Posts Tagged science-fiction

Of robots and rockets

Pacific Rim and the Space RaceRobots and monsters! Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s soon-to-be blockbuster, sounds like pure nerd fantasy. Yet one aspect of the story sounds remarkably true.

In the film, humanity is attacked by giant monsters called kaiju, that emerge from an inter-dimensional portal in the Pacific Ocean. To stave off destruction (or worse, having to move inland) nations rally to build equally large fighting robots called jaegers.

The jaegers push the limit of what is technologically possible. They’re a bold vision tempered by the threat of imminent destruction.

Sound familiar? It should.

Strip away the monsters and robots, and you’ve got a scenario very similar to the one that led to the Space Race. Just as the characters in Pacific Rim live in constant fear of a kaiju attack, the real people of the 1950s and 1960s lived in constant fear of global nuclear war.

Instead of building robots, Cold War Americans and Soviets built rockets. Instead of defeating giant monsters, the goal was to demonstrate technological superiority and deny the enemy a foothold in outer space.

Sure, it’s easy to compare the fictional technological achievement of giant robots with the actual achievement of giant rockets like the Saturn V, but what really links Pacific Rim and the Space Race isn’t the human ability to create and wield technology, it’s the attitude that makes it happen.

The Cold War was, after all, the driving force behind the Space Race. In a 2006 New York Times interview, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, put it this way:

“What actually happened is that Sputnik lit a fire under our buns, and we said, “This is not good. The Soviet Union is our enemy and we have to beat them.”

Indeed, we wouldn’t have had sophisticated rocket technology or legions of trained pilots and engineers without the military.Pacific Rim and the Space Race

In that case, Pacific Rim might be a better explanation of the motivations behind human space exploration than Star Trek.

Still, there is a non-cynical way to look at this.

The positive side of both the jaeger and space programs is that they were all-out efforts that were pursued regardless of cost or chance of success. Humanity is capable of such feats, when it feels like it.

If humanity ever does face an existential threat that requires some awesome new form of technology to face, I’m confident we’ll be able to handle it; we’ve done it before. Solving global warming, on the other hand? Not so sure.

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Why “Into Darkness” will be a great Star Trek movie

Star Trek: Into Darkness posterI haven’t seen Star Trek: Into Darkness, but I know it will be good. How do I know? Because I love Star Trek, and that means having pretty low standards.

Let’s face it, the majority of the Star Trek canon is pretty bad, and it has been from the beginning.

Any viewer that (metaphorically) sets foot on the Original Series’ USS Enterprise, with its cheesy sets, pajama-wearing crew, and overacting captain, and decides to stay is truly dedicated.

Even when the Enterprise warped off to the big screen, and its increased budgets, there was still a lot to endure.

There were plots that didn’t just require fans to suspend disbelief, but to murder it, dissolve its body in acid, and dump the residue in the Gowanus Canal. Remember the sentient mass of space junk known as V’ger (Star Trek: The Motion Picture)? Or the alien masquerading as God on a planet at the center of the galaxy (The Final Frontier)? What does God need with a starship anyway?

Then there were the terrible attempts at comedy, like the one that led the main cast to spend an entire movie looking for whales on 20th century Earth (The Voyage Home), or the time Kirk and Spock sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” around a campfire (Final Frontier).

Star Trek: The Final Frontier posterYet Star Trek fans stuck with the franchise through all of this and more.

Star Trek: The Next Generation brought more believable special effects and the gravitas of Patrick Stewart to the table, but even this honed and refined series had its missteps.

Remember the tim Dr. Crusher accidentally de-evolved the Enterprise crew (“Genesis”)? What about the time she fell in love with a ghost (“Sub Rosa”)? Every time she yells “The flame was plasma-based!” at the end of that episode, I die a little inside.

Then there were Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. All good series in their own ways, but never in a position to make up for the sins of the ones that came before.

So even if Into Darkness is the worst movie to air this year, it could still be among the best Star Trek films ever. It will definitely be better than Nemesis.

