Mar 18 2011

Biases in Science Fiction

Published by under General
Comments: 76

I woke up with a strange idea in my head that I wanted to get off my chest. This has to do with how we project our biases onto fiction, in this case specifically science fiction. My thought involves ship design – how would you design a ship for deep space travel?

First let’s take some common examples from science fiction, such as the Starship Enterprise. The decks of the Enterprise are oriented parallel to the direction of acceleration, which means that people standing on the decks are perpendicular and the force of acceleration would “push” them horizontal to the deck. The same is true of ships of all sizes in Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and many other popular science fiction shows.

I know there are exceptions. The ship in Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey had an interesting design, using a rotating doughnut to generate artificial gravity. This ship was designed, however, for relatively short interplanetary travelĀ  and for coasting (rather than accelerating) most of the time. There are sure to be other exceptions – but my point is, they are exceptions, not what we commonly see in science fiction.

In order to accommodate the odd ship design of having decks parallel to the direction of acceleration, while still allowing passengers and crew to walk around normally, science fiction writers have had to invent both artificial gravity and “inertial dampeners.” They need to provide a force of gravity perpendicular to the decks, and they need to eliminate the force of acceleration horizontal to the decks (accept when needed for some dramatic tossing around the bridge).

A more sensible ship design would be to have the deck perpendicular to the direction of acceleration, that way the force of forward acceleration would provide artificial gravity down into the deck. If such a ship were accelerating at 1G, then there would be no need for artificial gravity or inertial dampeners – you would not have to create gravity and eliminate acceleration – acceleration would be your gravity (thank you, Dr. Einstein).

If you want to get fancy, you can still have a system of artificial gravity. This would be needed whenever such a ship was in orbit around a planet or coasting through space and not accelerating. Perhaps this same system could be used to reduce the acceleration force when the ship needs to accelerate at greater than 1G. Artificial gravity may be impossible. There is no theoretical mechanism for artificial gravity that I have ever heard (but if anyone has a reference, please post it). We allow science fiction writers some technological poetic license. But even with artificial gravity, such systems would likely be energy intensive, and in any case it makes sense to have the orientation of the ship work with the direction of acceleration, rather than against it.

There is only one legitimate reason that I can think of to have a ship like the enterprise laid out the way it is – if it ever needs to land on a planet. But this hardly rescues the designers. Ships like the Enterprise have no business landing on planets, and most (like star destroyers) never do. And when they do – it is a very rare event, hardly worth basing the entire ship design on this rarest of contingencies.

Why, then, are so many science fiction deep-space ships designed this way? I think it has to do with projecting what we are used to onto our concept of space ships. When we think of ships we thinks of boats and planes – both crafts designed to operate exclusively within a gravity well and where forward acceleration is fairly negligible. For an ocean liner, having horizontal decks is the only sensible design. When we think of a space ship we essentially think of an ocean liner or large airplane in space. We want to stand up and face in the direction we are traveling. How else can we look out the window at what’s in front of us? It seems strange to be traveling up, in the direction that our head are pointing.

This is what really captured my interest about this question – the unseen bias in our thinking that affects our fiction. (Don’t get me started on non-alien aliens.) This represents a more general phenomenon – projecting current technology and biases into the future, essentially constraining our vision of the future by current technology or limitations. This is why cars were initially called “horseless carriages” and were even designed to look like carriages. It took time for people to think of cars as their own thing, and to design them to be optimal as cars, rather than a new type of carriage.

I see this also in early movies, which were little more than filmed stage plays. Early television shows were likewise filmed radio broadcasts (the evolution of the Jack Benny show itself demonstrates this). It took time for these media to come into their own and to evolve beyond the constraints of their antecedents.

I don’t think the same will be true when we actually start building space ships. Just like with the airplane – the demands of the entirely new technology will be the dominant force in design. Since we won’t have artificial gravity or inertial dampeners anytime soon, we will have to build space ships to function with our primitive technology. Rather I think our science fiction imaginings of what space ships will look like do not resemble what they will actually look like (at least for the foreseeable future).

For completeness – I know that there are other constraints on science fiction other than imagination. It costs a lot less in production to have an actor mention “inertial dampeners” than to have to simulate microgravity every time a ship goes into orbit. There is also a bit of laziness in writing – not taking the time to thoroughly think through all the implications of acceleration and ship design. There may be aesthetic choices as well (like having sound in space). But this latter point actually reinforces my main point – aesthetic choices are largely based upon our existing biases. We expect to hear large ships go screaming past, and we expect our space explorers to be facing in the direction they are boldly going.

While I have no real problem with such aesthetic choices (they do not infringe, for the most part, on my enjoyment of otherwise good science fiction), I do appreciate it when a writer or director goes that extra step, to challenge our assumptions and biases. I would like to see a star ship that is truly designed for deep space travel, in a really thoughtful and tricked-out way, without relying on fantastical technological fixes like artificial gravity. I appreciate when science fiction challenges my assumptions, rather than caters to them.

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