Terraforming in Pop Culture

Welcome back to the wonderful world (pun!) of Terraforming. In my last post on the subject, I came to see that it emerged in fiction in the early 20th century as part of our growing awareness of the universe and humanity’s place within it. As western civilization grew and came to encompass the entire world through exploration, conquest and colonization, human scientists simultaneously discovered that our universe was much larger than previously thought, and began to postulate that life could exist on other planets.

In short, while our world grew smaller, the universe grew much, much larger. With no more nooks  or corners left to explore and conquer, we began to set our sights to the heavens for the next frontier. It’s such a fertile topic, but I shan’t get into it here. If I start waxing philosophical on all the thought that goes into exploring new worlds, we’ll be here forever.

Onto to the subject for today, which is terraforming in popular culture! As you can guess, there are quite a few instances of this taking place, and for good reason. Wherever science fiction and exoplanets have shown up in pop-culture, the concept terraforming was sure to follow. In some cases, this constituted a mere mention, but in others, detailed descriptions were given. Here is a list of just a few examples that I could find:

Aliens:
Central to the plot of Aliens was the fact that LV-426, the planet where the Nostromo and its crew encountered the Xenomorph in the first movie, had become a settler colony. As the executive at Weyland Yutani told Ripley, it was what they referred to as a “Shake and Bake Colony”, where terraformers were sent on ahead to run the atmospheric processors and make the planet suitable for human use. This was all in keeping with WY’s motto of “Building Better Worlds”. Pshaw!

Shortly after they arrive on LV-426, Ripley and the compliment of Colonial Marines determined that the colonists had been moved into the atmospheric processor, specifically to its lower levels where the air was hot and humid. Apparently, these conditions were favorable to the Xenomorph hatchlings, which began to use the colonists as hosts to breed”Chestbusters”.

After their disastrous confrontation in the hive, the atmospheric processor suffered a rupture to its coolant systems, which meant that the entire thing would go thermonuclear in just a few hours. After being all but eradicated in their first encounter with the Xenomorph and losing their only transport back to the ship, this served to add further urgency to the plot. And in the end, it was the destruction of the atmospheric processor which ensured that the Xenomorph colony was destroyed and all traces of them (with the exception of the Queen) wiped out.

Cowboy Bebop:
Set in the not-too-distant future, this anime from from the late nineties was set in a universe where humanity lived throughout the Solar System. This was made possible due to the discovery of hyperspace gates; however, due to the explosion of one near the Moon, Earth found itself being bombarded by meteorites which devastated large sections of the planet. As a result, much of the human race had to relocate to the Inner Planets, the Asteroid Belt, and the moons of Jupiter.

Many episodes of the show take place on the planets of Venus, Mars, Ganymede, Io, Callisto, and Titan, where terraforming has rendered them partially of fully habitable. Though the concept is treated as a sort of given, some degree of explanation is given as to how it took place and the varying degrees of success that resulted. In the case of Mars and Venus, the terraforming was so successful that Mars became the new hub of human civilization and Venus a major population center.

With this background firmly in place, the series plot arc – which involves a motley group of bounty hunters patrolling the system Space Western style – is then able to unfold. Though the show last only 26 episodes, it did achieve a cult following and a level of influence, similar to Joss Wedon’s Firefly (another Space Western that died prematurely).

Firefly:
Speak of the devil, or in this case, a show that made good use of the concept of terraforming. Intrinsic to the plot of this show, so much so that they opened every episode by referring to it, is the fact that in this future, the human race was forced to relocate to a new star system after Earth had been “used up”. Arriving at the “White Star”, they found dozens of planets and hundreds of moons around the system’s central sun and its many dwarf suns. These planets were then terraformed, a process which took generations, and began populated them soon after.

Another fact which is central to the story is the fact that while the central worlds were terraformed successfully and boasted large, advanced populations, the outer planets were poorly terraformed, leading to dry, desolate worlds that became havens for crime and backwards populations. Though life was show to be difficult in these colonies, they were also the only places where people can still enjoy a life free of the repressive Alliance regime.

