Sci-Fi as Progressive Propaganda

KirkUhuraKissScience fiction has a long history of presenting us with new and progressive ideas, from free love in Stranger in a Strange Land to some commanding women characters in the recent Battlestar Galacitca, but probably the most famous progressive moment in SF was when midway through Star Trek’s third season, Lieutenant Uhura kissed Captain Kirk in America’s first televised mixed-race kiss.

But it almost wasn’t didn’t happen.

At the end of the first season, actress Nichelle Nichols was about to return to her roots of singing on stage. Her appearance in Star Trek had significantly raised her visibility, and she was ready to start on Broadway, her greatest aspiration as a singer. This was her big break.

So one Friday afternoon after production had wrapped for the season, she went to Gene Roddenberry’s office, explained the situation, and handed him her resignation. He told her she couldn’t possibly leave, that he desperately needed her to stay on the show. “Don’t you understand what I’m trying to do here?”

She was not swayed, but she agreed to think about it over the weekend.

The very next night, she was on stage for an NAACP fundraiser. Afterwards, one of the organizers asked her if she would be willing to meet a fan. She agree, expecting the typical Trekkie of the era, but much to her surprise, it was Martin Luther King. “I’m the fan,” he said. “I’m your best fan. I am your biggest fan.”

Ms. Nichols was flabbergasted, amazed that such an important figure as Dr. King even knew who she was, let alone watched the show, but he was clearly not faking it. He went on about what an important role model she was, since she was one of the first black women to appear on screen as anything other than a servant or entertainer. Eventually, she managed to find her voice, thanked him, and mentioned that she was going to miss it since she was going back to her singing career in the next year.

MLKbiopicShocked, Dr. King would not allow this. “STOP! You cannot! You cannot leave this show! Do you not understand what you are doing?! You are the first non-stereotypical role in television! Of intelligence, and of a woman and a woman of color! That you are playing a role that is not about your color! That this role could be played by anyone? This is not a black role. This is not a female role! A blue eyed blond or a pointed ear green person could take this role!

“Nichelle, for the first time, not only our little children and people can look on and see themselves, but people who don’t look like us, people who don’t look like us, from all over the world, for the first time, the first time on television, they can see us, as we should be!

“As intelligent, brilliant, people! People in roles other than slick tap dancers, and maids, which are all wonderful in their own ways, but for the first time we have a woman, a WOMAN, who represents us and not in menial jobs, and you PROVE it, this man [Gene Rodenberry] proves and establishes a precedent that validates what we are marching for because three hundred years from today there we are, and there you are, in all our glory and all your glory! And you CANNOT leave!”

Clearly, Dr. King was more persuasive than Gene Roddenberry had been, and she decided to stay. On Monday, she went back to Gene’s office as asked if the part was still available. Of course, it was. He had already torn up her letter of resignation.

Relieved, she told him what Dr. King had said to her. He listened quietly, and finally replied, “Thank God someone understands what I am trying to achieve.”

And apparently it made a difference. Numerous African-Americans at NASA point to Lt. Uhura as their reason for getting involved in space exploration. Even Whoopi Goldberg credits the Uhura character for her wanting to be on Star Trek:TNG.

We’re still a long way from the ideals of Dr. King’s dream or Roddenberry’s federation, but since today we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday, I thought I would point out that every little bit helps.

So I Skipped Comic-Con

The travelling version of Comic-Con came to Austin over the weekend, and I had planned on going, or at least stopping by on Saturday. I’d never been to a Comic-Con, and I’ve heard so much hype about them, I figured I should see at least one to check it off my bucket list. And this one promised something pretty spectacular, a gathering of the Star Trek Next Generation cast for a 25th Anniversary panel.

But in the end, I blew it off.

So, the obvious question is why, and I’m afraid I don’t have some flashy answer. I like cons. I like some of the shows and actors that were going to be represented there. And I have nostalgia for ST:TNG, given that I met my wife the year that show started. In theory, this was a good show for me to attend. But ultimately, I think what killed it was that this is a media con, not a literary con. It’s about the show and the actors, not about the writers.

