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!

Technology in the Star Trek Universe (updated!)

I’ve wanted to do a post like this for awhile, ever since my conceptual post on Galactic Empires in fact. After doing my research on what distinguished one from the other, I noticed just how central technology, or the perception thereof, is to it all.

And let’s face it, Star Trek has had a lot to say about technology over the years, not all of it consistent! So with a series of examples, I thought I’d examine just what Gene Roddenberry and his successors have had to say.

Cloaking Device:
First developed by the Romulan Empire, the concept for an invisibility field that encompasses an entire ship has been picked up by just about every advanced race in the galaxy. Considered impractical by many because of the intense power drain, other races have found ways to adapt it to give their ships a decided edge in combat.

One such race are the Klingons whose vessels all come equipped with a cloak. The Romulans maintain use of this technology on their military vessels, particularly their warbirds, and even the Federation has been known to dabble in it from time to time. Another discernible weakness is the presence of tachyons and anti-protons that cloaked vessels are known to produce.

Holodecks:
The holodeck is an advanced holoprojector device that was designed by Starfleet for use aboard starships, stations, and institutions. It serves the purpose of entertaining, training and training purposes. Using focused photons to simulate matter, the holodeck is able to create physically real virtual environments out of pure energy.

Because of their potential for danger, all holodecks come equipped with built-in safeguards. Matter created aboard the holodeck ceases to exist as soon as it passes beyond its generators, and the technology has been adapted to creating AI’s such as the ship’s emergency doctor program.

Hypospray:
This non-invasive piece of medical technology is the mainstay of Starfleet medical. Using a compressed air transport mechanism, this device is able to transfer the injectant painlessly from the device into the subdermal layer below the skin of the body, or artery.

In the original series, hyposprays resembled hypodermic needles, but by the time of the 24th century (the TNG series) they had become much more sophisticated, resembling the unit pictured at top left.

Phasers:
Short for phased-energy laser, phasers are the most common energy weapon in Starfleet and the known universe. Beginning in the 23rd century, the technology was adapted for use as hand-held weapons, military rifles, and as the primary weapons banks on ships.

The 24th century saw further developments in the development of this weapon, which included mutli-segment phaser arrays,  and phaser cannons. The former made their first appearance in TNG on the USS Enterprise D and other updated ships while the latter appeared for the first time on USS Defiant.

Replicators:
Using the same technology as the holodeck, a replicator is a matter-energy device that is capable of dematerializing quantities of small matter and reconstituting it as something else. This can take the form of food, commercial products, or machine parts. In short, anything can come out of a replicator so long as it has the atomic matrix down, and isn’t illegal!

Prior to TNG, Starfleet ships used food synthesizers, but by the 24th century, the technology had been perfected and made standard on all starships, stations, outposts and settlements. Because of their sheer usefulness and versatility, every advanced race has adapted the technology for their own use.

Shields:
Also known as Deflector Shields or Screens, these devices are the mainstay of all advanced races in the Star Trek universe. Operating by creating a layer, or layers, of energetic distortion containing a high concentration of gravitons, they are able to provide protection against weapons fire and natural hazards.

Typically, shields are emitted from either a central emitter dish or a series that are dispersed over the hull. They usually come in six sections, covering the fore, aft, port, starboard, dorsal and ventral areas of the ship. In time, shields can be dissipated by either continuous or repeated energy discharges, leaving the ship vulnerable.

Transporters:
Utilizing subspace technology and the same matter-to-energy concept as a holodeck, the transport is the principle means of transportation to and from ships in the Star Trek universe. Often referred to as “beaming”, transporters are able to dematerialize, transmit and reassemble an object from one pad to another.

Making its debut in the original series, the technology has been updated in the TNG universe and its various spinoffs to allow for greater accuracy and safety through the addition of added redundancies. This increased accuracy allows for point-to-point transport, usually within smaller areas like the ship itself.

Tricorders:
A handheld sensing device, the tricorder was invented by Starfleet specifically for use by Starfleet personnel. However, since their inception in the 22nd century, they’ve gone through repeated upgrades, adaptations and have been adopted by just about every advanced race in the Alpha Quadrant.

As it stands, there are six varieties of tricorder in use within Starfleet alone. These include the psychotricorder which measures a patients brainwaves, a medical tricorder which diagnoses ailments and injury, and four models (VI,VII, X and XV) all of which are in service in one branch of Starfleet or another.

Warp Drive:
In the Star Trek universe, the warp drive is both the primary means of transport and the pinnacle of a race’s technology. In fact, Starfleet only makes contact with a new alien race once they’ve developed this technology, as it’s felt that it is only at this point in a species’ development that they will be advanced enough to experience first contact.

