Of Invincible Aliens that were Easily Vanquished

warofworldsaliensIf there’s one thing that’s become an annoying cliche in commercial science fiction movies, and even some novels, it’s the idea of a super-advanced alien race that come to Earth, proceeds to kick ass, but then gets beaten by a ragtag bunch of superheroes by the most implausible means. You know what I’m talking about, the big evil monsters from another planet who seem to have armies, navies and nuclear arsenals beat, but then succumb to germs, basic hacking, and inferior weaponry.

Having grown up with a lot of bad science fiction, I could name a few titles from my childhood which, looking back, kind of insulted my intelligence. But as I’ve gotten older, the list has grown and expanded. And I really thought it was time I did a list that presents all of the bad stories, movies and television arcs that I’ve witnessed over the years, the ones that extra-terrestrial would definitely get a kick out of if ever they saw them. Hopefully, they wouldn’t conclude we humans actually think like this, and hence would be that much easier to conquer!

And here they are, in order of awfulness. The list of incompetent alien invaders!

1. Battlefield Earth:
battlefieldearthI start with this movie for obvious reasons. As far as logic and plot development were concerned, this movie could not have been more insulting to aliens! Not only was their own ineptitude galactic in proportions, but it flew in the face of everything we were told during the first half of the movie (or quarter of the book). Yes, L. Ron Hubbard (the inventor of Scientology) isn’t exactly known for being the most rational of human beings, but even he was out to lunch on this one!

For starters, it is established early on that the Psychlos – an alien civilization of clawed Rastafarians – have conquered Earth by the year 3000. But in the course of the story, we learn through the main character that it was extremely easy for them to do it. Using their superior technology, Earth’s armies, navies and air forces fell to the invasion after a mere 9 minutes! That’s quite the ass-whooping!

And yet, a group of tribal kinsmen are able to not only defeat the occupying Psychlos, but destroy their entire homeworld in the course of an uprising. How, you might ask? Well, as it turns out, Terl, the governor of Earth – played by director and Hubbard acolyte John Travolta – facilitated it all by giving Johnny Goodboy Tyler (the protagonist of the story) all the lucrative info on their race so he could become a foreman for a private gold mining operation, but in turn used it to train a resistance.

In the course of so doing, Tyler was able to trick Terl into accepting gold from Fort Knox, where he used 1000-year old simulators to train his ragtag misfits in how to use equally old Harriers, missiles, and even a nuke, which they then teleportedto the Psychlo home planet in the midst of their rebellion. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that the Psychlos atmosphere ignites when it comes into contact with radiation? Yeah, that’s kind of important, because it resulted in the full-scale destruction of their home world!

Ignoring for a fact that the physics of this makes absolutely no sense, Hubbard’s tale basically asserts that by relying on the same technology that couldn’t last ten minutes against a bunch of alien invaders in the first place, a bunch of hill people did what ever army on Earth could not and killed off a far more advanced species. How did these Psychlos conquer Earth in the first place? They are not only breathe air that’s the equivalent of dry tinder of gasoline, they’re dumber than dirt!

2. Independence Day:
independence_day-207756Here we have another instance where audiences were presented with an alien menace that appeared unassailable in the first act of the movie, but then proved to be total pushovers. As the first Roland Emmerich disaster flick to grace the silver screen in America, this movie made a ton of money and set the arc for Emmerich’s career. Fun and silly, it sucked as far as realism and suspension of disbelief were concerned. For me, what endures about this movie is how fun it is to make fun of!

Basically, the aliens come to Earth in a massive mothership that begins deploying smaller motherships across the globe. Using our own satellites to sync up, they begin a countdown to Armageddon and start blowing up every major city on the planet. The only person who seems to notice the countdown ahead if time is a lone cable repair man, and not the NSA, CIA, MI6 or any other covert spy agency on the planet!

All counter-attacks fail, as it seems the alien ships have shields – these big green walls that protect them from our missiles. Nukes are even useless against them. All hope seems lost until, contained within Area 51, this same cable man comes up with an idea… He’s going to download a virus to the alien mothership using his Macbook and set off a nuke inside it. With the help of a fighter pilot who seems oddly and suddenly qualified to fly a captured alien ship, they fly into space, make it aboard the mothership, and begin their hack job.

And while the alien’s shields are down, what remains of Earth’s air forces mount a counter-attack that goes off quite well. It seems that without their shields, the alien fighters are a bunch of total wimps! And the smaller motherships, all you got to do is find a alcoholic, traumatized crop duster to fly a plane up their main gun shaft and the whole thing will blow up! Oh, and the hacker team, they make it out before the nuke goes off and somehow crashland without dying. Hurray for xenocide!

So basically, our species was on the verge of being exterminated, only to be saved by a cable man, a NASA reject, and a drunken crop duster with PTSD. Brent Spiner was right, it WAS just a matter of getting around their technology! And how easy was that? Yeah, they got interstellar spaceships, laser beams and shields, but the bastards can’t even erect a firewall to stop a single hacker? And speaking of those laser beams, turns out all you got to do is stick your finger in the barrel and the whole ship will blow up!

3. Battle: Los Angeles
Battle_Los_Angeles_Poster
Here we have another instance where aliens attack, manage to do untold amounts of damage, but then seem to succumb when a small band of heroes come together and put their minds to the task of beating them. And in this case, the aliens didn’t even really have an Achilles heel. They just seemed to become beatable once the Marines figured out their physiology, technology and basic tactics, which was surprisingly easy…

It’s almost summer in LA, and a grizzled veteran who’s traumatized over the recent loss of his platoon is about to quit the service. But of course, hostile aliens land off the coast and throw a wrench in his retirement plans! And instead, he is deployed to the city to defend against the first wave of the assault, and is quickly trapped with what remains of his platoon behind the enemy’s lines.

There, they begin to figure out the enemy. This consists of first performing a recreational autopsy on one to find out how to kill it. Turns out all you have to do is shoot them “to the right of the heart”. So, in the chest then? No wonder all the other soldiers couldn’t kill them! They were aiming for the groin! Fleeing with some civilians in tow, they also systematically discover all their other weaknesses…

This includes the fact that the alien airdrones are drawn to their radio transmissions and that all their drones are controlled by some central command module. After realizing they are on their own because the Air Force aint coming, they divert to find the module and then destroy it. All the alien drones are deactivated, the Marines are rescued, and a counter-attack is now underway to clear the last of them. But of course, the Marines refuse to sit this one out and selflessly volunteer to go back in…

So the lesson here is, when entire armies fail and fall back, its a small group of heroes that will save the day. Not bad, but how is it a bunch of grunts in the field are able to figure out how an enemy arsenal works while the higher ups basically have their thumbs up their asses the whole time? Funny how that always seems to be the case!

And sure, I get that the leader of these heroes would be a scarred man seeking redemption, but are we to believe that a man who lost his entire platoon to insurgents would have no trouble leading a handful of people to victory over a far more advanced alien species? Something just doesn’t add up here…

4. Signs:
Signs_movieposterI remember the days when M. Night Shyamalan was considered a big deal, and not some dude past his prime who made a string of critically-panned movies. Yes, in addition to being hellbent on starring in his own films and using material that seemed marginal (comic book heroes, monsters, aliens and ghosts), he also seemed to have a real hard on for stories that were full of holes!

