do inside the dreams, and they didn’t really need to for the movie to work, it requires a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief to be enjoyed but the symbolism and vibrant visual spectcale are more than worth it.

      • Chris Winkle

        Very true about Paprika, since they don’t outright state what it is, the audience can assume what they want about it. Whereas in Inception, they give explanations that are clearly false.

        At a panel I went to one of the Bioware writers talked about a similar issue with Ringworld. The writer of Ringworld tried as hard as he could to come up with a sound scientific explanation for exactly how it worked. But naturally, as we discovered more scientific knowledge after publication, his explanation no longer worked. It might have been better for him to leave how it worked vague.

  3. Alverant

    Another way Star Wars is broken is the whole light/dark side of the force. Nature isn’t a moral system. Sentient minds decide if something is good or evil. If the Force is self-aware and one of those “operates on a higher level” plot devices, you have to wonder why such a thing would be fine with letting both good and evil use it so casually.

    • Chris Winkle

      Not to mention the completely arbitrary aspects of it, like lightening = evil.

    • Hunter-Wolf

      The force doesn’t need to be self-aware for this to work, we (or the Jedi and Sith) are the ones who put labels on each manfistation of the force, like we call rain a blessing when it comes after a drought and helps us grow crops and drink water or calling it a curse or a punishment when it creates floods that destroy houses and kill people, the force is the same, it manifests in people depending on the state of their psyche, just like how psychological problems could affect a person’s physiology dramatically … The force is the same concept taken to a fantastical extreme.

      The rest is just thematic elements to make each manifistation distinctive from the other visually to the viewers.

  4. Adam Reynolds

    This is another solid list. In particular, I especially agree with Buffy’s scale problems and The Hunger Games/Harry Potter being interesting stories that put worldbuilding low on the priority lists. As for The Matrix, what I believe was the original premise of the setting made far more sense. It was that humans were being used as a distributed processing system rather than as batteries. Because the Matrix itself was being ran inside human brains, it justified Neo being The One(as well as the whole Oracle scene)

    Though I have to disagree slightly with Inception. That is the class of story that doubles down on its premise so strongly that realism criticisms have little meaning. On the flip side, an idea like yours wouldn’t require any plot changes while adding realism, so there is still little reason to not use it.

    As for Star Wars, while I love the series, I also have to completely agree. While it shares the trait of Inception in terms of not caring about realism, the depth of the setting is such that it matters in that sense. It also has another few interesting problems besides what has already been mentioned.

    The first is that it is actually too powerful in more ways than one. Its power generation technology is so advanced that it can do two things that are impossible according to any reasonable laws of physics. The first is that of the Death Star, that it can harness the energy to destroy a planet as violently as occurred in the film. That level of power(10^38 Joules per shot) is such that even if the it were made out of uranium, and were able to convert it with pure efficiency, it would have still ran out of mass with the two shots we saw in the film(though it never actually fired the second). A related problem is that the mass of a sun would also not actually produce enough power for the First Order’s Starkiller either.

    A related problem is that of Coruscant in the prequels. The planet would cook itself to death with the amount of energy that would be produced for a city planet(which is also related to the problem of single biome worlds). More generally, this would also be the fundamental problem with deflector shields, they must have a way to dispose of waste heat, especially considering the power levels in the setting as illustrated with the Death Star. This is due to the fundamental limitation of the second law of thermodynamics, which is also why realistic stealth in space is impossible.

    The second related issue is that the technology level is so advanced that the society should be post-scarcity. Given that we see organic slaves, it clearly isn’t. A related problem is that we never see things developed as they logically should be. Why aren’t there AIs the size of planets that can outthink every organic in the entire galaxy?

    Though the first set of criticisms do have an answer. Curtist Saxton, an astrophysicist with a love of Star Wars, has solutions to both problems, which are in some ways related. For the Death Star, and for Star Wars energy production in general, he suggested the concept of hypermatter, which is one of storing the fuel in the tachyonic state of hyperspace. The mathematics necessary for this involves the idea of mass as a complex number, as required to break the speed of light if tachyons could physically exist. This would interestingly allow one to violate the classic rocket equation(not that any sort of FTL wouldn’t also do this). Though this doesn’t solve the Starkiller problem, I believe the novelization refered to Dark Energy, which clearly means they don’t actually have a solution.