First developed by the human race in the late 21st century, warp technology was what precipitated First Contact with the Vulcans. Utilizing a matter/antimatter process and a dilithium chamber, a warp drive generates a “warp field” to envelope a starship. This has the effect of distorting the local spacetime continuum and moving the starship at velocities that exceeded the speed of light.

Every advanced race in the Alpha Quadrant has this technology, though some are able to achieve greater velocities (known as warp factors) than others. In the course of the old series and new, new and more advanced forms of FTL are being researched which may replace standard warp. These include transwarp, quantum slipstream, and a host of others.

Conclusions:
Technology as Utopian:
For the most, part Star Trek seems to be making the point that technology is a good thing. Whether it was the original series, TNG, or the many spinoffs to follow, it seemed that humanity owed much of its current condition to technological progress. Though they never explained how, at many points in the franchise it is said that Earth is now a paradise, bereft of crime, bigotry, hunger, and inequality. Just about all known diseases have been cured, and even money has become obsolete.

Yes, it seems that in the future, the focus of the economy has shifted to one of “self-improvement”… Might seem a bit hokey on the surface, but as I said in the Galactic Empires post, it’s really not that farfetched. Although its still pure fiction, the advent of something like warp drive, which would make space travel quick and affordable, commerce and transport between colony worlds would be open. This would mean abundant resources that went far beyond Earth and the Solar System, and we already know just how rich our system is in resources (see Asteroid Mining).

But more importantly is the development of replicator technology, which comes in the form of personal and industrial sized units. The former are used to produce everything from food and clothing to consumer products while the latter can create just about anything in bulk quantity. If this were possible, then all scarcity and deprivation would cease to exist. What’s more, the entire basis of an unequal distribution of wealth would disappear. Frankly, it puts me in mind of what Orwell said in 1984:

From the moment that the machine first made its appearance it was clear to all thinking people that the need for human drudgery, and therefore to a great extent for human inequality, had disappeared. If the machine were used deliberately for that end, hunger, overwork, dirt, illiteracy and disease could be eliminated within a few generations.

By the “machine”, Orwell was of course referring to industrial technology and the economy it spawned. However, his overall point was clear. Modern technology, dedicated to the write purpose, had the ability to significantly raise the fortunes of all people. And let’s not forget how in the Star Trek universe, hyposprays and various medical devices can solve just about all that ails you! Break a bone, you get the bone knitter! Tear your ACL, you get the… ligament bonder. I don’t know, all I do know is that pain is virtually obsolete in this universe and its because of progress.

So really, Roddenberry wasn’t far off when he envisioned a “perfect society” in the future. It was just in how he failed to explain how this could done that things seemed a little weak. But of course, there was a flip side to the whole thing.

Technology as Dystopian:
But of course, there were plenty of examples of technology gone wrong. The examples are a little too many to name, so I’ll keep it to just a few. The first comes from the first season when the Enterprise D comes to a planet of Aldea. There, a group of advanced humanoid aliens live in relative peace and prosperity, except that they are sterile and therefore dying off. Hence why they start kidnapping the Enterprise’s children!

Eventually, the Enterprise crew determines that the source of their problem is the great machine that runs their planet, otherwise known as “Custodian”. Because they’ve forgotten how to use the machine, the Aldeans have been unaware of the fact that it’s long since broken down and has been letting harmful radiation in. They assist them in fixing it, and the lesson about letting technology run your life has landed!

The second example comes from the regrettable movie Insurrection, where the Enterprise E comes to an idyllic planet inhabited by the Bak’u. Here, people live in virtually perfect harmony with the planet by denying themselves certain technology, opting instead for the simple life. Their philosophy is simple: “when you create a machine to do the job of  man, you take something away from the man”.

All of this seems inconsistent with the usual message of Star Trek, and even the movie itself. Far from being purely primitive, the Bak’u employ all kinds of labor saving technology, which includes irrigation and dams. So really, are they really so opposed to technology or just specific technologies? Nevertheless, the metaphor is clear. Combined with the fact that this place has youth-preserving powers, the metaphor of this place is pretty obvious. It is the fountain of youth, garden of Eden, and the evil Son’a who are advanced and creepy want to destroy it. Not their best movie!

But the last and best example comes in the form of The Borg. A race of cybernetic beings who have merged the organic and synthetic, run by a hive mind that quashes all individuality, and threatening to assimilate all in their path, the metaphor is so thick you need a knife to cut through it. They are the ruthless march of progress personified!

