Star Trek Into Soullessness: Good Riddance to J.J. Abrams

As I write this I am listening to the Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan soundtrack via YouTube, and I find it a significantly more stirring experience than watching Star Trek Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams’ recent bungling of arguably the most important science fiction franchise ever.

In place of “franchise” above, I considered using a word like “universe” or “mythos” (the latter of which I don’t feel very appropriate for Star Trek anyway), but didn’t end up replacing it because that’s what Star Trek has become: a franchise to occupy Abrams’ time while he waited to get hired for the indefinite number of cash-cows Disney wants to throttle out of Star Wars.

Consider the following from Abrams’ recent interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart:

“I never liked Star Trek when I was a kid… It always felt too philosophical for me… Some of the writers loved Star Trek, I wasn’t a fan, my producing partner never saw it.”

Everything about these statements is problematic if you understand what’s important and beautiful about Star Trek. To Jon Stewart’s credit, his response was “I stopped listening to you when you said you didn’t like Star Trek,” but the reason why is somewhat lost in the rest of the conversation.

And lest ye readers now proclaim in Abrams’ defense, “But that’s, like, what any fanboi/grl would say about their nerd fiction of choice,” you are totally right. So can we agree that each fiction, and perhaps particularly sci-fi and fantasy, has some sort of nebulous essence or heart, without which they are fundamentally changed?

Star Trek without philosophy — by which I assume we mean a thoughtful blend of rationality, ethics, and compassion — is not Star Trek. It’s like Reese’s without peanut butter, or Back to the Future without Marty McFly. In other words: empty.

In my review of Abram’s previous “Trek” film, I mentioned that further entries into the series should return to some of the TV show’s thematic roots. Seems like they tried with Into Darkness, but ham-handed character transplants and sometimes nearly verbatim scene-stealing from previous (real/good) Trek films doesn’t count.

HUGE FUCKING SPOILER ALERT.

Except that’s one of the film’s biggest problems. It’s not really a spoiler, because wrangling trendy British bloke Benedict Cumberbatch (“he’s so hot right now“) and calling him “Khan” doesn’t fucking mean anything except that you’re fresh out of good ideas and you’re trying desperately to retain what tenuous cred you had with real Star Trek fans.

So, since Abrams’ himself has invited the comparison, let’s compare.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan wrestles mightily with the concept of mortality; in fact, nearly every plot element in the film revolves around this single theme. The very first scene introduces the “Kobayashi Maru,” a test that evaluates how up-and-coming Starfleet officers face certain death, a test which the captain of the Enterprise notoriously defeated; Kirk and “Bones” lament getting old right after the ever-cantankerous McCoy gives his old friend a pair of antique eyeglasses for his birthday. Even the Chekhov’s gun is codenamed “Genesis,” invented to create wondrous new life but also capable of utterly erasing it. All of this drives the film to its heart-rending and well-known conclusion: the demise of one of the most beloved sci-fi characters of all time. I can’t even think about that scene without getting all misty-eyed; Spock’s unwavering altruism contrasts gorgeously with Khan’s hunt for petty revenge.

Star Trek Into Darkness begins with its head held high, espousing the pits and precipices of the Prime Directive and rehashing the fundamental differences between Kirk and Spock. But then “John Harrison” blows up a secret Starfleet weapons factory, and Into Darkness decides it wants to be about terrorism. And warmongering, and the militarization of a beloved exploratory institution, and other trendy shit that every other dumb-ass bullet-riddled action-adventure movie since 9/11 has wanted to be about. Star Trek Into Darkness could be read as a reflective title: this movie unceremoniously tosses Trek’s customary high-mindedness into oblivion in favor of (shocker!) mostly boring, predictable, belabored action scenes.

