Salient Article

Salient, pp. 14-15, Issue # 9, 15 May 2000


(And does it really matter a damn.)

Well, yes it does to me. Trouble is that everyone today seems to have a different idea of what science fiction is, or should be. Almost anything and everything now-days gets included in the genre, particularly by those for whom the whole idea of speculating about the future is a total anathema.

Because of this, it is necessary that before I can rip into various sci-fi films or television, I say what I mean by science fiction.

Star Wars is not sci-fi. Star Wars is historical romance, a sort of nineties Rudolph Valentino remake. A ragged collection of out-numbered and out-gunned good-guys, out-witting and out-fighting the evil hordes and overlords to rescue the hapless maiden. Hey, it’s great fun but it ain’t Jim Bean.

Ditto the endless horrors that regularly visit the planet to rip the entrails out of little children and loveable pets. Horror, yes, sci-fi no (although some, such as Alien, are admittedly a close call).

Add to the above the fantasy realm, more prevalent in the printed word, again a no-no.

The sci-fi I wish to dissect can be determined by a simple test. Does it examine the present?

Important literature examines the past or present, be it the broad sweep of whole societies or the minute detail of one individual or moment, by recording the same in fictional circumstance. Sci-fi only examines the present but comments on trends in society, technology, whatever, by extrapolating forward in time and showing the probable (in the observers opinion) consequences of same.

H.G. Wells’ “Time Machine” is an overt comment on the social divisions in his industrial England, not speculation on theoretical physics. Where sci-fi differs from other literature is that it can offer not only a warning but a dream, a glimpse of what could be.

Sci-fi can offer a dream, a goal to inspire, and in this has never been truer that in the human quest for space. Although many today regard space exploration with complacency, many people alive today were born into a world where space travel was pure fantasy. But people read that fantasy, that sci-fi, and were seduced.

A few of those people said why not? And in a few decades those few had made that fantasy reality. Almost without exception, every key figure in the development of rocketry and space exploration as a child read sci-fi and dreamed.

And this is where we come to fiction or faction.

Space figures large in sci-fi because those who look to the future see the importance of space in all future human endeavour. Not in technology, although the demands of even our local environs are a great driver, but on our social and psychological well-being.

Colonisation and exploitation are fundamental to all living things, plant and animal, and humans are no exception. Politically correct it ain’t, but second only to the need to procreate, it is the strongest survival instinct of all. Our reason tells us we must hold this in check, but we ignore it at our peril.

In the nineteen twenties people talked of Utopian societies where everything was in balance and harmony. A myth. Our nature precludes such a static state and to attempt it would lead inevitably into a downward spiral into social fragmentation, insularity and superstition. Look around you, the signs are easy to see.

Our poor old planet, on the other hand, has had about all it can take from us. Space can provide us with that outlet we need to challenge ourselves as a species. Not just technologically but our will, our sense of adventure, even our collective courage.

But we need to feed the dream, we need sci-fi.

We need the kids who dream the dream to be able to say “Why not? Why can’t we do that?” It does not matter how wonderful or impossible the idea, as the one thing we know for sure is that we know very little indeed.

However, if we can make sure that the things that we do know are right, the dream seems just that little bit less fanciful, that little bit more achievable. Besides, it also makes the story more convincing.

Let’s look at some recent offerings. Mission to Mars is the most recent and if you put aside the inevitable Hollywood feel-good crap we and the fact that they felt it necessary to veer off into the semi-occult, there were some issues worthy of comment. Firstly this one of a very few movies since Kubrick’s 2001 that made any attempt to deal with weightlessness. The only other I can recall was an oddball “space truckers” movie whose name I can’t remember. On the other hand, they somehow managed to get liquid hydrogen leaking into space to ignite and blow the arse off their spacecraft, now there’s a trick!

The biggest disappointment, however, is that the whole movie was not a look into the future but a look into the past. If concurrent plans extending on from the Apollo Program hadn’t been shelved in favour of the Shuttle, all that was shown would have happened in the early eighties.

