Building Future Worlds…

inspirationIn the course of becoming an indie writer, there is one aspect of the creative process which keeps coming back to me. To put it simply, it is the challenges and delights of world building – i.e. creating the background, context, and location in which a story takes place. For years, I have been reading other people’s thoughts on the subject, be they authors themselves or just big fans of literary fiction.

But my own experience with the process has taught me much that I simply couldn’t appreciate before I picked up my pen and pad (or in this case, opened a word doc and began typing). Ad lately, the thoughts have been percolating in my mind and I felt the need to write them out. Having done that, I thought I might share them in full.

alien-worldFor starters, being a science fiction writer presents a person with particular opportunities for creative expression. But at the same time, it presents its share of particular challenges. While one is certainly freer to play around with space, place, and invent more freely than with most other genres, they are still required to take into account realism, consistency and continuity in all that they do.

Sooner or later, the world a writer builds will be explored, mapped, and assessed, and any and all inconsistencies are sure to stick out like a sore thumb! So in addition to making sure back-stories, timelines and other details accord with the main plot, authors also need to be mindful of things like technology, physical laws, and the nature of space and time.

self-aware-colonyBut above all, the author in question has to ask themselves what kind of universe they want to build. If it is set in the future, they need to ask themselves certain fundamental questions about where human beings will be down the road. Not only that, they also need to decide what parallels (and they always come up!) they want to draw with the world of today.

Through all of this, they will be basically deciding what kind of message they want to be sending with their book. Because of course, anything they manage to dream up about the future will tell their readers lots about the world the author inhabits, both in the real sense and within their own head. And from what I have seen, it all comes down to five basic questions they must ask themselves…

1. Near-Future/Far Future:
future-city3When it comes to science-fiction stories, the setting is almost always the future. At times, it will be set in an alternate universe, or an alternate timeline; but more often than not, the story takes place down the road. The only question is, how far down the road? Some authors prefer to go with the world of tomorrow, setting their stories a few decades or somewhere in the vicinity of next century.

By doing this, the author in question is generally trying to show how the world of today will determine the world of tomorrow, commenting on current trends and how they are helping/hurting us. During the latter half of the 20th century, this was a very popular option for writers, as the consensus seemed to be that the 21st century would be a time when some truly amazing things would be possible; be it in terms of science, technology, or space travel.

1984_John_HurtOther, less technologically-inclined authors, liked to use the not-so-distant future as a setting for dystopian, post-apocalytpic scenarios, showing how current trends (atomic diplomacy, arms races, high tech, environmental destruction) would have disastrous consequences for humanity in the near-future. Examples of this include Brave New World, 1984, The Iron Heel, The Chrysalids, and a slew of others.

In all cases, the totalitarian regimes or severe technological and social regression that characterized their worlds were the result of something happening in the very near-future, be it nuclear or biological war, a catastrophic accident, or environmental collapse. Basically, humanity’s current behavior was the basis for a cautionary tale, where an exaggerated example is used to illustrate the logical outcome of all this behavior.

arrakis-duneAt the other end of the spectrum, many authors have taken the long view with their sci-fi world building. Basically, they set their stories several centuries or even millennia from now. In so doing, they are able to break with linear timelines and the duty of having to explain how humanity got from here to there, and instead could focus on more abstract questions of existence and broader allegories.

Examples of this include Frank Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation series, both of which were set tens of thousands of years in the future. In both of these universes, humanity’s origins and how they got to where they were took a backseat to the historical allegories that were being played upon. While some mention is given to the origins of humanity and where they came from, little attempt is made to draw a line from the present into the future.

foundation_coversInstead, the focus is overwhelmingly on the wider nature of human beings and what drives us to do the things we do. Asimov drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to make a point about the timeless nature of history, while Herbert drew on the modern age, medieval and ancient history, religion, philosophy, and evolutionary biology and ecology to investigate the timeless nature of humanity and what factors shape it.

For non-purists, Star Wars and Star Trek can also serve as examples of both tendencies in action. For decades, Star Trek used a not-too-distant future setting to endlessly expound on the human race and the issues it faces today. And always, this examination was done in the form of interstellar travel, the crew of the Enterprise going form world to world and seeing themselves in the problems, norms and social structure of other races.

coruscantStar Wars, on the other hand, was an entirely different animal. For the people living in this universe, no mention is ever made of Earth, and pre-Republic history is considered a distant and inaccessible thing. And while certain existential and social issues are explored (i.e. racism, freedom and oppression), the connections with Earth’s past are more subtle, relying on indirect clues rather than overt comparisons.

The Republic and the Empire, for example, is clearly inspired by Rome’s own example. The Jedi Code is very much the picture of the Bushido code, its practitioners a sort of futuristic samurai, and the smugglers of Tatooine are every bit the swashbuckling, gun toting pirates and cowboys of popular fiction. But always, the focus seemed to more on classically-inspired tales of destiny, and of epic battles of good versus evil.

And of course, whether we are talking near future or far future has a big influence on the physical setting of the story as well. Which brings me to item two…

2. Stellar or Interstellar:100,000starsHere is another important question that every science fiction author has faced, and one which seriously influences the nature  of the story. When it comes to the world of tomorrow, will it be within the confines of planet Earth, the Solar System, or on many different world throughout our galaxy? Or, to go really big, will it encompass the entire Milky Way, or maybe even beyond?

Important questions for a world-builder, and examples certainly abound. In the former case, you have your dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and near future seenarios, where humanity is stuck living on a hellish Earth that has seen better days. Given that humanity would not be significantly more adavanced than the time of writing, or may have even regressed due to the downfall of civilization, Earth would be the only place people can live.

Gaia_galaxyBut that need not always be the case. Consider Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. In his dystopian, post-apocalyptic tale, Earth was devestated by nuclear war, forcing the wealthiest and healthiest to live in the Offworld Colonies while everyone who was too poor or too ravaged by their exposure to radiation was confined to Earth. Clearly, dystopia does not rule out space travel, though it might limit it.

And in the latter case, where human beings have left the cradle and begun walking amongst our System’s other planets and even the stars, the nature of the story tends to be a bit more ambiguous. Those who choose such a setting tend to be of the opinion that mankind either needs to reach out in order to survive, or that doing so will allow us to shed some of our problems.

chasm_city_2Examples abound here again, but Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe seems like the ideal one here. In this series, humanity has access to near-light speed travel, nanotechnology, brain-computer interfacing, neural uploading, AI, smart materials, and has colonized dozens of new worlds. However, the state of humanity has not changed, and on many worlds, civil war and sectarian violence are common.

In either case, the setting also bears a direct relation to the state of technology in the story. For humans still living on Earth (and nowhere else) in the future, chances are, they are about as advanced or even behind the times in which the story was written. For those living amongst the stars, technology would have to advanced sufficiently to make it happen. Which brings me to the next point…

3. High-Tech or Low-Tech:
Star_Trek_SpacedockWhat would a work of science fiction be without plenty of room for gadgets, gizmos, and speculation about the future state of technology? And once more, I can discern of two broad categories that an author can choose from, both of which have their share of potential positives and negatives. And depending on what kind of story you want to write, the choice of what that state is often predetermined.

In the former case, there is the belief that technology will continue to advance in the future, leading to things like space travel, FTL, advanced cyborgs, clones, tricorders, replicators, artificial intelligence, laser guns, lightsabers, phasers, photon torpedoes, synthetic humans, and any number of other fun, interesting and potentially dangerous things.

BAMA_3With stories like these, the purpose of high-tech usually serves as a framing device, providing visual evidence that the story is indeed taking place in the future. In other words, it serves a creative and fun purpose, without much thought being given towards exploring the deeper issues of technological progress and determinism.  But this not be the case, and oftentimes with science fiction, high-tech serves a different purpose altogether.

In many other cases, the advance of technology is directly tied to the plot and the nature of the story. Consider cyberpunk novels like Neuromancer and the other novels of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. In these and other cyberpunk novels, the state of technology – i.e. cyberpsace decks, robotic prosthetics, biotech devices – served to illustrate the gap between rich and poor and highlighting the nature of light in a dark, gritty future.

65By contrast, such post-cyberpunk novels as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age took a different approach. While high-tech and its effects on society were explored in great detail, he and other authors of this sub genre chose to break with their predecessors on one key issue. Namely, they did not suppose that the emergence of high-tech would lead to dystopia, but rather an ambiguous future where both good and harm resulted.

And at the other end of the spectrum, where technology is in a low state, the purpose and intent of this is generally the same. On the one hand, it may serve as a plot framing device, illustrating how the world is in a primitive state due to the collapse of civilization as we know it, or because our unsustainable habits caught up with us and resulted in the world stepping backwards in time.

a_boy_and_his_dogAt the same time, the very fact that people live in a primitive state in any of these stories serves the purpose of  commentary. Simply by showing how our lives were unsustainable, or the actions of the story’s progenitor’s so foolish, the author is making a statement and asking the reader to acknowledge and ponder the deeper issue, whether they realize it or not.

At this end of things, A Boy and His Dog and Mad Max serve as good examples. In the former case, the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape where a lone boy and his genetically-engineered talking dog rove the landscape in search of food and (in the boy’s case) sexual gratification. Here, the state of technology helps to illustrate the timeless nature of the human condition, namely how we are essentially the products of our environment.

pursuit_specialIn Mad Max as well, the way roving gangs are constantly looking for gasoline, using improvised weapons, and riding around in vehicles cobbled together from various parts gives us a clear picture of what life is like in this post-collapse environment. In addition, the obvious desperation created by said collapse serves to characterize the cultural landscape, which is made up of gangs, tinpot despots, and quasi-cults seeking deliverance.

But on the other hand, the fact that the world exists in this state due to collapse after the planet’s supply of oil ran dry also provides some social commentary. By saying that the world became a dangerous, anarchistic and brutal place simply because humanity was dependent on a resource that suddenly went dry, the creators of Mad Max’s world were clearly trying to tell us something. Namely, conserve!