On to the films’ antagonists. When the eponymous villain of Wrath of Khan reveals himself on the dead planet to which he was exiled, he drives home the last nail in Kirk’s as-yet proverbial coffin. Not only is Kirk’s mortality catching up with him, but his past is, too. (The dead planet Ceti Alpha V and its “exploded” sister, Ceti Alpha VI, offer a cosmic perspective on the film’s theme — even worlds must eventually die.) There is a history between these two old foes that the audience can feel, even if they haven’t seen the original episode featuring Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically modified superman from late-20th century Earth’s Eugenics Wars. Khan seems genuinely anachronistic in the 23rd century of the U.S.S. Enterprise: he is cunning and ruthless, possessed of a tyrannical arrogance. He represents the worst of the world in which we currently live, and that’s what makes him unique in a future where humanity constructs, or more pointedly, can afford to construct massive spacefaring vessels solely for the endeavor of exploring the universe and for the betterment of all humanity.

But in Darkness, Khan is not unique or anachronistic. Everybody and their mums is out for blood in this picture. Khan caps good old father-figure Chris Pike, so Kirk wants to whack Khan. Admiral Robocop– er, Marcus holds Khan’s super-groupies hostage, so Khan wants to hurt Marcus. Kirk pulls a Spock and gets himself irradiated saving Enterprise, so Spock blames Khan and tries to beat him to death with his bare fists in the most absurd, un-Trekish action scene in the whole movie. And lest we forget, the Big-Shot Fucking Admiral of Star-Fucking-Fleet (which defends the 23rd-century version of the UN, for fuck’s sake) wants to spark total war with the Klingon Empire. These are not the ethics of Star Trek. These are the barbarisms of the Dark Ages. This is a movie about weregilds in space.

Further — it doesn’t really mean anything at all that “John Harrison” turns out to be “Khan.” Star Trek II rekindles a rivalry and enmity 15 years old that fits perfectly with the film’s thematic interests. Into Darkness, on the other hand, merely pays lip service to one of Trek’s most iconic villains. Had “John Harrison” neglected to reveal his “true” identity, the film still would’ve played out in exactly the same way. Cumberbatch, while a terrifically compelling actor, isn’t given much at all to work with. He’s a glorified Rambo who is denied even the chance to utter any of the real Khan’s most memorable lines or sentiments. (I mean, as long as you’re recycling the entire latter half of Khan for your “new” Trek movie, you might as well use the good stuff, right?)

It is bitterly ironic that while Abrams really, really wants Into Darkness to be hip and cool and bad-ass, he fails to do justice to easily the most bad-ass character to ever appear in Star Trek. I mean seriously, while he might be a huuuuuge tool sometimes, Khan Noonien Singh is the reigning BAMF of the Alpha Quadrant, even when you just consider some of his dialogue, particularly in the following scene, which I would rather watch 14 times in a row than sit through the 127 minutes of Into Darkness again:

All of this ranting is to say: J.J. Abrams has abandoned the heart and soul of why Star Trek is important in pop culture. Real Trek looks forward to a future in which war, poverty, and disease are extinct on Earth; in which the petty concerns of individuals like Khan do not threaten the stability or justice of society as a whole; in which we reach ever farther in our understanding of the physical laws of the universe and leave those barbarisms of a war-torn planet behind us where they belong.

True Trek celebrates the intoxicating truth that we are the only species among millions on our world across billions of years who have cultivated the knowledge and the skill to strap ourselves to a bomb, hurtle into outer space, and come back safely with new knowledge that will benefit all of humankind. Star Trek Into Darkness is a rather aptly named film after all — it chains us in the darkness of our own real world, and we’ll never leave that world behind for a better one if this is all we can muster from the brightest, most hopeful science fiction franchise of all time.

Advertisements

The Apocalyptic Physics of J.J. Trek

Suspension of disbelief is the willingness to disregard one’s critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment. In Star Trek, this is most frequently required where space travel occurs. We accept that since the U.S.S. Enterprise represents the pinnacle of 23rd century human technology, it can do things that our current space-faring vessels can’t. The Enterprise can generate artificial gravity for its passengers; it can withstand extremes of temperature, energy, and gravity in interstellar space; it can warp space-time to traverse distances that would otherwise be prohibitively vast. And most importantly for this blog post, the Enterprise has propulsion systems that automatically stabilize the vessel against any gravitational forces in its immediate vicinity.