And this movie was no exception, adding to an already rich tradition of scary aliens who don’t seem to have a clue when it comes to conquering planet Earth. The story starts out clear enough, with “signs” of an impending invasion by alien beings. And of course, the heroes here are a single family made up of people strangely qualified to defeat them – a priest who’s lost his faith after losing his wife, a psychic daughter, an asthmatic son, and former baseball player who swings at everything.

When the aliens show up, it turns out his dying wife’s words were a prophecy on how to beat back in the invasion. First, hit them in the head with a bat, they hate that! Then, rely on your sons asthma to prevent him from inhaling their toxic vapors. And finally, realize your daughter’s desire to keep glasses of water around the house are a defensive mechanism, since water is toxic to them.

Really? So these things can travel light years to our planet for the sake of terrorizing and killing us, but are vulnerable to a blows in the head from a blunt object and a liquid that covers 70% of our planet and permeates the air. What kind of invaders are these? Are these the same ones who were defeated in the Simpsons by a “board with a nail?”

Also, did they not notice ahead of time that the most basic element, next to the air itself, was fatal to them? What is it with alien invaders not doing their due diligence? How is it that we here on Earth are able to notice lakes of sulfuric acid on Venus, despite having never landed there, but aliens can’t notice the equivalent on a planet they are actively invading? Kang, Kodos… get off our planet!

5. Battleship:
Battleship_PosterNext up, we have the movie that dared to ask the age old question: “what do you get if you cross Transformers with Independence Day?” The answer being, the same old story of unlikely heroes beating an alien menace, but with a twist! This one is set at sea. And if that wasn’t enough, it also stars Rihanna, who proved once again that there are some singers who should stick to what they’re good at and avoid crossing over!

And much like in Battle: LA, we once again have aliens landing in the sea and wreaking havoc on nearby city – this time in Honolulu. After trapping and destroying the US and Japanese naval ships in the vicinity, the alien ships take control of the communications array on the nearby island of Oahu. A single vessel, captained by a LT after his brother (the Captain) is killed, manages to survive and continues the fight…

This includes the US naval ship taking out two of the alien ships and capturing an alien to learn that they are vulnerable to sunlight. On land, a veteran and quadruple amputee in recovery also figures out what the aliens are doing with the array. Apparently, they are using it to summon more of their ships to Earth. So on land and at sea, we have unlikely heroes who begin unraveling the aliens’ plans.

Using the aliens rather pedestrian weakness to their advantage, the US naval ships manage to blind the last of the smaller alien ships with sunlight and destroy it. However, it too is sunk, but they manages to survive and gets back to base to commandeer the USS Missouri, the last remaining US Battleship in existence. Bringing her out of retirement, they use her big guns to take out the alien ships shields, allowing the Air Force to finish her off.

Following this, the Lieutenant is promoted and given a ship of his own to command. Him and Rihanna also arrange to get married. Hurray! Planet Earth is saved and everybody’s getting laid! And once again, it seems that if you’re a reluctant hero, or you’ve got vengeance on your mind, you can beat the odds and overcome a vastly superior alien foe. Never mind that a small fleet was useless against this enemy, or that your vessel is dangerously out of date even by Earth standards!

6. The Borg (Star Trek: TNG):
borgsHere we have a truly chilling and frightening alien menace that started out as a credible threat, but quickly degenerated into a nuisance that was eventually beaten through some unlikely twists! I can still remember when the Borg were first presented in the second and third season of TNG, just how tough and scary they seemed! How they went from this from the clumsy, easily-fooled menace led by a “Queen” towards the end is a mystery…

As Guinan said during their introductory episode, the Borg are a collective “made up of organic and artificial life which has been developing for thousands of centuries.” In addition to being virtually indestructible and entirely collectivized, they are hellbent on assimilating all known lifeforms and technology they come across. This makes them an inevitable threat, one which Q believes they are unprepared to face.

Borg_qwhoHence, he arranges for a little face-to-face between them and the Enterprise, and it doesn’t go too well. In addition to finding that their weapons are virtually ineffective against a Borg ship, they also learn that these ships are capable of healing from battle damage, are faster and far more coordinated than their own; and most importantly, that they are crewed by a relentless enemy. They narrowly survive, and only because of Q’s intervention.

Their second confrontation happens shortly thereafter, when a Borg Cube is dispatched to Federation space to begin assimilating them. After an initial encounter with the vessel, Picard is captured and assimilated. The crew learns that he is now part of the Borg and that his knowledge has been absorbed. As the Borg vessel begins advancing on Earth, the Federation loses 39 ships in an attempt to stop it.

lucutusIn the end, they manage to stop it by recapturing the Captain, tapping into the Borg neural net, and commanding them to go to sleep. The Borg ship self-destructs, realizing their collective has been intruded and they are vulnerable. It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that humanity survives its first engagement with the Borg and lives to fight another day. Scary stuff, and doesn’t bode too well for the future!

Immediately thereafter, the Borg ceases to become a serious threat. Not appearing again until the end of Season 5, at which point Roddenberry had died, the Enterprise discovers a single stranded Borg and rescue him, plotting to return him to the collective carrying a virus. However, they soon realize the lone Borg, who’ve they’ve humanized by naming him “Hugh”, is no longer a Borg per se, and cannot commit to the plan. Instead, they learn that Hugh’s individuality have spread throughout the collective, causing chaos.

borg_queenThereafter, the Borg made no real appearance in the series until the spinoff series Voyager, where they make numerous appearances before being vanquished. First, they are shown to be fighting a losing war against beings from a parallel dimension where space is fluid and technology is organic in nature. The Voyager crew assists the collective against this common threat, and gains 7 of 9 as a crewmember.

In subsequent episodes and seasons, Voyager wages a one-ship war with the collective as they flee back to Federation space. They manage to outwit the Borg Queen (weren’t they supposed to be a collective?) time after time, stealing a trans warp coil from her, saving a group of resistance fighters from the collective’s grasp, and coordinating their efforts with a future Janeway to not only make it home, but crash the entire collective with a virus.

From invincible enemy that spoke with one voice, to a bunch of dumb drones led by a megalomaniacal queen that made deals and was easily tricked, the Borg was a truly awesome concept that degenerated into a sort “Evil the Cat” that became all-too-human. Ironic, and quite disappointing really. Much like many elements of the show, this was one of Roddenberry’s babies that seemed to suffer in his successor’s hands.

7. The Day of the Triffids:
DayofthetriffidsAlthough based on a novel that ended quite differently, the film adaptation of this novel has gone down in history as a case of aliens that seemed so menacing, but proved to be very dumb. Written by John Wyndham, the author that brought us The Chrysalids, the story considers the possibility of an alien invasion that doesn’t involve tripods, motherships or little green men armed with ray guns.

No, in the end, Windham’s invasion was much more subtle, patient, and far more effective. It begins when the triffids, a race of seemingly intelligent, aggressive plants that begin popping up all over the world. Initially thought to be the result of bioengineering within the USSR (a possible commentary on Lysenkoism), the venomous plants are soon revealed to be the first wave in an alien invasion.