    The second problem, that of waste heat, also has a clever solution. He suggested the concept of a neutrino generator, which converts the waste energy into a virtually nonreactive form. This would also have the interesting effect of making stealth in space possible.

    As for the problem with The Force, as mentioned by Alverant, one crackpot theory I had with this idea was that the Force was actually an AI. Or a pair of rival AIs, bent on forcing the galaxy to bend to their will in different ways. It would also explain why the only artificially intelligent beings were small and generally quite stupid droids, the AIs known as the Light Side and Dark Side were suppressing them. The handful of intelligent ones might have been agents of the Force itself(like R2 and BB-8).

    The whole nature element is purely a form of misdirection, preventing the citizens of the galaxy from realizing the truth, as well as allowing the creation of religious orders such that those who have the ability to question the truth do not. Midichlorians are actually a form of nanotechology droid, which also explains why technology at that scale is not otherwise seen, with The Force again suppressing the technology. Telekinesis is said droids physically acting on the other object, often flowing to that person, which explains why Jedi become winded.

    Though the problem with this concept, besides the lack of evidence, is one of time. Because of the time span in the setting, any limitations that caused The Force AI to act in the manner it did should have been overcome. More reasonably, I would argue that The Force is not sentient. It acts in a manner akin to a river, it flows on its own in a fashion that can be utilized, but it can also drown the user. Even falling to the Dark Side could be seen as akin to a physical addiction rather than a metaphysical process.

    Ideas like this are part of the fun of looking at Star Wars from a technical mindset. Because it is not very realistic, it is fun to try and justify what we see using what we know about plausible science. It is about being scientific using suspension of disbelief.

    • Chris Winkle

      Yeah, the Star Wars Universe is super clumsy, thanks for the interesting look at energy. Could a black hole provide enough mass to blow up a planet or it is just impossible? (Granted, harvesting black holes does not sound very smart)

      That’s interesting what you say about the original Matrix premise. Was that in an earlier work or did the creators say it was their first idea?

      • Adam Reynolds

        I believe it was an idea created by the Wachowski siblings, but shot down by the production company as being too difficult to understand. So they instead went with an idea that violated the laws of thermodynamics.

      • El Suscriptor Justiciero

        As far as mass is concerned, a black hole is not really different from any other star. It will just be smaller than any other star of the same mass. They won’t emit anywhere as much energy as an alive star, though (only a small amount of blackbody emissions due to Hawkins radiation), but IRL there are ways one could use a rotating (Kerr or Kerr-Newman) black hole to produce ludicrous amounts of energy:

  5. L.Dilbraight

    So, do you guys at Mythcreants just hate everything, or? It’s always “Learn from the bad”. Problem is that a lot of what you say is bad is actually very popular stuff and people love the stories despite all the “terrible flaws” you think they have. I’m not saying you shouldn’t criticize, but you’ve really taken it to a point where you come across as massively arrogant and whiny. This site has become more of a “Let’s fix this pathetic bullshit which only idiots can enjoy, because WE know how it should be done!” and man, that’s tiresome.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      We pick popular stories for two few reasons.
      1. If a story is popular, more people are likely to have heard of it, and as such will know what we’re talking about.

      2. Popular stories have already made their money. We’re not interested finding a self published novel with one or two sales on Amazon and tearing it to pieces.

      Our critiques rarely say that a story is bad outright. More common, as with this article, we’re talking about certain aspects where the story failed. Obviously, each story was successful for other reasons. But they could always have been more successful.

      We focus on the places where they failed so authors who aren’t yet super successful can learn how to improve their own work. If someone disagrees with our critiques, then great, that’s what comments are for.

    • Chris Winkle

      We have no shortage of content praising what we like or offering advice and ideas that don’t come with criticizing something.

      But these types of posts are way more popular, despite the terrible tone you think they have. That’s why we keep writing them.

