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Category Archives: Science Fiction

Sci-Fi Inspired By WW1: Future Best Shown Through The Past

As science fiction grew beyond comic book and serial adventures in the 40s and 50s, it took 2 basic directions.

-In one school we see pristine white interiors, skin tight jumpsuits, uptight space academy scholasticism, no need for money, and neutral female voices waiting to answer every query.

starfleet-academy-2377-intheflesh

-In another school we see worlds that are gritty and lived in, with throwbacks to empire, swords, and knighthood.

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Guess which school has had the more enduring grasp on the human imagination?
Guess which has better predicted the trajectory of human societies decades into the future?

As it turns out, the latter has aged much better across the decades and resonated with the sensibilities of new generations.  The squeaky clean sci fi of perfection in contrast seems a faded dream by comparison.  Ironically, it’s the disco age amorphous eggshell swivel chairs with ugly rust orange cushions that no longer look otherworldly to us, but like relics.

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Unsurprisingly it’s the sci fi that borrowed from the past to describe the emotional feel of the future that has both outlasted and out-predicted the other.

The utopian school of sci fi thought we’d have pristine Moon and Mars colonies and solved the problem of poverty by now.
The dirty and gritty sci-fi successfully predicted the social upheaval and dark age we actually live in.

One vision saw humans progressing to be something “higher” and therefore different than they were before.
The other simply projected that no matter what technologies you make, people keep on being people with Empires, wars, and famines like there have been for the last thousands of years.

I will also explore a deeper reason why the gritty, humans-will-keep-being-humans sci-fi/space opera settings win.
They communicate the feel of the future viscerally by heavily borrowing from the past.
They take motifs from a time period where advances changed everyone’s lives forever to give us that feeling of a strange new reality.  Unsurprisingly, I notice WW1 is perhaps the dominant influence.  It was the period that more than any other severed all ties to the thousands of years that came before, that saw the destruction of all the world’s implacable empires in a few years, that saw the apocalyptic slaughter with inhuman new weapons plowing mechanically through countless thousands of lives.
There is also a lot of borrowing from WW2, Korean War, and Vietnam, but WW1 has the advantage of being just distant enough in the collective memory while retaining certain terrible visceral meanings in the collective subconscious.
Some of the most dissonant and disturbing images of WW1 are those of men on horseback or with machine guns wearing gas masks that render us unable to see their humanity underneath.

ww1 horse, cavalry, gas mask, lance

It perfectly shows us the modern world we take for granted was being born right then and there, a juxtaposition between the familiar and the foreign country of the past.

One of the Best Examples Is Star Wars:

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Imperial walker vs. a WW1 tank

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Imperial Snowtroopers vs. WW1 machine gunners

Also, with Star Wars, one of the reasons it resonates is its very retro sound design.  It sounds like a failing piston engine when the hyper drive doesn’t work(same sound for airplane engine running out of fuel in Temple of Doom).  A lot of the ships fly through space with a grindy noise, like they’ve got V8 engines or they knock about like they have old diesel engines, not hard to believe from the maker of American Graffiti.
The WW1 tanks that inspire the walkers even make an appearance in Last Crusade.  With lightsabers you can just hear that circuit click into place before the blade hisses out.  The high pitched metallic groans of the carbonite freezer sounds like some sort of real life hydraulic compressor or compactor.
One of the most memorable sounds for me has always been the sinister rushing/zooming/fan noise of the tie fighters.  In THX 1138, one of Lucas’ first films, the robot enforcers drove high tech motorcycles that sounded similar.  In the clean and pristine worlds of sci fi the sound design tends to be smooth and soothing or else made to sound strange and unfamiliar.  It’s the very familiarity of the visual and aural universe of star wars that gives us an immediate connection.
What caps it off of course is setting the mood from the beginning with the words “long ago.”  Lucas deliberately studied the structure of Western mythology and this background served him well.

Next I will talk about Dune 1983.  The film didn’t live up to its potential as a story but many of the design elements show they knew what they were trying for.  The monolithic design of the palaces echoed Ancient Mespotamia, Ancient Egypt, Byzantine/Ottoman architecture brilliantly conveying the feel of an interplanetary civilization that’s been stagnant for thousands of years.
The military uniforms, I will point out, were almost straight out of WW1.