All of these fictional technologies are so commonplace in space-travel sci-fi that they represent the status quo of the genre. But as soon as you turn those technologies off, the Enterprise is just another (admittedly high-tech and oddly-shaped) piece of space-junk that must obey the laws of physics, some of which we’ve known about for hundreds of years; laws like the conservation of mass or momentum are taught in high school classrooms, and it can be awfully jarring if they’re suddenly and brazenly broken on the big screen. Cue the following scene from Star Trek Into Darkness:

When Admiral Marcus’s U.S.S. Vengeance pursues the Enterprise and knocks it out of warp, the two ships seem to end up in a more or less stationary position on the far side of Earth’s moon. A string of various action sequences later, Enterprise loses main power, deactivating those automatic propulsion systems above; Enterprise begins to succumb to the gravitational forces nearby.

Okay, that’s legit; many other sci-fi movies just ignore gravity altogether. Except then the Enterprise begins to fall not toward the nearest massive body (i.e., the Moon), but toward Earth, which is a minimum distance of 384,400 kilometers (238,900 miles) away. What’s worse, Enterprise “falls” to Earth’s atmosphere in what could not have been more than 4 minutes of screen-time (and that’s being generous), which would mean that Earth’s gravitational force can accelerate “914,442 metric tonnes” (over 2 million pounds) to a velocity of more than 5,766,000 kilometers per hour or 3,585,000 mph (assuming the ship reaches such a velocity almost instantly, with almost no acceleration time). This is of course completely absurd and highlights the rather sloppy continuity editing that plagues both of Abrams’ Trek movies, so let’s do some math to find out how long it should take an object to fall to Earth from that distance, because we’re smart people and that’s why we like Star Trek. All of the following calculations ignore all gravitational effects other than that of Earth, because it’s easier (I have no idea how to calculate multiple gravitational influences on the same object), and because that’s what J.J. did. So there.

Acceleration of gravity (g) in meters per second per second = GM / d², where

G = the universal gravitational constant (6.673 * 10-¹¹N-m² / kg²)

M = the mass in kilograms of the larger object, in this case, Earth (5.98 * 10^24)

and

d = the distance in meters from the center of the object to the center of the Earth, (in this case, roughly 384,400,000m).

So:

G * M / d² = 0.27m/s²

Therefore, completely ignoring the fact that Earth’s gravitational pull would steadily increase to 9.8m/s² as we near the surface (and would therefore increase the object’s velocity and decrease fall time), after 1 second of direct free-fall toward Earth from a distance of 384,400,000 meters, the Enterprise would be traveling at 0.27m/s. At 10 seconds, 2.7m/s. The formula for distance traveled by a free-falling object is as follows:

d = 1/2gt², where

t = time (240 seconds, or 4 minutes, the maximum fall time from the scene in Into Darkness)

So:

1/2 * 0.27m/s² * 240² = 7776m, or 7.78km.

In the four minutes (max) that it took this scene to play out in the movie, Enterprise would not have traveled even 8km. Let’s solve for “t” instead, to get an idea of  how long it should take the Enterprise to hit reentry. And just to be generous to J.J. and friends (and to avoid an obnoxiously long calculation), let’s assume a maximum, constant acceleration of gravity regardless of distance from the Earth (9.8m/s²), rather than beginning with 0.27m/s² and increasing our “g” value as Enterprise gets closer.

t = √[2d /g]

d = 384,400,000m

g = 9.8m/s²

So:

1/2 * 9.8m/s² = 4.9

384,400,000m / 4.9 = 78448979.59

78448979.59^0.5 = 8857.14s, or just under 2 1/2 hours to plummet at the maximum possible Earth-acceleration of gravity from the Moon to the surface of the Earth. (Again, this assumes no other gravitational forces are acting upon the starship, which would not be the case in reality.) For some perspective, it took Apollo astronauts between 2 and 3 days to return from the Moon. Here’s why they took the slow train on the way back.

