Science Fiction Concepts – The Curse of Impatience

As usual and in no surprise to anyone how things happen in Sci-Fi films bears no resemblance (I hope) to how things would happen in a real mission.

Picture the scene, long journey, excitable explorers wanting to get out and see what’s there. To wait and carry out a survey is boring I mean come on we’ve come so far and it’s taken so long another day or two and I’m going to get really bored and start beating up the ship’s android.

You can see it now can’t you. I can…

They land and jump out and in no time one thing leads to another and horrific things are happening. Every time you can see what’s going to happen. The kind of thing that is going to go wrong.

Alien ship from the Alien films – No ownership claimed on image

Now I know science fiction is exactly that – fiction but let’s consider adding a little realism. If you’re winging it and things go balls up you get what you deserve but what happens if there’s a plan that’s executed, carried out and yet despite all the safeguards it all goes wrong.

What could be more terrifying than that?

A story I read once (I can’t remember what it was called or who it was from sorry) was about a human colonisation mission to another planet. They carried out surveys, landed the area was secured and the human colonisation started.

I local settlement warned them to go while they still could but of course they didn’t. The story ended with a really surprising twist. I was expecting there to be some kind of disease or other alien presence, but no. The robots, and all the other technology started failing, little by little it all went wrong until they were totally stranded. The metal of their ships and machines started to degrade (relatively) rapidly.

To me that’s terror, impatience is a costly thing and it’s the way a fool would do it. But when even the wise and intelligent can’t help themselves – then you’re really screwed.


© Simon Farnell 2020


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Science Fiction Concepts – The Space Age Command Structure

One aspect of science fiction that I think really needs looking at in many different stories and universes is the command structure. What do I mean by this? Surely any advanced space faring species would have a command structure that would reflect the society that they come from?

Sure, but why does it have to be the military structure that is duplicated time and again? Let me explain what I mean:

Scenario 1: Battle

The starship Enterprise (or whatever becasue it’s not just confined to that now) had got three Klingon warships attacking it from different angles. To defend itself, the Enterprise is covered in weapons and yet becasue the captain is human pile of walking mush that can only handle a certain amount of things going on at one time only a fraction of the defence capability is being used.

Let’s get real here. One man or woman / being cannot process an influx of data about damage control, position of attacking craft and how / what to shoot first. Even in this day and age computer warfare systems are able to identify multiple (by this I mean many) threats, prioritise them and take them out accordingly.
It’s fair to say that in the future things will have moved on (likely on both sides which kind of means war is a bit pointless but that’s another topic) so the commander will actually say “Computer. See those nasty Cylons or Borg or whatever – can you please kindly take them out for me. Thanks a lot.”

That will be it. Job done. The computers will be assigning the right things to do the right job and the human brain will not explode from stress.

Scenario 2: Landing Party

A small group of the starship Enterprise have landed on a planet and the Captain needs to be informed of anything before a decision is to be made. But as always some alien interference is stopping this so the landing part are lost and confused. It seems that being detached from the command structure is a big problem.

This point here can also be transferred across the other three points. I think it’s safe to say that mission and function leads will be autonomous. They will have to be trusted to do their jobs as one commander cannot possibly be all over the place. So this means a much flatter structure and probably a less authoritarian one. The commander is there to guide and give very high level strategic instructions like:

1) Take out that annoying alien base.
2) Find the glowing swirling thing that we want.
3) Have a chat with these locals – but I really don’t want to annoy them.

That kind of thing. How the team does this is down to the mission lead.

Scenario 3: Ship / Base / Facility Functions

Here we have a ship of facility of some kind with maybe hundreds or thousands of people on board and the commander has to authorise every little thing that’s going on. Thi si often seen by the commander being given a pad to give authority by a junior rate. 

As in the bit above it’s safe to say that key function will be handled by function leads running their own sections. Whether it’s authorising engine maintenance, or security details or… whatever. Most of it the commander won’t see and will only hear about. They don’t want to know becasue they would have told everyone how they want the job done.

Don’t bore them while we’re exploring Orion’s nebula or working out how to stop an asteroid crashing into a planet or something. 


