Escape Velocity Girl

“Star Trek fans, prepare to be disappointed”
March 1, 2010, 9:29 pm
Filed under: Fictional Worlds, Real Worlds

Having served time at a glossy publication, in which it was de rigeur for all blurbs, articles and blarticles to open with the journalistic equivalent of a come-on, I am sympathetic to writers who magpie together copy (it’s far easier to hook a reader with a collage of cultural references and in-jokes than simple, declarative sentences). However, the following equation should always be kept in mind:

(linguistic cuteness)-(in-depth fact-checking)=(an incoherent and potentially audience-alienating article)

i.e. make sure your brilliant references makes sense in the context of the text, i.e. avoid pretending to a Mariana Trench depth of knowledge if you’re really more comfortable in the proverbial kiddie pool (as everyone generally is when it comes to almost everything). I write in reference to a recent article in New Scientist that purports to prove the impossibility of human near-light-speed travel–and, by extension, claims to dash the warp drive wet-dreams of every be-unibrow-ed Trekkie/er the world over.

A summary of the science: According to Einstein’s special theory of relativity travelers interact with space and time differently depending on their respective speeds. Meaning that the crew of any superfast fictional ship flying through syndicated television would experience space as highly compressed. Although interstellar space is only sparsely seeded with hydrogen atoms (two per cubic centimeter), the aforementioned crew with its pug-nosed perception of space (i.e. smooshed) would experience this wisp of matter as a veritable hailstorm when traveling at near-light speeds. The kinetic energy of the atoms would increase accordingly, creating a wave of radiation sure to kill said crew dead. Tres tragique.

From this the author of the article implies that Roddenberryian warp speed travel is an impossibility. There are, ahem, a few things wrong with this conclusion:

1. The author has got the mechanism of warp speed plain wrong. The USS Enterprise doesn’t rev up like a race car from 0 to 60–it jumps off the scale, creating a “warp bubble” with its “warp drive” that “warps” the time-space continuum, pulling its destination closer while maintaining a relatively low velocity. Sort of like how a hypothetical person in the midst of a hypothetical Next Generation marathon could hypothetically have two larges with extra cheese delivered without ever leaving the also-hypothetical couch. No cell-destroying radiation wave, no perilous midnight quest to Dominos, no problem. (for a more, uh, technical explanation, see here)

2. There is something logically unsound about using the rules and research of one system (our current reality) to critique cherry-picked premises of another system (any alternative or fictional reality). For example, Federation ships come with these nifty things called “deflector shields” that are specially designed to bounce away interstellar debris, pesky hydrogen atoms, etc. Hence the fact that Star Trek is not an incredibly boring show about watching irradiated corpses decompose in fast-moving ships. The problems the article claims to expose have been anticipated and nullified in the Star Trek universe by yet other technologies; ergo, what the author is really saying is just that warp speed (or, rather, her inaccurate conception of the technology) would not work with the level of technology we have now in this, our current universe. Um…duh? Had they operated according to the same logic, early aeronautics engineers would have scoffed at the possibility of jet propulsion, arguing that the heat and speed of such engines would necessarily create crispy-fied, wind-flayed toothpicks out of any hypothetical biplane aviators foolish enough to test them.

Now, I am certainly not one of those head-in-the-nebula-cloud enthusiasts who bristles at any intrusion of actual science into my perfect, pretty scifi terraria. But at the same time I would hope that articles applying current scientific research to fictional or speculative worlds would take the latter as seriously as the former. After all, we’re all just augurs poking through entrails, trying to divine a future none of us will ever see. For some, those entrails are lab results and statistical models. For others, words and flights of fancy.

photo credit: NASA CD-98-76634 by Les Bossinas

Frank R. Paul’s Quartz City on Mercury
February 21, 2010, 9:35 pm
Filed under: Fictional Worlds, Uncategorized