If you’re accelerating at 9.8m/s² for 2.5 hours in a vacuum, you continually accelerate until you hit some kind of resistance (i.e., Earth’s atmosphere). Enterprise‘s velocity at reentry can be calculated quite easily:

Vƒ = gt, where

Vƒ = velocity at reentry, or “final” velocity

g = 9.8m/s²

t = 8857.14s

So:

9.8m/s² * 8857.14s = 86799.97m/s, or over 194,000 miles per hour. This answer violates the maximum Earth impact velocity (72m/s) for an object orbiting the Sun, which the Enterprise would be if it was stationary relative to the Earth and the Moon. However, given J.J.’s claim that Enterprise could somehow plummet to Earth in the space of 4 minutes (requiring a speed in excess of 3 million miles per hour), and because it’s more fun, we’ll go forward using 86799.97m/s as our final velocity at impact with the Earth.

To put some perspective on this, NASA’s space shuttles reentered Earth’s atmosphere at about 7800m/s (17,500mph) and executed several wide S-shaped turns in order to decelerate in time to land safely and dispose of their massive amounts of kinetic energy. The kinetic energy of the Enterprise, a 914,442 metric-ton starship reentering the atmosphere at 86799.97m/s, can be calculated as follows:

KE = 1/2mv², where

KE = kinetic energy in Joules

m = mass of the object in kilograms (914,442,000kg)

v = velocity of the object in m/s (86799.97m/s)

1/2 * 914,442,000kg * 86799.97m/s ^2 = 3,444,810,365,833,443,300 Joules of kinetic energy. Rounded to the nearest ten-quadrillions, that’s 3.44 quintillion Joules.

One metric ton of TNT releases a little over 4 billion Joules when detonated. The above kinetic energy of the Enterprise upon slamming into the Earth’s atmosphere would be equivalent to the detonation of an 823-megaton bomb (823 million tons of TNT). The largest nuclear weapon ever detonated to date was Tsar Bomba, with an estimated yield of 57 megatons; it produced a fireball 5 miles in diameter, a blast radius of 22 miles, and more limited damage at a range reaching hundreds of miles. If we guess that such destruction would increase in more or less direct proportion to the yield of the explosion, an 823-megaton detonation would produce a fireball 65 miles in diameter (Earth’s atmosphere is about 62 miles high); Enterprise‘s shock wave would level everything within about 312 miles of ground zero, equivalent to over 300,000 square miles (an area larger than Texas); and the range of limited damage and fallout would span continents.

uss_enterprise_in_star_trek_into_darkness-wide

And none of these calculations assume, as we must, that when Enterprise‘s warp-core containment fails an additional anti-matter detonation of indeterminate size and intensity will occur.

What they do assume is that Enterprise would explode somewhere in the atmosphere, breaking apart without impacting the surface. But why should we assume that? According to Abrams himself in the opening sequence of Into Darkness, the Enterprise is perfectly capable of planetary reentry. And elsewhere in Trek canon we find further examples of starships entering a Class M atmosphere without disintegrating; see Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek Generations, in which both ships suffer massive damage to their hull structures before beginning reentry. What if the Enterprise‘s hull, shields, and/or structural integrity allow it to pass through the atmosphere more or less in one piece?