Mind you, Hollywood has done a lot worse. If you thought Armageddon was a low point in Bruce Willis action movies, it was a lot lower in terms of scientific veracity. It was claimed that NASA was consulted during production and if that is the case it may go a long way to explaining how they can lose a multimillion dollar probe by sending it instructions in both imperial and metric measurements.

Some of the more blatant nonsense was the Shuttle engines burning for the entire trip to the asteroid (I don’t recall how long the trip took, but each of the three shuttle main engines consume around 1 ½ tonnes of propellant a second) even though the fuel tank was jettisoned on reaching orbit. Then there was the crew doing a “Scott at the pole”, struggling back to the drilling rig in an airless hurricane, huge spires of ice crashing to the ground in zero G; need I go on. The only part of the movie with any credibility at all was the initial scenes of the fragments impacting earth.

The point is none of this stupidity in any way makes it a better movie. In “Mission to Mars” the plot needed a rescue mission. The fact that this could not realistically be sent for something like twenty seven months made for a disappointing but understandable compromise.

Let’s look at something with a lot more worth. Red Dwarf (OK at ease, men) is highly entertaining, but many of the story lines for individual episodes are based on cutting edge physics and the possible implications of same. A classic example is “Backwards”, based on the (then – the ground is always shifting) popular notion that when the universe runs out of puff, stops expanding and starts to contract, that time will actually run in reverse.

Now that we are talking television we had better look at the grand daddy of them all, Star Trek. To many this is a lot of silly people in suits beaming each other up at every opportunity. In fact this series scores very well in all areas. First, it portrays a grand and exciting future, a dream worth pursuing. Secondly it reflects on every aspect of the society we live in, and occasionally challenges the established norm. For the latter, consider the first (television) portrayal of a woman in a position of authority, the first Russian as a good guy – it was at the height of the cold war – the first multiracial kiss etc…

As for reflecting the social and political problems of the day, Star Trek stories have mostly dealt with inter-reactions between races, cultures, technologies and, in classic sci-fi manner, taken them outside our own environment and time to better illustrate where we are and what we need to address.

Star Trek also addresses the physical and scientific realities. The society depicted routinely does many things that for us are impossible, but where a contradiction with our current knowledge appears a solution is always provided, however speculative it may be. For example, spacecraft in the series routinely travel at speeds that require extraordinary rates of acceleration, rates that would reduce the crew to an unsavoury smear on the bulkhead. But they are protected by “inertial dampers” and if (as is often the case) the said dampers are damaged the craft can’t accelerate, as the crews own inertia would kill them. No explanation of how these wondrous devices might work, mind you, but the point is the science is not ignored.

In fact, the science is remarkably good. If you would like to find out just how good in a qualitative sense I recommend you get hold of a copy of “The Physics of Star Trek” by Laurence Krauss. If you are one of the many who found that runaway best seller “A Brief History of Time” almost unreadable you will also find this book most enlightening, as it covers much of the same ground (note: Star Trek is simply used as a vehicle to explain what is really going on). The producers of Star Trek employ their own team of experts to check the science and it is interesting that the results are so much better, even though the scenario is much more speculative, than those where NASA is consulted.

Alternatively, should you wish to know just how bad “Independence Day” was, read his sequel, “Beyond Star Trek”, it is hilarious. For example he notes that the alien mothership, a quarter the size of the Moon, enters geostationary orbit. Taking the minimum possible mass of the mothership at the orbit given, the tidal forces set up in the Earth’s’ crust would effectively destroy everything on the surface of the planet; they wouldn’t need to invade at all!

Cut to the happy ending. Huge alien saucers being shot down left right and centre. Stirring stuff. Sadly, the worst possible thing the poor beleaguered humans could do is to shoot the damn things down. Using the same sort of calculation based on the size as described and the altitude they were supposedly flying at, he determines the kinetic energy released on impacting the ground; about 10,000 times the energy released by the Hiroshima bomb per saucer. Hardly the way to save the day.

Does it matter? It is only a movie after all. Well, it matters to me.

Salient, pp. 14-15, Issue # 9, 15 May 2000


  1. Hi Pat,
    I am happy to find that I agree with you in all these examples. And I agree that it is about having a dream. The world needs dreamers to point the way.

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