But more importantly, this back story gave Joss Whedon an excuse for the look and feel of his acclaimed Space Western! It also played perfectly into the show’s historical narrative, where the expanding Alliance represented the closing of the American frontier and the death of a way of life. For not only were the First Nations and their culture being sacrificed in the name of “Manifest Destiny”, a great deal of the American Dream of an open frontier was as well.

Red Planet:
Set in 2056 AD, the plot of this film centers around ongoing terraforming efforts on Mars. Faced with the dual problems of overpopulation and pollution, NASA and other space agencies begin sending automated probes to Mars that contain atmosphere-producing algae. These probes have been seeding Mars for twenty years as the first stage in a terraforming effort that will make the planet suitable for human settlement. When the oxygen production is inexplicably reduced, a crew is sent to investigate so that the  terraforming efforts can be put back on track.

When the mission arrives, and endures numerous disasters,they eventually discover that the introduction of Earth algae has stirred up the native Martian life. This consists of nematodes that have come to the surface to feed on the algae, emitting oxygen in return. This, they realize, has changed the parameters of the original project, but leaving it otherwise intact.

Star Trek II and III:
What is generally hailed by fans as the best movie of the franchise (Wrath of Khan) opens up with a rather unusual take on terraforming. In fact, the plot of both the second and third movie revolve around a project known as Genesis, a means of instantaneously transforming a planet from a lifeless husk into a habitable M-class planet.

In Wrath of Khan, things begin when the starship Reliant, while searching for a lifeless planet in the Ceti Alpha system, is taken over by Khan Noonien Soong and his band of genetically-modified people. Having learned of their mission, Khan becomes obsessed with finding the Genesis device so that he can restore the desolate landscape of Ceti Alpha V, presumably with the intention of resurrecting his dead wife.

In the end, Kirk and the Enterprise disable his ship inside a nebula, prompting Khan to set the Genesis device to self-destruct in the hopes of taking Kirk with him. With their warp drive non-functional, the Enterprise could not escape, prompting Spock to sacrifice himself in order to bring the engines back online. Though he dies from radiation poisoning, the ENterprise escapes as the Genesis device detonates, which has the effect of turning the nebula itself into an M-Class planet.

At the very end of the movie, Spock’s body is placed inside a torpedo casing and fired into orbit around Genesis. After landing on the surface, the “Genesis wave” heals Spock’s body and he is reborn. This, as all fans of the franchise know, was the basis for the third movie where Kirk and the Enterprise come back to Genesis to retrieve him. In the course of doing so, the Genesis plant is examined in more detail and the effects of the project. Ultimately, though the device was capable of creating life out of lifeless, it proved unstable and resulted in the total collapse of the planet created.

Total Recall:
The film adaptation of Philip K Dick’s “We can Remember it for You Wholesale” differed from the source material in many key ways. For example, in addition to the central theme of memory and the dividing line between real and artificial, there was also an extensive backstory involving Mars. Ultimately, the character of Quad (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) learns that he is drawn to Mars because that is where he is from, and his false identity implanted because of something he witnessed there.

In the end, it is revealed that this secret has to do with an ancient alien device that lies at the heart of the planet, a device which has the power to terraform Mars into a habitable world. Apparently, this involved some super-heated coils that, when activated, would plunge into the planet’s watery core, evaporating them and filling Mars’ atmosphere with water vapor. When Quad activated the device, it had the effect of creating breathable atmosphere within a matter of minutes.

Not the most realistic depiction of terraforming, but it did have it’s upsides. For one, it took advantage of contemporary scientific theories that stated that Mars might have underground sources of water and ice. Second, it incorporated speculation of how these could be used to eventually create oxygen-creating plants on the surface and hence, an atmosphere. Last, it worked into the plot in that the villain, Coohagen, knew that if Mars had a natural atmosphere, it would destroy the basis of his power (controlling the air supply).

Cool Ships!

God, what an obvious extension of the whole conceptual sci-fi thing, I can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner! After all, what is a sci-fi franchise without some cool spacefaring vessels? Sometimes, these come in the form of exploratory ships that chart the unknown regions of the galaxy. Sometimes they are battleships which kick ass and don’t do much else. And sometimes they are generational ships, spending decades, centuries or even millennia cruising through space, ferrying people to new star systems and new galaxies.