After being blinded by contact with one of the plants, the main character awakens in the hospital to find it deserted. He begins to walk through the streets of London, apparently surrounded by other blind people. He soon comes upon a group of people who still have their sight and are planning on establishing a colony to repopulate the human race.

In time, it is made clear that the triffids are causing the environment to change, effectively terraforming Earth to become more like the alien environment they are used to. They continue to advance and eventually surround the small home the main characters make for themselves. But at the same time, the main characters learns that a colony has been formed on the Isle of Wight, which is removed from the infestation, where people are attempting to continue the fight.

In creating this story, Wydnham acknowledged a great debt to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds; though in this novel, the aliens are not foiled. However, in the film adaptation of the novel, the triffids are eventually foiled by a very likely source: salt water! Yes, it seems that an invasive species chose to attack a planet where the majority of the surface is covered by something entirely poisonous to them.

Little wonder then why Shyamalan chose water as his aliens’ weakness. He was ripping off a classic movie! Too bad it was an unfaithful adaptation of the original novel. He could have avoided making one of several bad movies!

8. The War of the Worlds:
waroftheworldsWe come to it at last, the original story that inspired an entire slew of classic alien invasion tales. Written in 1895-97, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds not only introduced the world to the concept of a “Martian invasion”, it set the tone for all subsequent generations of paranoia and fear regarding extra-terrestrial life. This was not an intended consequences of his work, mind you, just a side-effect of what was arguably a brilliant novel.

Told from a first-person point of view, the story follows a philosophically-inclined author who witnesses the invasion firsthand. It all begins shortly after an observatory notes the appearance of several “explosions’ on the surface of Mars. Shortly thereafter, the narrator is one of many people to notice the arrival of a meteor which turns out to be a large cylinder. When the cylinder opens, disgorging tripods that begin incinerating everything with heat rays.

War-of-the-worlds-tripodMore cylinders begin falling all over Southern England, laying waste to military units and communities. After meeting up with an artilleryman, the narrator finds out that he has become cut off from his wife, and reroutes to try and find her. People begin to evacuate London, and British forces are able to bring down some of the tripods, but eventually, all organized resistance ceases.

In their wake, the Martian begin to unleash a species known as Red Weed, a native martian plant that begins altering the Earth’s ecology. Of the narrator’s companions, a curate and the artilleryman, the former comes to see the invasion as a herald of the Apocalypse, while the latter begins to advocate that humanity rebuild civilization underground. He eventually leaves both behind and returns to London, where he finds the aliens dead due to infectious disease.

At once brilliant and original, Wells story has undergone extensive scrutiny over the years. It’s plot and thematic makeup have led many critics to wonder what its central message was, whether it was meant as a sort of cautionary tale, an historical allusion, or an indictment on British colonial policy. As part of the larger trend of invasion literature, there were also many who thought that the aliens represented an actual enemy (i.e. Germany), and the point was merely to stoke fears about the possibility of an actual world war.

Summary:
In the end, it seems pretty obvious that when it comes to alien invasion stories and movies, everyone is picking at the crumbs from Wells’ table. As one of the first stories involving war between humanity and extra-terrestrials, it was also the first to introduce the world to the concept of a seemingly unassailable alien menace that was brought down because of an Achilles heel.

And without fail, it now seems like just about every purveyor of science fiction has followed in his footsteps. Whether it’s Verhoeven’s disaster porn, classic B-movie adaptations, new generations of speculative sci-fi novels, or mainstream TV shows, the concept of a fearsome, super-advanced species that initially has the edge on humanity, only to be foiled by superior… whatever, is destined to be all the rage!

And much like Wells War, one can’t help but wonder about the psychology and deeper sociological implications of that. Do such ideas remain popular with us as part an enduring xenophobic tendency, or are they part of some deeper destructive impulse, where we just love to see civilization as we know reduced to ashes? In some respects, you might say this a healthy sublimation of that desire, where we allow others to do what we secretly desire, right before we pay them back in full!

I’m thinking this is getting a little too intellectual given the subject matter I started with. This was supposed to about clueless aliens and how these stories and film parody them. Once again, I sincerely hope that if there are aliens out there who are able to listen in on our radio, television and movie transmissions, that they take all of this entertainment with a massive grain of salt.

I think I speak for all of humanity when I say we don’t need no invasions anytime soon! Come back after we’ve developed our own death rays!

Now here's an alien that doesn't go die so easily!
Now here’s an alien that isn’t defeated so easily!

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 Cyborgs (updated)!

8 Man:
Always good to start with a classic, don’t you think? Especially one that really doesn’t get the attention it deserves. In addition to being Japan’s first cyborg superhero, this 60’s anime character was also the inspiration for Robocop. You heard me right!

Apparently, the main character was a Detective who was murdered by a group of ruthless criminals, but whose body was retrieved by a scientist who conducted an experimental procedure to transfer his “life force” into a machine body. Having failed the previous seven times, his eights and successful attempt is aptly named “8 Man”.

But unlike Robocop, this cyborg can do some pretty freaky stuff! In addition to being heavily armored, he can run at incredible speeds and shape-shift into other people. His true identity is kept a secret from everyone except his old police chief and the professor who conducted his experiment.

But like Robocop, 8 Man chooses to go beyond his crime-fighting mandate to find his old girlfriend, best friend and attempt to rebuild his old life. His attempts are often marred by the fact that he is no longer human, but as they say, it’s the journey that counts!

Bionic Woman:
Sure, Steve Austin was pretty cool, but did he look this good? Hell no! And in the case of the Bionic Woman, the hero story was far less crude. Though the original series was little more than a spinoff of The Six Million Dollar Man (featuring Oscar Goldman as the scientist again), the re-imagined series was far more original and endearing.

In this version, the main character (again named Jaime Sommers) is a surrogate mother and bartender struggling to make ends meet. After a near fatal car accident, she is saved by an experimental procedure involving advanced prosthetics and implants (no, not those kind!). Afterwards, she goes to work for the people who performed her operation – the Berkut Group, whom he boyfriend works for.

Through her work, she is responsible for thwarting crimes and evil machinations, while trying to explore her role and the changes she’s endured. As with the original series, Jaime’s modifications include bionic legs, a bionic right arm, a bionic right ear, and a bionic eye like that of Steve Austin. In the updated series, she also gets a dose of nanomachines called “anthrocytes” which are capable of healing her body at a highly accelerated rate.

The Borg:
Now here is a race who’s name is the second half of Cyborg! No chance for misunderstandings here! And as all fans of Star Trek know, the Borg are extremely proud of what they are. A race of beings dedicated to the perfection of life by merging the organic with the synthetic. And of course, they are all networked to a hive mind known as “the collective.”

Native to the Delta Quadrant of the Star Trek universe, the Borg occupy thousands of systems and hundreds of races. No indication is ever given where they originated from or what their intentions are, beyond adding “the biological and technological distinctiveness of other species to [their] own” in pursuit of “perfection”.