4. Aliens or Only Humans:
warofworldsaliensAnother very important question for setting the scene in a science fiction story is whether or not extra-terrestrials are involved. Is humanity still alone in the universe, or have they broken that invisible barrier that lies between them and the discovery of other sentient life forms? Once again, the answer to this question has a profound effect on the nature of the story, and it can take many forms.

For starters, if the picture is devoid of aliens, then the focus of the story will certainly be inward, looking at human nature, issues of identity, and how our environment serves to shape us. But if there are aliens, either a single species or several dozen, then the chances are, humanity is a united species and the aliens serve as the “others”, either as a window into our own nature, or as an exploration into the awe and wonder of First Contact.

Alien OrganismsAs case studies for the former category, let us consider the Dune, Foundation, and Firefly universes. In each of these, humanity has become an interstellar species, but has yet to find other sentiences like itself. And in each of these, human nature and weaknesses appear to be very much a constant, with war, petty rivalries and division a costant. Basically, in the absence of an “other”, humanity is focused on itself and the things that divide it.

In Dune, for example, a galaxy-spanning human race has settled millions of worlds, and each world has given rise to its own identity – with some appearing very much alien to another. Their are the “navigators”, beings that have mutated their minds and bodies through constant exposure to spice. Then there are the Tleilaxu, a race of genetic manipulators  who breed humans from dead tissue and produce eunuch “Face Dancers” that can assume any identity.

2007-8-18_DuneAxlotlTank

Basically, in the absence of aliens, human beings have become amorphous in terms of their sense of self, with some altering themselves to the point that they are no longer even considered human to their bretherin. And all the while, humanity’s biggest fight is with itself, with rival houses vying for power, the Emperor gaurding his dominance, and the Guild and various orders looking to ensure that the resource upon which all civilization depends continues to flow.

In the Foundation universe, things are slightly less complicated; but again, the focus is entirely inward. Faced with the imminent decline and collapse of this civilization, Hari Seldon invents the tool known as “Psychohistory”. This science is dedicated to anticipating the behavior of large groups of people, and becomes a roadmap to recovery for a small group of Foundationists who seek to preserve the light of civilization once the empire is gone.

foundation

The series then chronicles their adventures, first in establishing their world and becoming a major power in the periphery – where Imperial power declines first – and then rebuilding the Empire once it finally and fully collapses. Along the way, some unforeseen challenges arise, but Seldon’s Plan prevails and the Empire is restored. In short, it’s all about humans trying to understand the nature of human civilization, so they can control it a little better.

Last, but not least, their is the Firefly universe which – despite the show’s short run – showed itself to be in-depth and interestingly detailed. Basically, the many worlds that make up “The Verse” are divided along quasi-national lines. The core worlds constitute the Alliance, the most advanced and well-off worlds in the system that are constantly trying to expand to bring the entire system under its rule.

verse_whitesunThe Independents, we learn early in the story, were a coalition of worlds immediately outside the core worlds that fought these attempts, and lost. The Border Worlds, meanwhile, are those planets farthest from the core where life is backwards and “uncivilized” by comparison. All of this serves to illustrate the power space and place have over human identity, and how hierarchy, power struggles and  divisiveness are still very much a part of us.

But in universes where aliens are common, then things are a little bit different. In these science fiction universes, where human beings are merely one of many intelligent species finding their way in the cosmos, extra-terrestrials serve to make us look outward and inward at the same time. In this vein, the cases of Babylon 5, and 2001: A Space Odyssey provide the perfect range of examples.

B5_season2In  B5 – much as with Stark Trek, Star Gate, or a slew of other franchises – aliens serve as a mirror for the human condition. By presenting humanity with alien cultures, all of whom have their own particular quarks and flaws, we are given a meter stick with which to measure ourselves. And in B5‘s case, this was done rather brilliantly – with younger races learning from older ones, seeking wisdom from species so evolved that often they are not even physical entities.

However, in time the younger race discover that the oldest (i.e. the Shadows, Vorlons, and First Ones) are not above being flawed themselves. They too are subject to fear, arrogance, and going to war over ideology. The only difference is, when they do it the consequences are far graver! In addition, these races themselves come to see that the ongoing war between them and their proxies has become a senseless, self-perpetuating mistake. Echoes of human frailty there!

2001spaceodyssey128.jpgIn 2001: A Space Odyssey, much the same is true of the Firstborn, a race of aliens so ancient that they too are no longer physical beings, but uploaded intelligences that travel through the cosmos using sleek, seamless, impenetrable slabs (the monoliths). As we learn in the course of the story, this race has existed for eons, and has been seeking out life with the intention of helping it to achieve sentience.

This mission brought them to Earth when humanity was still in its primordial, high-order primate phase. After tinkering with our evolution, these aliens stood back and watched us evolve, until the day that we began to reach out into the cosmos ourselves and began to discover some of the tools they left behind. These include the Tycho Monolith Anomaly-1 (TMA-1) on the Moon, and the even larger one in orbit around Jupiter’s moon of Europa.

2001-monolith-alignmentAfter making contact with this monolith twice, first with the American vessel Discovery and then the joint Russian-American Alexei Leonov, the people of Earth realize that the Firstborn are still at work, looking to turn Jupiter into a sun so that life on Europa (confined to the warm oceans beneath its icy shell) will finally be able to flourish. Humanity is both astounded and humbled to learn that it is not alone in the universe, and wary of its new neighbors.

This story, rather than using aliens as a mirror for humanity’s own nature, uses a far more evolved species to provide a contrast to our own. This has the same effect, in that it forces us to take a look at ourselves and assess our flaws. But instead of showing those flaws in another, it showcases the kind of potential we have. Surely, if the Firstborn could achieve such lengths of evolutionary and technological development, surely we can too!

5. Utopian/Dystopian/Ambiguous:
Inner_city_by_aksuFinally, there is the big question of the qualitative state of humanity and life in this future universe. Will life be good, bad, ugly, or somewhere in between? And will humanity in this narrative be better, worse, or the same as it now? It is the questions of outlook, whether it is pessimistic, optimistic, realistic, or something else entirely which must concern a science fiction writer sooner or later.

Given that the genre evolved as a way of commenting on contemporary trends and offering insight into their effect on us, this should come as no surprise. When looking at where we are going and how things are going to change, one cannot help but delve into what it is that defines this thing we know as “humanity”. And when it comes right down to it, there are a few schools of thought that thousands of years of scholarship and philosophy have provided us with.

transhuman3Consider the dystopian school, which essentially posits that mankind is a selfish, brutish, and essentially evil creature that only ever seeks to do right by himself, rather than other creatures. Out of this school of thought has come many masterful works of science fiction, which show humanity to be oppressive to its own, anthropocentric to aliens and other life forms, and indifferent to the destruction and waste it leaves in its wake.

And of course, there’s the even older Utopia school, which presents us with a future where mankind’s inherent flaws and bad behavior have been overcome through a combination of technological progress, political reform, social evolution, and good old fashioned reason. In these worlds, the angels of humanity’s nature have won the day, having proven superior to humanity’s devils.

IngsocIn the literally realm, 1984 is again a perfect example of dytopian sci=fi, where the totalitarian rule of the few is based entirely on selfishness and the desire for dominance over others. According to O’Brien, the Party’s mouthpiece in the story, their philosophy in quite simple:

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.  If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

Hard to argue with something so brutal and unapologetic, isn’t it? In Orwell’s case, the future would be shaped by ongoing war, deprivation, propaganda, fear, torture, humiliation, and brutality. In short, man’s endless capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others.

invitro2Aldous Huxley took a different approach in his seminal dystopian work, Brave New World, in which he posited that civilization would come to be ruled based on man’s endless appetite for pleasure, indifference and distraction. Personal freedom and individuality would be eliminated, yes, but apparently for man’s own good rather than the twisted designs of a few true-believers:

Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t. And, of course, whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered… People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness. One can’t have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for.

But even though the means are entirely different, the basic aim is the same. Deprive humanity of his basic freedom and the potential to do wrong in order to ensure stability and long-term rule. In the end, a darker, more cynical view of humanity and the path that we are on characterized these classic examples of dystopia and all those that would come to be inspired them.

Imminent Utopia by Kuksi
Imminent Utopia by Kuksi

As for Utopian fiction, H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods is a very appropriate example. In this novel, a contemporary journalist finds himself hurled through time into 3000 years into the future where humanity lives in a global state named Utopia, and where the “Five Principles of Liberty” – privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism – are the only law.

After staying with them for a month, the protogonist returns home with renewed vigor and is now committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.” In short, like most Positivists of his day, Wells believed that the march of progress would lead to a future golden age where humanity would shed it’s primitive habits and finally live up to its full potential.

Larry Niven_2004_Ringworld's Children_0This view would prove to have a profound influence on futurist writers like Asimov and Clarke. In the latter case, he would come to express similar sentiments in both the Space Odyssey series and his novel Childhood’s End. In both cases, humanity found itself confronted with alien beings of superior technology and sophistication, and eventually was able to better itself by opening itself up to their influence.

In both series, humanity is shown the way to betterment (often against their will) by cosmic intelligences far more advanced than their own. But despite the obvious questions about conquest, loss of freedom, individuality, and identity, Clarke presents this as a good thing. Humanity, he believed, had great potential, and would embrace it, even if it had to be carried kicking and screaming.

And just like H.G Wells, Clarke, Asimov, and a great many of his futurist contemporaries believes that the ongoing and expanding applications of science and technology would be what led to humanity’s betterment. A commitment to this, they believed, would eschew humanity’s dependence on religion, superstition, passion and petty emotion; basically, all the things that made us go to war and behave badly in the first place.

Summary:
These are by no means the only considerations one must make before penning a science fiction story, but I think they provide a pretty good picture of the big-ticket items. At least the ones that keep me preoccupied when I’m writing! In the end, knowing where you stand on the questions of location, content, tone and feel, and what your basic conception of the future, is all part of the creation process.

In other words, you need to figure out what you’re trying to say and how you want to say it before you can go to town. In the meantime, I say to all aspiring and established science fiction writers alike: keep pondering, keep dreaming, and keep reaching for them stars!

