I titled this post as Movie Magic, as this really pertains to the movies only and indirectly to any answer that can be given :p

Since a lot of SciFi and Fantasy movies take place:

  1. on another planet
  2. in a different universe/timeline
  3. In a galaxy far far away

we get a lot of questions that go like this:

  • why do the aliens speak english?
  • how does x understand y?

Forgetting for the moment those areas where canon supplies a definitive answer (Star Trek's Universal Translators/HHG2TG's Babel Fish), a lot of the answers are simply because it's not real, it's the movies.

Should we tolerate those questions as on-topic or treat them as off topic where appropriate?

  • Wouldn't such uninteresting questions get downvoted anyway?
    – Andres F.
    Commented May 26, 2012 at 3:13

3 Answers 3


An important part of SF&F is suspension of disbelief. We want, even need, the strange worlds of SF&F to be as consistent and complete as the real world is. We regard worldbuilding as a fundamental part of good speculative fiction.

Universes that are broad, deep, complete, and that follow predictable rules help us suspend our disbelief. It's the difference between "Before the Sun and Moon, the first Elves were awakened by Eru under the stars by the bay of Cuivienen" and "There are elves because there are elves, now stop asking questions!"

There are limits to worldbuilding, and those limits evolve. In the oldest of days, stories were told by mouth, and fires and paintings were the only special effects. Those stories were certainly real enough to our ancestors! Now we have 3D and digital and CG and billion-dollar movies to help us suspend our disbelief. And we regard special effects from 20 years ago as quaint and unrealistic.

There are still some limits we haven't got past, though. One of those is the language barrier. Aliens speak in the language of the film-goer, and human actors have mouths. Sometimes there are real-world subtitles, or in-universe translators. Either way, the reason has less to do with the realism of the world than the requirement to make the movie understood.

In my view, then, questions about this are on-topic and not "stupid". But I think we do need to be evidence-based about how we answer them. If there is a canon in-universe explanation, like Star Trek universal translators, we should say so. Contrariwise, if a quote from the author reveals "heck, didn't think about that", we should say that. But if what we have is really an unexplained plot hole, I don't see anything wrong with the correct answer being "that's an unexplained plot hole".

Otherwise our answers become less answers and more something like fanfic. Fanfic is great! But it shouldn't be an answer to a question on SE. I know there is no hard and fast line there, but I think that we should be careful. As Christi says in her answer, if the answer provides some good evidence from canon, that would be the right approach.

  • +1 for use of "worldbuilding" (plus overall great answer). Commented May 24, 2012 at 0:09
  • 1
    So... what would be a SFF equivalent of writing slashfic? *ducks and hides* Commented May 24, 2012 at 0:09

I find this a difficult issue to engage with, because the boundaries of what is an MST3K ("if you're wondering how he eats and breathes, and other science facts // Just repeat to yourself 'it's just a show, I should really just relax'") question, as I like to think of them, are different for different people. For instance, a lot of Harry Potter questions get asked to which the answer is probably "because J K Rowling didn't think it through that far", but nonetheless, people are able to come up with in universe explanations for them.

My point is that it seems to me to be part of the purpose of SF+F to make sense of inconsistencies within published work, and we should be reluctant to dismiss 'dumb' questions, because there simply isn't in most cases a clear threshold for 'dumb'.