Over the years, Star Trek fans have demonstrated the same faith and patience that an actual five-year mission of space exploration would require. They’ve endured some pretty terrible schlock because the core ideas of Star Trek appeal to them.

That demonstrates the staying power of Gene Roddenberry’s vision for a future where people live in harmony and fulfill humanity’s potential. Or that people really like seeing movies with pointy-eared aliens. Either way, I can’t wait to see Into Darkness.

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Five things that make Star Trek better than reality

Star Trek TOS castFor those of you who don’t live in an imaginary universe, today is First Contact Day. In the Star Trek mythos, Humans and Vulcans first met on April 5, 2063, after the inaugural warp flight of Zefram Cochrane’s Phoenix caught the attention of a Vulcan survey ship.

In honor of First Contact Day, I’d like to (try) to explain what I love about Star Trek the most. It’s not the aliens or the reliable sound effects, it’s that Star Trek depicts an ideal society that we should all work to make real. Here are five things that make living in the Star Trek universe better than living in reality.

Klingon replicator1) No Money

Obviously, this is a good thing. Money might make the world go ‘round in 2013, but it would be pretty sweet to live in a world without poverty in 2213. Also, because it will never have to worry about paying bills again, humanity can become more goal-oriented.  How many investors do you think would be interested in financing construction of a massive starship just so William Shatner can cruise around the galaxy in it?

Granted, this isn’t something that can be realistically achieved without a massive technological breakthrough. Star Trek’s money-less society relies on matter replicators, which can easily make all of the necessities of life like food, clothing, and even large machines. Since most commodities are infinitely replicable, there’s no point in charging money for them.

So far, we’re not even close to building replicators (3D printers don’t count).

USS Enterprise refit engineering2) Machines that help Humans instead of replacing them

I read a lot about how robots and computers will eventually replace the human worker, thanks to their efficiency and the fact that they never ask for raises. Star Trek shows us an ideal human-machine relationship and, while the machines do a lot of the heavy lifting, humans are still doing the work.

Every Trekkie recognizes the voice of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, because she’s the audio talent behind every starship computer. These computers do plenty of things: they operate systems, run diagnostics, and conduct database searches. But they don’t do that on their own: Starfleet officers are always telling the computers what to do, and analyzing the information they provide.

If it were any other way, there would be no point in sending the Enterprise on a five-year mission of exploration; a robotic probe would be much cheaper. Starfleet even has an android officer, Data, but all he wants is to be human. That’s the right attitude.

The Federation doesn’t just explore space to gather data, it explores to give people the opportunity to see new things. That’s why the Enterprise’s helmsman puts the ship into Warp 9, even if a computer is actually firing up the engines.

Data playing guitar3) People who do what they love

The result of a money-less society and healthy amounts of automation is that people are able to do things because they want to. No one in Star Trek takes a job because they need health insurance, and they have plenty of free time to enrich themselves.

It’s amazing how many people on every incarnation of the Enterprise are musicians, artists, or actors. It’s also cool to think about how wonderful life would be if everyone had time to pursue things like that.

A hobby is a great way to take one’s mind of the drudgery of everyday life, and it’s even more enjoyable when there is time to devote to it. Today, it’s hard to conduct recreational pursuits for their own sake because our time is so valuable, but in a future where income and manual labor don’t exist, that won’t be the case.

USS Enterprise NCC-1701A4) Spaceships

Of course, people will need something more substantial to do. Humanity requires more substantial tasks than cottage industry (sorry, Etsy and Kickstarter) and space exploration is a very substantial task.

Spacecraft are cool in their own right, but their most important role in Star Trek is keeping people productive. If we no longer need to work for a living, and if we’re displaced from today’s jobs by machines, we can’t just sit around all day posting photos to Instagram.

Luckily, Starfleet is very labor-intensive. The original USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) had a crew of 432, while the Next Generation-era Enterprise (NCC-1701D) had about 1,000 souls aboard (including civilians). There’s also the armies of people needed to build these things, plus command staff, diplomats, designers, and other Starfleet personnel.