News From Space: Space Planes and Space Colonies

skylon-orbit-reaction-enginesThe year of 2013 closed with many interesting stories about the coming age of space exploration. And they came from many fronts, including the frontiers of exploration (Mars and the outer Solar System) as well as right here at home, on the conceptual front. In the case of the latter, it seems that strides made in the field are leading to big plans for sending humans into orbit, and into deep space.

The first bit of news comes from Reaction Engines Limited, where it seems that the Skylon space plane is beginning to move from the conceptual stage to a reality. For some time now, the British company has been talked about, thanks to their plans to create a reusable aerospace jet that would be powered by a series of hypersonic engines.

Skylon_diagramAnd after years of research and development, the hypersonic Sabre Engine passed a critical heat tolerance and cooling test. Because of this, Reaction Engines Limited won an important endorsement from the European Space Agency. Far from being a simple milestone, this test may prove to be historic. Or as Skymania‘s Paul Sutherland noted, it’s “the biggest breakthrough in flight technology since the invention of the jet engine.”

Now that Reaction Engines has proven that they can do this, the company will be looking for £250 million (approx $410 million) of investment for the next step in development. This will include the development of the LapCat, a hypersonic jet that will carry 300 passengers around the world in less than four hours; and the Skylon, which will carry astronauts, tourists, satellites and space station components into orbit.

sabre-engine-17Speaking at the press conference after the test in late November, ESA’s Mark Ford had this to say:

ESA are satisfied that the tests demonstrate the technology required for the Sabre engine development. One of the major obstacles to a reusable vehicle has been removed. The gateway is now open to move beyond the jet age.

The Sabre engine is the crucial piece in the reusable space plane puzzle, hence why this test was so crucial. Once built and operational, Skylon will take off and land like a conventional plane, but still achieve orbit by mixing air-breathing jets for takeoff, and landing with rockets fueled by onboard oxygen once it gets past a certain speed.

Skylon-space-plane-obtains-breakthrough-new-engines-2The recent breakthrough had to do to the development of a heat exchanger that’s able to cool air sucked into the engine at high speed from 1,000 degrees Celsius to minus 150 degrees in one hundredth of a second. It’s this critical technology that will allow the Sabre engine to surpass the bounds of a traditional jet engine, by as much as twofold.

Alan Bond, the engineering genius behind the invention, had this to say about his brainchild:

These successful tests represent a fundamental breakthrough in propulsion technology. The Sabre engine has the potential to revolutionise our lives in the 21st century in the way the jet engine did in the 20th Century. This is the proudest moment of my life.

And of course, there’s a video of the engine in action. Check it out:


Second, and perhaps in response to these and other developments, the British Interplanetary Society is resurrecting a forty year old idea. This society, which came up with the idea to send a multi-stage rocket and a manned lander to the moon in the 1930’s (eerily reminiscent of the Apollo 11 mission some 30 years later) is now reconsidering plans for giant habitats in space.

o'neil_cylinderTo make the plan affordable and feasible, they are turning to a plan devised by Gerard O’Neill back in the 1970s. Commonly known as the O’Neill Cylinder, the plan calls for space-based human habitats consisting of giant rotating spaceships containing landscaped biospheres that can house up to 10 million people. The cylinder would rotate to provide gravity and – combined with the interior ecology – would simulate a real-world environment.

Jerry Stone of BIS’s SPACE (Study Project Advancing Colony Engineering) is trying to show that building a very large space colony is technically feasible. Part of what makes the plan work is the fact that O’Neill deliberately designed the structure using existing 1970s technology, materials and construction techniques, rather than adopting futuristic inventions.

Rama16wikiStone is bringing these plans up to date using today’s technologies. Rather than building the shell from aluminium, for example, Stone argues tougher and lighter carbon composites could be used instead. Advances in solar cell and climate control technologies could also be used to make life easier and more comfortable in human space colonies.

One of the biggest theoretical challenges O’Neill faced in his own time was the effort and cost of construction. That, says Stone, will be solved when a new generation of much cheaper rocket launchers and spaceplanes has been developed (such as the UK-built Skylon). Using robot builders could also help, and other futuristic construction techniques like 3-D printing robots and even nanomachines and bacteria could be used.

RAMAAnd as Stone said, much of the materials could be outsourced, taking advantage of the fact that this would be a truly space-aged construction project:

Ninety per cent of the material to build the colonies would come from the Moon. We know from Apollo there’s silicon for the windows, and aluminium, iron and magnesium for the main structure. There’s even oxygen in the lunar soil.

Fans of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, the series Babylon 5 or the movie Elysium out to instantly recognize this concept. In addition to being a very real scientific concept, it has also informed a great deal of science fiction and speculation. For some time, writers and futurists have been dreaming of a day when humanity might live in space habitats that can simulate terrestrial life.

Elysium_conceptWell, that day might be coming sooner than expected. And, as O’Neill and his contemporaries theorized at the time, it may be a viable solution to the possibility of humanity’s extinction. Granted, we aren’t exactly living in fear of nuclear holocaust anymore, but ecological collapse is still a threat! And with the Earth’s population set to reach 12 billion by the 22nd century, it might be an elegant solution to getting some of those people offworld.

It’s always an exciting thing when hopes and aspirations begin to become feasible. And though aerospace transit is likely to be coming a lot sooner than O’Neill habitats in orbit, the two are likely to compliment each other. After all, jet planes that can reach orbit, affordably and efficiently, is the first step in making offworld living a reality!

Until next time, keep your eyes to the skies. Chances are, people will be looking back someday soon…

Sources: IO9, skymania, (2)bbc.com

Of Faster-Than-Light Travel

It’s a popular concept, the fictional technology that could help us break that tricky light barrier. And it’s not hard to see why. The universe is a really, really, REALLY big place! And if we ever want to begin exploring and colonizing our tiny corner of it – and not have to deal with all the relativistic effects of time dilation and long, long waits – we better find a way to move faster.

And this is where various franchises come up with their more creative take on physics and the natural universe. Others, they just present it as a given and avoid any difficult, farfetched, or clumsy explanations. And in the end, we the viewers go along because we know that without it, space travel is going to be one long, tedious, and mind-bendingly complex journey!

Alcubierre Drive:
Proposed by Miguel Alcubierre as a way of resolving Einstein’s field equations, the Alcubierre Drive is an untested by possible way to achieve FTL travel. As opposed to Warp, Foldspace, or most other proposed means of FTL that involve some kind of internal propulsion of jump drive, the Alcubierre Drive is based on the idea of generating a wave that a ship would then “surf” in order to travel.

The creation of this wave would cause the fabric of space ahead of the spacecraft to contract and the space behind it to expand. The ship would then ride this wave inside a region of flat space known as a warp bubble and be carried along as the region itself moves through space. As a result, conventional relativistic effects such as time dilation would not apply in the same way as if the ship itself were moving.

The Alcubierre drive is featured in a few different science fiction genres, mainly those of the “hard” variety. This includes Stephen Baxter’s Ark, M. John Harrison’s novel Light, Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran’s Orbiter, and Ian Douglas’s Star Carrier where it is the primary means of transport.

FTL Drive:
The primary means of interstellar travel in the Battlestar Galactica universe, where every ship larger than a in-system transport is equipped with an FTL drive. How it works is never really explained, but it is clear that the technology is complex and involves a great deal of calculation. This is not only to ensureolve n accurate relocation through space-time, but also to make sure they don’t up jumping too close to a planet, star, or worse, right in the middle of either.

Whereas Colonial ships use their own computers to calculate jumps, Cylon ships rely on the Hybrid. These “machines” are essentially semi-organic computers, and represent the first step in Cylon evolution from pure machines to organic beings. Apparently, the hybrids were more sophisticated than Colonial computers, especially the aging Galactica. Hence, they were able to calculate jumps more quickly and accurately.

Holtzman Drive:
This FTL drive system comes to us from the Dune universe, and is otherwise known as a “Foldspace Engine”. Relying on principles that are not entirely clear to those in the Dune universe, the system involves depositing a ship from one point in space-time to another instantaneously. Though the workings of the drive are never really explained, it is intimated in Chapterhouse: Dune that tachyons are involved.

Another key component in the system is a Guild Navigator, a mutant who has been given natural prescient abilities thanks to constant exposure to spice. Using this prescience, the Navigator “sees” a path through space-time in order to guide the ship safely through. But in time, the Ixians invented a machine that was capable of doing this job as well, thus making the entire process automated and breaking the Guild’s monopoly on spacing.

Hyperspace:
Like the Warp drive, the terms hyperspace and hyperdrive have become staples withing the science fiction community. It’s most popular usage comes from Star Wars where it is the principle means of interstellar travel. Though it is never explained how a hyperdrive works, it is made abundantly clear through a series of visuals in the first and subsequent movies that it involves speeds in excess of the speed of light.

In addition, Han Solo indicated in the original movie that the Falcon’s top speed was “point five past light-speed”, indicating that it can travel 1.5 c. All other references to hyperspace speed factors in the franchise are similar, with velocities given in terms of a decimal point value. As a fast ship, the Falcon can reach point five, whereas most of the larger Imperial and Rebel ships can make only point three or four at most.

Though Star Wars is the most popular example of hyperspace, it is by no means the earliest. The first recorded example was in John Campbell’s “Islands of Space,” which appeared in Amazing Stories in 1931. Arthur C. Clarke’s also mentioned hyperspace in his 1950 story Technical Error. However, the most enduring example comes from Asimov’s Foundation universe, where hyperspace is the principal means of travel in the Galactic Republic. In I, Robot, the invention of the “hyperspatial drive” is the basis of one of the short stories, and was meant to provide a sense of continuity with his earlier Foundation series.

Other franchises that feature the concept of hyperspace include Babylon 5, Homeworld, Macross/Robotech, and Stargate. Combined with Star Wars and the Foundation series, it is the most popular – albeit the most ill-defined -form of FTL in the realm of science fiction.

Infinite Probability Drive:
The perfect mixture of irreverence and science: the Infinite Probability Drive from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. This FTL concept is based on a particular perception of quantum theory which states that a subatomic particle is most likely to be in a particular place, such as near the nucleus of an atom, but there is also a small probability of it being found very far from its point of origin.

