Thursday, August 20, 2009

Science Fiction and Bad Technology

From John Scalzi's list of badly designed stuff in Star Wars:
Yes, I know, I want one too. But I tell you what: I want one with a hand guard. Otherwise every lightsaber battle would consist of sabers clashing and then their owners sliding as quickly as possible down the shaft to lop off their opponent's fingers. You say: Lightsabers can slice through anything but another lightsaber, so what are you going to make a hand guard out of? I say: Dude, if you have the technology to make a lightsaber, you have the technology to make a light hand guard.

A tactical nightmare: They're incredibly loud, especially for firing what are essentially light beams. The fire ordnance is so slow it can be dodged, and it comes out as a streak of light that reveals your position to your enemies. Let's not even go near the idea of light beams being slow enough to dodge; that's just something you have let go of, or risk insanity.
Which brings me to the topic of how many science fiction plots turn on finding ways to make the technology not work. Surely by 2300 we will have self-aiming guns that never miss, but Star Wars, Star Trek, and tons of other sci-fi stories still feature guys blazing away with cool looking weapons that turn out to be a lot less effective than an AK-47. Lisa and I are always laughing at the number of different ways the Star Trek: Next Generation writers have found to keep their sensor array from working when they really need it. It's the niobium in the rocks! It's the magnetic storms! But at least the Enterprise has a sensor array, putting its crew at a distinct advantage to the poor slobs of Alien and Aliens, who are reduced to sort of peering around ineffectually whenever they encounter clouds or darkness.


Thomas said...

Of course, most of these technologies exist in the Star Trek to streamline the story in most cases. The transporter, for example, avoids the necessity of showing a shuttle head out every frickin' time the Enterprise gets to a planet. Unfortunately, the transporter would solve lots of problems, so they have to make them not work in the instances where it might quickly end an episode. (So, transporters don't work when sheilds are up, or during storms, or whatever.)

In a sense, the real fake-out is the technology itself. I mean, imagine all the things that could be done incidentally with transporter technology. It's unbelievably powerful, but the main use is just to quickly get people from one place to the other, and to make food (I'm assuming these are similar technologies.)

And I think picking on Alien and Aliens is a bit unfair. Both posit that space travel is fairly low-tech. The only technology they have that we don't really have is suspended animation pods and the ship drives. Oh, and some limited androids and AI computers.

More often, on Star Trek, they simply ignore that some people could solve a problem quickly. Troi's ability to read minds is an example.

(On an unrelated note, I'll never forget the moment of intense sympathy I had for a decent guest actor on The Next Generation. He gave a perfectly obvious performance of a man with something to hide, and then, when his scene was up, Troi tells Picard, "He's hiding something." Arrrrrgh.)

John said...

Well, sure, the "Alien" world is fairly low-tech, but we had radar in World War II, and they don't seem to have one on the ship they use to send their marines to the planetary surface. Any civilization that could cross interstellar space would surely have multi-band sensors at least as good as what we have in 2009. What's unfair about mocking them for peering into the dark?

Indeed transporters were a terrible idea that doomed Star Trek to illogic from the beginning. But back then they were just trying to make a tv show on budget and didn't know they were building a universe that would end up meaning so much to millions.