Is there a more perfect metaphor for runaway progress and the deification of technology? It’s not exactly a subtle commentary on the issue, but it does encapsulate the kinds of fear many people have when faced with a rapidly changing world that seems to be growing more complicated all the time. I imagine the Singularitarians don’t like the analogy much, but then again, Star Trek has been known to send mixed messages 😉

Cylon:
In the original series, the Cylons were lumbering, chrome covered robots that kind of resembled toasters. It was for this reason that they frequently got a shout out in the re-imagined by being referred to as such. However, the re-imagined versions were quantum leaps ahead, the result of bioengineering rather than conventional robotics.

Unlike the “skin jobs” (a reference to Blade Runner), Centurions and Cylon Raiders were only partially organic, consisting of organic brains inside machine bodies. Much the same is true of the Cylon Hybrids, the minds that operated their Basestar’s jump systems. In their case, their bodies are largely organic, but their minds are enhanced with advanced machinery and networked into their ship.

Because of this combination of organic and synthetic, Centurions and Raiders are capable of being “lobotomized”, which took place in the third season when their handlers became suspicious of their behavior. Ultimately, these three begins represented a key step in the Cylon’s evolution from mechanical to biological, which achieved perfection with the creation of the seven purely biological models.

Cyberman:
A fictional race taken from Dr. Who, these cyborgs were another one of the good Doctor’s recurring enemies. But unlike their Dalek counterparts, they seemed to change with every appearance. A possible inspiration for the Borg, these being were as humans who chose to begin experiment more and more with artificial implants.

This eventually led them to become the cold, calculated and ruthlessly logical beings that are, with every emotion all but deleted from their minds. While they do maintain their human brains and some human organs, they possess little of their original humanity, which is why they don’t get along with us decent folk!

Another parallel they share with the Borg is their means of proliferation, which is to turn other organic beings into Cybermen (a process known as “cyber-conversion”). However, they remain few in number during the course of the series and therefore prefer to act covertly, conducting their schemes from hiding places and using human pawns or robots to act in their place until they need to appear. Quite unlike the Borg, who prefer to get right in there, blow shit up, and assimilate anything that’s left!

Darth Vader:
“He’s more machine than man… twisted and evil!” That’s not to say all people who are more machine than man are evil! But it is the working definition of “cyborg.” Having lost both arms and legs in lightsaber duels and much of his body severely burned, Darth Vader (nee Anakin Skywalker) had to be put in a protective suit that regulated his breathing and bodily functions… I don’t even want to think about that!

But there was an upside to all those enhancements. For one, he got James Earl Jones vocals and the most intimidating, badass exterior in the Galaxy! Hell, even his breathing sounded scary. And it didn’t encumber his use of the Force at all, as exemplified by his ability to crush throats and toss objects around at will. And the ghosts of many dead Jedi and Luke’s missing hand can attest to it not hampering his sword fighting skills either.

Ultimately, this suit proved to be his undoing when, in the course of betraying his evil master, most of its circuits were fried by the Emperor’s electrical bolts. He died shortly thereafter, redeemed and looking upon his son for the first time “with his own eyes.” Sniff… I hate this mushy stuff!

Motoko Kusanagi:
The star of Ghost in the Shell, the beautiful, deadly and artificially enhanced Motoko Kusanagi. Known by her fellow officers as “the Major”, Kusanagi is a member of Section 9, a counter-terrorism squad working for Japan’s National Public Safety Commission. As part of her commitment to her job, Kusanagi underwent cybernetic enhancements, marrying her human brain to the “shell” that is her new body.

Throughout the original manga, anime and cinematic versions, Kusanagi’s basic role is the same. She fights all kinds of criminal elements: kingpins, warlords, and cyber terrorists, but also uses these experiences to reflect on the larger issues and her fateful choice to become a cybernetic being. These issues include what it means to be human, what constitutes life, and the line between authentic and artificial.

In addition, she’s also a pretty vivacious and good-looking being! Though technically not flesh and blood, she still maintains a pretty active sex life, at least in some versions of the story. In others, her personal life is not dealt with, but there are still plenty of nude shots, provided exposed synthetic flesh can be counted as nudity 😉

Robocop/Murphy:
Here we have another case of tragedy yielding the perfect union between man and machine. Alex Murphy, dedicated cop and family man, gets ruthlessly gunned down by a bunch of criminal thugs, only to be resurrected by a bunch of corporate thugs as a cop cyborg. Heavily armed, armored, and programmed to serve and protect, he became the Detroit Police Departments signature weapon in the war on crime.

But of course, things begin to go awry when Murphy’s memories and personality began to re-emerge. For one, there was the question of his wife and son, both of whom had been led to believe he was dead. Second, there was the psychological and emotional strain of knowing you could never be fully human again.

Alas, Murphy resolves the sacrifice of his identity and humanity by doing what he did best, kicking criminal ass and taking criminal names! These of course included crime lords, drug bosses, and the thugs who murdered him, but also the corporate crooks who created him and were plotting to take over Detroit. So aside from the sci-fi elements and human interest angles, there was also some social commentary in this franchise. Lots going on here!

Nexus Six Replicant:
“If we gift them with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions, and consequently, we can control them better.” What is a machine when it has feelings, thoughts, and even memories?  Is it, as the Tyrell Corporation motto goes, “More human than human”?

Sure, some purists would say that a Nexus 6 isn’t technically a cyborg. But as I recall, the working definition of Cyborg is a merger of the cybernetic and organic. And as any fan of Blade Runner knows, Nexus 6’s are not so much built as grown, the product of biomedics rather than mechanics. And if that’s not good enough to get this one past the censors, screw em! Moving on…

Designed for service on the off-world colonies, every Replicant was designed to fill a certain role, ranging from military, to worker, to pleasure. In short, they could do the work of any human while simultaneously being denied the basic rights humans take for granted. However, since it was understood that they could become unruly after too much time, each unit was built with a four-year lifespan.

Inevitably, the Replicants of the movie came to Earth seeking a reprieve from their inevitable deaths. Their leader, Roy Batty, was especially obsessed with buying more time, since he himself was near the end of his lifespan. When told that there was nothing that could be done, he went a little beserk, but also came to appreciate life all the more in his last few moments.

T-800 Terminator:
“The Terminator’s an infiltration unit, part man, part machine. Underneath, it’s a hyper-alloy combat chassis – micro processor-controlled, fully armored. Very tough. But outside, it’s living human tissue – flesh, skin, hair, blood, grown for the cyborgs..” That’s how Kyle Reese, the warrior from the future, describes them. Arny’s version was a bit less… loquacious. “I’m a cybernetic organism. Living tissue over a metal endoskeleton.” Take your pick, they’re both right!

Designed to impersonate human beings, mainly so he could get close to them and kill them, the two Arny models were quite at home in the past. If you looked like this, would anyone really complain if you chose to walk the streets of LA naked? It’s LA man, anything goes! What’s more, Arny’s cyber strength and tough skeleton make him deadly and very survivable.

This proved quite the headache when one was sent back to kill Sarah Conner, but was quite a plus when one was later providing protection for her and her son! In the end, it took a hail of bullets, some well placed plastic explosives and a machine press to kill the first one. And the second one managed to survive an impalement, the loss of a limb, about a million bullets, and still managed to lay the smack down on a T-1000. Perhaps they should amend the name… Endurinators!