Thus, a body could travel from place to place without passing through the intervening space if you had sufficient control of probability. According to the Guide, in this way the drive “passes through every conceivable point in every conceivable universe almost simultaneously,” meaning the traveller is “never sure where they’ll end up or even what species they’ll be when they get there” and therefore it’s important to dress accordingly!

Subspace Jump Drive:
Here we have an FTL concept which comes from one of my favorite games of all time, Descent Freespace. Subspace jumps, relying on the drive system of the same name, represent a very quick method of interstellar travel. By relying on subspace “corridors” that run from one point in space-time to another, a ship is able to move quickly from one star system to the next.

The only drawback to this concept is the fact that travel must occur along officially designated “nodes”. These nodes usually pass between large gravitational sources (i.e. between stars systems) but also can exist within a system itself. Virtually all nodes are unstable, existing for mere seconds or minutes at a time. However, nodes which will last for centuries or longer are designated as “stable” and used for transit.

Another favorite franchise which uses a similar concept is the Wing Commander universe. In all versions of the game, particularly Wing Commander: Privateer, interstellar travel comes down to plotting jumps from predesignated points in space. One cannot simply jump from one spot to another provided accurate calculations are made, they have to use the mapped out points or no jump is possible. This, as opposed to hyperspace travel, posits that subspace is a reality that exists only in certain areas of space-time and must be explored before it can be used.

TARDIS:
Officially, the Time and Relative Dimension in Space is a time machine and spacecraft that comes to us from British science fiction television program Doctor Who and its associated spin-offs. Produced by the advanced race known as the Time Lords, an extraterrestrial civilization to which the Doctor belongs, this device that makes his adventures possible.

Basically, a TARDIS gives its pilot the ability to travel to any point in time and any place in the universe. Based on a form of biotechnology which is grown, not assembled, they draw their power primarily from an artificial singularity (i.e. a black hole) known as the “Eye of Harmony”. Other sources of fuel include mercury, specialized crystals and a form of temporal energy.

Each TARDIS is primed with the biological imprint of a Time Lord so that only they can use it. Should anyone else try to commandeer one, it undergoes molecular disintegration and is lots. The interior of a TARDIS is much larger than its exterior, which can blend in with its surroundings using the ship’s “chameleon circuit”. Hence why it appears to outsiders as a phone booth in the series.

Warp Drive:
Possibly the best known form of FTL travel which comes to us from the original Star Trek and its many spinoffs. In addition to being a prime example of fictional FTL travel, it is also perhaps the best explained example.Though said explanation has evolved over time, with contributions being made in the original series, TNG, and the Star Trek technical manual, the basic concept remains the same.

By using a matter/antimatter reactor to create plasma, and by sending this plasma through warp coils, a ship is able to create a warp bubble that will move the craft into subspace and hence exceed the speed of light. Later explanations would go on to add that an anti-matter/matter reaction which powers the two separate nacelles of the ship are what create the displacement field (the aforementioned “bubble”) that allows for warp.

Apparently, Warp 10 is the threshold for warp speed, meaning that it is the point at which a ship reaches infinite speed. Though several mentions are made of ships exceeding this threshold, this was later explained as being the result of different scales. Officially, it is part of the Star Trek canon that no ship is capable of exceeding Warp 10 without outside help. When that occurs, extreme time dilation, such as anti-time, occurs, which can be disastrous for the crew!

In addition to Star Trek, several other franchises have made mention of the Warp Drive. This includes StarCraft, Mass Effect, Starship Troopers, and Doctor Who.

Final Thoughts:
Having looked through all these examples, several things become clear. In fact, it puts me in mind of a clip produced by the Space Network many years ago. Essentially, Space explored the differences between FTL in past and present franchises, connecting them to developments in real science. Whereas Warp and Hyperspace tended to be the earliest examples, based on the idea of simply exceeding the speed of light, thereby breaking the law of physics, later ideas focused on the idea of circumventing them. This required that writers come up with fictional ideas that either relied on astrophysics and quantum theory or exploited the holes within them.

One such way was to use the idea of “wormholes” in space-time, a hypothetical theory that suggests that space is permeated by topological holes that could act as “shortcuts” through space-time. A similar theory is that of subspace, a fictional universe where the normal rules of physics do not apply. Finally, and also in the same vein, is the concept of a controlled singularity, an artificial black hole that can open a rift through space-time and allow a ship to pass from one point in the universe to another.

Explanations as to how these systems would work remains entirely hypothetical and based on shaky science. As always, the purpose here is to allow for interstellar travel and communications that doesn’t take decades or even centuries. Whether or not the physics of it all works is besides the point. Which brings me to two tentative conclusions.

  1. Explanations Need Not Apply: Given the implausible (or at the very least, inexplicable) nature of most FTL concepts, the best sci-fi is likely to be the stuff that doesn’t seek to explain how its FTL system of choice works. I’st simply there and does the job. People hit a button, push a lever, do some calculations, or fly into a jump gate. Then boom! seconds later (or days and weeks) and they find themselves on the other side, light years away and ready to do their mission!
  2. That’s Hard: Given how any story that involves relativistic space travel, where both time dilation and confusing time jumps are necessarily incorporated into the story, only the hardest of hard sci-fi can ever expect to do without warp drives, hyperspace, jump or FTL drives. Any other kind of sci-fi that is looking to be accessible, and therefore commercially successful, will have to involve some kind of FTL or face extinction.

Well, that’s all I got for the time being. In the meantime, keep your eyes on the skies and don’t stop dreaming about how we’re one day going to get out there. For even if we start sending ships beyond our solar system in the near future, it’s going to be well into the distant future before they get anywhere and we start hearing back from them. At least until someone figures out how to get around Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, damn bloody genius! Until then, I’d like to sign off with a tagline:

This has been Matt Williams with another conceptual post. Good night, and happy spacing!

The O’Neill Cylinder

Welcome all to another post that explores the world of conceptual sci-fi! In keeping with the trend of explaining concepts which helped inspire my group’s most recent project, the space colonization story Yuva, I’ve decided to talk about what is known as an O’Neill Cylinder.

Named in honor of Gerard K. O’Neill in his 1976 book The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, the concept deals with the idea of placing a large cylinder in space that would rotate to provide gravity. Habitats within the cylinder would be built along the walls to ensure uniform gravity.

Some of the more interesting features of this design, aside from the curious layout, is the fact that in such a setting, windows placed in the hull can provide natural illumination, thus cutting down on the electricity bill. If the cylinder is particularly large, in which case one side is invisible to the other, then the rotation can provide periodic light, simulating day and night. And being a single volume of space, it can be pressurized, the gravity increasing pressure near the surface.

Fans of Rendezvous with Rama will recognize this concept right off the bat. The alien vessel in the story, dubbed Rama, was one big O’Neill Cylinder that floated through space, with a city built directly into the interior. A circular lake was also placed at the midway point, known as the Cylindrical Sea. At the far ends of the ship, an entrance and a gravitational drive were placed.

Another example is to be found in the Gibson novel Neuromancer, where a space station known as “Freeside” became the focal point in part III of the story. According to Gibson’s own descriptions, the station was a large cylinder in space owned by the Tessier-Ashpool clan. Their own villa was located at the very tip, a place known as “Straylight”, with luxury apartments, hotels, and vacation spots lining the interior. Artificial illumination was provided by a long band that ran down the middle and obscured a clear view of the other side.

And last, and my personal favorite, is the eponymously named space station of Babylon 5. Built along the same lines as Rama and Freeside, this space station was one giant rotating cylinder which housed over a quarter million humans and aliens. The interior surface was divided between several sectors, each one coded by color.

B5_interiorBrown Sector was designated for trade facilities, Blue Sector for personnel facilities, Green for diplomats, Gray for manufacturing, Red for resident habitation, and Yellow for environmental control. Transport along the length of the station was handled by a long rail that was frequented by a transport shuttle. At this point in the station, the gravity was virtually nil and atmospheric pressure was also substantially less.

All of this was consistent with an O’Neill Cylinder and applied to far more than just the station itself. Just about all Earth ships and installations in the B5 universe contained rotating sections to provide gravity since humanity had not yet stumbled onto the secret of artificial gravity.

When it comes right down to it, the concept of a rotating space cylinder is a very eloquent idea for simulating gravity, consistent with hard science and realism. Artificial gravity is often used in science fiction as a sort of given, mainly because its convenient and simpler from a design standpoint. Ships that have cylinders and rotation sections are bulky compared to sleek, unrealistic space concepts – space barges compared to flying works of art.

But that’s really not realistic, especially where near-future science fiction is concerned. Like it or not, artificial gravity just isn’t a plausible concept yet, not unless we find that troublesome graviton particle and learn how to harness it in a stable way. Which is why you can tell that a franchise is particularly inspired when you see ships and stations relying on rotation sections to simulate gravity. Not only is it more realistic, its shows that the conceptual artists and writers are doing their homework.

And that’s precisely why the Yuva ships feature them! And I hope people will find that it is indicative of the kind of mindset me and my group have. We like sci-fi, we like realism, and its especially good when hard science and hard fiction come together. Can’t wait until the book is done, all these teasers are driving me nuts!

Happy Canada Day!

Hello and welcome to my Canada Day post! As it is the True North’s national birthday – commemorating the day when the original provinces came together and agreed on Confederation, the first act of national building and quasi-declaration of independence – I thought it fitting that I do a post honoring Canada’s contribution to the field of science fiction. The list is extensive, contrary to what you might you think, and includes some of the most critically acclaimed examples of literature, film and television in this genre. But like most things Canadian, it suffers from a potential lack of recognition. Well, I, as a patriotic (but not nationalistic!) individual, shall do my part to promote. Hell, one day I want to be on this list, so I better make sure people know about it 😉

First up, movies that were filmed, directed and produced right here in Canada, eh!

Scanners (1981):
This film, directed by David Cronenberg, is considered a cult classic amongst fans of sci-fi and horror alike. In this movie, “Scanners” are people that exhibit powerful telepathic and telekinetic abilities who are being sought out by a corporation named ConSec, a purveyor of weapons and security systems. Ostensibly, their purpose is to register scanners so the public can be protected from them, but it is clear that they have a nefarious agenda as well.