  6. Suitable Quill

    My take on the Potterverse is that the practice of magic itself afflicts wizards and witches with a progressive insanity that can manifest in various ways. The children seem more reasonable in their responses because they’ve only just begun practicing magic; Dumbledore and his plans seem ridiculous because of his extreme exposure to magic.

    • Hunter-Wolf

      That would actually be awesome, kinda like the wizards from Wheel of Time going crazy bit by bit after using magic for too long.

      This would call for a new catch phrase “Absolute power corrupts, Magic drives you insane” .. both .. That’s how mad megalomaniac Wizards are made, kinda like the Tevinter Imperium from Dragon Age.

      That would infact provide a very good reason why the wizards in the Potterverse choose isolation because if they go out and expose themselves they will be put between the choice of being subjugated and abused by the muggles or be forced to fight back, subjugate and rule the muggles to avoid the first fate, both aren’t very good options.

    • A.R.

      How did I just find this gem. Next time my brother starts an HP rant I’ll suggest this, and I will definitely keep it in mind next time I read the series. Oh my gosh the whole thing makes so much more sense now.

  7. Tyson Adams

    I think this all shows that the story, characters, and the ideas transcend any inaccuracies or poorly thought out ideas/plot points.

    As someone with a science background, I really have to not think too hard about most books, TV shows, and movies. It is rare that a world is internally consistent, let alone possible. But I don’t think that takes away from the enjoyment. In fact, the opposite is true. If you are noticing how ridiculous something is, then you are likely not being entertained.

    • Chris Winkle

      Certainly a work doesn’t have to flawless to be popular, these stories are all proof. And if it’s popular, it’s probably really strong in some areas, like having good characters or a novel concept.

      But I would disagree that have poorly thought out plots, worlds, etc doesn’t take away anything. Even in good movies, it can interrupt the experience when the audience stops thinking about the story and starts thinking about the scientific errors. For instance, I know many people who loved The Force Awakens, but were thrown out during the scenes showing planets being destroyed. These types of problems won’t bother everyone, but if you’re a storyteller, it’s best to maximize the experience for as many people as you can, and you definitely can’t count on having characters etc that are so loved it will excuse the flaws your work has.

  8. Hunter-Wolf

    A thing about the planets in Starwars, you guys usually critisize it for having planets with a single enviroment, the Ice planet, the Swamp planet, the Desert planet, the Volcanic planet .. etc etc, but when i thought about it i realized there is a good reason for that.

    Look at our solar system for example, Earth is pretty much the only planet with any diversity in its enviroments, Mars is pretty much a desert planet, Jupiter is a Gas giant so its enviroment is all gases and storms, Pluto is an Icy rock, they all pretty much have a singular enviroment with very little variance (i.e the traces of ice on the poles of Mars).

    As far as i know the more extreme the position of a planet to its star the more singular the enviroment becomes, a planet like Pluto and Mercury are good examples of that, it’s also not hard to imagine a newly formed planet being a hot mass of liquid metals and volatile gases, my point is that from real life and science we can easily deduce that actually the planet with varied enviroments is the exception not the norm so it’s understandable most planets in Starwars would be single enviroment planets.

    • Adam Reynolds

      But none of those planets are habitable, except for Earth. A world that sustains life to the same degree as Earth would almost certainly require a proper ecosystem, which requires the complicated climate that we have in order for life as we know it to be sustainable. Given that humans in Star Wars otherwise appear fully human, there is no reason to assume that they would survive in environments we cannot.

      While it is possible that with Star Wars tech different worlds were terraformed to different degrees, it would still be unlikely that we would never see any diversity in each world if they were all terraformed to fully support life.

  9. Daniel

    There are a lot more issues with the worldbuilding of the Matrix if you think back. Actually several of the problems you mentioned (such as why machines would waste so much power to put humans into a virtual dreamworld and allow them to survive unplugging from it to form rebel cities) became the driving questions of the sequel Matrix movies. And the answers the creators gave and movies were pretty terrible and boring in comparison. The Architect drones on to explain how the Machines determined that the best solution to the limitation of their Matrix program was letting the most rebellious-natured humans unplug and breed to populate Zion until a certain time when the Machines would invade and exterminate them, leaving enough males to females alive to start the cycle all over again. I would bet anything that the Wachowski’s never originally had that backstory in mind, but that all the fan forums and comments in the intervening years between The Matrix and the Matrix Reloaded gave them the idea to sit back and smugly expand their world to explain most of the plot holes of that first film.

