Technical Plot Holes in NBC’s Revolution

Revolution Poster

Rev­o­lu­tion Poster

I’ve been amused over the last sev­er­al days by NBC’s Rev­o­lu­tion.  The set­ting is a near future in which elec­tri­cal pow­er has been shut off for about fif­teen years.  More pre­cise­ly, elec­tron­ic gad­gets of any kind don’t work.  The show has been OK … but I have some prob­lems with this premise and how they’ve devel­oped it.  Truth be told, I’ve been hold­ing at episode 10 until my sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief returns.  Here’s how it escaped…

The show’s premise has all elec­tric­i­ty not flow­ing.  Even the sim­plest of cir­cuits (say bat­tery plus light bulb equals flash light) don’t work in “Rev­o­lu­tion.”  Elec­tric­i­ty seem­ing­ly does­n’t flow.  This is dif­fer­ent than the field the­o­ry of Falling Skies (sim­ple things work) or the destroyed tech­nol­o­gy art style of much post apoc­olyp­ti­ca (most tech­nol­o­gy destroyed, but some found tech­nol­o­gy works).

The first and most obvi­ous of sci­ence holes is the fact that humans — indeed all com­plex life with brains and ner­vous sys­tems work on elec­tri­cal impuls­es.  Real­ly sim­ple life is large­ly chem­i­cal — but even basic chem­i­cal reac­tions involve the exchange of elec­trons — which is the very basis of how elec­tric­i­ty works. Even if you could (say) stop var­i­ous met­als from con­duct­ing elec­tric­i­ty, sim­ple elec­tric devices would work if mate­ri­als akin to the body’s meth­ods of con­duct­ing elec­tric­i­ty would work.  But the con­verse case is more inter­est­ing.  Let us con­tin­ue to digress…

Revolution Steam Train

Rev­o­lu­tion Steam Train

Sev­er­al episodes into the series, they fea­ture a steam train run­ning from some­where in Illi­nois to Philadel­phia.  While the amount of phys­i­cal labour to pre­pare a track is plau­si­ble and the num­ber of semi-restored steam loco­mo­tives still active in the US makes this some­what plau­si­ble, the biggest prob­lem I have with this idea was the utter lack of men­tion of the effort to pro­vide water tow­ers every 20 to 50 miles or so — which is one of the items that steam trains required. 

But is a steam train the most rea­son­able choice here?  Of all the effort to have it run­ning, is it the best use of post-apoc­a­lyp­tic resources? I real­ly don’t under­stand why a soci­ety in this posi­tion would not turn to the large scale use of Diesel engines.  I’m not talk­ing about the mod­ern elec­tron­ic Diesel mar­vel that you’d find in a mod­ern car or truck, but the all mechan­i­cal Diesel engines that still run a fair major­i­ty of trains and prob­a­bly still many trucks.

Many of my read­ers may not know this, but I’m some­what of a Diesel fan.  If we all had Diesel cars right now and some­one sug­gest­ed chang­ing to a new fuel — this gaso­line — they’d be laughed right out of what­ev­er reg­u­la­to­ry hear­ing they were in.  Gaso­line is pret­ty much the most dan­ger­ous sub­stance that nor­mal peo­ple reg­u­lar­ly get their hands on (or get on their hands as the case may be).

Not only that, but Diesel engines — espe­cial­ly old­er mechan­i­cal Diesel engines — will run on almost any­thing.  They will even run on used french-fry fat.  Mechan­i­cal Diesel engines are mar­velous­ly sim­ple, durable and robust things. In fact, I have often said that the fuel of choice for a post apoc­a­lyp­tic soci­ety would be some form of diesel.  It’s sta­ble and safe; it can be made in a vari­ety of ways from a vare­ity of source mate­ri­als; it’s ener­gy dense and best of all, it can be rel­a­tive­ly low tech.

General Monroe's Helicopter

Gen­er­al Mon­roe’s Helicopter

In the last frames of the 10th episode, meant to be a real cliffhang­er, the chief antag­o­nist starts fly­ing a heli­copter to fly up and shoot at the mot­ley group of pro­tag­o­nists.  The is a heli­copter we had seen sev­er­al times ear­li­er being dragged across coun­try by man­u­al slave labour. While I had been fol­low­ing the series with­out com­ment thus far, this part had me reach­ing for the blog.  The annoy­ing thing here is that while the heli­copter (and the tanks and the trains and what­ev­er else we have) use elec­tric­i­ty for many things, giv­en 15 years, most com­pe­tent engi­neers could make them run/fly with­out elec­tric­i­ty.  Man is real­ly sur­pris­ing­ly inven­tive and giv­en a set of con­straints, you can count on man to explore the very bound­aries of them.