The story revolves around two rogue scanners, the dangerous Darryl Revok (played by Michael Ironside) and the reclusive Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack). After a “demonstration” goes terrible wrong where Revok causes Dr. Ruth – head of ConSec’s scanner section – to explode, ConSec becomes dedicated to finding all rogue scanners and stamping them out. On their radar is Revok, a known and powerful scanner who is a homeless transient, moving from place to place in the hopes of staying ahead of corporate spies.

In the end, Vale finds himself trapped between Revok’s renegade faction on the one side and ConSec’s goons on the other. In the end, he is captured by Revok and learns that they are brothers, that Ruth is their father, and that all scanners are the result of drug trials involving pregnant women and ephemerol. This drug, which was designed to combat morning sickness (echoes of thalidomide), is the same one which they now use to control scanners.

Revok’s plan is to now use a captured shipment of the drug and administer it to countless pregnant women worldwide, thus creating an army of scanners. When he learns of this, Vale and Revok begin to fight each other using their powers. In the end, Vale defeats his brother and then assumes his likeness, thus putting him in charge of the rogue scanners. The story thusly ends on a cliffhanger note, with Vale’s intentions open to speculation.

This movie was not only a cult classic, but very heavily inspired. It’s investigation of psychic abilities, with corporate controllers, rogue telepaths, and drugs used to control them, would all show up in later franchises, particularly Babylon 5. In addition, that head exploding scene is considered an iconic imagine, one which has been referenced many times over on the silver screen. Consider the line from Wayne’s World where Garth appears to be having a nervous breakdown on TV and one of their cronies asks: “Did you see that movie Scanners where the dude’s head exploded?”

Johnny Mnemonic (1995):
Though it was widely considered one of the worst adaptations in science fiction history, Johnny Mnemonic was nevertheless a faithful representation of William Gibson’s original work (also a Canadian). Set in the “Sprawl” of the 21st century, the story is about a mnemonic courier who uses wetwire implants (i.e. cybernetic brain implants) to carry information around illegally. This is apparently a common practice in the world of the future, where corporate control is absolute and the most precious commodity is information.

Enter into this Johnny (Reaves), a courier who is given a job to carry a package that is twice the size of his capacity. He takes it, knowing the risk it will pose to his brain, because he’s looking for that final payoff which will allow him to have his implants removed and his memory restored. This is something all mnemonic carriers must go through, which is the sacrifice of their own memories in order to make room for all the pirated data they carry.

Quickly, Johnny realizes the package he contains is incredibly valuable, as Yakuza close in and murder his contacts. His own boss betrays him as well, forcing him to turn to a freelance ninja named “Sally Shears” (aka. Molly Millions) for help. Like him, she has enhancements which are beginning to mess with her body, and she recommends they get help from her friend Spider. As a doctor, he is used to dealing with nervous system illnesses, particularly NAS (nervous attenuation syndrome).

When they arrive, Johnny is informed that he is the one who hired him, and that the information he carries comes directly from the pharmaceutical giant Pharma-Kom’s labs. It is nothing less than the cure of NAS, and the company will kill to make sure it doesn’t get it out, seeing as how they make billions off of treatment and will lose out if it is cured. The race is then on for Johnny to download the cure onto the open Net, and with the help of a group of counter-culture fighters named Lo-Tek, they manage to do just that.

Though the movie was generally panned by critics and did quite poorly at the box office, it remains a cult classic to many because of its gritty, cyberpunk feel and faithful adaptation of Gibson’s characteristic themes. It also boasted an all-star cast, which included Keannu Reaves (Canuck!), Dolph Lundgren, Takeshi Kitano, Henry Rollins, Ice-T, Dina Meyer, and Udo Kier. On top of that, it also made use of pioneering special effects to give visual representation to Gibson’s concept of “cyberspace”, the movie also contained all the elements he so loves to include in his stories. Freelancers, Yakuza, mega-corporations, mercenaries, cybernetic enhancements, dirty environments, urban sprawl, hackers and techy geeks. This movie had all that, and is required viewing for fans of Neuromancer and Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy.

Screamers (1995):
Here’s a cult classic I keep coming back to of late! Based on Philip K. Dick’s “Second Variety”, Screamers is another adaptation of classic sci-fi which was filmed, directed and financed here in the Great White North. And I mean that literally since most of the filming took place in a quarry in Quebec during the dead of winter. And though the story was updated for the post-Cold War world, set on a distant planet and being a war between corporate interests and quasi-national forces, the basic elements remained much the same.

Taking place in 2078 on a planet known as Sirius 6b, the story revolves around an ongoing war between two factions who are fighting for control of the planet. On the one side is the NEB (New Economic Bloc), a super-corporate entity that controls mining in outer space. On the other is the Alliance, a resistance formed out of the former miners and scientists from the colony.

After the NEB bombarded the planet with nukes, turning it into a radioactive wasteland that is perennially experiencing nuclear winter, the Alliance resorted to creating devices known as the “Autonomous Mobile Sword”, a race of self-replicating machines built by a self-sustaining underground factory. These weapons, which tunnel underground and use high-pitched sonic blasts to paralyze opponents, carry the nickname of “Screamers”.

The story opens when a NEB representative comes to the Alliance bunker offering a ceasefire. After investigating the situation, the Alliance commander JOe Hendricksson (played by Peter Weller, aka. Robocop) realizes that the war still rages back home and no one cares what happens to them anymore. He decides to take the NEB up on their offer to end the fight on Sirius 6b, but during his trip to the NEB bunker, learns that new breeds of Screamers are out there. After meeting with Jessica (Jennifer Rubin), the NEB mercenary commander, they attempt to investigate the Screamer factory and learn that there are in fact four varieties now, each of which is becoming more human!

They make it back to the Alliance bunker, only to see that it too has been overrun. In the end, only Hendrickson and Jessica survive and begin making their way to the emergency escape shuttle hidden in the nearby mountains. Once there, Hendrickson learns that Jessica herself is a Screamer when an identical model of her appears and attacks them. Apparently, she is the fifth variety and the most advanced model to date, one that bleed, cry, imitate human emotions, and even have sex. Jessica sacrifices herself to protect him, and Hendrickson learns that her mission was to find the escape shuttle and go back to Earth where they could be sterilizing it of all life as well.

This was in keeping with the Screamer new mandate which was to destroy all human life, not just their enemies. However, that ended when Jessica became over-sympathetic to Hendrickson and broke with her original programming, thus demonstrating the most human characteristic of all, that of empathy. Hendrickson then takes the shuttle himself and leaves the planet, bound for Earth, and safe in the knowledge that the Screamers will never get off Sirius 6b.

Thought it differed in many ways from the original PKD short story, the thematic nature of the movie was accurate. You have the idea of the Screamers, the automonous, self-replicating and intelligent machines that are left to their own devices and end up turning on their own masters. You have the concept of runaway technology erasing the line between what is real and fake. Thought it ended on a happy note, unlike “Second Variety” where a machine made it off planet, the movie still managed to deliver on its message. And it was pretty damn scary too boot!

Cube (1997):
Here is another cult-classic that practically created its own sub-genre in science fiction film making. Directed by Vincenzo Natali and produced by the Canadian Film Centre as its first First Feature Project, Cube became an instant hit due to its paranoid, Kafkaesque feel and psychological thriller tone. Set inside a giant (you guessed it) Cube, made up of countless adjoining rooms that are numbered and contain different booby traps, the story revolves around a series of strangers who wake up inside and must find their way out.

What is immediately apparent to all the characters in the story is that they all possess different abilities and share the same story. Each and every one of them was carrying on with their daily lives, only to wake up and find themselves inside a cube-shaped room. None of them know each other or can remember how they got here, but once they found each other, they agree to work together and find the way out.

Amongst the captives is Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), a charismatic police officer who takes command, Leaven (Nicole deBoer) a young mathematics student, Holloway (Nicky Guadagni), a doctor and conspiracy theorist, and Worth (David Hewlett), a pessimistic man who refuses to talk about himself. Quentin believes they all have a role to play, Holloway believes they are part of a government experiment, Leaven develops a theory that the room’s numbered in prime are the safe ones, and Rennes follows but seems skeptical of their chances.

As they continue, they find that Quentin’s theory about the prime numbered-rooms is flawed. Tensions also begin to rise within the group because of Holloway’s paranoia, Quentin’s controlling behavior, and Worth’s reticence. The group then experiences a bit of a breakdown, during which time Worth finally reveals that he was one of the architects who helped design the Cube. He never knew what it was for or who even commissioned it, the specs merely passed his desk and he added his own insight. He believes that essentially, the Cube created itself, the result of human stupidity and complacency.

However, Leaven concludes from Worth’s description that the numbers might actually be Cartesian coordinates, and the group begins working its way to one of the outer edges. They also come across a mentally challenged boy named Kazan, who Quentin wants to leave behind by Leaven insists they bring. But in time, their efforts prove futile when another feature of the Cube is revealed, the fact that it periodically shifts its rooms around. Another breakdowns occurs as Quentin becomes paranoid and shows his dark side. After a confrontation with Holloway, he lets her fall to her death, thinking she was out to get him.

The group begins to truly fall apart as Quentin’s true nature is revealed. It seems he is a violent man with a penchant for young girls, the reason why his wife left him with their kids. He begins to run the group through bullying and fear. But a ray of hope emerges when Leaven concludes that the numbers are not primes or coordinates by powers of prime numbers. She cannot calculate them, but the mentally challenged boy Kazan – an apparent autistic savant – can. They continue on their way and Worth incapacitates Quentin, who has now gone completely insane.

Eventually, they find their way to the outer edge and prepare to leave, but Worth wonders if it’s worth it considering that there is nothing out there but “boundless human stupidity”. They are about to step out when Quentin sets upon them. Leaven jumps in to help, and the three are pulled back in as the room’s once again shift. Kazan is left alone to walk out into the light of day, free of the Cube.