Most importantly, Starfleet gives people a chance to go to new places and experience new things, which brings us to the best thing about Star Trek

Starfleet5) Imagination

Something I find very annoying about life in 2013 is that we constantly talk about how high-tech our society is, but can never find any good uses for that technology. Facebook is fun, but whatever happened to going to the moon, or curing diseases? What we have is a lack of imagination.

Gene Roddenberry wasn’t lacking in imagination. He imagined how technology could solve humanity’s greatest problems, and enable its greatest achievements. It wasn’t a realistic vision, but at least it gave us something to shoot for.

Restricting ourselves to only thinking of new ways to use existing technology will never advance anything, because its doesn’t give people a reason to. That’s how technological advances happen: people think of something that doesn’t exist, and try to create it.

Constantly recycling today’s digital tech won’t do that. Yes, we could have “smart” toothbrushes that play our Pandora stations, but if our predecessors had the same attitude we’d still be riding stagecoaches.

No cleverly named app will unite the world, but a ship that can travel faster than the speed of light just might. Maybe we’ll find out in 50 years.

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Other people’s starships: Oberth-class

USS Grissom bow viewWhy not start off the new year with a look into the future? Of course, even the utopian future of Star Trek has a few rough edges, and they will be the subject of this two-part series. While the myriad incarnations of the USS Enterprise were off exploring the galaxy, other ships held the line against Romulans, Cardassians, Ferengi, and random natural phenomena. These ships are the Red Shirts of the fleet.

Last week, the “bucket of bolts” Constellation-class got its time in the spotlight. This week, the focus is on the Oberth-class science ships.

As research vessels, ships of the Oberth-class were designed to deal with the unexpected. However, as seen in various episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the unexpected often caused serious misfortune for the people that manned them.

Named after German rocket scientist Hermann Oberth, the Oberth-class definitely has the Red Shirt spirit. With its unusual biplane hull design, this class was never going to look heroic on the screen. Instead, it looked like someone had tried to assemble a starship model kit without reading the instructions.

Starfleet may not have been too fond of the ships either: The Oberth-class is the only known starship type to be operated by both Starfleet and civilians.

Even if you do like the Oberths’ ungainly appearance, it’s hard to argue with the ships’ record. Nearly every Oberth that appeared in TNG suffered some misfortune. Here are a few highlights:

SS Tsiolkovsky (NCC-53911): In The Naked Now, the Tsiolkovsky’s crew is exposed to polywater intoxication. The crew of 80 is killed when drunken revelers tamper with the ship’s environmental controls, and the ship itself is destroyed by a fragment of a red giant star’s core, allowing the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) to escape.

SS Vico (NAR-18834): Destroyed by a “black cluster,” a gravitational phenomenon that reflected the ship’s shield output and essentially crushed the Vico with its own shields.

USS Yosemite (NCC-19002): Quasi-energy microbes caused a plasma explosion on board. Four survivors were trapped in a transporter beam as a result of the microbes’ interference, but were discovered by Lieutenant Reginald Barclay in the episode Realm of Fear.

USS Pegasus: (NCC-53847): It’s not surprising that Starfleet kept this a secret. The Pegasus was testing an illegal interphasic cloaking device, which overloaded the ship’s plasma relay system and caused an explosion.

Part of the ship’s crew mutinied, and Captain Eric Pressman, Ensign William Riker, and others abandoned ship. The Pegasus was seemingly destroyed by a second explosion, which was actually plasma from the relay venting into space.

The cloak allowed the Pegasus to phase through solid matter, and the ship drifted into an asteroid until its power systems shut down while it was half-buried. It was found fused with the asteroid by Pressman, Riker, and the Enterprise crew in an eponymous TNG episode.

USS Grissom aft three-quarterThis is far from an exhaustive list of every Oberth-class ship that appeared in Star Trek, but it definitely denotes a pattern. It does make sense, though: from a writing standpoint, it wouldn’t be very plausible to destroy a huge cruiser every few episodes, and the producers already had an Oberth model to reuse. Still, if you ever find yourself enlisting in Starfleet, try to avoid shipping out on an Oberth.