And just look at them and their ships, are they not the perfect representation of cold, unfeeling technology? Sure they are! And the way people change once they’ve been assimilated, becoming soulless automatons and losing all color and individuality. Tell me that’s not a perfect visual representation of the death of the human spirit under the weight of urbanization and anonymity.

Some might call this inconsistent, but it seemed more likely like Roddenberry and his writers were simply hedging their bets. On the one hand, he was showing how human potential could one day yield the perfect society, or at least one that was free of all the problems we know and lament today. On the other, they must have wanted to show the obvious downside and dangers at worshiping at the altar of progress. After all, if you put an ideal, any ideal, ahead of humanity and life, all you get is dystopia!

And as always, other races in the Star Trek universe serve as a mirror for the human condition, or rather different aspects of it. If the human race has got it right, then others must not have achieved that careful balance of humanity and progress just yet. Whereas some prefer to be Luddites and live in an agrarian Eden, others have become runaway cyborgs who assimilate all in their path. It’s all about balance people!

Well, that was kind of fun! And it combined two of my favorite things in the world. Sci-fi and literary criticism. Perhaps I should do more of these. As always, suggestion on which franchise should be covered would be great. I can think of a few off the top of my head – such as the Star Wars universe, Dune, Aliens, Terminator, and possibly Battletech – but I would like to hear from others too. There’s always those added few that would be perfect but I fail to think of. Thanks all!

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!

Cool Guns!

I’m getting hooked on writing conceptual posts, mainly because it gives me the chance to explore a lot different franchises of sci-fi without being too constrained. Not only that, I really like digging into subject matter of finding the common elements; in this case, the stuff that makes cool stuff cool! So far, I’ve covered the concepts of Galactic Empires, Planetkillers and Ancient Aliens. But today, I thought I’d tackle something a little simpler that’s been known to make sci-fi geeks experience collective nerdgasms! Today the topic is: COOL GUNS!

BFG 9000:
Starting off this review right is the BFG (Big F***ing Gun) that comes to us from the Doom universe. Fans of that old franchise know this one by heart, and I’m sure they remember with some nostalgia what it was like firing this thing. Given that Doom was like most first-person shooters, this weapon would turn up late in the game as a way of dealing with the more tenacious evil critters. And it worked! One shot released a big cloud of green plasma which killed everything in the vicinity. Unless it was a boss, in which case, it might take two or three… Apparently, Quake II and Quake III Arena pay homage by including their own version, known as the BFG10K.

“Blow Dryer”:
Also known as a “burner” or plasma caster, this weapon was the mainstay of the Predator aliens and is featured in the many movies, comics, video games, and novels of the franchise. Mounted on the shoulder, this weapon would discharge a ball of red-hot plasma into objects, causing damage akin to an explosive device, but with none of the messy shrapnel. Though the standard model is shoulder mounted and aimed using a heads-up-display and laser sight, the Predators in later movies were also known to carry wrist-mounted versions of this weapon as well. Like their claws and wrist bombs, they were embedded in the cuffs and served as a backup. One of these makes an appearance in Predator 2 during the meat locker shoot-out.

BR55 Battle Rifle:
This baby is a Halo universe invention, and is the mainstay of the UNSC infantry. Aesthetically, this rifle is based on several bull-pup assault rifles designs from the modern era, a design which is clearly growing in popularity. Some potential sources for inspiration include the Austrian-made Steyr AUG, the French FAMAS, the British L85, the Belgian F2000, and the experimental PAPOP design. Like all bull-pup rifles, this gun loads from the rear and can cut through Covenant opposition with ease! Even when I’m playing as the Covenant, this was my second favorite weapon to be carrying (the first was either two submachine guns or two pistols, or a combinati0n thereof!)

Blade Runner Gun:
In the classic move Blade Runner, Detective Rick Deckard was responsible for locating and “retiring” replicants. And the weapon he used to do just that is featured here. This is the model of a Blade Runner service revolver, for which little information exists, but whose appearance and performance pretty much speaks for itself. Based on a standard service revolver with several extra bits added on for effect, this gun pretty much screams cyberpunk.

In addition, there are several scenes in the movie where Deckard’s gun turned flesh (artificial though it was) into mush! Recall the scene where Deckard uses this gun to punch several holes in Zhora? Or how about the scene immediately thereafter where Leon is beating the crap out of him, and Rachael manages to save him by using his own weapon? Yeah, whenever this gun was brought out of his holster, some big holes resulted!

Blasters:
When asked about his idea for a “Galactic Empire”, George Lucas said that he wanted to create something that was as aesthetically similar to Nazi Germany as possible. This was reflected in the weapons as well. Numerous guns that were modified and used as props in the movie were based on WWII vintage weapons. The first and most recognizable is Han’s blaster, aka. the DL-44. Based on the German C96 Mauser pistol, this weapon was apparently a popular item amongst smugglers and traders, being very powerful and compact. It was also quick on the draw, which comes in handy when in a bar and looking down the barrel of a bounty hunter’s gun (Han shot first!)