I’ve met actors at other cons, and these were actors from shows I really admired. I met Ellen Muth from Dead Like Me. I met Richard Hatch from both the old and the new Battlestar Galactica. I’ve met Michael Dorn from Star Trek, the Next Generation. Plus, because Austin is one of those odd little off-Hollywood towns, I’ve run into folks like Sandra Bullock and Quentin Tarantino just wandering around the city minding my own business. These are all great actors, but when I’ve seen them I haven’t had anything to say more than, “I like your work.”

And that’s been about it.

But a writer? Oh, man… I went totally fanboy over Jack McDevitt when I met him. I’ve almost managed to keep my cool when talking to Elizabeth Moon, but only because I’ve seen her a dozen times. And C. J. Cherryh? Larry Niven? Neil Gaiman? I’ve seen them, but I was so tongue-tied I couldn’t do much more than say hello as ten thousand questions raced around my brain. God help me if I ever come face to face with Jim Butcher, Aaron Sorkin, or Ronald Moore.

And it’s not just because I’m also a writer, or at least, it’s not directly that. I get excited about meeting writers because I want to hear more about the stories. I want to know the back-story that never made it into the book, the little detail that made my favorite character more real, and even some hints about what might be coming next. It’s the story that grabs me, even in the movies and the TV shows. Yes, I appreciate that there is good and bad in the actors’ execution, and good is definitely desired, but what really turns my crank is the story, the lines, the writing. Maybe that comes from being a writer myself, but more likely, it was my love of story that got me interested in writing.

Strangely, my one real regret of not going was missing another chance to meet Wil Wheaton. You may recall him as Wesley Crusher on Star Trek or know him from more recent appearances on The Big Bang Theory, but that’s not why I wanted to meet him.

You see, I remember him mostly as Gordie Lachance, the story-telling kid from Stand By Me. But it’s not that I wanted to talk to him about that film. Rather, I wanted to talk to him because he ultimately followed the path that his character did. He went on to become a writer. And that’s why I wanted to meet him.

(But alas, the only thing on the program where I was sure to see him was too late on Saturday for me to go to, and it was likely to be swamped as well.)

So, maybe some other time. I just hope that when it happens, I’ll have more to say than, “Um, uh, poker… I like your poker. Writing stories, yeah.”

Exploring the Final Frontier

You’ve just been given the keys to your own FTL explorer ship… what do you do? This is a thought experiment that borders on wish fulfillment, but the kid in me thinks that’s the best kind. For all the flaws of the Star Trek prequel series Enterprise, it at least had some fun playing around with the “explore new worlds” part of the mission, and I really enjoyed those episodes.

So let’s play around with it some ourselves. Assume we’ve reached the level of space technology where we’ve set up a few permanent outposts throughout the solar system, and we’re able to build some reasonable spacecraft for scooting around the neighborhood. Then suddenly, FTL goes from a surprising theoretical possibility to an even more surprising engineering reality.

The NX-01 Enterprise rolls off the line, then the NX-02, and so on. They go off and take snapshots on Rigel-4 and draw lots to see who gets the next red shirt.

Meanwhile, you get a much more boring assignment on the exciting starship Survey-4. While those dashing captains check out the Top 40, you get to fill in the gaps, and there are some pretty big gaps. Within 100 light years, there are about 15,000 stars. Within 500 light years, there are almost two million. So if we’re going to be jetting around at warp 7, then there’s a lot of stuff between here and Rigel. (Approximately 850 light years, in fact.)

So where do you even start on an assignment like this? Let’s assume we got called in early on the project, so we can help lay out the scope of the mission. That is, what are we looking for? What do we need to find it? Where are we going to look? And just how long is this going to take?

We’re probably looking for life or at least places we could live, and from that we can narrow the scope a little bit, since not all stars are likely to support life as we know it. However, we’re probably also looking for useful resources, points of scientific interest, and staging points for further exploration. As such, we probably want to at least stop off at each star and give a quick look around.

What do we want from that quick look around? Personally, I’d want to know if there were any planets, and if so, how many? And if any of them seemed interesting, i.e. in the habitable zone, have big moons, or simply look pretty, I’d want an orbital survey on them.

Finding the inner planets will be easy enough by their reflected light. We found most of the ones in our solar system without even the aid of a telescope, simply because of the motion of planets against the background of otherwise static stars. The actual motion of the planets may not help us here, since waiting for Uranus or Neptune to move an appreciable fraction of their orbits can take a while.