    However, some even better questions I always wondered about are:

    Why do the virtual landline telephones inside the virtual Matrix allow rebels to jack into and out of it? What is it about a virtual landline phone that provides an access point into a virtual world? Cool factor? Why can’t they use virtual mobile phones to appear inside of or escape from the Matrix ANYWHERE they want to? Would make things a lot easier.

    Does the Matrix simulation cover our entire globe or is it just that One City that we always see? If just the City, why do humans inside not find it strange that their world has the boundaries of a city and how does one city successfully simulate a human world? We see Morpheus in an Arabic newspaper for terrorist activities in the first film! Are our world leaders also just regular humans plugged into the Matrix vats or are they just images projected on televisions? The Agents seem to be able to convince various police and government agencies of their authority; so is there some organization or agency within the Matrix that the Agents pretend to be a part of?

    Did the Matrix simulation start running at some prehistoric time with a few humans and then, inside the simulation, those humans created the modern world of the Matrix after thousands of years of virtual history? Or did the simulation start running at a simulacrum of 1999? If the former, then the humans born inside wouldn’t even speak the same language as the humans born outside of it. English would be a entirely invented by humans living in a simulation. Humans born outside of it wouldn’t understand most of the culture or possibly even the technology of the humans unplugged from the Matrix. All of our history would be a feature of the simulation, allowing for a completely alternate history being the actual history of humanity outside of the Matrix.

    Love the website and the podcast!

    • Leon

      This is way late, and I can’t remember where I read the information with which I figured this out, but;
      The original concept for the matrix was humans as wetware for running the the AI’s virtual worlds (if you consider the hardware required to build a society of intelligent machines; I think the planet would run out of gold). I think the idea was for the machine minds and the virtual worlds to be running like back ground programs on the human brains.
      In this scenario you could imagine some people realizing that their brain is doing something weird, or that something isn’t quite right with the world. When this happens the best way to deal with them would be to let them take the blue pill and choose to forget, or let them “escape” into a fictional real world, where any sense of unreality would be lost in the immediate realities of fighting to survive.
      But instead we have meat batteries. This is because, at about the time the Wachowski’s were writing their movie there was a noteworthy manga, called Battle Angel Alita, and a major plot point involved a computer made up of human brains. So I’m guessing they felt they were best to alter their idea, rather than deal with allegations of plagiarism.

      This is just what I pieced together from pits and pieces. It’s the only thing my brain does well.

  10. Vivienne M.

    The magic spells in Harry Potter remind me of the gadgets used by James Bond. Ever notice how Bond always just happens to have the exact device, machine, or vehicle that he needs to get out of whatever trouble he’s gotten himself into? Just switch those for magic spells or potions, and that’s pretty much Harry Potter! (I still love the movies, though, they’re a lot of fun.)

    • Cay Reet

      Because novels (or movies) usually rely on narrative logic, the main character will always end up with what they need to actually finish their mission. I have to admit, though, that I would love to see a movie or read a novel in which the main character loudly complainy about the many devices (or spells and potions) he was handed which are utterly useless in his or her current situation.

  11. RHJunior

    I understand the original premise for the Matrix was that the machines were using humans for extra processing power– which is why we “only use 10% of our brains”. But of course, despite the fact that by the time the movie was being filmed home PCs were already common as grass, some hollywood exec decided that the american audience was too stupid to grasp the concept….

  12. RHJunior

    The rationale behind the Hunger Games was not as big a stretch as you think– consider the Coliseum in ancient Rome. Gladiatorial combat, Christians thrown to lions… or the central americas, where warriors competed in games for the honor of being sacrificed to the gods.