Thank you all! Stay tuned for the follow-up, Sexy Female Robots! I guess I’m just in a robot kind of mood 😉

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!

The Alien Graph

The Alien Graph

Behold! After a few days of contemplating what I said in the Ancient Aliens post – you know, about how alien’s technology and moral capacity are often interrelated in sci-fi – I realized I needed to put it into graphic form. And as I said in that post, if we are to consider technological advancement as one axis and level of benevolence as another, then the outcome would look something like this:

click to enlarge

The design is based on the Zombie graph that’s been floating around the internet for some time. There, the designer placed different Zombie movies based on two criteria: intelligence and speed. In much the same way, I’ve designed a graph for aliens that is based on two similar criteria: technological advancement and level of friendliness.

I selected aliens that I thought best represented the range of development and behavior in the sci-fi genre. I also included as many franchises as I could think of, just off the top of my head. I certainly wasn’t scientific about it, just relative and to the best of my abilities. And when I was done, I noticed an interesting pattern…

Hostile/Advanced Aliens Rule!:
For example, notice how the vast majority of races from your well-known franchises (Star Trek, B5, Stargate, Star Craft, AvP, Halo, etc) fall into the upper left quadrant. This is the area where malevolence and technological sophistication combine in varying degrees. By contrast, the second largest concentration of races occurs in the advanced/benevolent quadrant, again to varying degrees. Almost no races fall into the nascent (i.e. primitive) quadrants, be they hostile or gentle.

On the one hand, the Xenomorph from Alien and the Arachnids from Starship Troopers both fell into the technologically backward category (technically), and were both classified as malevolent because of their innate hostility to foreign organisms. The Na’vi, from Avatar, were the only alien race that fit the bill for technologically nascent and benevolent. I’m sure there are plenty of examples that could stack this analysis in a different way, but like I said, this was off the top of my head.

The Zerg, I have to admit, were a bit of a conundrum for me. While they are technically a race that does not employ technology per se, they are highly advanced in terms of their biological evolution, to the point where they rely on specialized creatures in the same way that humans rely on machinery. But then again, that’s all for the sake of ensuring that the different factions in the video game are evenly matched. It’s not meant to be a realistic assessment. Much the same is true of the Xenomorphs. While they do not employ tools, fly around in spaceships, or use guns, they are nevertheless an extremely evolved organism that is capable of besting humanity in any contest.

And just to be clear, the middle point of the graph (0,0, where the axes meet) is where humanity stands now in terms of moral behavior and technological development. Sure, some say we’d fall into the evil quadrant, but I tend to believe that humanity is morally ambiguous, neither too good or too evil. Where aliens fall into the spectrum in most sci-fi franchises is meant to reflect this. Much the same is true of technological prowess, where aliens are classified as “advanced” or “primitive” solely in comparison to ourselves.

This all might sound anthropocentric, but that’s the point, isn’t it? These are stories written by human beings for other human beings. All the references, symbols and measuring sticks come from inside us. So in the end, aliens themselves, as represented in our best science fiction, also come from inside ourselves. Their values, their tools, and even their appearances are all constructs of what is familiar and accessible to us. In short, they are merely tools with which we measure ourselves, both morally and technically.

Conclusions:
Well, right off the cuff I’d say the reason we prefer our aliens hostile and advanced is because it makes them seem more threatening and scary that way. Clearly, this makes for a more interesting story. While an alien race that is kind, innocent and backwards can make for an effective tale about the evils of colonialism and imperialism and how one can easily find themselves on the side of evil, these seem to be fewer and farther between. I’d say this is most likely because moral allegories are less intriguing than action dramas. Or maybe just prefer to think of ourselves as the good guys. Let someone else serve as the allegory for evil, selfish and runaway imperialistic behavior!

In addition, there’s the very real possibility that humanity will be making contact with an intelligent life form at some point in the future. And when we do, it’s likely to be the most awe-inspiring and frightening of experiences. When it comes to the unknown, ignorance begets fear and we prefer to err on the side of caution. So it would make sense that whenever we think of aliens, even if its just for the sake of fiction, we would naturally prefer to think of them as both learned and potentially hostile. If indeed aliens serve as a sort of projection for humanity’s own thoughts on itself, than pitching them as potentially hostile beings with advanced technology represents our own fear of the unknown.

In any case, if there is life out there, all these questions will be resolved in the distant future. Hell, maybe even the near-future. If some theorists are to be believed, aliens have already made contact with us and might even be walking among us right now. Granted, most of these people are hanging around the 7/11 with tin foil hats on, but they can’t all be crazy, right?

Of Galactic Empires

Galaxy1Hello again, fellow sci-fi fans! Today, I thought I’d write about something conceptual, something that is intrinsic to so much science fiction and keeps popping up in various forms. It’s something that has appeared in countless serials, novels, tv shows, movies, and RPG’s. I am referring, of course, to the concept of the Galactic Empire, a science fiction trope that has seen many incarnations, but revolves around a singular theme of a political entity that spans the known universe.

Whether it’s a loose federation of humans and aliens spanning many different star systems, or a despotism made up of millions of worlds, all populated by human beings, or something somewhere in the middle, this trope has proven to be one of the most enduring ideas of classic science fiction.

But where exactly did this idea come from? Who was the first to come up with a futuristic, galaxy-spanning polity where millions of star systems and quadrillions of sentient beings all found themselves living underneath one roof?

Asimov’s Foundation Series:

An artists rendering of Trantor

Isaac Asimov is arguably the first science fiction author to use the concept of a galaxy-spanning empire in his literature. Known simply as the Galactic Empire, this organization was the centerpiece of his Foundation series. As fans of the books know, the entire series was built around the idea of the imminent collapse of said empire and how a small band of scientists (led by Hari Seldon) were dedicated to ensuring that the collective knowledge of the universe would be preserved in its absence. The books were based heavily on Gibbon’s History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a compendium which explored the various reasons for the collapse of Rome and the resulting Dark Ages.

The universe of the Galactic Empire centered on a planet named Trantor. Based on his descriptions, the planet was covered by a massive urban landscape, every habitable area having been built over in order to accommodate the planet’s huge population. In addition to being the capitol of the Empire, it was also its administrative head, cultural hub, and economic epicenter. Much like Rome of antiquity, it depended heavily on the surrounding territories for food and raw materials in order to sustain itself, and was terribly hit when the Empire began to decline.

However, beyond some passing descriptions of its size, centrality and the problems facing its encapsulated population, not much is said about Trantor or many other worlds of the Galactic Empire. In fact, not much is said about the Empire itself, other than the fact that it has endured for millennia and is on the verge of collapsing. Mainly, the focus in Asimov’s Foundation is on the events that precipitated its fall and the work of the Foundation once that was complete; how they went about the process of restoring civilization in the absence of a central authority. However, the subsequent Foundation novels, which included some prequels, helped to flesh out the Empire further, providing details on member worlds and the events which preceded the development of Hari Seldon’s “psychohistory”.