Where to begin? This story was a masterful piece of psychological thriller and paranoid fantasy! The fact that we never truly learn who built the Cube, what purpose the “test” really served, and the possibility that complacency and ineptitude is what built it not only makes for a mysterious story, but a big, fat existential allegory! For in the end, are we not all prisoners within a giant maze we can’t discern, who’s maker is unknown and who’s purpose in indistinct? Calling to mind Kafka, Sartre and the “Allegory of the Cave” – a la Socrates – these movie was not only a nail-biting thriller but a fittingly dark philosophical commentary.

Last Night (1998):
Filmed and set in Toronto by writer/actor/director Don McKellar, this apocalyptic sci-fi film tells the story of the last night on Earth, and shows various people choose to spend it. Though the date is not specified, and no explanation is given as to what calamity will be bringing the world to an end, it is made abundantly clear that it will be coming at the stroke of midnight, leaving everyone in the story only a few hours with which to live life to the fullest.

Naturally, the streets are filled with people who have decided to riot, loot and generally wreak havoc. But the main focus of the story is on the lives of various intersecting characters who have chosen to use their time more constructively. One is Patrick (played by McKellar himself), who lost his wife not long ago and is spending the time saying goodbye to family and friends, but who seems to want to spend the last of it alone.

His best friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) chooses to spend it in a non-stop sexual marathon as he attempts to fulfill every possible erotic desire he has, not to mention those of his partners. This includes having sex with his former French teacher, a black woman, a virgin, and just about any other scenario he can think of. When Patrick comes to say good-bye, he clumsily tries to encourage him to have sex with him as well. Patrick awkwardly declines, but Craig manages to get a sustained kiss out of him before he goes.

Meanwhile, Sandra (Sandra Oh), who has become stranded in the streets, meets up with Patrick and they get to talking. After realizing their time is short and they have only each other to spend their last hour with, they begin talking and sharing. Many times over, she insists that Patrick open up, saying “make me love you”. They agree to a suicide pact on the roof, listening to “Guantanamera” and drinking wine. In the end, they cannot shoot each other and end their time on the Earth with a heartfelt kiss.

The movie became an instant hit because of its personal nature and the realistic way in which it depicted the end of the world. By not specifying how the world was ending, McKellar kept the focus on the people themselves and how they chose to confront death, bringing out the very best and worst in themselves. While some chose to lose all control and commit murder, others chose to spend it with loves ones, or took a chance on forming new bonds with total strangers.

This last performance, between Sandra Oh and McKellar himself, was the most touching part of the film. We have two people who would never have known each other, both of whom experienced personal tragedy, and who came to experience one brief, shining moment of love – the most life affirming thing of all – before all life ended forever. So sad, yet so poignant. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house!

eXistenZ (1999):
From the same mind that brought you Scanners (David Cronenberg) comes this twisted psychological thriller about reality and the way technology affects our perception of the world around us. Featuring an all star cast that included Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sarah Polley, Don McKellar and Willem Dafoe, this movie received multiple awards and was well received by critics, though its box office gross was overshadowed somewhat by the release of the Matrix that same year.

Set in the not too distant future where organic game consoles known as “game pods” are all the rage, the story revolves around two game companies – Antenna Research and Cortical Systematics – who are competing to create the best in bioware. At the same time, a group of “realists” – people who are opposed to the technology because it “deforms reality” – are engaged in a guerrilla-style fight with both companies.

Enter into this Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the greatest game designer in the world who works for Antenna and is testing her latest virtual reality game, eXistenZ. During a seminar, she is shot in the shoulder by a realist using an “organic gun” – a device which can pass through security checkpoints – and the console appears to be damaged. As a result, she must plug in and test it with a trusted person and asks Pikul (Jude Law), the security guard to join her.

As they enter the game, reality becomes increasingly distorted as the two undergo behaviors which seem odd to them but are “consistent with their characters.” At the same time, they are stalked by characters that appear to be Realist fighters who are trying to sabotage them. Geller eventually realizes that they have been double-crossed by the people who installed Pikul’s bioport, the interface which is inserted into a gamer’s lower back, in order to infect and destroy her game. On top of that, Cortical Systems personnel are also inside, looking to copy the game for their own purposes. Pikul then reveals that he is in fact a Realist agent who was sent to kill her. She answers by saying she knew for some time and detonating his bioport.

However, in a finay twist, the two then appear on a stage with the other main players from the game and realize they were all part of a virtual reality game called “tranCendenZ”. This game was being played by the cast,  mirroring the first scene, but with electronic devices rather than game pods. The real game designer, Nourish (played by McKellar), feels uneasy because the game started with the assassination of a game designer and had an overall anti-game theme that he suspects originated from the thoughts of one of the testers.

Pikul and Allegra approach him and ask him if he should pay for his “crimes” of deforming reality. As Merle (Sarah Polley), Nourish’s assistant, calls for security, Pikul and Allegra grab hidden pistols  and shoot Nourish and Merle to death. As with the other game, the other players appear more frozen than shocked, suggesting that they are still inside. Pikul and Allegra point their guns at another player, who is at first dismayed, but then asks if they are still in the game. Pikul and Allegra don’t know, and the last scene ends with the fear written on their faces.

Much like the Matrix and Inception, this movie was characterized by it’s mind-bending sequences and unpredictable twists, showing how one’s perception of reality can be distorted thanks to the effects of mind-bending technology. But whereas other films chose to delve into the relative aspects of it all or sought to make an existential point about mind control, Cronenberg’s aim was clearly in showing the dangers of such reality-based technologies by equating them with drugs. All throughout the film, the psychoactive nature of the game is played up, showing how the ability to distort reality and tamper with one’s own psyche can be an addictive form of entertainment. The dangers in this are obvious of course, in that one’s ability to tell reality from fantasy will be worn down, leading to potentially fatal consequences.

*          *          *

Well, that’s movies covered! It will take a few more days to cover the rest, respectively television and literature. These are even more fertile ground than films, so expect some detailed and lengthy posts. I will try to be brief as possible, but this is a tribute to my country of origin so don’t expect any topical treatments. No, sir! In the meantime, Happy Canada Day to all Canucks at home and abroad. Hope you are with the one’s you love and are having a good time. And to you Canada, happy 145th birthday! Cheers!

Worlds of Babylon 5

B5_shadowsThis would be the fourth installment of my “Worlds Of” series, this time in honor of my favorite sci-fi show of all time. Like the show itself, the worlds that were featured here were richly detailed, multi-layered, and part of an intricate and cohesive universe. Though the show only lasted five seasons and the spin-off attempts failed, J.M. Straczynski was able to give most of the locales for his story a fair amount of treatment.

Centauri Prime:
CentauriPrime01The homeworld of the Centauri race and the seat of power for Republic. In ancient times, it was home to both the Centauri and the Xon, two sentient species that battled for thousands of years for control of the planet. Eventually, the Centauri exterminated the Xon, a victory which is celebrated annually with lavish feasts and celebrations. From these humble yet violent origins, the Centauri emerged to become the dominant power in the quadrant, conquering many races at their zenith, including the Narns.

Many locations of interest are to be found on Centauri Prime. These include the Royal Palace, home of the Royal Court and Centaurem, the Senate Building, the Great Temple, and the Imperial capitol. In the buildup to the Narn-Centauri war, the Royal Palace became the scene of intrigue as forces loyal to the puppet-Emperor Cartagia and Lord Refa began assassinating those who got in their way.

After the war was over, things once again became interesting as the mad Emperor made an Alliance with the Shadows and gave them the island of Cellini, hoping they would pay him back by making him a god. This alliance put the planet in danger, as the Vorlons had begun destroying any and all planets that were being used by the Shadows. In the end, Londo was forced to destroy Celini with tactical nukes to eliminate the Shadow vessels and prevent the Vorlons from destroying the planet.

Almost immediately after the war was over, the Drakh infiltrated Centauri Prime and began using it as their base of operations. After implicating the Centauri in a series of attacks on Alliance shipping, war was declared against the Republic. This war ended with the surrender of Centauri Prime after Narn and Drazi forces slipped into the system and began bombarding the surface with impunity. According to expanded sources, the planet would also be devastated when the Drakh were discovered and detonated a fusion bomb in the capitol to cover their escape.

Earth:
B5_EarthThe homeworld of the human race and administrative center of the Earth Alliance. By 2258-62, when the show takes place, a number of changes have happened to the place we call home. For starters, the capitol of the EA is established in Geneva, the headquarters of which is known as Earthdome. It is from here that the President exercises authority over Earth and all the Earth Alliance’s colonies.

Every nation on the planet has joined as an administrative “consortium”, contributing members and money to the upkeep of government. Earth is also home to the Psi Corps, the institution that monitors and trains telepaths for the Earth Alliance. This place is also the home of the Psi Cops, the authorities who track down and arrest “rogue telepaths” – those who choose not to register or take suppressants.

Just prior to the Shadow War, President Clarke declared martial law, effectively ending democratic government on Earth. The colonies thenceforth were administered by armed force, and Clarke himself forged an Alliance between his office, the Shadows, and the Psi Corps. For years, he ruled with impunity, until a coalition led by Sheridan and the White Star fleet arrived at Earth in 2262. Rather than face overthrow, Clarke shot himself and programmed the planetary defensive network to obliterate the surface. The satellites were narrowly stopped by Sheridan’s fleet, thus saving Earth from being turned into “scorched Earth”.

During the Drakh War, Earth became exposed to a deadly plague. This bio-weapon was of Shadow design and introduced into the atmosphere by Drakh ships after they failed to destroy Earth with a Shadow planet-killer. After five years under quarantine, the Interstellar Alliance ship Excalibur discovered a cure and introduced it to Earth. The planet was saved! However, hints given at the end of season 5 indicate that 500 years after the formation of the Alliance, Earth was devastated in a terrible civil war, returning its inhabitants to a primitive level of development.

One million years after the formation of the Alliance, Earth was abandoned by the decedents of the human race, who had evolved to the point of transcendence. After downloading all historical records, the last of the human race left the system for the last time. The sun went supernova shortly thereafter, destroying everything in the system.

Epsilon 3:
b5-eps3The third planet of the Epsilon Indi system and the world that Babylon 5 sits in orbit of. Coincidentally, it is also home of the Great Machine, a subterranean alien artifact of immense power. Not much is known about the species that built it, as the last known inhabitants, outside of the current custodians, died out as a result of a religious schism or fled into deep space.