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House Atreides Officer vs. Imperial German Officer

We can also compare with some other officers and enlisted…

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And while we’re on the subject of uniforms it’s impossible to pass up another Star Wars Example

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Galactic Empire officers seem like they’re made from a variety of WW1 influences.

And after all these,  I hardly even need mention Starcraft or Warhammer 40k which for Terrans and Imperial Guard are basically WW2 in space.
Or for that matter, the Colonial Marines from Aliens who came straight out of Vietnam.  Yet James Cameron did do something unique with the design of the marines’ pulse rifles.  Some of the best weapon sound design ever, a gritty sound, almost like a growling motor filtered through some kind of sound distorter so it sounded electrical and futuristic at the same time.  It perfectly bridged the gap between old and new to create the atmosphere.  As if that weren’t good enough, they made the pulse rifles out of tommy guns so there was badass muzzle flare spraying everywhere as they sprayed down rooms with bullets.

I will close with one last example.

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In Warhammer 40k, the Space Orks have an aircraft that’s pretty much a Korean war era MiG jet fighter with a machine gun turret taken from a ww2 bomber.  A completely impractical idea but somehow, it’s still cooler than handheld phasers resembling electric razors that can vaporize boulders in a few seconds.

See Also: Gustav Holst: Inventor of Modern Sci-Fi Music,Why Star Wars OT Appeals More To Men: Aesthetics

Why Star Wars OT Appeals More To Men: Aesthetics

In Star Wars, the original trilogy, the ships, gear, and guns all had a no-nonsense gritty, used look.
It was the sort of aesthetic that was sure captivate male sensibilities.

Han Solo’s ship, the Milennium Falcon was no shiny new vessel, it was a beaten up, but functional tin can. Random protuding pipes, cables, electronics with the occasional dent or scorch mark say it all. What guy who’s ever worked on a car or electronics wouldn’t want his own Falcon?:

Millenium Falcon

And lets face it, the ships, military vehicles, artillery depicted in the OT tend to be a uniform unpainted gray. Why would anyone one paint them beyond necessary insignia or identification numbers? The rebels and imperials alike seem to care a whole lot more about going out and winning than making their military hardware look pretty.

One minor character distinguished himself merely by showing up with a beat up old suit of armor dented and scratched with the marks of many battles. As soon as viewers saw this masked man, they knew he must be a badass. Thus this character went on to become a major part of the Star Wars franchise:

Boba Fett Demotivational

Let’s compare now to the aesthetic of the new trilogy. One example should suffice to illustrate my point:

N-1 Starfighter

Not only is the ship bedecked in resplendent gold and silver, even its afterburners emit a soft fuschia glow that inpires fear in the enemy as it flies over a tropical blue gem of a planet that brings to mind beaches and drinks served with little umbrellas. Indeed the ship itself resembles some kind of colorful creature we’d be delighted to see while snorkeling in warm, tropical waters.

I will extend our inquiry to another franchise: The Elder Scrolls

The gritty, exotic look of Morrowind:

Balmora Streets

All around, in this town, we see chipped mud-plaster walls stained dark by years of smoke from lamps and cooking fires. Like Mos Eisley space port, the place feels genuinely lived in. The locals have a rangy, hungry look to them and ragged, slapped together armor and clothing that immediately tells us life around here isn’t easy. The aesthetic successfully drives in the fact we’re in a remote border province on the most visceral level.

Now for the polished and happy look of Oblivion:

oblivion screenshot elven ruin

To make my point, let’s compare the aesthetic to that of Lisa Frank, a line of notebooks and folders marketed to little girls:

Lisa Frank Penguin

Even as a guy charges at us with a bloodied sword we can’t help but bask in the serene glow of the bright cerulean afternoon and admire the bandit’s improbably spotless suit of elven armor. Truly a museum piece.
Yes, the soft glow and bright colors put us at ease even as he’s trying his best to kill us.
The graphics are technically superior but the aesthetic is inferior; it fails to make us feel the setting of the adventure at the gut level.