Frank Herbert’s Dune:

Arrakis (aka. Dune), the main setting of the story

One of the greatest examples of a galactic empire in my opinion. In the first installment of the Dune series, we are made immediately aware that humanity now inhabits the entire galaxy and are ruled from a world called Kaitan by a sovereign known as the Padishah Emperor. However, it is also made clear that while the emperor is the supreme leader, power is shared in a quasi-feudal arrangement between the noble houses (the Landstraad), a corporate entity that controls all economic affairs (CHOAM), and the various guilds (of which the Spacing Guild is arguably the most powerful). In this universe, much attention is given to the breakdown of power, the history of how it came to be, and the various member worlds and houses.

For starters, there is House Corrino, the ruling dynasty of the empire that is centered on Kaitan. Their house once ruled from a planet known as Selusa Secundus, but which has since been reduced to ashes from a nuclear attack and now serves as the emperor’s prison planet (where his elite armies are trained). More important, and central to the story, is House Atreides, the family which rules from an ocean planet named Caladan, but come to inherit the desert planet Arrakis (aka. Dune). Passing attention is also given to Geidi Prime, the industrial world run by House Harkonnen, the nominal villains of the story.

Dune_MapBut by far, the most detailed and developed descriptions are that of the planet Arrakis, where most of the story takes place. Throughout the first novel, the planet’s ecology, native species, and inhabitants (the Fremen) are richly detailed. Given that it is the only world where the spice (an awareness drug the entire universe depends on) is mined, the world is understandably the focal point of the Dune universe. Clearly analogous to oil, the spice is a metaphor for human dependence on a single resource, and the consequences thereof. By taking control of the planet at story’s end and threatening to destroy the spice, Paul Atreides effectively becomes the universe’s new ruler. For as the sayings go: “He who controls the spice, controls the universe”, and “He who can destroy a thing controls that thing.”

Frank Herbert cited a number of influences for his galactic empire. Like Asimov, he relied a great deal on history, particularly that of the Middle East, the Crusades, and a number of feudal societies. At the same time, Herbert became fascinated with ecology, a result of his living in Florence, Oregon where the US Department of Agriculture was using poverty grasses to stabilize the expanding Oregon dunes. The article which he wrote about them, entitled “They Stopped the Moving Sands”  was never completed and only appeared decades later in The Road to Dune. Nevertheless, it was from this combination of real history and ecology, how the living environment affects its inhabitants and shapes history, that the universe of Dune emerged.

Star Wars:

Coruscant, capitol of the Old Republic and Empire

Perhaps the best known example of a galactic empire, which in turn emerged from what Lucas called the Old Republic. When asked about his inspirations, George Lucas claimed that he wanted to create an empire that was as aesthetically and thematically similar to Nazi Germany as possible. This is made abundantly clear when one looks into the back story of how the Empire emerged, how its malevolent dictator (Palpatine, a Sith Lord) rose to power and began launching campaigns to eliminate anyone who stood in his way. In addition, the use of Storm Troopers, the uniforms of the imperial officers, and the appearance of Darth Vader also add visual representation to this.

However, a great deal of antiquity works its way into the Star Wars universe as well. Much like Herbert and Asimov, there is a parallel between the past and the future. The incorporation of royalty, swordfights between Bushido-like warriors, gun-toting smugglers, cantinas, dangerous towns in the middle of the desert, and all the allusions to the “Republic” and “Galactic Senate”, fair and noble institutions which ruled the galaxy before the dark times – all of these are themes taken from ancient Greece, Rome, feudal Japan, medieval Europe, and the Wild West.

Urban sprawl on Coruscant
Urban sprawl on Coruscant

In any case, at the center of Lucas’ galactic empire lies Coruscant, a planet that was clearly inspired by Trantor. Whereas in the original series, the planet was not shown or even mentioned, it receives a great deal of attention in the Star Wars novelizations, comics, and prequel movies. Much like Trantor, it is a planet that is completely dominated by urban sprawl, literally every corner of it is covered by massive sky-scrapers and multi-leveled buildings.

According to the Star Wars Wiki (Wookiepedia), roughly a trillion humans and aliens live on its surface, which is another detail that is noteworthy about Lucas’ universe. Unlike Foundation or Dune, in Star Wars, the galactic empire includes countless sentient races, though humans do appear to be the dominant species. This racial aspect is something else that is akin to World War II and Nazi Germany.

Whereas the Rebellion is made up of humans and aliens who are struggling for freedom and tolerance, the Empire is composed entirely of humans who believe in their own racial superiority. However, in a tribute to Lucas’ more creative days, not much is said about this divide, the audience is instead left to infer it from the outward appearances and behavior of the characters on screen. However, the idea receives much development in the novelizations, particularly Timothy Zhan’s Thrawn Trilogy.

Star Trek:

Star Fleet Command, in orbit above Earth

Yet another take on the concept of a galactic polity: Gene Roddenberry’s United Federation of Planets. Much like the Empire of Lucas’ own universe, the Federation is made up of hundreds of member worlds and any number of races. But unlike its peers in the Foundation, Dune or Star Wars universes, the Federation only encompasses a small portion of the galaxy – between ten and fifteen percent, depending on where you look in the storyline.

Beyond their range of influence lie several competing or cooperative empires – the Klingons, the Romulans, the Cardasians, the Dominion, and the Borg. Each of these empires represent a threat to the Federation at one time or another in the story, largely because their ideologies are in direct conflict with the Federations policy of peace, multiculturalism and understanding.

This may sound a tad tongue-in-cheek, but it is the main vehicle for the story. In Star Trek, like many other sci-fi franchises, Gene Roddenberry uses alien races as mirrors for the human condition. Whereas in his vision of the future humanity has evolved to overcome the scourges of war, poverty, disease, intolerance and oppression, other races are either less advanced or openly embrace these things.

Negh'varThe Klingons, for example, were the enemies of the Federation because of their commitment to warrior politics. The Romulans are locked  in an ongoing cold war with them because of their belief in their own racial superiority. The Dominion seeks dominance over all “solid” life forms because, as shape shifters, they fear being controlled themselves. And the Borg are an extremely advanced cybernetic race that seeks to “perfect” organic life by merging it – by force, if necessary – with the synthetic. The metaphors are so thick, you could cut them with a knife!

Yes, subtlety was never Roddenberry’s greatest attribute, but the franchise was an open and inclusive one, borrowing freely from other franchises and sci-fi concepts, and incorporating a great deal of fan writing into the actual show itself. And whereas other franchises had firm back-stories and ongoing plots, Star Trek has always been an evolving, ad hoc thing by comparison.

Roddenberry and the producers and writers that took over after his death never did seem to plan that far ahead, and the back story was never hammered out with that much precision. This has allowed for a degree of flexibility, but also comes with the painstaking task of explaining how and why humanity became a utopian society in the first place. But for the most part, the franchise leaves that one vague, arguing that space travel, technology and contact with other sentient races allowed for all of this to happen over time.

Babylon 5:b5-eps3One of my favorite franchises of all time! And possibly one of the most detailed examples of a galactic empire, due largely to the fact that it took shape in the course of the show, instead of just being there in the background from the beginning. Here too, we see a trade off between other franchises, the most similar being Star Trek. In this universe, there is no single galactic empire, but rather a series races that exist is a web of alliances, rivalries and a loose framework of relations.