However, the apparent motion of the planets will help us a lot. When an Earth-bound observer sees Saturn move against the stars, some of that motion is truly the motion of Saturn, but some of it is also the motion of Earth. As the Earth bounces back and forth from one side of the sun to the other, the viewing angle to Saturn swivels back and forth. In many cases, it appears as though it has reversed its orbital course, but it’s really just our own movement around the sun causing that motion. (This is what people mean when they say a planet is “in retrograde”, just that the relative motion of Earth and the planet makes it look like it’s going backwards.)

Well, in our nifty FTL survey ship, we should be able to bounce around in much less than the year Earth takes. The idea is to take a high resolution picture of the stellar system with our camera pointed towards a fixed location, like good old Sol, and when I say high-resolution, I’m thinking about stitching together a few thousand telescopic snapshots. Then move over a billion kilometers to the left, aim this camera array towards Sol, and take another picture. The position of the stars should stay more or less the same. Anything that appears, disappears, or moves from one picture to the next is probably local. (Or maybe some distant pulsar is just dicking with you.) If you do this from two or three directions, you should get a pretty good map of the inner planets.

It might not get you some of the outer planets. Neptune and Pluto were not originally discovered by telescope but by their gravitational interactions with Uranus. However, assuming better telescopes, no atmospheric interference, and better image processing than the eyes of early 20th century astronomers, we would probably find anything down to Pluto’s brightness. Whether or not we’d see something like Eris out in the Kuiper belt is more speculation than I’m willing to make right now.

So, what do we do with these planets once we’ve found them? As much as I’d love to send down some red shirts (and maybe even some people in them) to explore, an initial survey such as this should probably limit itself to space-based observations.

Telescopic observations can tell us a fair amount from a distance, but mostly that information can be used to rule out some planets from a more detailed survey. Spectrum absorption lines can tell us a lot about atmospheric makeup, and we can also measure the temperature to some degree. If it’s 200 degrees (or -200), then we’re probably not going to find life or suitable colony locations on it. I think we can also get a moderate idea of the atmospheric depth via telescope, since we knew of Mars’ minimal atmosphere years before we sent probes. (Though I confess, the science for extracting that info is beyond me.)

But if the atmosphere and temperature look appealing, it might be time for a much closer look. Just how much of a look can we actually take from space? I’ll take a stab at that next week.

Anything else you’d want from your initial system survey?

Farewell to Old Ships

The USS Enterprise is setting sail for the last time.

Damn. It hurts just to say those words.

But in this case, I’m not talking about one last voyage for Kirk and the crew of good old NCC-1701. No, I’m talking about the final deployment of the United States aircraft carrier Enterprise, CVN-65.

After fifty-one years of service, it is scheduled to be decommissioned in December of this year. The Enterprise was the world’s first nuclear aircraft carrier, and it is a unique design. In some respects, it was a testbed for America’s nuclear navy, and it pointed the way to many improvements found in the successor Nimitz class. Much like the fictional ships to follow her, she set the standard for things to come as well as a number of records that still stand. Seeing her go makes me sad.

But I shouldn’t surprised by that. As an SF fan, I’m used to becoming emotionally attached to ships and stations. I think about the various Star Trek incarnations of the Enterprise, the Millennium Falcon, the Galactica, the Babylon 5 station, Serenity, the Black Pearl, even the old Space Battleship Yamato from anime, and they all give that warm and fuzzy feeling of an old friend, loyal and true to the end. And I think about how much it tore me up inside when some of them met their ends, and I can almost say that I grieved for them.

But why? In addition to be completely made up, they weren’t even people. They were inanimate chucks of metal and wiring. They never had sentience. They never made a decision. Apart from the occasional voice interface, they never even had a line.

They had all the character of plywood and paint.

And yet they were so much more. They did have character. They had quirks and failings, but they also had strength and resolve. The Falcon’s touchy hyperdrive was a pain in the ass, but you always knew she was going to come through for us. The Galactica was old and falling apart, but she held our hopes like precious air. And who didn’t cry at least a little when the Enterprise gave her last full measure of devotion to save her skeleton crew?

I suppose just as we let some of those fictional people into our monkeyspheres, we let their ships in as well. The Enterprise was real to them, and so it became real to us.

So even though I’ve never known anyone aboard the real USS Enterprise, I’ve been attached enough to her fictional successors to feel a little sad seeing her go.

Farewell, faithful friend, farewell.