While it is something of Popeye-ism to say all fiction is fictional (“I yam what I yam”), science fiction is often thought of as more fictional, as it generally involves settings or characters or events so far from our definition of the here and now and “real” as to seem impossible or, at the very least, improbable until the coming of some remote future (the existence of which is itself speculative as no one now alive shall live long enough to attest to its reality). However, works of science fiction are often told through a proxy, a human (or human enough) “straight man,” whose presence mitigates or contextualizes the strange, an explorer from the near-real who voyages into the unreal, who acts as a pinkiehold of familiarity for an audience/readership dangling above an abyss of unfettered imagination (to put it rather floridly…). While this strategy is certainly not restricted to the genre (compare Sex and the City’’s relatively-normal narratrix Carrie with her cartoonish bffs), I would argue that its presence, rather than absence, is the rule in science fiction narratives.

Which is, perhaps, why Frank R. Paul’s illustrations for mid-century pulp magazines Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures are so arresting. His front-cover illustrations were tied to text and accordingly featured square-jawed spacemen and pneumatic blowup dolls fleeing from/attacking various tentacled or robotic intergalactic baddies. The back covers, however, were something far stranger: a pseudo-scientifically-explained ketchup-and-mustard toned tour through the architectural wonders of far off worlds . Though it is possible to divine shades of the Chrysler Building in his Golden City on Triton (no man can entirely disentangle himself from context and culture), the pictures are free of proxies: wasp-colored androids, portly seal princes and crimson bat-cat crosses aplenty, but no cut-and-paste humans to wink at readers and say “Look how weird this all is! But-never fear!-Team America is still the center of the Universe.” (for a survey of Paul’s oeuvre, see this excellent site)

Of course it’s far easier to evoke the fantastic in a static art form like illustration, which has no element of duration, no hundreds of pages or minutes over which the creator must try to maintain the integrity of his utterly alien vision. But imagine the saga of the Elder Things in H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness narrated not by ill-informed geologist William Dyer, but by the half-vegetable beasts themselves. Or James Cameron’s Avatar without the crutch of a human framework, in which the audience can appreciate the extravagant CGI imaginarium that is Pandora without being spoonfed the appropriate oohs and aahs by everyman Jake Sully.

And here a disclaimer-I happen to quite like the aforementioned novella and film, and I understand that the proxy trope is so prevalent precisely because it generally works, but as someone with an over-expansive  imagination I do occasionally wish for a science fiction that is less self-referential and self-centered, in which the Universe is more than a super-humongous mirror in which humanity is endlessly reflected. Perhaps such stories do exist in vast numbers (pardon moi, my ignorance is showing), or perhaps their absence can be explained by the difficulty of monetizing movies or books in which the heartthrob hero is a flagella-flailing protozoon and the ingenue an amorphous cloud of radiation…but wouldn’t such narratives be kind of, sort of, super-really awesome?

“Funny thing is, for a spaceship, she doesn’t do that much flying.”
February 15, 2010, 11:56 pm
Filed under: Fictional Worlds

I’ve always envisioned space travel through Star-Trek-colored-glasses, the Universe as a vast ocean, dotted with galactic atolls that fade (or zip) past the portholes of aerodynamically curvaceous space-boats.  And most science fiction space travel conforms to this maritime metaphor. Not so Doctor Who, with its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), which, in terms of conveyances, is gleefully “none of the above.” With its camouflage unit/chameleon circuit/cloaking device locked on a 1960s British police box, the TARDIS is decidedly non-aerodynamic (though aiming for aerodynamism in the relative vacuum of space is a bit like tilting at windmills) and non-futuristic (its wooden exterior is aesthetically almost steampunkian). But what does the TARDIS mean for narrative (not dimensional) time and space? Herewith, a scattershot of thoughts:

1. Though warp speed conveniently makes distant locations accessible within a 42-minute time slot, travel in the Star Trek universe still involves an investment of time and, accordingly, the physical distance between two points is still significant (the central tragedy of Star Trek Voyager is that, even in the 24th-century, one can be irrevocably far from home). But in Doctor Who, tardic travel involves no more than yanking and banging a few mysterious bits of metal and, sooner than David Tennant can flash his rakish grin, you’re galaxies away. Which begs the somewhat-zen question: if a journey takes no time, is it still a journey? If there is no downtime, no hours spent watching the road/wormhole zoom by, can there be pathos in distance? Answer: only when the TARDIS is thought to be irrevocably lost (see “The Impossible Planet”)–a straw man plot device as Doctor Who without its trademark magical box would make about as much sense as Buffy The Vampire Slayer sans vampires.

2. Instant gratification, something-for-nothing, is the name of the game when it comes to the TARDIS. “Hey attractive Earth girlie at least 880 years younger than me, want to see the formation of Earth or perhaps a planet made of diamonds? Just take a split-second ride in my tricked out TARDIS!” Or, similarly, “Hey stressed-out Doctor Who writer, need to come up with an episode post haste? Just choose a premise from all of fictional time and space with the added bonus of not having to provide a method/means/rationale of/for travel!” The TARDIS ship/plot device means that the show is essentially an infinite science fiction playground. Stories can vary wildly episode to episode, while problems of continuity and fixed points are limited to details of the TARDIS and characterizations of the Doctor and his companion du jour.

3. However, though the time/space teleportation mechanism is certainly convenient (the cure-all of speculative fiction), it is by no means arbitrary (and here the superficiality of my Who-ian knowledge begins to show–I refer only to Russell Davies’ recent run, never having seen the first, oh, 26-years of the series). The Eccleston/Tennant Doctor is a character on the run from his past (a tricky proposition for a Time Lord with a correspondingly tangled time line), having been forced to destroy his entire civilization, family, etc, cue the sobbing violins….The ADD of the show episode to episode, the Internet-Age-esque accessibility of endless distraction (thanks to the TARDIS), are a perfect refuge. If one never puts down roots, no need to remember those long lost. Adventure, not introspection! (which only makes the inevitable moments of melodramatic remembrance all the more affecting, le sigh, le sob–see “The Sound of Drums.”)

Space Travel + 2011 Budget
February 4, 2010, 8:58 pm
Filed under: Real Worlds

My initial reaction to the POTUS’s proposed 2011 budget was comprised mainly of fig-leaf pound signs, asterisks and sad-face emoticons.  Spockian in his pragmatism and logic (but not in the more-fun intergalactic space traveler sense), Obama had obviously let his concern with piddling trifles like “jobs” and “the economy” blind him to the sheer awesomeness of sending man back to the moon, of hop-skipping to Mars and into the capital “F” future. However, after reading the analyses of folks far better informed than me, I realized I was, uh, totally wrong. Herewith, three conclusions gleaned from my reading:

1. Though the Bush-era Constellation program promised to send man back to the moon, it contained little in the way of actual innovation. An Apollo rerun half a century later, though thrilling for those of us young enough to have missed it the first time around, is like playing a broken record during the age of mp3s (‘cept without the kind of hip retro connotations).

2. The Obamanian budget allocation for NASA amply funds (to the tune of 7.8 billion) the development of technology like docking mech and orbital fuel depots. Again, while such technologies will hardly whiz-bang-wow-the-couch-potato-crowd, they’re the nuts and bots of a Red Mars future. (ie you can’t blast to infinity and beyond without putting in infinite hours to make your blaster actually work)

3. Commercialization of travel to and from the ISS will hopefully mean greater investment in commercial space travel, in companies that exist not only to advance the noble cause of humanity blah-blah, but also to turn a profit. Which means that such companies will have the moolah to develop a two-buck chuck version of space travel. Which means that a schlub like me will someday be able to buy my way past the Karman Line instead of having to bother with getting an advanced degree in astrophysics, falsifying my medical records and becoming the sort of person a government agency would actually trust in the vacuum of space.