But whatever their purpose, futuristic vessels are a constant source of enjoyment and interest. A lot of imagination and creativity goes into creating them, and what comes out is often a testament to the allure of speculative sci-fi. Anyway, today I thought I’d explore some choice examples of sci-fi ships and what makes them so cool. Here goes…

Defiant:
Making its debut in Star Trek: DS9, the Defiant became the workhorse of the station and the first line of defense against it’s enemies. Originally designed for combat with the Borg, the Defiant was a prototype for an entire generation of warship. Smaller than most starships, but also faster and boasting very powerful weaponry, the Defiant quickly gained a reputation for being the most dangerous vessel in the quadrant!

Yep, when this ship made its debut, I started watching the show. Every episode that featured space battles with the Defiant were worth watching, in my estimation. Blasting those rapid-fire cannons, firing those quantum torpedoes, blowing up anyone stupid enough to cross it; the Defiant did it all!

It’s prototype version even boasted a cloaking device, something the Federation borrowed from the Romulans so they could slit into Dominion territory once they found out about them. In time, the Defiant was lost, but more of its kind appeared to take up its role. The Valiant, the Sao Paolo, and a host of others were pressed into service as the series went on and the Dominion War became the focal point of the show. Much like their predecessor, these new Defiant-class ships kicked plenty of asses and never went down without a fight. A big, brutal, hard-slogging fight!

Galactica:
This ship is the namesake of the original movie and series and got a makeover for the re-imagining which was released back in 2005. And though her appearance has changed somewhat since the 1970’s when the original movie came out, the Galactica’s role and importance has remained the same. The last surviving Battlestar of the Twelve Colonies, she is the sole protector of the human fleet as it flees the Cylon onslaught and makes its way to an elusive world called Earth… and salvation!

One thing that did change between the old and new series was the sophistication of the design. Whereas in the 1970’s version, the Galactica was a state of the art, modern warship with laser cannons and a full crew, the newer version was an older, outdated vessel with projectile cannons and flak guns that had been retired from active service. As the series opens, we see that the Galactica was being converted into a museum ship that was meant to commemorate the last war against the Cylons which had ended over twenty years ago. It’s crew was skeletal and its senior officers were also due for retirement.

However, all of that changed when the Cylons launched their surprise attack on the Colonies. Being an obsolete vessel which used outdated computers and had no wireless networks, the Galactica was the only ship that wasn’t crippled by the virus the Cylon’s used to disable the Colonial fleet. After hastily equipping themselves with ammunition and some equally outdated Vipers from their showroom, the Galactica was forced into service. But by this time, the war was effectively over, and the Captain and crew dedicated themselves to a new mission: to find the only other human colony in existence (Earth) and begin repopulating their species.

Despite her age, the Galactica could still surprise her enemies when she needed to. Unlike her more modern companions, including the Pegasus which she met in season two, she had a habit of getting out of some rather tight spots. You could say that in the new series, this ship was a metaphor for humanity; aging and endangered, but a survivor nonetheless!

Millennium Falcon:
Here she is, the centerpiece of this list! For what ship is more cool than the Millennium Falcon? I mean really! Sure, she’s not the biggest or the most heavily armed ship on this list, but she is the fastest, nimblest, and she’s definitely got the most character. In some ways, she was almost part of the cast of the original Star Wars series, and I’m sure everyone felt bad for her when she got scuffed up during that last battle in Return of the Jedi ;).

Officially, the Falcon is a modified Corellian transport. Corellia, the planet Han calls home, is renowned for producing good ships in addition to good spacers. They’re fast, sleek, and infinitely modifiable. It’s little wonder then why they are a favorite amongst smugglers. And Corellian spacers especially are known for being very monogamous and loyal when it comes to their ship selection.