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Other people’s starships: Constellation-class

Constellation-class starship profile largeWhy not start off the new year with a look into the future? Of course, even the utopian future of Star Trek has a few rough edges, and they will be the subject of this two-part series. While the myriad incarnations of the USS Enterprise were off exploring the galaxy, other ships held the line against Romulans, Cardassians, Ferengi, and random natural phenomena. These ships are the Red Shirts of the fleet.

When Star Trek was revived with the 1980s’ The Next Generation, it got a bigger budget. That meant designers could build starships that were visually different from the main Galaxy-class Enterprise (NCC-1701-D), instead of reusing one or two models as in the Original Series.

Ships like the Constellation-class helped fill out Starfleet, giving it the appearance of an actual fleet with ships of differing sizes and purposes. The big Galaxy, Ambassador, and Excelsior-class ships were designed for long-term missions of exploration, but the Constellation had a more mundane role.

The most famous Constellation-class ship was the USS Stargazer (NCC-2893), because it was the first command of a certain Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. The future Enterprise captain’s experience on the Stargazer shows that life in Starfleet isn’t always glamorous.

Picard called the Stargazer “an overworked, underpowered vessel that was always on the verge of flying apart at the seams.” That’s not something one would expect of Starfleet, an organization with a responsibility for protecting a vast section of the galaxy, and nearly unlimited resources with which to do so.

As Picard’s career on the Stargazer shows, that duty often involved sending ships out on long patrols, where the enemy often had them outgunned. The “Picard Maneuver” from the TNG episode “The Battle” showed that intelligence could even the odds, though.

USS Stargazer bowThe other major appearance of a Constellation-class starship featured the USS Hathaway (NCC-2593) being pulled out of a mothballs for a war game in the episode “Peak Performance.”

Given the Hathaway’s condition, it’s obvious that the Constellation-class ships weren’t meant to last. While the 80-year-old Hathaway needed lots of work in order to be made ship-shape, Excelsior-class ships of similar age were still cruising; the USS Gorkon was the flagship of Admiral Alynna Nechayev at the time.

A Constellation would not make a very prestigious flagship, but maybe that’s just as well. Picard always felt sentimental about his first command, so if it wasn’t a piece of junk he might never have wanted to leave.

Tune in next week for the unlucky Oberth-class.

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In Skyfall, James Bond fights for Queen, Country, and Aesthetics

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen Skyfall, or you did see it, but only in an alternate quantum universe, this post may ruin your day.

Skyfall posterSkyfall was a great way to mark 50 years of 007, and not just because it was a great movie. In this author’s opinion, Skyfall ranks among the best Bond films ever made, but it also shows why this franchise has persisted for 50 years, and why it deserves to keep going. The world of espionage is becoming more efficient, but also less interesting, and that’s why we need Bond.

In Skyfall, all 007 wants to do is shoot his enemy in the face, but said enemy, a rogue former MI6 agent named Raoul Silva, prefers hacking over high explosives. The new hipster Q is also convinced that digital espionage is the wave of the future.

Silva points to a room full of servers and says they are all he needs to commit acts of terror, while Q brags that he can do more at home in his pajamas than Bond can do in the field.

This new attitude isn’t just a writer’s way of triggering sentimentality, either. Cyber warfare is a developing tactic in the espionage world. The Stuxnet worm, for example, has done a better job of slowing down Iran’s nuclear weapons program than any human spy.

That all may be true, but that doesn’t make it interesting to watch. Anyone who has seen previous Bond films will sigh along with 007 when Q hands him nothing but a gun and a radio. An Aston Martin with machine guns might be less realistic, but it’s also much cooler.

No one wants to spend two hours watching someone furiously type on a keyboard, either. Q could probably do 007‘s job remotely using a drone, but he would lose the interest of movie audiences along the way. Bond remarks that, eventually, someone has to pull the trigger. He’s right, if for no other reason than that it creates more drama.

