Posts Tagged Star Trek

What Should Science Fiction Do?

I’m a science fiction writer.  While only a very few people have read any of my works, (mainly editors and critique group members), I do have wide-ranging opinions on the subject and have presented them in this forum occasionally over the past several years.  Science fiction can be a powerful medium for examining the human condition, for teaching us about ourselves as human beings and as stewards of the land and water on this blue and green and white and brown planet we live on.  I believe it should be used largely in that way.  Most sci-fi does that.

But sometimes sci-fi presents works that seem to defy that concept.  Not that that’s inherently bad, but that it goes against my grain when sci-fi runs off the deep end and simply blathers on about nothing in particular.  The most particular example of this is the character of “Q” in the Star Trek universe.

“Q” is an all-powerful character, capable of doing anything “he” wants.  (“Q” is played by a male actor, but there’s nothing about “him” that insists he has to be male.)  And I mean “anything” in the most literal sense of the word.  He could change the gravitational constant of the universe if he chose.  Can you imagine?  What power!  What immense omnipotence!  Such vast strength!  While the episodes in which “Q” appears have been well-written and are actually quite entertaining (“Q” does bring a little humor to the otherwise staid bridge crew on the Enterprise), I wonder if “Q” really serves a purpose in science fiction.  He’s waaay too powerful.  Like a god that could strike down anyone he/she wanted at any time.  I suspect he was devised to show how we humans would react to being put in the presence of such a powerful being, of such an all-powerful entity.  In the first episode in which he appears, he puts the entire human race on trial for crimes against—well, I’ve never been sure against what—but is eventually persuaded not to obliterate all humans by Captain Picard and the others.

“To obliterate all humans.”  Does this serve the basic interests of science fiction?  What do we learn from this?  Were there a real entity such as “Q” in the universe, it’s likely we’d all be dead by now.  “Q” is so far above all the known physical laws and concepts of this universe that his existence is inherently impossible.

I suppose “Q” does play a role in teaching us about how it is possible for an individual or small group to go up against a larger organization and still win, (“you can fight city hall”)  but in terms of the broader science fiction universe, “Q” is so unwieldly as to be almost unworkable.  And unimportant.  I suggest we keep our characters more modest.  Let us invent characters we can relate to.  Characters like ourselves.  Characters who show us the way, rather than running so far ahead we can’t keep up.

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The Prime Directive

If you are a fan of the television and movie Star Trek series, and dating from the earliest series of programs which are usually called “Star Trek, The Original Series,” then you are doubtlessly familiar with the concept of the “Prime Directive.”  That was an order that took the form of an unalterable and non-revocable mandate from the fictional quasi-military group that ran space exploration and defense on the show, Starfleet, that no Starfleet space ship or its crew was to ever interfere in the development of life on any other planet or moon or asteroid or whatnot out there.  It was a court-martial offense and carried a severe penalty.  (Death?)  In other words, leave things alone.  During the series, several Starfleet officers ran afoul of the Directive and had to answer for their indiscretion.

Now, I suppose the concept of such a broad, overreaching regulation must have been derived from a desire in the mind of the creators of the Star Trek universe that in the future of real spaceflight, humans should not alter or change the natural progress of life-form development anywhere in the expanding universe.  It’s a noble concept and far-reaching in its enforcement, though it was used as much as a dramatic prop to enhance tension and conflict in the show as it was to provide a broad definition and desire of things to come.

Star Trek was fiction, of course, but I find myself wondering if we need a “Prime Directive” today.  In the Star Trek universe, spaceships could travel almost anywhere, and meeting new life forms and even well-developed civilizations was an everyday occurrence.  (I noticed that if the crew of a Starfleet vessel met a highly developed civilization, the Prime Directive didn’t seem to apply in reverse.  Let Starfleet get as much information as it could from other highly-developed civilizations.)  So, I ask the question, do we on Earth in our present-day infant-like crude, rocket-powered spaceships that have gotten us only into orbit and to the moon, really need a form of the “Prime Directive,” or is it too early in our space program to even worry about that?