Prior to joining the Rebellion, the Falcon was primarily used to smuggle spice from Kessel to other regions of the Galaxy, usually at the behest of Jabba the Hutt. In spite of its speed, the Falcon would occasionally get boarded by Imperial patrols. When this happened, Han and Chewi relied on a secret compartment to stash their goods. However, on one of his final runs, Han was boarded by an Imperial patrol and was forced to ditch his manifest.

Shortly thereafter, Han and Chewi joined the Rebellion and the role of the Falcon changed considerably. Now, it was involved in attack missions, the most notable of which were the assaults on the first and second Death Star. At other times, it continued to do what it did best – fly fast and elude Imperial ships!

Nostalgia for Infinity:
Here we have an interesting ship, which comes to us from the mind of Alastair Reynolds and the Revelation Space universe. Known as a “Lighthugger”, this class of vessel was one which could travel close to the speed of light thanks to its massive “Conjoiner Drives”. These engines, which were attached to the outsides of the ships, relied on a controlled singularity to generate the necessary inertia to push the ship as close to light speed as was physically possible for a vessel of its size.

The crews of these ships were known as “Ultranauts”, or Ultras for short. Typically, these were the kinds of cybernetically enhanced human beings who were capable of interfacing with the ship’s advanced machinery, prolonged space travel and withstanding the inertial stresses caused by near-light speed travel.

In the case of the Nostalgia, the ship was commanded by a Triumvir, three Captains who took turns commanding the ship while it was in deep space and the others were in reefersleep (i.e. cryogenic suspension). This included Ilia Volyova, Sajaki and Hegazi, three Ultras who had taken over after the Captain and ship had succumbed to what was known as the “Melding Plague”. This virus is a key element to the story of RS, being alien in origin and which infects and perverts nanotechnological matter.

In the course of running their various missions to and from the many worlds of the RS universe, the crew came into possession of a series of “Cache Weapons”, missiles and gun platforms which were apparently of Conjoiner design, and were officially known as Hell-class weapons.  As the series progressed, both the Nostalgia, its crew, and these weapons played an increasingly important role in defending the human race from the alien threat of the “Inhibitors” (see Planet Killers, The Inhibitors, for more detail).

Red Dwarf:
The eponymous spaceship from the BBC series, the Red Dwarf – otherwise known as the “giant red trashcan” – was a huge mining vessel measuring 10 km in length, 6.5 km in height, and 5 km in width. Built for mining and owned by the Jupiter Mining Corporation, the ship is immense, largely self-sufficient, and run by an AI named Holly. And for some reason, it has an asteroid embedded in its hull (this is never explained).

In the beginning of the series, a radiation leak killed the entire crew, except for the protagonist Dave Lister, a technician who was apparently in suspended animation at the time. In order to ensure his survival, Lister is kept in suspension by Holly until all the background radiation dissipates, a process which takes over three million years. As a result, Lister wakes up to find that he’s the last living human in existence. His only companions are the hologram of his former bunk-mate Rimmer, and a humanoid feline named Cat who evolved from Lister’s cat (Frankenstein) over three million years that he was asleep.

Over the course of the show, the crew encounters new planets, species and time distortions aboard the Red Dwarf, all the while trying to make their back to Earth. The largely self-sufficient ship takes care of their every need, though it has begun to run out of certain supplies after three million years (including Shake n Vac and all but one After Eight mint!).

Serenity:
I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about Firefly as of late, but the list says cool ships so I don’t see how the Serenity can possibly be left off this list! As the centerpiece of the single-season series and the movie, the ship has a long story and a lot of character, much like her crew! Originally designed as a class of cargo freighter, the Firefly is apparently an older model of ship that is no longer in use with the Alliance but remains popular out on the rim.

All references to it in the early episodes indicate that the series is essentially obsolete, but due to their ruggedness, shelf-life and the presence of secret compartments, they remain a popular item amongst smugglers. Hmmm, echoes of the Millennium Falcon there. Nevertheless, as the series progresses, this reputation is illustrated in how Mal and the crew are able to stow illegal goods and how Kaylee is able to keep the ship running under tight conditions with all kinds of improvised repairs. And despite the fact that it is no longer being constructed, most of its parts are still available and easily attainable on the open and black market.