Since Skyfall is, after all, a movie about James Bond, Q and Silva are forced to relent. Q lets Bond take M to Bond’s ancestral home in Scotland for protection, and Silva surrounds and destroys it in spectacular fashion.

That ending has little in common with the real world of espionage. In fact, almost nothing in Bond’s 50-year career of boozing, womanizing, and killing has. Nonetheless, Bond’s defense of good old fashioned bullets highlights an important  issue in the way the world is depicted in the arts.

The digitalization of life is making it harder to depict the real world in an interesting way in fiction. While its true that many aspects of life are mundane, depicting life lived through the filter of digital technology compounds that mundanity with artificiality.

The science-fiction subgenre Cyberpunk has grappled with this problem, and the response is often to dial up the fiction. The business of hacking is jazzed up with augmented reality interfaces, like the dream world of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, or the uber-Internet “Metaverse” of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. The protagonist of Snow Crash, appropriately named Hiro Protagonist, is also a swordsman. That helps.

Like the Bond films, no one ever accused Cyberpunk of being a totally realistic depiction of hacking and computer programming. Both use a real-life activity as the basis for good fiction, but the more time people spend sitting in front of computers, the less likely it will resemble the reader’s world in any way.

It’s important for fictional stories to give their readers something to relate to, but we may be pushing the boundaries of what we can do with the reality we have. Pulling a trigger will always be more interesting than clicking a mouse.

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Other People’s Starships: USS Rhode Island (NCC-72701)

USS Rhode Island (NCC-72701)If you buy the Star Trek Hero Clix starter set, you’ll get a ship from the Voyager era called the USS Rhode Island. It may indicate that Starfleet was running out of good names in the 2400s, or it could have been someone’s idea of a joke. Either way, the ship named after America’s smallest state had an important role to play in the Star Trek universe.

Service History

The Rhode Island was commissioned in the early 2400s and sent on a four-year mission of exploration. She was commanded by Captain Harry Kim of Voyager fame.

The ship’s moment of glory actually happened in the alternate future depicted in the Voyager series finale “Endgame.” The Rhode Island comes to the rescue of Admiral Janeway, after her shuttle was attacked by Klingons from whom she had stolen a chrono deflector.

Kim and the Rhode Island chased the two Klingon ships away, then Kim attempted to arrest Janeway. However, she eventually convinces Kim to let her go back in time to help their past selves return to Alpha Quadrant.

Design

The USS Rhode Island is a modified Nova-class science and reconnaissance vessel. These ships were smaller than Starfleet mainstays like the Constitution, Excelsior, and Galaxy-class ships. The Rhode Island and her sisters have a maximum speed of warp 8, and a crew of 80.

The Nova-class ships may have been designed for science, but they still had enough weaponry to defend themselves. Each ship had 11 phaser arrays and three photon torpedo launches (two forward, one aft).

Aesthetically, the Nova-class reflects the tougher look of Starfleet ships designed after the Battle of Wolf 359, when the Federation began seriously expanding its military capabilities to deal with the Borg. The Novas look like mini Sovereign-class ships.

The Rhode Island got some visual modifications to distinguish her from her sister ships. Designer Robert Bonchune made a different bridge and filled in the gap in front of the deflector dish from the USS Equinox filming model, along with some other slight alterations.

It is assumed that these modifications reflect a mid-life refit of the ship meant to extend its service life. The Rhode Island’s brief appearance onscreen obviously doesn’t warrant  an in-depth description.

What’s with the name? It turns out that it actually was a bit of a joke. The name was apparently chosen to make fun of Harry Kim, who had finally gotten to command a starship, but got stuck with one named after America’s smallest state.

Kim should consider himself lucky, though. If Starfleet had used the state’s full name, he would have been commanding the USS State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

The name USS Rhode Island might not strike fear into the hearts of Klingons and Romulans, but it’s a nice tribute to the people of Rhode Island. They deserve some recognition for living there.

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