But as time goes on, many of them come together to form an alliance that is reminiscent of the Federation, though arguably more detailed and pluralistic in its composition. When the show opens, we see that humanity is merely one of many races in the cosmic arena, most of whom are more advanced and older than we are.

The Earth Alliance, as its called, controls only a few colonies, but commands a fair degree of influence thanks to the construction of an important space station in neutral territory. This station (namesake of the show) is known as Babylon 5, aptly named because it is a place of trade, commerce, and the intermixing of peoples and cultures. And much like its namesake, it can be a dangerous and chaotic place, but is nevertheless the focal point of the known universe.

B5_destroyerAccording to the back story, which is explored in depth in the prequel movie “In the Beginning”, the station began as a way of preventing wars based on cultural misunderstandings. Such a war took place between the human race and the Mimbari, a race that is central to the story, ten years prior to the show. After four abortive attempts, the station finally went online and was given the designation of five because it was the fifth incarnation of the project.

Once completed, all major races in the area sent representatives there in order to make sure their interests and concerns were being represented. Chief amongst them was Earth, the Mimbari, the Narns, the Centauri and the Vorlons, who together made up the stations executive council. Beyond them was the “League of Non-Aligned Worlds”, a group made up of fifteen sentient races who were all smaller powers, but together exercise a fair degree of influence over policy.

The Centauri, who were based on the late-period Roman Empire, are a declining power, the once proud rulers of most of the quadrant who have since regressed and are looking to reverse their fortunes. The Narns are their chief rival, a younger race that was previously occupied and brutalized by the Centauri, but who have emerged to become one of the most powerful forces in the quadrant.

B5_season2Based heavily on various revisionists powers of history, they are essentially a race that is familiar with suffering and freely conquers and subjugates others now to ensure that such a thing never happens to them again. The Mimbari, an older and somewhat reclusive race, is nominally committed to peace. But as the war demonstrated, they can easily become a force to be reckoned with given the right provocation. And then there are the Vorlons, a very old and very reclusive race that no one seems to know anything about, but who nevertheless are always there in the background, just watching and waiting…

As the show progresses, we come to see that B5 will actually serve a purpose that is far greater than anyone could have foreseen. It seems that an ancient race, known only as the Shadows, are returning to the known universe. Before they can to invade, however, they must recruit from the younger races and encourage them to make war on their rivals and neighbors. This will sow the seeds of chaos and ensure that their eventual advance will be met with less resistance.

The Vorlons and the Mimbari ambassadors (Kosh and Delenn) are aware of this threat, since their people have faced it before, and begin recruiting the station’s two human commanders (Jeffrey Sinclair and John Sheridan) to help. This proves difficult, as the Shadows appear to have contacts on Earth as well and are backing the power play of Vice President Clarke, an ambitious man who wants to be a dictator. They are also ensuring that the Centauri and Narn go to war with each other as a way of keeping all the other member races preoccupied.

B5_shadow_warHowever, using the station as a rallying point, Sheridan, Sinclair, Delenn and Kosh eventually manage to organize the younger races into a cohesive fighting force to turn back the Shadows. Things become more complicated when they realize that the Vorlons are also the enemy, being involved in a power struggle with the Shadows that goes back eons. However, with the help of other First Ones (very old races) and a commitment to stand on their own, they manage to force both sides to leave the known universe.

In the wake of the war, a new spirit of cooperation and cohesion is formed amongst the younger races, which eventually gives rise to the Interstellar Alliance. This organization is essentially an expanded version of the League, but where members are fully aligned economically and politically and committed to defending each other. This comes in handy when the allies of the Shadows, younger races who are armed with all their old mentors’ gear, come out of hiding and begin to make trouble!

Naturally, the full story is much more complex and I’m not doing it justice, but this is the bare bones of it. Relying on historic examples and countless classic science fiction themes, J. Michael Straczynski establishes a detailed universe where multiple races and political entities eventually come together to form a government that rules the known universe and stands the test of time.

Battletech:

mechwarrior_1Here we have a franchise that had multiple inspirations, according to the creators. The focal point of the franchise is on massive war machines, known as battlemechs, which were apparently inspired by Macross and other anime. However, the creators also came to incorporate a back story that was very European in its outlook, which revolved around the concept of an ongoing war between feudal states.

One could make the case that the Shogunate period of Japan, a time of ongoing civil war, was also a source of inspiration for this story. However, upon familiarizing myself with the background of the series, I couldn’t help but feel that the whole thing had a predominantly Russian feel to it. In addition to the heroic characters being named Alexandr and Nicholas Kerensky, something about the constant feudal warfare and the morally ambiguous nature of humanity in the story seemed analogous to much of Russia’s troubled history.

To break it down succinctly, the story takes place in the 31st century, a time marked by incessant warfare between different clans and worlds, all of which are populated by humans.Terra (as Earth is now called) was once the center of a grand empire known as the Star League. After centuries of conflict, in what is known as the “Succession Wars”, Earth and many its immediate neighbors were rendered damaged or completely uninhabitable.

inner_sphere_wars_battletech_01As a result, the focal point of the universe resides within the Inner Sphere, a region that is 500 light years away from Earth and dominated by five Great Houses. The leader of each house claims to be the rightful successor of the Star League, and hence the houses are all known as the Successor States. Outside the Inner Sphere lies the Periphery, a large ring of independent star systems that predate the League and the Successor States, but are inferior to them in terms of technology. Though nominally independent, none of these regions have the ability to stand against the houses of the Inner Sphere, and thus avoid conflict with them whenever possible.

A key feature of the Battletech universe is the absence of sentient species outside of the human race. This serves to make the ongoing warfare more realistic, as well as establishing how the current state of war is a direct extension of earlier rivalries (some dating all the way back to the 20th century). Another interesting feature about this franchise is the fact that humanity has not evolved very far beyond its current state, in spite of the lengthy passage of time.

Again, the constant state of warfare has much to do with this, which has had a slowing and even reversing effect on the technological development of many worlds. In short, the franchise is gritty, realistic, and has a pretty dim view of humanity. In addition, there is a palatable sense that humanity’s best years are behind it, and that barring the appearance of some external threat, humanity will war itself into extinction.

Key Features:
A couple of things stand out about each of these examples of a galactic empire. And for anyone interesting in creating their own, they are considerations which have to be taken into account. All of the previous creators, from Isaac Asimov to Weisman and Babcock, either took a singular approach on these issues, or adopted a combined one. Here they are, as I see them:

Humans and Aliens: This is arguably the most important consideration when developing a sci-fi franchise, especially one where a galactic empire is concerned. The creator must decide, is this going to be a universe where humans and aliens coexist with one another, or is it going to be strictly human? Both options open up a range of possibilities; for example, are humans and aliens living together in harmony in this story, is one subjugated to another, or something else entirely? What’s more, what role will the aliens play? Are they to be the benign, enlightened aliens who teach us “flawed humans” how to be better, or will we be the the species that’s got things figured out and they be allegorical representations of our past, flawed selves? Inevitably, aliens serve as a sort of mirror for the human condition or as examples of past human societies, in any story. There’s simply no way around it, not if we want them to be familiar and relateable.