  • 2
    I agree with your main point, bu the problem with "part of the purpose of SF+F to make sense of inconsistencies within published work", though, is that good answers are entirely subjective when that happens. People come to Stack Exchange from the 'net looking for answers. If the true answer to "do chocolate frogs lay chocolate eggs?" is "JK Rowling never considered that", then we're doing a disservice if we have an imaginative and fun but thoroughly incorrect answer. Commented May 23, 2012 at 19:29
  • If there was evidence to suggest such a thing, then I'd fully expect that to be the accepted answer. In the vast majority of cases, however, the author does not take the time to say "oops, I never thought of that".
    – Christi
    Commented May 23, 2012 at 20:05
  • 2
    I agree that direct evidence in the author's own words is rare, in any event. But the same can be said about the in-universe explanations that people come up with - there's no evidence for those either in many cases. In those cases the most true and helpful answer, though boring, is "there's no evidence about this." Commented May 23, 2012 at 20:20
  • 2
    it's been my experience in these sorts of questions that those who produce speculative answers often do so using supporting evidence from canon.
    – Christi
    Commented May 23, 2012 at 20:31
  • 1
    Speculative questions & answers are incredibly fun, and I've engaged in both, but I don't think they fit the Q&A format of the SE network. A fan's speculation, even when supported by evidence from canon, cannot be considered an answer to a question, unless it's possible for it to be a real answer. If the real answer is "the author didn't think of that", but we allow speculative answers anyway, then scifi.SE becomes a discussion board...
    – Andres F.
    Commented May 26, 2012 at 3:09
  • More than any of the other SE's, scifi does seem to be akin to a discussion board. A heavily extrapolated answer degenerates quickly into one that simply isn't explicitly defied by legitimate sources. An incorrect premise for example can be patronized away with hyperbolic supporting postulations in areas where canon isn't established. Commented May 26, 2012 at 4:27

While this answer by Mark Beadles is sold and makes many good points, I have a few points that fit for more than just comments.

  • Often, as a reader or viewer (or game player), we don't know the limits of the universe a story takes place in. For example, I have watched every episode of Battlestar Galactica (both of them) and all three Stargate shows, as well as every episode and movie in the Star Trek franchise. Sometimes something us explained and sometimes it isn't. For example, it's been asked why almost every single alien in Star Trek is humanoid. Good question, and possibly even asked by someone who's seen every episode and forgot what the one that that addressed it. (After all, not counting the animated series, there are 28 years of Star Trek episodes.) We don't know if a point is addressed until we ask it. Sometimes it's trivial, and other times it turns out that there's a lot more to it than just a hand wave -- but we don't know that until we ask the question and get a good answer.

  • There are other reasons to want to know an answer other than just, "I wonder..." For example, there are enough academic studies being done on Joss Whedon's work that he has an organization specifically to help in that area. Often people do more than just read or watch a work. They may study it for a number of reasons. For example, I've asked a number of questions about Star Wars. Some can be found in the Star Wars wiki, but sometimes it can be tough to go through extremely long articles there to find an answer. I'm fascinated by the retcon work done by so many authors to explain inconsistencies in the Star Wars universe, so I've asked a lot of questions. I do this to probe, to find out what kinds of things are covered. I also want to know what kind of retcon work has been done. For instance, Tatooine is a desert planet, so life is sparse, but that leads to a question of how large animals such as the sarlacc or banthas can find enough food to live there. Just how deep into scientific detail have writers working in a fantasy construct like Star Wars go?

  • Again, using myself as an example, I want a feeling of what's acceptable and what isn't. What do we dismiss with a handwave (like all species understanding each other in Stargate) and why? In Star Trek, that's explained with a universal translator, in Stargate, it's just handwaved off without an explanation. (The apparently accept reason for that is to avoid having to spend a fair amount of time in each episode with translations or with learning local languages.) I'm working on several screeplays as well as plain text works, so it helps me to push and find the limits of what people accept and why. It also helps me by finding out at what point retcon work is needed and when it can be handwaved or ignored.

Answers such as, "Because the writer wanted it that way," or, "Because the writers are stupid," are often discouraged here and, in my mind, that's with good reason. First, such an attitude is Monday morning quaterbacking. Unless someone has dealt with publishers and agents and shown they can get a written work published or a screenplay produced, or dealt with staff writers on a show and seen what goes into moving a work from concept to final publishing/presentation, it's a weak answer. (Again, an example: In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Next Phase I've heard people complain about Geordi and Ro walking through walls, but not sinking through floors and have heard people say, "It's because the writers are stupid." I have had professional dealings with the writer of that episode, and he is polite, intelligent, and sensible. He is not stupid, not by any stretch of the imagination. There was an explanation in the script, but it was edited out later (I believe in the cutting room, not in script meetings) because the decision was story and character were more important than addressing a point most viewers would not care about.)

More often than not, and this is from watching questions I've asked as well as other questions, there's an in-univers explanation and often it involves much more than we thought it would. It could be a trivial answer or a fascinating one -- but we don't know until the question is asked and answered.

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