I say we do.  We do need some sort of general, overall “directive” in our space research.  Granted, we’re not likely to meet the Klingons or the Romulans any time soon, but we do send out non-crewed probes to regions which crewed spacecraft cannot yet penetrate.  We’ve already landed on the moon, and humans will touch down on Mars within the next few years, that is almost certain.  We’ve put non-crewed spacecraft on Venus and a couple of asteroids and a comet.  So what?  What is the danger in doing that?

The danger is that we will leave something behind that has the potential to interfere with the natural development of life on those worlds and even more.  That “thing” is nucleic acids, both DNA and RNA.  It’s too late for the moon and Mars and the others, they’re already contaminated, but it’s not too late for other heavenly bodies.  We’re looking at Callisto and Europa, moons of Jupiter, as possible incubators of life, and even thinking of sending a probe to land on them and take a sample.  But we need to keep in mind that it’s almost impossible to clean something so immaculate that all DNA and RNA are removed.  I’m talking every last molecule of DNA or RNA.  Sterilization may inactivate any living organism, but there’s no guarantee that it will eliminate ALL DNA and RNA too.  I’ve worked with DNA and RNA, and they’re everywhere, in bacteria and fungi and viruses, in human secretions such as sweat and saliva.  I maintain it’s virtually impossible to assure that a spacecraft will be totally nucleic acid free when it touches down on a new planet or moon.  And that’s the only thing it could ever be if we want to land on virgin planets.  The best thing to do in this situation is to stay away.  Totally.  Permanently.  Forever.  And we need a “Prime Directive” as a part of our space program to help enforce that concept.  Even the slightest amount of DNA or RNA could alter the development of life on a virgin planet for all time to come.  Or even start life development in a strange direction on a totally sterile planet.  The creators of Star Trek had it right.  We should not live up to that as our ultimate potential.

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Suspending Disbelief

If you read much fiction, especially science fiction or fantasy, you may have heard of the phrase “the willing suspension of disbelief.”  It’s used to indicate a willingness on the part of a reader to accept as real the descriptions, the materiality, the phenomena and/or the validity of a world which does not exist in this universe, and in some cases, could not exist under any circumstances.  You do it probably a lot more than you think.  In some stories, for example, the novel To Kill A Mockingbird, many things in the novel could be real, even though the characters aren’t.  We know that Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem, Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, and all the others don’t exist and have never lived, but everything about the town of Maycomb does seem real and could really be true.  The lynching of a black man is real.  It has happened.  And it takes place in Alabama, a real state.  But when we read the book or watch the movie, we are willing to put ourselves in that town in that era and accept what’s happening.  It becomes real to us, if only for a short time.

On the other hand, what in the TV series Star Trek seems real?  Only a few things, such as San Francisco, where Star Fleet headquarters is located, and some of the humanoid characters—James Kirk, Captain Picard, etc.  But everything else in this series is so unlikely and non-real, especially a space vehicle that is capable of traveling many times faster than the speed of light.  It’s so far out of touch with current concepts of space travel that it seems ridiculous just to think about.  Yet we watch.  We suspend our disbelief to a much greater degree than with Atticus Finch, but suspend it we do, and we enjoy the show.

The term “willing suspension of disbelief” was apparently coined by the British author and poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1815.  He used it to refer to the fiction of his day, which didn’t include science fiction, though there were some elements of fantasy in some works prior to that time.  (For example, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.)  After all, the first real science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, didn’t appear until January, 1818, and Jules Verne, who published his groundbreaking sci-fi in the latter half of the 19th Century, hadn’t gotten started yet either.  I doubt that Coleridge ever had any idea how far his phrase would be taken in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

But while the term refers to the acceptance of a fictional universe, it refers to what is, I believe, essentially a passive action.  We simply let ourselves go and accept what the author has to offer.  But I submit that there is really an active process in which we are engaged when reading science fiction.  Especially good science fiction which fleshes out a non-real or fantastical world in so much detail we can actually see ourselves living there.  Or at least visiting.  A reader has to actively submit to the author’s world and allow him/herself to be transported there.  We see and smell and taste and touch and hear things the author has not even suggested or described because we are so intensely embedded in that world we instinctively know more about it than the description has suggested.  This is a much more active process than just accepting the non-real world for the duration of the novel or the movie.  For example, can’t you just feel the heat and humidity of an Alabama summer without air-conditioning?