Using this website, we can estimate the crater dimensions, thermal radiation output, seismic effects, ejecta, and air blast intensity at varying distances from ground zero. Assuming the following parameters:

distance from impact = 500km (311 miles, on the edge of our estimated blast radius above)

projectile diameter = 370m (the longest dimension of Abrams’ reinvented Enterprise)

projectile density = 4328.76kg/m³ (average, according to this site again)

impact velocity = 868km/s

impact angle = 90° vertical

target type = sedimentary rock (with an average density of 2500kg/m³)

Here are the highlights (full results here):

The final crater left by the Enterprise would be roughly 55.4km (34.4 miles) across and 991m (3250 feet) deep, melting or vaporizing 377km³ (90.4 cubic miles) of the matter at ground zero.

The visible fireball at 500km away would be 100.2km (62.2 miles) in diameter, and even at this distance the thermal radiation exposure would exceed 52 million Joules per square meter for over 15 minutes. This equals over 49,000 BTUs per square meter. According to my calculations, this would raise the ambient air temperature to something over 2250 degrees Fahrenheit. For over 15 minutes. At this temperature and duration, all exposed organic material is incinerated.

The impact of the Enterprise under these parameters would register 9.3 on the Richter scale, but damage due to seismic shocks would be minimal at a distance of 500km. Several minutes after impact, the area would receive a fine dusting of dust and debris reaching up to 4.08in thick.

25 minutes later, the blast of displaced air would arrive at 196m/s (439mph), gutting or leveling nearly all man-made structures. Up to 90% of the trees hit by this air blast would be blown over, and the rest completely defoliated.

Some margins of error in this scenario:

First, we should remind ourselves that modern astrophysics tells us that the maximum Earth impact velocity for an object orbiting the Sun is 72m/s; I have yet to discover why this is true, and if any readers could enlighten me I would be most appreciative. If the Enterprise is assumed to be “orbiting the Sun,” then we must reduce our impact velocity drastically, which would also drastically reduce the ship’s kinetic energy upon impact. Enterprise is not an especially large object, at least in terms of giant hunks of menacing space-junk that might hit the Earth, and most of its destructive power would come from the excessive velocity we calculated above.

Second, the listed “diameter” and density of the Enterprise are not necessarily very accurate; they are merely really good estimates regarding a fictional spacecraft (from one of the most devoted fan bases in the world). Enterprise is not a “solid” shape, meaning that it contains far less mass than a spherical object of similar diameter; we would find more reliable results if we could calculate using total mass rather than diameter.

Barring any of these margins of error, though, we can expect total annihilation of an area larger than Texas and global fallout produced by superheated debris being flung into the upper atmosphere and raining down all around the world, creating a literal firestorm that would ignite vast wildfires anywhere the ejecta returns to ground. Depending on the location of ground zero, casualties could be in the billions (especially if population growth continues into the 23rd century).

Though most available studies on potential climate changes due to such a disaster use much larger objects in their calculations (>1km in diameter), we can assume catastrophic loss of plant and wildlife in the ecosystems immediately surrounding the blast radius, with the possibility of food-chain disruption and extinction of some species. Secondary loss of environment and agriculture would occur across the globe.

The Earth Impact Effects Program features a Google Earth plugin that allows you to pinpoint an impact anywhere on Earth using latitude and longitude. The same input parameters as above are applied; they have even included a drop-down menu to view the radii of various effects (crater, air blast, etc.). Here are the results if the Enterprise in our above calculations were to strike the Earth at Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco, CA. The City by the Bay is incinerated along with basically the entire West Coast of the United States.

And here are the results if we use J.J.’s apparent velocity from the film, something around 3.5 million miles per hour (the speed that could allow the Enterprise to reach Earth from the Moon in under 4 minutes). In this scenario, note that

a) the air blast at first looks smaller than the previous scenario, until you zoom out and realize that it’s glitching the plugin and it actually covers the entire globe,

b) the final crater would be 353 miles wide and over a mile deep, with 1,060,000 cubic miles of matter being melted or vaporized on impact, and

c) the thermal radiation from such an impact would apparently incinerate all of North and most of Central America.