Thereafter, the Machine was maintained by Varus, one of the last of their species, with the help of ten assistants named Zathras. As he neared the end of his life, the machine began to break down, causing the planet to become geologically unstable. This in turn alerted some of the surviving Epsilonians who were looking for the planet in hyperspace. When they emerged, a confrontation ensued between the aliens, B5, an Earth Alliance cruiser.

This was resolved when Draal, a Minbari member of the religious caste, assumed control of the machine and used its defenses to destroy the invaders. He warned that anyone else attempting to possess the planet’s secrets would meet with the same fate, but later pledged his allegiance and the resources of the planet to Sheridan and Delenn’s alliance. This went beyond mere weapons, as the Great Machine was also capable of seeing through time and space, which was intrinsic in both finding other First Ones and uncovering proof of Clark’s conspiracy.

Aside from the Great Machine, Epsilon 3 also boasted an extensive underground city filled with many technical wonders. According to Commander Sinclair, these included computers the size of buildings and components that were miles in length. In season four, when B5 needed components to boost the signal of their “Voice of the Resistance” transmissions, they found what they needed on the planet below.

Narn:
Narnhomeworld01According to Narn sources, Narn was once a fertile planet with lush rainforests and vast oceans. This changed when the Centauri arrived and occupied the planet for over 50 years. During this time, the planet was strip mined, ruthlessly exploited, and reduced to the status of a slave colony. Much damage was also done during the Narn war of resistance, as Centauri forces bombarded the surface from the orbit.

After the Narn’s proved victorious, efforts to restore the natural greenery were mounted. However, these apparently took a back seat to the need to equip the Narn regime’s military forces, a policy which demanded that this trend of exploitation continue. As a result, the planet’s climate remains,in the words of Londo: “dry, red, depressing.”

The bombardment of the Narn homeworld during the Narn-Centauri in season two didn’t help matters much either. After many hours of being pulverized from orbit with asteroids, most major cities were devastated, electricity and power grids were knocked out, and virtually all infrastructure was reduced to rubble. This also had the effect of kicking up massive amounts of dust into the atmosphere which caused terrible storms and made the climate colder and more harsh.

With the liberation of the Narn towards the end of the Shadow War, efforts to rebuild the planet once again began in earnest. This time, with the Interstellar Alliance and G’Kar’s influence as their guide, the Kah-Ri ensured that the needs of its citizens were their top priority. Thenceforth, attempts to rehabilitate the climate and rebuild infrastructure were placed ahead of revenge and military spending.

Minbar:
44053-babylon_5_movie_news_2_superThe homeworld of the Minbari Federation and their seat of government. As one of the older races in the quadrant, Minbar boasts some of the oldest cities, temples and buildings in the known universe. Most of these are built from indigenous crystal, contributing to the natural beauty of the surface. Colder than Earth’s climate and with stronger than normal gravity, the Minbari are a hearty race known for their strength and endurance.

It is here that the ancient capitol of the Minbari Federation is located. The towering triple-spired government palace is here, even though the Grey Council conducted its affairs from space. The Anla’Shock Temple of Temple of Varenni  are also to found in the capitol, the former being used by the Rangers and the latter being an ancient site where the castes would come together to select leaders during the time before Valen.

Another city of importance is Tuzanor, the home of Valen, the Anla’Shok training grounds where the Rangers receive their basic training, and home to the Interstellar Alliance once Delenn and Sheridan relocated it to Minbar. Just outside the city is the historic Mount H’Leya, where Valen, accompanied by a pair of Vorlons, delivered his holy “Times to come” speech during the first Shadow War.

During 2261, shortly after the Shadow War, Minbar became embroiled in a brief civil war between the Religious and Warrior Castes. This was due to deep-seated divisions which had been exacerbated by the Earth-Minbar War and the destruction of the Grey Council. It ended when Delenn invited Shakiri to the Temple of Varenni, where they would both enter into the Wheel of Fire to demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice themselves. Shakiri withdrew, but Delenn did not, prompting Neroon to save her and sacrifice himself on behalf of her. Thereafter, Delenn indicated that the Grey Council would be dominated by the Worker Caste to prevent such wars from happening again.

Sigma 957:
Sigma957planetThe ancient homeworld of the Walkers, one of the First Ones who had left the galaxy after the First Shadow War. The name itself was given to them by the Narns, who’s regime was the closest government to border their world. Apparently, they named them as such because they considered the inhabitants to be giants, so great and powerful that it was best to keep out from underfoot!

In 2258, Catherine Sakai did a fly-by of the planet to search for trace elements. During her mission, a massive ship appeared off her bow and her ship was disabled. When she was rescued at the behest of Ambassor G’Kar, he told her simply “There are things in the universe billions of years older than either of our races. They are vast, timeless. And if they are aware of us at all, it is as little more than ants…and we have as much chance of communicating with them as an ant has with us. We know. We’ve tried. And we’ve learned we can either stay out from underfoot, or be stepped on.”

In season 3, during a visit to Epsilon 3 to see Draal, Ivanova was able to see this world and feel the “footprints” of the Walkers with the help of the Great Machine. This was the first indication that their alliance had as to the whereabouts of other First Ones. Shortly thereafter, Ivanova and Marcus traveled there aboard a White Star to make contact with the Walkers. After a strained conversation, Ivanova was able to secure their agreement to join their alliance.

Vorlon Homeworld:
vorlon02Much like the Vorlon race itself, their homeworld is steeped in mystery. Throughout the B5 series, mentions are made of the planet the Vorlons call home, but no details are ever given beyond the limited testimony of Lyta Alexander. As the only human to witness the inner workings of the Vorlon culture, she found herself in a unique position, acting as a sort of bridge and ambassador. However, other than her, no one has ever seen their world and those who have tried have either been destroyed or disappeared without a trace.

As for Lyta Alexander, her voyage to the Vorlon homeworld took place shortly after she made contact with the mind of Ambassador Kosh and broke from the Psi Corps. After weeks of waiting on the edge of Vorlon space, she was eventually admitted after sending out a telepathic signal. When asked what it was like, she said simply “you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

However, some tidbits were given by Lyta as time went on. For one, it is revealed that the Vorlons possessed artifacts of immense power, which humanity and the younger races would only ever be entitled to once a million years had past. This was revealed after the Vorlons had left known space, but had thought to leave their automated border defenses in place and active. In addition, it was also here that Lyta witnessed the Vorlons extensive efforts to modify humans and other sentient’s to produce telepaths. This consisted of large facilities where hundreds of thousands of beings were kept in suspension tanks and either enhanced or modified to exhibit telepathic abilities in the first place.

Zhabar:
Zhabar01The homeworld and seat of power for the Drazi freehold, this planet was first shown in season five of B5 and played a rather important role in the plot. Noted for its hot, arid climate, the Drazi homeworld is also notorious for its crowded cities, narrow streets and small buildings with large vistas.

Much of this information comes from Garibaldi, who traveled here in 2262 on behalf of Alliance Covert Intelligence. According to Garibaldi’s contact on Zhabar, the curious architecture and city planning are throwbacks to earlier eras where the Drazi designed their cities to be impassable to siege engines. In addition, the small roomed architecture also harkens back to previous ages, when the Drazi lived predominantly outside.

After the Shadow War, this world became the focal point of much attention as Centauri agents infiltrated in order to kill Garibaldi’s contact. Though they failed to kill Garibaldi, his contact, and the Drakh-Centauri connection, remained a secret for some time. However, during a subsequent trip by Lyta and Dr. Franklin (at the behest of the Vir Cotto), they discovered that the Drazi were storing captured Shadow devices here. These devices were taken from destroyed Centauri vessels, and the Drazi were apparently hoping to keep them for themselves.

Z’ha’dum:
zhadumMuch like the planet the Vorlons call home, the Shadow’s homeworld is also steeped in mystery. However, several people have walked in its surface or witnessed if from orbit and lived to tell the tale. For instance, the elusive man named Mr. Morden, who came to Z’ha’dum as part of the Icarus crew, enlisted with the Shadows and then became their chief representative to the younger races.

The second person to witness the planet was G’Kar, who travelled to the rim at the end of season 1 to investigate the destruction of the Narn outpost in Quadrant 37. He described the place as a dark world, “where nothing has walked for a thousand years”. His description proved quite apt, as the Shadows and their allies all lived underground in order to hide their presence.

The third and final visit came from John Sheridan, who had been forewarned by Kosh that if he went to Z’ha’dum, he would die. He was right, after a fashion. During his visit to their craggy world, he received a tour of their underground facilities and even a bird’s eye view of the capitol. Right before he blew it all away with two massive thermonuclear bombs and fell to his supposed death. But because he was saved by Lorien, the First One who lived within the planet for eons, his life was restored. As such, he was the only one to visit Z’ha’dum, outside of their willing servants, and live.

Speaking of Lorien, it is noteworthy to mention that for millions of years, Z’ha’dum was the place he called home. During his time with Sheridan, he explained that it was for this reason that the Shadows kept coming back there, out of respect for a First One that was even older than them. This would seem to indicate that Z’ha’dum was not in fact the Shadows homeworld, but merely a world they used as a base of operations whenever they returned to this part of the galaxy. But given their incredible age, this should not come as a surprise. Whether it was the Vorlons, the Shadows or any other First Ones, their true point of origin has probably been lost with time and forgotten by even them.

Sci-Fi Drugs

The other night, I had one of those moments. It was a moment where I found myself thinking about a cool concept and realized that it would make a damn fine post. It’s also one that interests me quite a bit and has even influenced my own writing. So as quickly as I could, I hopped on my laptop (even though it was 2am) and began making a list of all the sci-fi drugs I knew!

To me, the reasons for including drugs as part of a sci-fi franchise are obvious. For one, drugs and drug cultures are very much a part of our society, so it’s only natural that a sci-fi author should have something to say about it. As Gibson said, all sci-fi is really about the time in which it is written, ergo fictionalized drugs in future settings are really a reflection on the attitudes of today.