So that’s my take on sci-fi command structures. The old style military thing of know every detail micromanaging can’t be handled by one person. It can’t, not when you have so many more systems just to stay alive  – let alone do anything. How this comes across is a little hard becasue even I know that it’s easy to use this blueprint.

What are your thoughts?


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Star Trek Discovery: Taking the adventure to undiscovered places

For those of you that don’t know Star Trek Discovery is a new series in the the Star Trek universe brought out earlier in the year. Set just a few years before Kirk takes command of the Enterprise I was originally quite disappointed with the concept and didn’t think it would be particularly interesting.

The nag in my mind was really about how anything new could be done with the Star Trek universe by going back to an old and fairly familiar time in the Star Trek universe.

I was… believe it or not quite wrong.

The first few episodes don’t even include the Discovery, the story instead focuses on a young Starfleet Commander, Micheal Burnham serving aboard a starship that inadvertently stumbles across Klingon incursions in Federation space and a new threat from the Klingons as they try to unite to preserve their race. This leaves Michael finding herself mutinying against her Captain and then finding herself face court martial and life imprisonment. 

Finding herself on board the Discovery’s Captain, Gabriel Lorca offers her a place in the Discoveries crew against the orders of Starfleet command. So begins the story of the Discovery.


The Discovery

The first few episodes in the series don’t even include the new starship. I knew this before I watched it and even the I was wondering – when the hell is it going to turn up and lo and behold it does!

They’re clever with the story and don’t give it all away at once. Michael and her fellow convicts are rescued by the Discovery and the immediately notice that there are differences with this starship. It leaves you guessing what’s going on and letting you find out little nibbles of information on what the discovery is all about.


The Spore Drive

You read it right… spores. As well as having a conventional faster than light warp drive the Discovery also has a prototype ‘spore’ drive that can be used to potentially take the Discovery and it’s crew to any point in the galaxy instantly. 

The spinning saucer modules at the front of the ship all seem to be part of this and when activate the ship does this weird spinning, jiggle thing and vanishes off. 

I’m not really enamoured with the term ‘spore drive’ as it sounds a bit naff, but in essence that what this new drive system is. Running off energy spores found in the galaxy so I can’t argue it. 


The early episodes really centre a lot around Michael and how being convicted has changed her perspectives and attitudes to life and Starfleet. Lorca offers Michael a life line back to serving in starfleet and she’s soon getting into the thick of finding out what discovery is about and why it’s so important.

The series raises a lot of questions around ethics, really it’s a big part of it- certainly at first. The spore drive is a new system and the questions of sacrifice around making this drive system work keep coming up. Whether an alien life form is to be used to make it work until it dies or a human crewmate this highlights starkly the cost of progress. Using this technology against the Kingons seems to justify many of the sacrifices made. As usual in war when you’re losing or suffering it stands almost that any action can be justified.

At the end of the series comes the bombshell, something I never guessed certainly and in case you’ve not seen it I won’t spoil it for you. But when other dimensions come into play all kinds of weird things happen let’s just put it like that. 


Discovery is a very new spin on the old Trek idea and it works by bringing its own identity rather than trying to make it fit with the originals. But then of course at the very end… the original catches up with it.

NOTE: No ownership claimed on images or gifs – all credit to CBS / Netflix  / Whoever they belong to.


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Science Fiction Concepts – My conflict with the Star Trek universe

For as long as I can remember the Star Trek universe has been going. I grew up with the original series frequently repeated (as I’m too young to have seen it when it originally came out before any of you cheeky lot ask) and liking but not really understanding what Star Trek was all about. Move on to my late teens and into my twenties and the Next Generation. This for me was required viewing, especially for a sci fi geek like myself and don’t get me wrong I like it a lot, it’s clever and there’s lots of great concepts turning into interesting story lines.

But looking at it in detail there are some big issues and it’s all based around the concept of reality and the compromise that comes with it. Firstly, not wishing to state the obvious, they live on a space ship or space station. But really you wouldn’t realise it in many ways. Apart from the odd window with stars outside it’s a city in space, there’s no drawback to living on a spaceship. No area’s of zero G, no health drawbacks, no limits on how long the ship can function without running out of food or air.