It took me a several hours over the course of two days to relearn some basic physics, do some arithmetic, and type this out. Apparently J.J. was too busy with blowing shit up and telling Alice Eve to strip down to her skivvies and couldn’t be bothered to stop and consider how ridiculous this scene is.

Ironically, we are now forced to wonder why Admiral Marcus would wake up a 300-year old genetically modified superman to build top-secret weapons so he could blow up the Klingons when really, he could have just set his big jet-black spaceship on auto-pilot and programmed it to ram into the Klingon homeworld at warp speed. I guess you don’t get to run the show at Starfleet by being good at physics.

*          *          *

But wait! Bonus round!

In the scene from Into DarknessEnterprise is traveling at 3.5 million miles per hour when it reaches Earth. If we assume that this velocity is still slow enough that the crew actually have the time to process what is happening and react accordingly before impact, then we would need 3.44 quintillion Joules of energy to bring the ship to a full stop before it hits the atmosphere, at which point it’s already “Kobayashi Maru” for the Enterprise and her fearless crew. If we also assume that, based on my recollection of the film, we only have 5 seconds in which to complete this maneuver after engine power is restored, then:

3.44 * 10^18 Joules / 5 seconds = 6.88 * 10^17 Joules per second, or 688,000 terawatts. Another post from a previously quoted nerd-site argues that at a comfortable cruising speed, the warp core of the U.S.S. Enterprise-D (four generations of technology later) produces about 7.1TW. In the year 2006 the entire human race consumed only 16TW of power.

Bonus round 2:

In order to accelerate the Enterprise to 3,585,000 miles per hour over a distance of 238,900 miles under gravitational force alone, the Earth would have to be orders of magnitude more massive. To solve for the correct mass of a stellar body that could accelerate an object to these speeds in such a small period of time, we’ll need to return to our equation to find the acceleration due to gravity above. Our goal is to find “g” in the calculations below, which we can then use to find “M” in the very first equation we solved above (acceleration due to gravity at varying distances from the larger object).

d = 1/2gt², or

g = 2d / t²

t = 240 seconds (4 minutes)

d = 384,400,000m

So:

2 * 384,400,000 / 57600 = 13,347.22m/s², the acceleration due to gravity required to accelerate an object fast enough to travel 384,400km in under 4 minutes.

Now:

g = GM / d², or

M = gd² / G

We know all of these values except “M”, so:

13,347.22 * 384,400,000² / G = 2.96 * 10³¹ kilograms, or, rounded up, a 3 with 31 zeros behind it. For some perspective, the mass of the Sun is roughly 1.99 * 10³ºkg.

The Schwarzschild radius is the radius of a sphere such that, if all of the mass of an object is compressed within that sphere, the escape velocity from the surface of the sphere equals the speed of light. In other words, any object that occupies a volume smaller than its own Schwarzschild radius is a black hole. The Schwarzschild radius is calculated as follows:

r(s) = Schwarzschild radius

c = the speed of light in a vacuum (299,792,458m/s)

r(s) = 2GM / c²

So:

2 * G * 2.96 * 10³¹ / 299,792,458² = 43,970m, or 43.97km (over 27 miles).

The Earth’s radius is 6371km (3959 miles), so according to J.J.’s new film it falls short (or rather long) of the Schwarzschild radius. However, with a mass of 2.96 * 10³¹kg (and assuming the real-life volume), the Earth would have a density of 2.69 * 10¹ºkg/m³, which approaches the density of some portions of a neutron star.

An Earth of this density would have an escape velocity of about 25,000km/s, or nearly 56 million miles per hour. This is roughly 1/6 of the speed of light, which maybe seems a bit prohibitively high for the residents to invent space travel. Or do anything else, for that matter.

This has been fun. I’ve relearned a lot of physics and I got to pick on J.J. Abrams and his fucking hipster glasses at the same time. In the future he should either do a better job than Scotty at keeping the engines on the Enterprise running, or do enough math that any English major with Google and a calculator can’t make an ass out of him.