    • Cay Reet

      First of all, most gladiators were trained athletes, as we know today (until a law forbid it, a high number were women, too), so they went into the arena out of their free will, because they made money with it (and actually with advertising, too). Some gladiators were former criminals or prisoners of war who gained their freedom this way.
      The texts about Christians thrown to the lions and tortured for fun in the arena are dubious. Most were written by Christians and few are in official documents (of which Rome had a lot), so this might have been propaganda, as most Roman rulers were relatively relaxed about other religions being practiced in their empire.

      It’s also not sure whether all members of a sports team were sacrificed in the Aztec kingdom (which was actually a collection of city states). In this case, too, the people who went into those games did so out of their free will. They were not dragged from their families to compete.

      There’s a difference between selling people the honour of becoming a person to compete in a ‘life-or-death’ sports event or simply choosing several people in each area and forcing them to compete.

  13. RHJunior

    Rowling DID use a single throwaway line about Muggle electronics not working in Hogwarts “because there’s so much magic there.” Of course the anti-tech magic trope is awful in and of itself– if magic is so hostile to technology, how did technology ever develop, much less get the upper hand against the magical world? Why would the magical world be the one in hiding when every elf, fairy, unicorn or wizard is a walking tech-bane that could turn any weapon more advanced than a musket into a pile of nonworking junk, and wizards could fireball the rest? Why does the tech-bane only affect certain kinds and “levels” of technology and machinery? A magical aura that fuddles with the combustion of gunpowder ought to bugger up most any form of combustion, including an ordinary campfire; ones that nullify electricity never seem to obstruct lightning for some reason. For that matter they ought to inhibit any form of oxygenation– such as human respiration— or the firing of neurons in a living brain…

    • Cay Reet

      I think the anti-tech magic only works where a lot of magic comes into play – like Hogwarts, which is essentially build of magic as much as of stone. Outside such a place (perhaps the ministry or Diagon Alley would work, too), magic can’t immediately destroy or block technology.

  14. Ronald Stepp

    To be fair, in Star Wars they weren’t ON THE SURFACE of the asteroid, they were inside a giant space worm with masks to filter out the, granted unrealistic but still in the Star Wars kind of place, air in it’s gut… which helped keep other smaller space worms alive.

    And as far as not seeing an explosion from another system, perhaps I mistakenly made the assumption that the Death Star was destroying planets in the same system?

    • Julia M.

      How does the space worm breath, though?