Let’s back up a bit: the open­ing of the pilot and many of the flash­backs have jet planes falling from the sky.  Giv­en Bow­ing’s most recent prob­lems with elec­tric parts catch­ing fire in the newest dream­lin­er, I’m quite pos­i­tive that most planes would make a rea­son­ably con­trolled land­ing in the event of a total elec­tri­cal fail­ure.  I sup­pose there would be some crash­es — but to see planes drop­ping ver­ti­cal­ly from the sky is sim­ply ludicrous.

Jet Engine Diagrams

Jet Engine Diagrams

Is elec­tric­i­ty required to fly?  Cer­tain­ly not.  The Wright Broth­ers used an engine that almost cer­tain­ly had a spark plug, but there would­n’t have been any oth­er elec­tric sys­tems on that plane.  Ger­mans have shown over the past few decades that small planes can eas­i­ly fly with Diesel rec­i­p­ro­cat­ing engines.  While train sig­nals are now elec­tric, and while mod­ern loco­mo­tives man­u­fac­tured recent­ly have mod­ern amounts of elec­tron­ics for safe­ty and effi­cien­cy, there still exists a real pol­lu­tion prob­lem with the remains of the fleet of old­er Diesel train loco­mo­tives that are still mechan­i­cal.  They are not as effi­cient or clean as new­er tech­nol­o­gy, but in terms of this dis­cus­sion, they are mechan­i­cal injec­tion Diesel engines.

Even jet and tur­bo prop tech­nol­o­gy don’t put up fun­da­men­tal bar­ri­ers here — the action of a jet engine is most­ly mechan­i­cal and I’m con­fi­dent that some­one with a rea­son­able amount of spe­cif­ic knowl­edge could make them work with­out elec­tric pow­er.  Mod­ern tur­bine and jet engines (the pri­ma­ry dif­fer­ence being that jets take advan­tage of the air forced into the intake as com­pressed gas to pro­duce com­bus­tion heat and addi­tion­al pro­pel­lant) make copi­ous use of elec­tron­ics, but the fun­da­men­tal action here is that fuel is burnt (maybe a pilot light is required) and the expand­ing gasses press on the fins of the tur­bine to turn the engine.

I sup­pose the “mag­ic” on dis­play here is that “elec­tric­i­ty” … or more prop­er­ly “com­put­ers” add near­ly unbound­ed com­plex­i­ty to almost every object we use.  While some of the effi­cien­cies in the engines that pow­er our cars have been achieved by com­put­er mod­el­ing of the process (mak­ing the very shape of the engine parts more effi­cient in the tur­bu­lence of the engine), sub­stan­tial­ly most of the gains in effi­cien­cy and clean­li­ness of our mod­ern engines are due to the com­plex­i­ty that com­put­ers allow.

A car­bu­re­tor is a mar­velous­ly sim­ple solu­tion to the prob­lem of keep­ing the gaso­line to air mix­ture at 14:1 in an engine.  It relies sim­ply on Bernoul­li action to spread a fine mist of gaso­line at the right mix­ture for the engine through most of it’s oper­at­ing con­di­tions.  The mix­ture actu­al­ly varies, how­ev­er, and these vari­ances account for most of an old­er car’s inef­fi­cien­cy and pol­lu­tion.  The “elec­tron­ic fuel injec­tion” we replaced this with takes into account the air pres­sure, air tem­per­a­ture and the amount of oxy­gen in the exhaust to allow it to cal­cu­late from moment to moment what the real sto­i­chiom­e­try is and cor­rect for any inefficiencies.

Get­ting back to the top­ic, my point is that while a gaso­line engine requires a spark (pipe down in the back about direct injec­tion gaso­line engines), Diesel engines do not… and that while many cars would not run with­out elec­tri­cal cur­rent work­ing (as a force-of-nature issue they present it as), much of our world’s infra­struc­ture still relies on fuels and process­es that would con­tin­ue to work in the absence of electricity.

My short list would include pret­ty much every­thing mod­er­ate­ly old that runs on Diesel fuel.  Old pick­ups from the 70’s; trans­ports trucks; rail­way loco­mo­tives; most, if not all ships; even as we get into the era of using diesel tur­bine engines in ships, my argu­ments above stand.

I sup­pose it all comes down to artis­tic license, but the glar­ing holes in the plot have put me off watch­ing Rev­o­lu­tion for awhile.  Maybe the Sci­en­tif­ic Rev­o­lu­tion is what’s required?

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