Late-Nite TNG: “Remember Me”

Yes, I know it’s not late-night anymore. But I watched the episode last night, so sue me. Anyway, in my continued explorations of Batman and the DC Comics world at large, I have come across a trend called “Women in Refrigerators,” which as you might guess relates to some pretty sickening treatment of female characters in superhero comics. Most disturbingly, some of the comics I had intended to include in my Batman Comics Canon are accessories to this misogynist genre trope.

More on that to follow, but by 7 o’clock last night I was so depressed reading about how frequently this trend occurs that I needed to expose myself to something on the other end of the feminist spectrum. Where, oh where do I turn? To science fiction, of course. To its great credit, sci-fi has long been one of the leading genres to feature women not just as token representatives of their gender, but as normal, complicated, fully-actualized people. And which TV show was a pioneer even within science fiction?

I selected the fourth-season episode called “Remember Me” mostly because I hadn’t watched any of Season 4 recently and I couldn’t remember the plot of this particular episode off the top of my head. One of the nice things about TNG is that it’s not a serialized show, so you can skip around to find an episode you haven’t seen in a while.

Anyway, the plot runs as follows: Dr. Beverly Crusher is accidentally trapped in a static warp bubble during one of her son Wesley’s experiments with the warp drive in Main Engineering. Strangely, Dr. Crusher’s existence inside the warp bubble creates an alternate reality based on her thought patterns at the moment of the accident, which happened to revolve around the gradual loss of friends and coworkers we all experience as we get older. In this alternate reality, the crew and passengers of the Enterprise begin disappearing at an alarming rate, until eventually she is the only crew member on a starship capable of comfortably transporting over a thousand people. Even more bizarre is that as people vanish, none of the remaining crew members (or the ship’s computer) remember that they ever existed at all.

Naturally, this leads to Captain Picard and the other crew members being skeptical of Dr. Crusher’s claims that the crew is disappearing, but instead of dismissing her as a crazy lady and packing her off to the proverbial loony bin, her crewmates take her seriously and attempt to help her investigate the phenomenon. Captain Picard is on her side right up until he finally disappears, too, having previously stated: “Beverly, your word has always been good enough for me.”

Dr. Beverly Crusher, last woman standing in an alternate reality.

It would have been soooo easy for this episode to devolve into a gaggle of mostly male Starfleet officers wringing their hands and declaring “Dr. Crusher’s gone batty! Whatever can we do to fix her poor, confused little mind?” But, in stalwart Star Trek fashion, the writers took the high road. After everybody has vanished, Dr. Crusher kicks her brain into high gear, asking pointed questions of the ship’s computer to deduce exactly what is going on. The two clues that allow her to figure it all out reveal themselves when she inquires 1) what is the mission statement of the Enterprise (to explore the galaxy) and whether she is qualified to accomplish that mission all alone (no), and 2) what is the nature of the universe, to which the computer responds, “The universe is a spherical region approximately 705 meters in diameter.”

The first clue allows her to confirm that she is not losing her mind, and the second narrows down the problem to an all-too-measurable extent: the universe is collapsing around her, progressively erasing everyone on the ship (presumably she is immune to these effects because it was her mind that created this reality in the first place).

Don’t go towards the light… Wait wait no! Do go towards it! Hurry up, your universe is collapsing!!

Over the course of the episode, Dr. Crusher experiences all the emotions we might expect of someone in her situation: confusion, stress, frustration, fear. And, like any reasonable individual, she does briefly consider the possibility that she might be going crazy. But for the most part she remains calm, rational, and professional, as evidenced by her quick thinking and sound deductive reasoning as the show nears its conclusion. And let’s not forget that her alternate reality was precipitated by her consideration of a fear that everyone must face at some point in life: that we will eventually lose the people we love.