  15. JXMcKie

    A lot of good and interesting points here in “Six unrealistic worlds from popular stories”, though some of the points of criticism is a little bit overdone…some of the criticised works are very uneven and filled with both logical nonsense and plotholes too, but they are also openly and unashamedly works of fantasy, where a part of the premise is that “conventional logic is left at the entrance door” ! Especially the critique of Star Wars is a bit overdone…SW is NOT hard Sci-Fi, but a Space Fantasy, as Chris herself starts by stating. Thus it cannot be judged by the same standard as more “realistic” Sci-Fi works. But some of the points of criticism certainly has a lot of merit and I especially like the commentaries on “The Matrix” triology. Not only is the main plot (machines keeping humans in virtual serfdom to harvest their energy) absurd, but it is also yet-another tired old cliche of the “evil machines” rebelling against humans. Besides the ones offered, another, better explanation could simply be that humans smashed their own environment, through nuclear war; overpopulation; global warming, necessitating all humans to go for a subterranean solution and live on meager ressources ! This would of course have created discontent, perhaps also a demoralized apathy, in the surviving population, and to prevent that and make optimum use of limited ressources, the machines, working on a mandate to “preserve human lives and further human contentment”, created the matrix and put humans into a virtual world, for their own good. This would have made for a both more logically sound, and also a more philosophical and moral interesting scenario. Instead we get the “evil machine” meme, being played again. An even worse example of this meme is the Dune prequels and sequels authored by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. The plot in these works, include a murderous, megalomanic super-AI, that for no good reason (except being pure “evil”) is keeping humanity as its slaves, and even a anthropomorphic self-aware robot, by the name of Erasmus, that tortures humans for “fun” and rapes human women, because it is curious about human sex ! Why Erasmus is described a being “male” is anyones guess (it is a machine and thus neither male or female), and why it is only having sex with female and not also with human males (since it ´s so obsessed with human sex) is even less logical, but it really doesn´t matter, because in Herberts and Andersons setting, these details are part of the story, with the sole purpose of showing the “wickedness of the machines”. A much more interesting premise behind the great Butlerain Jihad, would have been the machines (again working on a mandate to protect humanity against itself) keeping humans docile, and happy by creating “perfect high-tech utopian worlds” ! Humans living idyllic paradise-like lives in totally egalitarian societies, but also without any autonomy and conflict. Then “The Great Revolt against the Machines” is started by the most intelligent and most talented humans, officially because the machines are oppressing humanity, but in reality because the “elite” humans are not satisfied by living in a perfect, egalitarian (and somewhat boring) society ! In this kind of society the “elite” humans are no better than everybody else, and thus not “elite” ! They start the Humanity-First movement, creates havoc in the “perfect” society and much later, after the machines to adopt to still harsher measure to quell the uprising, the movement eventually develops into a religious fanatically crusade : The Butlerian Jihad. The crusade then escalate into an uncontrollable and immensely destructive war, wreaking much more havoc than the instigators originally intended, and after the final victory of the Butlerians, the original high-tech societies has been reduced, to the low-tech stage of the feudal Padishah empire depicted in Dune. The “elite” humans, responsible for the initial uprising, then splits into different factions, each following their own goals of developing human potential to its fullest : The Bene Gesserit sisterhood, the Mentats, the Swordsmasters, the Suk Academy, the Bene Tleilax geneticist, the Spacing Guild and so on. This scenario of uprising against-the-perfect-society, would have made much more sense and a more philosophically interesting premise, than the “evil machine oppressing humanity because they are…evil” background of Herbert and Andersons works ! So by and large I think Chris is right : Many works of fiction suffers from incoherency !

  16. Snowplow

    I can see some logic in magical creatures and people of the Potterverse hiding: Salem Witch Trials, Diseases and death being blamed on “evil magic,” poaching of magical creatures. Some of these things were addressed in the books. Over the whole series some of your criticisms were also used as plot hooks, which I’d say is probably the main reason for them.

    Your example of how to fix it was used in another magical child series called “The Worst Witch” (1998 version, not new version). The danger of uncontrolled or selfish use of magic was the Foster Effect, and was a good reason to keep young untrained witches hidden. The series isn’t perfect, but a dangerous and illogical school environment isn’t required for the plot to work.

    • Cay Reet

      The original novels of “The Worst Witch” (meant for kids) aren’t really mentioning a lot of reasons, but the school the girls (in this series, girls and boys go to different schools to learn about magic) go to isn’t even a teensy-tiny bit as dangerous as Hogwarts. But then, neither are the plots as grand, they are more on ‘boarding school story’ level.

  17. Saumya Kulp

    Could you do an article on making humans as powerful as nonhumans? Because, well, elves are humans but better, unicorns are magic and sentient, and dragons can breathe fire and smack people around with their tails.

    • Cay Reet

      Not about fantasy, but I have something about science fiction. There are several threads about ‘humans are space orcs’ and ‘earth is space australia’ which follow the idea that what we see as normal (temperature ranges from well into freezing up to pretty hot are inhabitable, we have learned to bond with other species, we can heal pretty fast, etc.) is actually highly unusual and ‘superpowered’ for alien species. There are some pretty funny things in there, such as humans trying to bond with every animal they encounter and even taming highly dangerous species that way or humans being considered incredibly lucky to have around, because they never just give up, but improvise. Earth is Space Australia follows the idea that aliens come to conquer us and are relatively good with the humans, but are decimated by the animals which we humans have learned to share the planet with.

      What if Humans are weird? –

      We are Space Australia –

  18. Dave L

    There’s another big problem w/ the Matrix:

    Humans need muscular stimulation, or body parts waste away. You can see this in long-term coma patients or paraplegic or quadriplegic people. You can even see a limited form of this when you take the cast off a broken arm or leg. Humans need to practice dexterity and agility constantly. Eyes don’t develop right if not exposed to light in the first year. Etc. Not too mention how easily a person could be so strongly addicted to a substance that they might not survive withdrawal

    Sure, super-advanced tech could prevent or avoid this, but that means the machines specifically make an effort to keep humans not just alive, but in shape. Why not also provide them w/ weapons training and knowledge on how to build EMP’s and other weapons?