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This slips nicely into the second point which is kind of the same but different. Life is really easy. I mean for the crew they get up, have a coffee (or tea, earl grey – hot), drag themselves to their station, do their job fighting Klingons for a bit or re-aligning some pattern buffers and then back for tea and bed after having a laugh with some fellow crew members. Basically, everything is run from electricity, run by the reactor core which needs the good old dilithium crystals.

This also leads nicely onto my next thing, they solve problems really easily. In the Martian you really got the sense that Watney was always minutes from dying. But get the Enterprise near a Black Hole – the most powerful force in the universe  and despite no one ever having survived such a scenario before a quick realignment of warp coils and tinkering with some pattern buffers and all is good.

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Now lets get onto the real nitty gritty – fuel. In spacecraft the fuel takes up 90% of the volume of a space vehicle. But on on – not the Enterprise. Sure the warp core can be relatively small but the tiny fuel tank is meant to hold enough fuel to last the ship six years if used right. Seriously – I don’t think so.

As I said before – Star Trek has been really clever in what it’s brought to the world over the years. But I think if a little more real life compromise and all is brought into it there there’s another level of possibility. What do you Sci Fi fans out there think? Are there any Star Trek or other franchises that wind you up?

 

Planet Simon

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Science Fiction Concepts – Spaceships and why they’re wrong!

As I’ve been looking at concepts recently one thought has occured to me, spacecraft come in all kind of different shapes and sizes and there are different methods of driving them where the engines go and how they work but it kind of seems like one thing seems to stick.

The pilot is always looking forward out of a window.

Why is this? In a universe of galactic proportions trust me no one is going to be guiding a spaceship visually. It seems to me that the spaceship is an evolution of the aeroplane and apart from light aircraft much of the time they’re not being piloted by sight either.

Let me explain this – in the aviation world planes are flown to two rules:

VFR – Visual flight rules or

IFR – Instrument flight rules.

Basically you’re either flying by sight or by instruments. Most commercial or military aircraft are flown by IFR most of the time, but becasue things go wrong sometimes they might need to look out of a window. The same rules can’t apply to spaceflight where the craft isn’t going to be flown like a plane and this is why:

  1. There’s nothing to see in space, eyeballing a target is extremely inaccurate.
  2. Most of the things that affect space travel can’t be seen, so you need to use the instruments.
  3. You’re not going to use a window to train weapons on an approaching Klingon ship becasue you’ll miss.

On top of this as well, it needs considering that even at the mere thousands of miles per hour that space probes fly at a grain of dust can cause huge damage or destroy a spacecraft. Going at this speed or faster will do the same or worse for a manned spacecraft, so image what travelling faster than light will do? Or even an enemy’s energy weapon?

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Sure I know they gloss over this or invented shields to protect the crew but some inescapable thoughts comes to mind here:

  1. The crew or pilot don’t use or need a window.
  2. Having an exposed ‘bridge’ or command centre is extremely dangerous.
  3. The command stations needs moving within the spacecraft.
  4. Any equipment or ducting that does anything is never placed on the outer hull.
  5. Spacechips aren’t surrounded by air, there doesn’t need to be wings.
  6. Engines at the back? Why? It’s not flying it can travel in any direction any thrust gives it.

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Now why do I mention that last point?

Well have a look at many of the spacecraft created for science fiction. Because the model makers want to embellish the design of the spacecraft there are pipes, ducting, equipment and generally a lot of messing about.

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To me this is unnecessary and if this was a real spacecraft also kind of stupid. Let use the example of an enemy’s weapon, you really don’t want to be carrying out a dangerous and lengthy EVA to fix the problem. So – keep it inside behind armour.

The propulsion is also something that gets me, great big boosters pushing the ship forward with thrusters to guide – it’s in space! Be more inventive! How about a propulsion system that is around the craft and able to push it in any vector necessary? It’s not like it’s an airplane – for this reason also spaceships and wings? Cute… but what the hell are they doing? Where’s the air in space that needs them?


 

When I look deeper into this and this is especially true with the likes of Star Trek and Star Wars it’s what’s inside the spaceship.

