Does your nature knowledge spoil fiction?

The Swiss Family Robinson is a good story, but I find it difficult to suspend disbelief because the island is biogeographically all wrong. Over the course of the story, they encounter flora and fauna from almost every continent, on an ostensibly oceanic island. Granted, Hawaii has come to resemble the Swiss Family Robinson’s island, but that is because of a history of introductions both deliberate and accidental.

I remember reading an essay by Barbara Kingsolver in which she expressed her difficulty with fictional works that got their nature facts wrong – birds singing on the wrong continent, full moons two weeks apart, that sort of thing. She said, “Even fiction needs to be fact checked.”

Surely Kingsolver and I are not alone in this. What are some of the most egregious nature mistakes that ruined a story for you?


knowing how protandrous hermaphroditism works in fish has forever ruined Finding Nemo for me


Attempted to watch TS Spivet on Amazon last night since it sounded super cute. The science was so far off it was painful, made it about 30 minutes and bailed! The boy invents perpetual motion (ouch) and the mother, portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter, is a coleopterist. But the the species they chose was terrible (I get it when you need to stock a bunch of prop beetles), then there was no attempt to get even within the ballpark of pronouncing a name correctly. Clearly they didn’t bother with a scientific consult on this film.


No, but my real specialty is literature, so I usually find myself annoyed by literary mistakes in films. I once went to see a film though with a botanist who complained about the type of roses in a vase in the movie. The movie was set in the Victorian period, and the roses were all wrong for the period, as they were, apparently, later hybrids. I have another friend who is an early American history/literature specialist. She usually calls out tour guides. ;)


I’m just gonna say, if a lot of snakes some how managed to escape on a plane, they’re gonna act the exact opposite of what was on display in that movie.

Same with sharks in any film involving them, sharks need some love, too.


Not nature specifically, but my experience is that any knowledge ruins everything. As an IT guy, I always cringe when I watch any police show… “Quick Jenkins, he’s online now. Internet his firewall and see if we can bandwidth enough CPU to locate his iBox!”


Yes. I try to keep reminding myself that it’s fiction, but sometimes the science is so egregiously stupid it is very distracting. Science fiction is a guilty pleasure but even there the silly ideas some people have about how evolution works make me want to scream. One of the many things I love about Ursula Leguin’s books is her scientific literacy; it makes her beautiful writing even more enjoyable for somebody who cares about such things.

The flip side of this is how brutal some “nature” stories are when they turn their subjects into cute little humans with wings and fur. It’s a revelation when somebody manages to use an animal (or plant) subject without anthropomorphizing. I think the most lovely book about an animal subject that I’ve ever read is Mar: A Glimpse into the Natural Life of a Bird by Louise de Kiriline Lawrence.

Perhaps it’s just a personality type thing. Before I went back to school and got degrees I was an offset printer and graphics tech for a while. I used to drive my friends nuts when we went out for food because I couldn’t look at a menu without criticizing the layout, colour registration and whatnot.


Probably isn’t knowledge per se, but just logic…you know that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when they found the place where the ark was hidden (the “snakes, why does it have to be snakes” scene)…how have that many snakes survived without air, water and food!?


True Grit (2010) is, to me, an almost perfect movie…aside from the way it depicts the behavior of certain reptiles (don’t want to spoil anything). :slightly_frowning_face:


Thanks, you just reminded me of this (makes me laugh every time):


So true! Turn off your brain before watching most movies. “Bee Movie” is the worst “nature” movie I can remember watching.


Suspension of disbelief was a lot easier to work with when people believed that the sun went around the planet and that you fell off if you sailed too far west. It’s not reasonable to expect every author/screewnriter to understand genetics, physics and engineering, I guess.

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You mean police can’t get an exellent image of a car number from blurry photos?.)


Knowing just the tiniest bit about how sanitary sewage works didn’t help either.


Growing up the son of an entomologist who often worked as a consultant for wildlife documentaries didn’t exactly spoil them, but did make me a bit jaded and cynical about a lot of the camerawork. The most memorable insight was watching the slo-mo filming of some sort of ant lion, which in the final product looks like it’s done in the middle of a desert somewhere. It actually took place in a field next to the sewage treatment plant for the small south-west UK town I grew up in, the antlion living in the cut-off bottom half of a milk carton.

Having played enough Kerbal Space Program to gain a basic intuitive knowledge of orbital mechanics thoroughly spoiled most space films and every sci-fi film ever. However much I try to suspend disbelief, my brain spends most of the time going “nooooo, gravity/orbits/transfers/launch profiles/rocket motors/atmospheres/space in general DOESN’T WORK LIKE THAT”


What tickles me is seeing anachronistic species in historical films/shows, for example Rome, an otherwise excellent show which has agaves from the New World growing in ancient Egypt ;-)


Presumably supernatural power. I’ve never seen the whole film but happy to suspend disbelief there. The whole premise of the film is that the Ark of the Covenant is said to make an army invincible, so causing some snakes survive (or to appear just before they find it) doesn’t seem too unreasonable.

Another reason why I really should read some of her books.

I do like books which feature nature and portrayed in an accurate (or realistic in the case of Science Fiction & Fantasy). I’ve really enjoyed A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent (and it’s sequels) by Marie Brennan partly because she’s made the effort to make it realistic (within a fantasy world).


Yes, sometimes! I do enjoy fiction apologics (i.e., coming up with amusingly convoluted reasons why King Arthur is somehow enjoying potatoes in 12th century Britain), but sometimes the errors are just lazy and it annoys me.

My particular pet peeve is that nearly every animal vocalizes less than movies and TV want them to. A calm lab rat sitting in the hand of your scientist hero should not be squeaking. Squeaking is basically yelling profanity and declaring that the rat curses you unto the tenth generation. Left to their own devices they mostly make little skittery noises and crunchy noises and occasional squeaking if there is more than one rat and they’ve had an argument.

I am trying to get over my annoyance that the film industry thinks that every raptor in the world makes the red-tailed hawk noises, because red-tailed hawks legitimately make the best noise and many other raptors make really absurd little squeaky calls.


Sometimes a movie is ruined by bad or sloppy science, like A Bug’s Life where most of the ants were male. But often my nature knowledge makes the movie more enjoyable. Songcatcher was filmed in the correct region and in places without non-native plants visible. And sometimes a boring scene or movie is entertaining because I spend the whole time figuring out where it was filmed by observing the background plants and natural communities.


I think a lot of that is the coconut effect, where if they leave it out people will complain.

I think it has more to do with the work itself. If the story is engaging enough, or the characters interesting, a small inaccuracy may catch my attention but I can overlook it and willingly suspend my disbelief or ignore them. They are still noticed, but they don’t take me out of the experience entirely .
Without those elements, though, I start mentally nitpicking like I’m compiling a list for a wiki.