  19. Joe


    My favourite solution to the matrix problem is from harry potter and the methods of rationality:

    “NEO: Anyone who’s made it past one science class in high school ought to know about the laws of thermodynamics!

    MORPHEUS: Where did you go to high school, Neo?

    NEO: …in the Matrix.”

    Maybe humans are super-efficient sources of energy and geothermal energy is an impossible fantasy. We wouldn’t know. We’ve never learnt any real science. We’ve never even seen a real human body. Once you contextualise it not as a mistake but as “even the laws of physics are lies”, it fits in a lot better with the themes of the movie.

  20. Micahel Campbell

    Can we all just agree that Star Wars isn’t supposed to be scientifically accurate.
    Indiana Jones movies aren’t an accurate reflection of archeology or even archeology in the war years. Each one is a rip-snorting adventure, first and if you keep the story moving quickly:- no one will have a “refrigerator moment” until after they get back home.

    Star Wars shouldn’t be judged by the standards of 2001: A Space Odyssey, rather it should be judged by the standards of Alex Raymond’s work on Flash Gordon.
    Remember. Comic-books are published on newspaper paper. They’re meant to be entertainment today and birdcage liner tomorrow.
    So too, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is about Saturday matinee serials, not science. Keeping the eleven year old boys in the audience from throwing popcorn at each other trumps ecological accuracy.

  21. Bill

    With all due respect, I will have to dispute two of your choices.

    In the Hunger Games novels, the predominating theme is the intensely American issue of an entire people who stubbornly hew to a bitter apathy that complains, resents, and even weeps over the oppressions exacted by a fascist central government but never actually do anything about it. The fact that the various Panem districts resent the Hunger Games but refuse to rise up from their apathy enough to do anything about the Games (not even for the sake of their own children!) is a major part of this theme. This theme is acccompanied by an addendum theme of an entire people who refuse to help themselves except when roused by a cult of celebrity, a theme born out by Katniss’ growing popularity in the Games. Thus, the fact that President Snow can get away with any atrocity yet the nation’s people stubbornly cling to their apathy is part of the theme — and a highly realistic theme, as anyone who has studied the sociology or anthropology of politics can aver and confirm. This also explains why his plan against Katniss involves turning her into a fallen celebrity, playing off the capricious and very conditional loyalty the people have for any celebrity, even for one who is trying to save their children for them.

    I have not seen the films, only read the books, so I do not know if this theme is conveyed well or at all in the films.

    As for Hogwarts, what most Americans seem to fail to realize is that the books partake of the very British tradition of pantomime farce in their children’s literature. This tradition is why Harry’s childhood in a cupboard is treated entirely as humor rather than tragic abuse and why the dangers at Hogwarts occur mostly as humorous one-liners. This “veddy British” sense of humor can also be seen in the works of Roald Dahl, such as his famous book involving naughty children maimed in a chocolate factory, or in the darker aspects of the Mary Poppins books (ignored by all the movie versions). In such cases, the whimsical lack of realism of the worlds is part of the appeal and part of the joke!

    • Sam Victors

      That is kind of true, JK Rowling was inspired from Roald Dahl.

      Although Rowling would claim that her works are “more moral” than Dahl’s.

      • Bill

        I had not realized that Rowling has confirmed Dahl’s influence upon her. Interesting.

    • Dvärghundspossen

      Yeah I was pretty fine with the first hunger games book… The idea sort of IS to make a really blatant power demonstration, like, we’re the government and we can do ANYTHING we please! THAT’S how powerful we are! It doesn’t strike me as THAT much weirder than shit dictatorships have done in real life…
      AND they only really do this to the poorest districts – the more middleclass districts will pick an orphan or otherwise abandoned kid and train them and brainwash them their whole lives, ensuring that they’ll “volunteer” when the day comes. It’s also stated that it’s almost always one of the brainwashed kids from middle-class districts that wins, since they get great training.