As a science fiction author, I became aware of this requirement of a sci-fi novel only slowly over a period of many years.  (Too many years to list here.)  To keep a reader’s attention, the world has to be believable, and well to the end of the novel.  I’ve tried to set up the fictional worlds and characters in my novels to seem real, to draw the reader in and keep him/her there, but time will tell whether readers agree.

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A Serious Lack Of Imagination

I believe there is a serious lack of imagination in science fiction today.  At least in one particular facet of the genre.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at some recent results that have come from the world of astronomy.  For more than four years, the Kepler Space Telescope has been observing a star called KIC 8462852, looking for planets that might orbit it.  The telescope has not merely identified a potential planet it by the tiny dip in the amount of light the star emits when the planet moves across the face of it—as seen from Earth, of course—but has actually recorded a remarkable variation in the light emitted, much more variation than could be caused by the transit of one planet.  What’s caused the variation?  No one really knows, but some astronomers think it could be due to a swarm of comets or other asteroidal material around the star.  Or it might be might be variations in the light from the star itself.  But the explanation that became the most popular, and the one the press jumped on, is the possibility that the variation is caused by the inhabitants of one or more planets around the star building a Dyson sphere, and their partially completed structure is responsible.

To this I say, nonsense.  It’s possible, of course, and I don’t have any information to rule that out, but what concerns me is the lack of imagination that brought that possibility to light.  If there is as civilization on one or more planets around KIC 8462852, the chances are that they would be so vastly different from ours that the possibility of a Dyson sphere might never occur to them.  The concept of a Dyson sphere originated here on Earth.  We’ve never seen a Dyson sphere anywhere.  Why should we be so arrogant in our thinking as to ascribe it to a totally alien civilization?  We see some variation in the light from a star and we automatically say “Dyson sphere.”  If a civilization exists on a planet around that star, they may have other ideas, ideas that might never occur to us.

Let’s look at this from another viewpoint.  I’ve been watching the older Doctor Who episodes recently, and it and other well-known sci-fi programs such as Star Wars and Star Trek have one thing in common: the aliens are overwhelmingly android in appearance.  That is, they are just variations on the human anatomy.  Even the aliens that supposedly came from the spaceship that crashed near Roswell, NM, are android in appearance.  Green in color, but generally human.  No matter where Doctor Who went, the aliens were largely humanoid.  Again, extremely unlikely.

I think we have to keep in mind, both scientifically and science-fiction wise, that aliens from other planets are not going to look like us, either exactly—think of Luke Skywalker—or only vaguely, as the Roswell aliens.  They’ll be wildly different in anatomy and physiology, so different, in fact, we may not even recognize them if we see them.  And if they’re different in anatomy and physiology, they’ll be different in their ability to conceptualize too.  A good example is H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.  The creatures inside the pods that blasted London back at the turn of the 20th century were not humanoid at all, and I’m surprised more authors didn’t jump on that idea and continue the trend.  I suppose it may be easier to get readers and movie viewers to identify with an alien if they’re generally human in appearance—think of the cantina scene in Star Wars-A New Hope.   But each instance of that just perpetuates that (most likely) erroneous concept.

I have to admit that I’m as guilty as anyone in adopting that notion.  All three of my science-fiction novels use aliens from other planets that are generally humanoid in shape and structure.  I did write a novelette about two humans (from Earth) caught by aliens who were not humanoid at all, but as yet I haven’t gotten it published because it’s hard to get a story of about 22,000 words published when you haven’t published anything else in sci-fi at all.

In short, forget about running into Klingons out there.  It isn’t going to happen.  We need more stories about non-humanoid characters.  I suppose in the movies, especially, it’s easier to get an actor to dress up in a monster costume than it is to construct a non-humanoid one and mechanize it so precisely that it looks like it could be real.  Admittedly, that could be very expensive.  But in books and short stories, authors aren’t bound by that limitation.  The characters take shape in the reader’s minds, and that’s not limited to anything.

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