On the other hand, creating fictitious drugs and inventing subcultures that use them are a good way to give a story some realistic background. Wherever and whenever a story takes place, you have to assume that they will have narcotic substances there, and what form they take and how they go about dealing with them tells you much about that culture.

Either way, it’s a subject that has fascinated me for quite some time. So here are some highlights from the wold of sci-fi drugs!

Can-D:
Here we have a designer drug that was created by none other than sci-fi great Philip K. Dick. As fans may know, this guy was somewhat of an expert on drugs, having taken part in the Californian drug counter-culture during the 60s and 70s. As a result, he had a lot to say about drug use, their impact, and drug policy.

In this particular case, the drug comes to us from the story of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Taking place in the 21st century, where global warming has sent millions of people off Earth to the hostile environments of the Solar System, people have turned to a combination of the drug Can-D and what are known as “layouts.”

Layouts are physical props intended to simulate a sort of alternate reality where life is easier than either the grim existence of the off-world colonies or life on Earth. By taking the drug in conjunction with the layouts, people are able to experience a sort of shared hallucinogenic state. This in turn has given rise to pseudo-religious cults that have grown up around the use of layouts and the drug, consisting of people who dream of better worlds than the one they are forced to endure.

Dancer:
To complete the semi-dystopian setting of his Bridge Trilogy, Gibson was sure to add a designer drug that was all the rage amongst Californians in the near future. The drug was named Dancer, a powerful and addictive hallucinogen that apparently came in the form of a red dust. People would take it orally, rub it on their gums, smoke it or snort it.

In short, Dancer was like a red cocaine, except that it caused hallucinations rather than manic behavior. People who consumed it would typically become euphoric and mellow, causing them to get all rhythmic and break into dance (hence the name). However, it was was also known to make people violent from time to time, which made it more akin to the the effects of PCP.

Inspired by California’s drug culture and the emergence of designer drugs in the early 90s, Dancer was clearly meant to serve as an allegory for multiple drugs, or as a prediction of what the next big craze could be.

Dust:
Fans of Babylon 5 ought to remember this one. Basically, the drug was a hot item on the black market because it had the ability to give users temporary telepathic powers. It was violently addictive, and known for giving a very powerful and unique high. However, in the course of trying to stop the Dust trade to B5, Psi Cop Bester acknowledged that the drug was originally created by the Psi Corps as a way of creating telepaths.

When they realized it didn’t work, the drug was abandoned, but made its way to the black market because of its obvious appeal. As a longtime fan of B5, I can honestly say it was elements like this that made me like the show. Not only was the concept and the name cool, the fact that it began as a government-sanctioned drug was also believable and clearly inspired by the history of many real-world drugs.

Neuroin:
Inspired by Philip K Dick’s short story, Minority Report was a quasi-dystopian future where the use of precognitives promised to eliminate all violent crime from society. But of course, there’s a dark side to all this, and it just happens to be linked to the underworld drug known as Neuroin, a powerful and addictive psychoactive substance.

Though it is never explained in any real detail, the name suggests that it is of the opiate family and possibly combined with a neural stimulant. In addition to being the drug of choice of the protagonist, it is also the very thing that created the precognitives in the first place. All three psychics were once children who suffered brain damage in utero as a result of their mothers’ neuroin use. Though damaged neurologically, a side effect was the development of precognitive powers, which the state began to use in order to engineer the process known as “PreCrime.”

Based on the film adaptation, the principal means of taking neuroin appears to be through a specialized inhaler. This would allude to the fact that neuroin was taken in vaporized form. In the end, this drug served as both a commentary on the dangers of escapism as well as a plot device. While neuroin was the reason for the precognitives existence, it was also how the main character chose to numb himself over the loss of his son.

Nuke:
The designer drug from Robocop 2, and one man’s attempt at achieving his dream of becoming a Jesus-like figure! Designed by Cain, Nuke was an extremely pleasurable and addictive substance that began making the rounds in Old Detroit by the second movie. Coupled with a Police strike and financial ruin, Nuke seemed to be the thing that would finally break Detroit and allow the greedy bastards at OCP to finally take over.

There are several kinds of Nuke, but by far the most popular variety comes in the form of the red sludge. This is known as Red Ramrod, and was followed shortly thereafter by White Noise, Blue Velvet, and Black Thunder. The color scheme alluded to Cain’s “patriotic” sentiments, as he was known to say that his drug was making “Made in America” mean something again.

Nuke comes only in liquid form and is taken by means of small needles that inject the drug directly into the bloodstream. Because of its highly pleasurable nature and chemical properties, only a few doses are needed before a person becomes hooked and will experience intense withdrawal if they don’t get a regular dose. A commentary on the emergence of designer drugs, it was also served as a means for making some tough observations on drug use and its effect on society.

Snow Crash:
This drug is, admittedly a little off the beaten path. Featured in the Neal Stephenson novel of the same name, Snow Crash was essentially an allegory for a system crash, but in neurological form. Taking the form of both an inhalant and a digital virus, the “drug” had the effect of rendering users docile, passive and babbling an idioglossia similar to speaking in tongues.

But of course, there was more to it than all that. Basically, Snow Crash was designed by an information tycoon named L. Bob Rife who wanted control over people’s minds and daily habits. Using a Sumerian tablet, he basically encoded the ancient “Enki virus” – a virus that altered humanity’s neurology and spawned modern languages. So really, he was looking to reverse the Babel myth, making humanity neurologically simpler and thus programmable.

In addition to being a commentary on the drug culture, Snow Crash was also an observation about the proliferation of computer viruses in the early 90s and an allegory on the similarities between ancient myth and modern technology. It was also pretty cool and weird!

Soma:
When it comes to designer drugs, Soma pretty much takes the cake. Derived from Aldous Huxley’s classic tale of dystopia and social engineering, Brave New World, Soma was the kind of drug that came with the label “good for what ails ya” and meant it literally. Designed to cure any and all emotional problems, the pill was mass produced and a key feature of the World State’s apparatus of social control.

Use of Soma is prescribed at a very young age to citizens of the World State, as soon as children are old enough to begin sleep conditioning. Slogans such as “a gram is better than a damn” are programmed into their minds so that they respond to emotional stress by simply popping a pill. This is often referred to as “taking a vacation”.

To illustrate the effects of the drug, Huxley relied on his own experience using mescalin and other drugs. Apparently, subjects using Soma would enter a dream-like state where everything became pleasant and agreeable, all their worries and unpleasant emotions melting away. This dream-like state could be discerned by observing a person’s eyes, which would become noticeably glazed.

In addition, though the state freely distributed the drug and there were no shortages, Soma was still designed to be non-addictive and with no harmful side effects. This, added to its effectiveness, made it the ultimate designer drug and a very effective means of social control. A commentary on the pharmaceutical industry of his day and on the drug culture of the 1920s and 30s, Soma remains the most popular example of a fictional sci-fi drug!

Spice:
Then again, the spice melange is pretty damn popular too. However, as the only drug on this list that is not designed or synthesized, and is by definition an “awareness narcotic,” Spice is really in a category of its own. Taken from the Dune series, Spice was the most precious resource in the universe in more ways than one.

For starters, Spice could only be found on one planet, the desert world known as Arrakis. Mining Spice was also a highly hazardous duty, due to the inhospitable climate of Arrakis and the presence of Sandworms. And given its many benefits, which included prolonged life and expanded awareness, it’s little wonder why it was so damned expensive!

A clear allegory for oil, all life and commerce in the Imperium of Dune revolved around Spice in one way or another. The Guild Navigators used it to achieve their limited prescience and guide ships through foldspace. The Bene Gesserit used it to enhance their mental and physical acuity and make contact with their “Other Memory”. And every house used it to improve their health and longevity. In short, without Spice, all trade and commerce in the universe would end and countless people would die.

And of course, there never would have been a Paul Mua’dib or a Leto II, and humanity would have died as a result! That’s quite a drug them people got there!

Substance D:
Once again, we have a fictitious drug that comes to us straight from the mind of Philip K Dick. Featured in his 1977 book A Scanner Darkly about the drug subculture of California, Substance D was a powerful psychoactive drug that also went by the name “Slow Death.” The name proved apt, as the drug was not only violently addictive, but resulted in brain damage due to overuse.

According to the story, Substance-D was synthesized from the fictitious blue flower Mors ontologica, which is Latin for “death of being”. In the course of the story, the protagonist – an undercover narcotics agent – becomes addicted to the drug, suffers brain damage and is sent to one of the new recovery centers (“New Path”) to get clean.

In time, he is given the task of working on one of their many farms and learns that these places serve as grow ops for the flower. Hence, we see that “New Path” is the source of Substance-D, and is therefore benefiting from both the drug and the harmful effect it has on society. A commentary on strong-arm governments and the pharmaceutical industry perhaps?

Final Thoughts:
When it comes to fictionalized narcotics, a few basic features become evident. For one, fictional drugs can take one of two forms, being either of the organic or synthetic (i.e. designer) variety. Second, their use as part of a story’s background is meant to call attention to our current drug wars, warts and all. But above all, they seem to serve as a form of social commentary by pointing to the ongoing nature of temptation, escapism and repression. On the one hand, human beings will always be looking for escapes and ways to ease the burden of existence. On the other, we are always likely to feel the need to control the flow of narcotic substances and legislate what people can and can’t put in their bodies.

Finally, I found that just about all the authors here were taking a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, approach. Essentially, they were content to sit back and make observations on the whole issue of drug use and moral legislation, rather than making pronouncements. This would seem the preferable option considering that you can’t really offer a clear resolution without sounding either enabling or preachy. Some say that drug use destroys society, other say that people have the right to put whatever they want in their bodes. And then there are those who say that human weakness is a constant, and that criminalizing such a thing turns a flaw into a war. Complicated!

On a brighter note, all this talk puts me in mind of my own fictional creations. Years back, when I was coming up with the concept for my Legacies story, I spent a fair bit of time pondering what kind of drugs people would be using in the relatively distant future. I think I might just dedicate a page or a post to just that topic. In truth, I’d like to know what people think about my inventions. Look for it, it shall be coming soon!