Much like all ships in the Firefly/Serenity universe, the Firefly is apparently a sub-light vessel, incapable of traveling faster than the speed of light. Though unarmed, it is fast and maneuverable in both space and planetary atmospheres. This is made possible by the addition of two external multi-directional thrusters which allow for takeoff, landing, and the occasional crazy Ivan (which the crew pulled in the pilot episode). It also boasts two shuttle pods, which can be used as escape vessels or as secondary transports. Inara, the Companion crewwoman, uses one such pod as her quarters and transport for personal away missions.

The ship also has its own medbay and crew quarters, which is another feature that makes it popular amongst spacers. In fact, the availability of a private room was intrinsic in Mal’s offer to “recruit” Jayne Cobb from another gang, which was illustrated in a flashback sequence during the episode “Out of Gas”. There was even room enough to accommodate River and Simon and Book, which would indicate that the ship contains eight bunks in total. A communal dining area and food processors also see to their needs while not sleeping, gun-slinging, or generally doing something illegal!

USS Sulaco:
After barely surviving her first encounter with the xenomorph in Alien, Ellen Ripley and a crew of Colonial Marines returned to LV-426 in Aliens to settle the score! The ship that brought them there was none other than the USS Sulaco – a big, bad, military vessel boasting big-ass guns and enough Marine firepower to level an entire colony. Much like the Nostromo, the Sulaco is a reference to the work of Joseph Conrad, writer of Heart of Darkness (significant? Oh, I think so!).

Apparently, the Sulaco is a Conestoga-class warship designed for ferrying Marines to and from conflict areas in the future. While it was only carrying one platoon of Marines and two dropships in the second movie, this class of ship is capable of carrying 20,000 tons of cargo, eight UD4L Cheyenne-class dropships and a crew of 90 personnel (according to other franchise reference material). Hmm, too bad they didn’t pack the Sulaco to capacity, otherwise Ripley would have never had to take matters into her own hands to kill the Queen Alien!

Much like everything else in the Alien franchise, the Sulaco and all other Conestoga-class vessels are built by the Weyland-Yutani corporation, military division. Clearly, their purpose is to enforce the law, hunt down (and capture) xenomorphs, and maintain the peace aboard its many, many colonies. All part of their commitment to “Building Better Worlds” I guess 😉

White Star:
My personal favorite of this list, the coolest and most badass ship to come from the Babylon 5 universe! Fast, small, and boasting incredible firepower, the White Star was the workhorse of the Shadow War, Sheridan’s campaign to liberate Earth, and the early military campaigns of the Interstellar Alliance. In a lot of ways, it is much like the Defiant from the DS9 universe… I do believe they stole the idea from Straczynski!

As a collaboration between the Mimbari and the Vorlons, the White Star ships were partially based on organic technology. This meant that the ship was essentially alive and could heal itself when damaged. In addition, its organic armor was capable of deflecting energy, giving it a sort of shielding which could protect it from anything other than a physical impact.

The ship’s main weapons consisted of pulse cannons and a single beam cannon mounted in the nose. This gave it the ability to pepper targets with rapid fire shots while conducting high-speed maneuvers, and slicing them with focused bursts while on an attack vector.  All of this came in handy when dealing with Shadow vessels, which are notoriously hard to kill! It also proved useful when up against larger, heavier ships like Earth Force cruisers, Drakh vessels, and anything else the known universe could throw at them.

From the initial prototype, the Mimbari would go on to construct thousands of White Star-class vessels which were crewed by the Rangers and members of the Religious Caste. After the formation of the Alliance, Sheridan proposed the creation of a heavier version which culminated in the design of two White Star Destroyers, the Victory and Excalibur. This latter ship was the centerpiece of the spinoff series, Crusade.

Final Thoughts:
Well, that was fun! No final thoughts today, as I really have none to offer. I just really like cool ships! And much like most toys for grown ups, they are made cool by the fact that they are used for some fun purposes – like smuggling, fighting or exploration – and generally boast one or more of the following factors: speed, firepower, special abilities, visual appeal, and maybe some secret compartments. Any or all of these will do, thank you very much. Until next time!