Saturday, September 02, 2006

Machine Dreams

Asimov’s second phase of sci-fi centered on science and technology themselves. The machinery imagined in the 30s and 40s—much of which became part of our lives in the 60s and since—took center stage as objects of fear and wonder, determining the future.

For some, future technologies were the essence of science fiction (some Star Trek commentators still stress this.) While these stories deal with dangers and misapplied technologies, they also suggest the wonder of what these technologies could do and how they expand the human presence and power in the universe.

Machine-centered sci-fi sought to convince readers these technologies were possible if not probable, and time was spent explaining how the technologies worked. The best authors created believability by showing how recognizable humans interact with these machines (to my mind, exemplified by the Russian sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem in Pirx the Pilot and other fictions.) At times, the technologies—particularly robots and space ships-- evinced personalities, and were often treated as characters.

Science was a basis for storytelling in other ways as well. A newly discovered or poorly understood scientific phenomenon could center a story, and scientifically-minded sci-fi heroes saved the day by applying their knowledge in large ways or small (as in the clever solutions used by the TV series hero, McGuyver.) Stories often offered a scientific basis for alien life on other planets, in general or in relation to a planet’s physical characteristics, or in explaining radically different forms of intelligent life.

Taking imaginary technology and the scientific possibilities of alien life so seriously became the defining characteristics of sci-fi fans in the public mind, and a source of ridicule. A divide arose between those who believed in the plausibility of these technologies and stories—for whom they were in that sense “real”—and those who reacted with alarm and contempt against fictional technologies or aliens as too strange and “unreal” began to define the sci-fi genre as outside the mainstream.

For their part, alienated fans and devotees of sci-fi pulps and novels began meeting in conventions and creating their own fan publications. It was this era of sci-fi that solidified the separation of science fiction from mainstream storytelling, and mainstream life. The characteristics of this era’s fiction, as well as the reaction to it, would become important in the development of the Star Trek universe, and in Star Trek’s history and fate.

Being grounded in science and reality was important especially in the conception of Star Trek’s universe in which all stories would take place. It not only honored an important element of sci-fi history (as “Tom Corbett” had done by hiring the eminent rocket expert Willy Ley as its science advisor) but it was also extremely important for television, for telling many stories over time.

For scientific accuracy, the Trek team consulted with scientists at RAND and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, involving technical matters at high and rarified levels, such as whether faster-than-light travel was possible, and if so, what principles might be involved in powering a craft through the immense distances between the stars.

But Roddenberry and other veterans could bring their own experience with large ships and large aircraft in World War II to the concept of a large starship and crew. The Trek team thought carefully about how many people would be aboard, where they would sleep and how they would eat. They thought about how the bridge would work best, and who would be on it. Where would the ideal place for the captain to be?

“My feeling was that if you didn’t believe in the spaceship,” Roddenberry said,”---if you didn’t believe you were in a vehicle traveling through space, a vehicle that made sense, whose layout and design made sense…then you wouldn’t believe in the series.”

As in many sci-fi stories, the ship—the Enterprise—was a major character. But this Enterprise was going to be seen, week after week, and most importantly, it had to be built. Star Trek created a believable, self-consistent technology, and believable, self-consistent universe.

But of course it didn’t sacrifice wonder. It was set in the future, so there was plenty of speculation and invention, generating ideas that forty years later is still generating actual new technologies.

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