After all nothing says adventure for men like savage border outposts, uncharted settlements, nicked unadorned blades with a spotting of rust, sooty fireplaces in taverns, and hastily improvised hyperdrives.

Classic Tropes: The Red Shirt

“He’s dead, Jim.”

Never injured or even critically injured. Always dead outright. This has been the sorry fate of red-uniformed security officers in the Star Trek Universe. Even when the actual red shirts went out of style, you’d always know in shows such as Voyager: A new crew member shows up who we’ve never seen before on a ship that supposedly only contains 150 people. We know this character will either die on an away team or from an exploding control panel.

Red Shirt Pieta

Red Shirt Pieta

TV Tropes has long proven a favorite site of mine for ironic humor.
Some other fun entries.
Space Jews
Black Dude Dies First

You can look up favorite movies, games, books, and graphic novels to see a long list of all the tropes that apply.
Even better, you can find all kinds of stories about how the tropes have been ‘averted’ or ‘played straight’ in real life.

For every trope there are aversions.

Here’s a Red Shirt from real life.

Mr. Garibaldi

Mr. Garibaldi

Instead of getting instantly killed, he helped create the modern nation of Italy; a nation without precedent since the Roman Empire.

Even in the time of Rome’s power, a unified Italian peninsula was largely held together by force.
The Southern portion was distinct because much of the area had been populated by Greek settlements.
Indeed, modern day Southern Italy was known as ‘Greater Greece’ and Republican Rome had to fight a series of bitter wars against the Greek city states that held sway there.

It’s from these wars that we get the term, ‘Pyrrhic Victory.’

Our Place In The Cosmos

Frederik Pohl’s Gateway: The Parser Game

This is parser gaming at its best.

Inspired by some of the basic ideas in an(excellent) science fiction novel, it has a plot that includes virtual reality hacking, existential philosophy, and dangerous space exploration. Better yet, all the puzzles logically make sense if you think everything through.

The programmers thought of just about every command you could type in, especially the vulgar and violent ones. Finding these easter eggs is definitely part of the fun.

It can be downloaded for free here.

http://www.abandonia.com/en/games/540/Gateway+-+Frederik+Pohls.html

And it can be played using an emulator like DosBox

Dyson Sphere

Dyson sphere is a hypothetical megastructure originally described by Freeman Dyson. Such a “sphere” would be a system of orbiting solar power satellites meant to completely encompass a star and capture most or all of its energy output. Dyson speculated that such structures would be the logical consequence of the long-term survival and escalating energy needs of a technological civilization, and proposed that searching for evidence of the existence of such structures might lead to the detection of advanced intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Since then, other variant designs involving building an artificial structure or series of structures to encompass a star have been proposed in exploratory engineering or described in science fiction under the name “Dyson sphere”. These later proposals have not been limited to solar-power stations. Many involve habitation or industrial elements. Most fictional depictions describe a solid shell of matter enclosing a star, which is considered the least plausible variant of the idea (see below). Link

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri : Quotes From The Game

There are two kinds of scientific progress: the methodical experimentation and categorization which gradually extend the boundaries of knowledge, and the revolutionary leap of genius which redefines and transcends those boundaries. Acknowledging our debt to the former, we yearn, nonetheless, for the latter.

  • Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “Address to the Faculty”
Some would ask, how could a perfect God create a universe filled with so much that is evil. They have missed a greater conundrum: why would a perfect God create a universe at all?

  • Sister Miriam Godwinson, “But for the Grace of God”
Technological advance is an inherently iterative process. One does not simply take sand from the beach and produce a Dataprobe. We use crude tools to fashion better tools, and then our better tools to fashion more precise tools, and so on. Each minor refinement is a step in the process, and all of the steps must be taken.
  • Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, “Looking God in the Eye”
Resources exist to be consumed. And consumed they will be, if not by this generation then by some future. By what right does this forgotten future seek to deny us our birthright? None I say! Let us take what is ours, chew and eat our fill.
  • CEO Nwabudike Morgan “The Ethics of Greed”

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Sid_Meier%27s_Alpha_Centauri

Warhammer Fantasy Battle Report: Orcs vs. Skaven

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