The next was the standard issue blaster used by both the Stormtroopers and the heroes, especially in the first movie during their daring breakout from the Death Star. This blaster, known as the E-11, was based on the Sterling submachine gun of WWII. Simple, consisting of little more than a barel, a handle, and a side-mounted magazine, the gun was easily altered with a few pieces of molded plastic and a scope that made it look suitably futuristic.

The heavier T-21 Blaster Rifle was yet another WWII adaptation. Built around a Lewis machine gun, it was featured in the first movie during the Mos Eisley scene where Stormtroopers were seen walking through the streets searching for Luke and Obi Wan.

Last, there was the DLT-19 Heavy Blaster, the heaviest infantry weapon in the Star Wars franchise. In keeping with his love of WWII kit, Lucas’ set designers used a German MG42 to fashion this one. This blaster appeared aboard the Death Star in the hand of the search party that went over the Millenium Falcon, and again when Chewy commandeered one to take out the remote blasters and cameras in the cell block.

GE M134 Minigun Handheld:
How could I have forgotten this one? I mean really, is there a better visual representation of sheer badassery than the handheld minigun from Predator? Sure, the mere idea of a man carrying a minigun around by hand is so unbelievable its makes me want to laugh out loud. Considering the weight of the weapon, even before you factor in all the ammo, coupled with the killer recoil that no human could withstand – all of this makes the physics totally implausible! But what the heck? It was fun to watch! I can’t imagine anyone not feeling the hair on the back of their neck stand on end as those barrels started whirling and the bullets streamed out, so fast it sounded like a turbine! And I know from talking to actual pilots who’ve seen this baby in action that if you add tracers to the mix, its like watching a laser show. WHURRRRRRRRRRRR! Total carnage!

Grammaton Cleric Pistol:
Though it was not my favorite movie, there were undeniably cool aspects to the movie Equilibrium. One of which was all the cool Gun Kata moves pulled by Christain Bale, Angus Macfadyen, and the other Grammaton Clerics with their special pistols. These guns were clearly souped-up versions of the Beretta 92FS. They clearly fire in both semi-automatic and automatic bursts, and were retrofitted in one scene with impact hammers on the handles.

In addition, some rather curious reloading tricks were devised. One involved arm-rails that would deliver fresh magazines from inside the cleric’s sleeve. Another included magazines that could be balanced upright, which gave the cleric the ability to simply slam his gun down on the fresh magazine once the empty ones had been ejected and go right on shooting. It’s all about rate of fire in this movie, making sure the bullets (and dust) keep flying!

The Lawgiver II:
Also known as the Judge Dredd gun, this pistol is also a modified version of the Beretta 92FS, with molded plastic and LED lights giving it a future-city look. In addition to a rapid-fire setting, the gun also boasts a grenade launcher, signal flare launcher, and a special dual round known as the “double-whammy”. It also has a taser device built into the handle so that only a Judge can operate it, and a DNA tagging system that ensures that every slug fired can be traced back to the person operating it.

M41A Pulse Rifle:

The franchise Alien gave so much to the world of sci-fi geeks, not the least of which came in the form of cool guns. And the Pulse Rifle was arguably the mainstay of that contribution. In fact, it was this gun that inspired entire generations of futuristic weapons, and the name itself has been used many times over to refer to energy and slug-thrower weapons in sci-fi franchises.

This is an important disctintion seeing as how “pulse”, to most sci-fi acolytes, refers to weapons that fire out pulsing beams of energy (most likely plasma). But in this case, it referred to pulses of caseless ammo, big bursts of projectiles that would tear through acid-spewing aliens by the dozen. And let’s no forget the grenade launcher that was attached to the underside, how cool was that? The signature, click-click, BOOM! combination was as pleasing to the ears as it was to the eyes.

But in addition to being just so freaking cool to look at, the amount of creative energy and ingenuity that went into making it was quite impressive. For example, the people in charge of set design wanted a prop that would actually fire, so they built their rifle concept around the M1A1 Thompson submachine gun, a WWII vintage weapon that was small and sturdy enough to get the job done. To simulate the grenade launcher, they attached a cutdown Remington 870 shotgun beneath it and mounted the foregrip of the SPAS 12 shotgun on top of that. Then, they applied pieces of molded plastic and a little LED display to the side to make it look especially badass! Remember that scene where Ripley used it to level that room full of egg’s with the Alien queen inside? Iconic!