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Cutaway picture of Enterprise – E from Pinterest

We’ve got huge amount of living space with a tiny powerplant and a little bit of antimatter at the bottom of it. Hmmm… I’m no physicist but I’m betting that travelling between the stars will use a humongous amount of fuel, so much so that it would take up about 80% of the space inside it. But hey, it’s science fiction eh?

 


 

There is one thing with this though – the spaceships that I think are probably real in my mind are a little boring. They don’t need aerodynamics, they don’t need a window to pilot with the control centre is deep inside the craft and 80% of it is a fuel tank. It’s all a bit monolithic. The spaceships we see in science fiction may not hold up to engineering or scientific excellence but they do get you excited and that of course is what it’s all about.

 

Planet Simon

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Science Fiction Greats – Has the new blood run out of Concepts?

I grew up with all the Sci-Fi greats Star Wars, Star Trek, 2001 etc… What was the thing that made them great though? I don’t want to say it was just the concepts, really it was about how these films made you feel.

I still get goosebumps watching Darth Vader going about being evil in Star Wars, at the rebel fighters preparing to attack the Death Star and at the starship Enterprise escaping death from the Genesis weapon. Even the allegedly ‘boring’ film 2001 A Space Odyssey is purely terrifying at times and if not you don’t understand what’s going on.

 


 

Modern Sci-Fi

Now I don’t want to sound all Monty Python and ‘when I we’re a lad’ type of thing but it seems things made ages ago was better because I’m kind of feeling like the modern sci=fi that carrying on form these original greats is leaving me more than a little underwhelmed.

I think looking at this in a little detail is needed. Firstly lets look at 2001, an alien race and unknown object that seems to traverse time and space. A supercomputer that can interact with humans and also kill them and on top of this a whole human world living in space which in 1968 before man landed on the moon was out there in terms of sci fi.

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Star Trek

The basic concept was the starship Enterprise, a vessel that could travel between the stars in days or hours. With this we has phasers, transporters and other advanced technology.

 

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When the next generation launched the concept was expanded with holodecks and a humanoid android.

Star Wars

This favourite space opera of many brought us the Death Star, the Jedi, the force as well as iconic symbols like R2D2 and the Millenium Falcon.

 

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Forbidden Planet

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Going back even before 2001 to the 1950’s the scifi concepts were pretty awesome and still hold up today, Robbie the Robot, The Krell – and alien race that possessed awesome power, wireless technology and the power to project force by thought.


 

Now let’s fast forward. The latest Star Trek, Discovery has gone back in time as the previous series Enterprise did. There is no new technology or thinking as you can’t do that when you’re looking backwards. I’ve not had chance to catch up with Discovery yet, but I find the concept somewhat uninspiring.

st discovery

Despite the fact that Star Wars is looking forward it’s kind of not done much that’s new. Sure we have much bigger Star Destroyers but how big do you need them when they still keep getting blown up? The light sabre duels are fairly crap if I’m honest, this is where I have to say I didn’t mind the prequels. They brought more to the Star Wars universe than the sequels have and the light sabre duels or handling was epic.

My thoughts on the Last Jedi are so mixed. It looks like they brought back the old cast to kill them off, they have wasted an epic opportunity and not given the fans what they wanted. This is going to cost the franchise in the long run. It seems now Disney is just interested in getting their money back and while I liked Rogue One all these new films aren’t going to help I don’t think. But we’ll see.

 

It seems like maybe our long standing much loved story lines have lost heir vision and maybe we’ve lost our visionaries, or even worse they’re not appreciated because the big bucks is in action like Pacific Rim. Where giant beasts and robots battle it out.

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It’s not all scifi gloom, some real gems have come about in the last few years like Interstellar and the Martian. Both of these films took on totally different approaches and I enjoyed both for what they were.

 

The other story I’ve also been excited about is Guardians of the Galaxy. There’s been two films and I hope there’s more but with Infinity War due out this is likely to end right?

guardians of the galaxy

 

I never read the comics when I was younger but I wish I had, the films have been great and they’ve got a feel that like nothing else that’s been out before.

I think the stark reality is that the long running stories like Star Wars, Star Trek and even Tron have been left far to long before doing more with them and when they did they have not done the best they could have. That’s a shame. But it’s big universe and who knows what can happen.

Let’s hope the visionaries return.

Planet Simon

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