Utopian/Dystopian: Another very important decision to make when creating a universe is the hue its going to have. In short, is it going to be a bright place or a dark place? Would humanity advance as a result of technology and space exploration, or regress because improved weapons and tools merely meant we could do more harm? Both visions serve their purpose, the one eliciting hope for the future and offering potential solutions to contemporary problems, the other making the point that the human condition is permanent and certain behaviors will never be overcome. However, in my opinion, the most respectable approach is to take the middle road on this. Sci-fi franchises, like those of Straczynski and Alastair Reynolds (creator of the Revelation Space universe) did their best to present humanity as being morally ambiguous. We were neither perfect nor unsalvageable. We simply did our best and tried to make a difference, but would always have our share of flaws.

Space Travel: Almost all galactic empires are agreed on this one front. When it comes to creating a extra-solar empire, one that encompasses hundreds or even thousands of star systems, one needs to be able to travel faster than the speed of light. It might mean contravening the laws of physics (causing Einstein to roll over in his grave!) but you can’t really do it otherwise. Whether it’s by the Alcubierre drive, hyperspace, warp, jump gates, or folding space, all of the aforementioned franchises incorporated some kind of FTL. Without it, humanity would require thousands or even millions of years in order to expand to encompass the known universe, at which point, we’d probably have evolved to the point where we were no longer even human! In addition, the problems of subjective time and perspective would wreak havoc with story lines, continuity, and the like. Better and easier to just say “Here (zoom!) Now there!”

Technology: Following on the heels of FTL is the issue of how technology in general is treated within the universe in question. Will it be the source of man’s betterment and salvation, of their downfall, or something in between? Star Trek is a perfect example of the former approach, set in a future where all hunger, disease, poverty and inequality have been eliminated through the application of technology. Despite the obvious utopianism of this view, the franchise really isn’t that far off if you think about it. If we did have matter replicators, machines that could manufacture food, materials and consumer goods out of simple trace elements, then money, precious metals and other artificial means of measuring wealth would become obsolete. In addition, there’d be no more food shortages or distribution problems to speak of, not as long as everyone had access to this technology. And if fusion power and warp technology were available, then energy would be cheap and abundant and commerce would be rapid and efficient.

However, Roddenberry would often show the downside of this equation by portraying societies in which technology had been allowed to run amok. A good example is an episode in Star Trek TNG where the Enterprise comes upon a planet that is run by an advanced machine named Custodian. The people of the planet have grown entirely dependent on the machine and have long since forgotten how to run and maintain. As a result, they have become sterile due to radiation poisoning and are slowly dying off. Another perfect example is the Borg, a race of cybernetic beings that are constantly expanding and assimilating anything in their path. In terms of aesthetics, they are dark, ugly and sterile, traveling around in ships that look like giant cubes that were slapped together out of toxin-spewing industrial junk. Is there a more perfect metaphor for the seemingly unstoppable march of technological progress, in all its darker aspects?

Asimov’s Foundation series also had a pretty benign view of technology. In his universe, the people of Terminus and other Foundation worlds distinguished themselves from their neighbors through their possession of superior technology and even used it to their advantage wherever possible. In the first novel, for instance, the Foundation’s scientists began to travel to neighboring worlds, places that had the use of nuclear power and began teaching them how to rebuild it. Over time, they became a sort of priestly caste who commanded reverential respect from the locals thanks to all the improvements their inventions brought to their daily lives. When in the first book a warlord from the neighboring planet of Anacreon tries to conquer them, they then respond by cutting off all power to the planet and their forces, and use their status as religious leaders to foment rebellion against him.

However, other franchises have a different take on technology and where it will take us. For example, Battletech tends to look at technology in a darker perspective. In this future, the focus of technological development is overwhelmingly on battlemechs and weapons of war. In addition, the ongoing war in the series has had a negative effect on the development of other forms of technology, particularly the kinds that are beneficial to society as a whole. In short, technology has not corrected for mankind’s flaws because it has failed to remove the greatest cause of war and suffering – i.e. ambition!

Frank Herbert, on the other hand, took what could be construed as a mixed view. Whereas in his universe, instantaneous space travel is possible, energy shields, laser guns and nuclear power are all in existence, the overall effect on humanity has not been progressive. In the first Dune novel, we learn that humanity fought a holy war against thinking machines and automation over ten thousands years prior to the main story (the Butlerian Jihad). The target of the jihad was apparently a machine mentality as much as the machines themselves, and the result was a sort of compact whereby future generations promised never to develop a machine that could take the place of a human being. That, in addition to the invention of energy shields, led to the development of a feudal society where nobles and merchant princes were once again responsible for controlling planetary resources, and where armies went to war using swords and daggers in addition to lasers, slug throwers and missiles.

In subsequent novels, this was developed even further to present a sort of twofold perspective on technology. On the one hand, it is shown as being potentially harmful, where a machine mentality and a society built on unrestricted production of material goods can lead to social chaos and anarchy. Not necessarily because it can be harmful in and of itself, but because it can lead to a situation where humans feel so alienated from themselves and each other that they are willing to regress to something simpler and less free. On the other hand, advanced technology is also shown to have a potentially retrogressive effect as well, forcing people to look backwards for solutions instead of forwards. One can see genuine parallels with history, like how industrial civilization, in spite of all its benefits, led to the rise of fascism and communism because of its atomizing and alienating effects on society. Or how the Japanese of the post-Shogunate period deliberately regressed by destroying their stores of muskets and cannons because they feared that the “coward weapons” were detrimental to the Bushido.

Personally, I thought Herbert’s perspective on things was by far the most brilliant and speculative, packed full of social commentary and irony. It was therefore a source of great disappointment that his successors (Brian Herbert and KJA) chose to present things in a far more myopic light. In the prequels to Dune, particularly the Legends of Dune series, the jihad is shown to be a struggle between advanced machines that have enslaved the human race and the few free human worlds that are locked in a life and death struggle to defeat them. However, in twist that is more contradiction than irony, they find the solution to their problem by using nukes to level every machine planet. The fact that the “free worlds” relied on slave labor to compensate for the loss of automation was somewhat interesting, but would have been far more effective if the enemy machines were not portrayed as purely evil and the protagonists as selfless heroes.

Final Thoughts:
The concept of a galactic empire is something that has a long history and many, many incarnations. But as always, the purpose of it seems to be to expand the focus of the commentary so that as many possible aspects of the human condition can be explored. By placing human beings on hundreds or thousands of planets, authors generally seek to show how different places can give rise to different cultures. This is as true of different parts on the globe as it is for different planets in the universe. In addition, the incorporation of aliens also gives us a chance to explore some of the deeper sociological questions, things that arise out of how we interact with different cultures around the world today. For in the end, all science fiction is really about history and the period in which it is conceived, regardless of it being set in the future. Like all other genres, the real aim is to serve as a vehicle for speculation and investigation, answering questions about who we are and what makes us us.

Whew! I think I got a little tongue and cheek there myself! In any case, I enjoy delving into this conceptual stuff, so I think I’m going to do it more often here. Next time, something a bit lighter and more specific. I was thinking about something along the lines of PLANETKILLERS! Stay tuned!