      Later on, things get messed up, when the government doesn’t just quietly kill Katniss like they’ve done with so many other revolutionaries, but put her into this extra finale rounds etc. Even if they wanna publicly humiliate her, they could have accomplished that SO much more efficiently (like messed her up with drugs and torture like they did to Peeta, before sending her back in, just off the top of my head). But I was fine with the hunger games being what they are in the first book.

      With Harry Potter… Isn’t a problem people have, that the stories start out, like, Roald Dhalish, that tradition, but later on they try to get more serious? And when people come to the more serious parts, they start to look at the whole book series in a different light, and they’ll complain that a lot of things are unrealistic, like Harry living in a cupboard and being abused in various ways although no one calls child services etc. Like, people don’t cut slack the same way with more serious fantasy books as they do with something more farcical.

      • Bill

        While I agree with Dvärghundspossen overall, that particuilar combination of dead seriousness and pantomime farce is fairly common in British storytelling.

        You find it in the combination of seriousness and farcical humor in Rowling’s work and the writings of P. L. Travers, but you also find it in the written works of Pratchett, Miéville, Gaiman, Moorcock, Adams, Morrison, etc. (as far back as Charles Dickens) as well as such famous British TV series as Doctor Who, Misfits, Black Mirror, and who knows how many children’s programs.

        It has been said by many that the odd combination of (sometimes outlandish) absurdity or farce with a genuine seriousness about human nature and the human condition is the single reigning but not universal characteristic of British popular storytelling that sets it apart from all other European and American storytelling.

  22. Feto

    “The Empire also hasn’t realized that blowing up an entire planet is a waste of energy; if they want to kill everyone, all they have to do is contaminate the surface.”

    If the military followed logic like that, Hiroshima wouldn’t had happened ever. The Germans destroyed the city of Gernika years before using conventional bombing. Still, the Americans invested a crazy amount of money and research to build one single massive bomb.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      So that’s an interesting example, because while it’s certainly possible to level a city without atomic weaponry, it is far less efficient. Using conventional bombers you need hundreds or thousands of planes, which is both really expensive and gives your enemy a much better chance to fight back.

      While the initial cost of developing nuclear weapons was high, the results more than payed for themselves in terms of destructive potential. Now you can blow up a city with just one bomber.

      The Death Star, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be very efficient assuming your goal is wiping out life on a planet. A single Star Destroyer could do that by towing a big rock into a collision course. Even if we assume it would take a fleet of Star Destroyers, that’s still more efficient that constructing a moon sized Space Station.

      The Death Star is only efficient if you really care about demolishing the planet itself.

      • Cay Reet

        I think one big reason for atomic bombs is merely having them as a threat and Hiroshima served as a demonstration of what the US was capable of doing. From this point of view, the Death Star would make sense – the equivalent of the atomic bomb.

        It still doesn’t really make sense. The atomic bomb can be transported with every plane (technically also with spaceships) capable of dropping a bomb that size. It can be used for decades or even longer (not the individual bomb, but the same build), as long as you make sure newly-developed tech can still handle its bulk. The Death Star is much less versatile, unless you want to remove the laser and use it as a simply orbital station – but those already exist in the universe, see Cloud City. If you wanted to use it, on a smaller scale, for mining asteroid belts, it would make sense, but it’s not that great a weapon, even for scaring people.

      • JGrey

        The Galactic Empire already had Base Delta Zero, using Star Destroyers to glass the surface of a planet (starting with all the population centers). The Death Star was the pinnacle of the Tarkin Doctrine, using fear to enforce order. Star Destroyers can be taken down, but a moon-sized platform bristling with weapons? Not so much (of course, they forgot point defenses and were stupid enough to give their scientists all the reason to sabotage the project, but the Empire more often than not picked ruthlessness and cruelty over competence when they were handing out promotions.

  23. John McAeria

    The machines in the Matrix weren’t just harvesting power, they were mining Cryptos.
    Reality… so weird.

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