M56 Smart Gun:
I know, I’m shoving two examples from a single franchise into one post. But I think it’s worth it. And for fans of Aliens and sci-fi junk, you just can’t make a list of cool guns and not include the Smart Gun! Much like the Pulse Rifle, this weapon was the perfect marriage of aesthetics and ingenuity.

To fashion it, the set designers for Aliens used another vintage WWII weapon (like Lucas, they used the German MG42 machinegun) some motorcycle handles, and the arms from a Steadicam mount. The result, once again, was pure badassery! And the name, according to the expanded Aliens universe, comes from the fact that these weapons could aim themselves. Marines would simply employ their eyepieces and helm cameras, and the guns would pick up movement and target it. Oh, and that scene where Vasquez opens fire in the Alien lair… classic! “Let’s roooooock!”

PPG’s:
The PPG, or Phased Plasma Gun, is the standard weapon of security officers and soldiers in the Babylon 5 universe. According to franchise sources, the PPG fires a small charge of superheated helium which retains its shape and small volume via a residual magnetic field. Upon impact with an object, the magnetic field is dissipated and the heat discharged. PPG bolts also cause visible distortion as they travel through air, hence the blurred effects when people in the show fire off their weapons.

The PPG comes in several standard models. First, there’s the service pistol which every security officer and member of station personnel. The heavier rifles are busted out during riots and times of war, along with the vests and riot helmets. In two episodes (S01E20 Babylon Squared and S05E19 Wheel of Fire ) Garibaldi has scenes where he busts out the BFG version.

Reason:
This weapon is both deadly and cheekily-named, and is taken from Neal Stephenson’s smash-hit novel Snow Crash. This picture doesn’t quite do it justice, but its a close approximation. In the novel, Reason was a gatling gun that was the property of Uncle Enzo’s Mafia, an organization that ran a series of franchulates along the west coast of the former US. But unlike your conventional gatler, it fired caseless depleted-uranium slugs, bullets that are incredibly dense and very heavy. Hence, the weapon packed a massive punch and a mad recoil.

During one of the later chapters, Enzo’s men use the gun to take out a pirate yacht while firing from a life raft. A single burst demolished the pirate ship, but the recoil sent their boat about fifty meters in the opposite direction! This scene also had a hilarious set up when the mafiosos first broke it out, saying that if they ran afoul of any privateers, they were sure they’d “listen to Reason.”

Phaser Rifle:
Over the years, Star Trek has been a source of many weapons designs. However, some were arguably more cool than others, at least in my opinion. These came largely from the later spinoffs and movies, in particular DS9 and Voyager. Prior to this, phaser designs were either too boxy, too bulbous, or just too… Buck Rogers-y! When you’re repelling boarders, or on an away mission, one thing you want is a kick-ass weapon to bolster your confidence and inspire fear in your enemies.

These requirements were met by a new model of weapon, known as the type 3 Phaser Rifle. This weapon went through many variations throughout the course of the show. The first design was very boxy-looking, whereas later models tended to be more sleek and menacing (as shown above). Then came a whole new design, known as the Compression Rifle (seen below), which was apparently an even more powerful model. These weapons were specifically created for use on starships where heavy combat was expected, or in times of war.

Final Thoughts:
Man, that was a long list! But that’s the thing with cool ideas, they tend to get around. And as usual, I noticed some key patterns in the mix which I think should be pointed out. In all of these cases, there were apparently two classes  that each weapon fell into.

  1. Directed-Energy Weapons: Arguably the more science-fictiony of the two. These weapons first made their appearance in Saturday morning serials like Buck Rogers from the 1950’s. They come in many forms – ray guns, death rays, beam guns, blasters, laser guns, and phasers – but the core concept is the same. Phased or directed energy, usually in the form of plasma, that is focused into a tight beam and then emitted. The ironic thing is, since the 1950’s, sci-fi franchises have moved away from these seemingly farfetched devices and come to rely on ballistic weapons designs more and more. Meanwhile, Directed Energy Weapons have become more and more feasible, with several prototypes being explored by military contractors today.
  2. Ballistic Weapons: In the context of sci-fi, these often take the form of weapons that use caseless ammunition, electromagnetically-propelled ammunition, or just standard bullets. But in each case, the weapons that use them are adapted to look more futuristic. Interestingly enough, the future seems to be coming sooner than we thought. In just about every developed nation, firearm technologies are being explored under the banner of the “Future Soldier” program. Having studied many of these, I can tell you that they put much of what was shown in Aliens to shame, especially where Heads-Up-Displays and portable computers are concerned! Again, the future seems to be coming sooner than we thought!