While all of this is going on inside the warp bubble, the crew on the real (or rather, original) Enterprise are able to figure out what happened to Beverly, and for her part, she correctly assumes that the odd “atmospheric disturbances” she has witnessed were her crewmates’ attempts to retrieve her from this alternate dimension. She leaps through the gateway back into her original reality just as the warp bubble finally collapses, and all is returned to normal on the Enterprise.

It’s a credit to this television show and Star Trek as a whole that we can select an episode more or less at random and it will present its female characters in such a positive, well-rounded manner. This episode also passes the Bechdel test with flying colors as Dr. Crusher consults Deanna Troi, the ship’s counselor, about her mental stability (or the possible lack thereof). Just off the cuff, I would expect most other TNG episodes to pass the test as well.

Overall, this was a great episode — I had forgotten most of the important plot points, and it serendipitously satisfied my goal of engaging with some good feminist fiction. I’m thinking this “Late-Nite TNG” thing might have to become a continuing mission (pun intended), as I tend to get the urge to watch some Trek quite frequently. Anyway, until next time,

LLAP!

PC Games as “Art” — Seeking Relevance in Rapture

I’d like to divulge a long-kept secret: majoring in English gives you superpowers. Specifically, while studying English in the capacity of literary criticism and theory, you develop a heightened sense of perception regarding media of all sorts. It’s essentially like Superman’s X-ray vision, except instead of seeing through any solid material you gain the ability to punch right through all the smoke and mirrors (and loads of straight-up bullshit, too) that human beings like to swirl around whatever ideas they’re trying to communicate to you. Like, for example, when a political candidate decries an account of her personal life as sexist (which is true) and degrading (also true), an English major is immediately aware of what she’s trying to draw your attention away from: that a) she is sexist, herself, against her own gender and if elected would enact policies accordingly, and b) she is a raging, unabashed hypocrite.

This is exactly what happens every time I use terms like “social norms” and “cultural narrative.”

I know that’s probably obvious to most human beings with functioning gray matter, but it’s just an example. Anyway, like all superhuman abilities, these lightning-quick powers of inductive reasoning come with a weakness: we cannot communicate anything about our conclusions without also informing everybody why they should care about what we’re saying. Think of it as analogous to DC’s Billy Batson, who can’t utilize his superpowers as Captain Marvel unless he shouts “SHAZAM!” The difference is that English majors just take a lot longer to say the magic word(s). Or… paragraphs. Or thesis papers. (Incidentally, English majors are also akin to the Green Lantern in that they require extended periods to recharge their abilities. Coffee generally accelerates this process considerably.)

What I’m getting at is the idea of social or cultural relevance. Like any medium, video games are chock full of examples that have little or nothing to do with real life. Some of the most fun games ever made are on that list (Super Mario Bros., anyone?), so I want to make sure we cut off any connection between quality and relevance straight away. Relevance ≠ quality. Got it? Some games, on the other hand, feature socio-cultural commentary in spades, and it’s one of those we’re talking about today.

Once upon a time, an incredibly rich and powerful American business magnate decided to found a self-contained city far beyond the reaches of the various political and cultural influences which he perceived as oppressive and limiting to his success as an individual. He assumed that, given a society completely unrestricted by laws or regulations and populated by the most intelligent, innovative, and ambitious minds in the world, he could create “a city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small” — a place where the elites of the world could roam free of obligations and restrictions which they regarded as beneath them.

Yes, I did quote Andrew Ryan just now, and that paragraph mostly describes the setting of 2007’s BioShock by 2K Games, but I could also have been referring at various points to any one of these places or people as well. Even now, in the 21st century, free-market capitalism still reigns as the undeniably dominant cultural narrative (SHAZAM!) — so dominant, in fact, that anyone daring to suggest that it may be time to devise a more functional and less hazardous economic system is immediately vilified as anti-American and a dirty, dirty, probably bearded Marxist (nevermind whether they actually are either of those things). Want proof? Check this out.

Truer words…

It’s a singular source of pleasure for the gamer in me, then, when a game developer extrapolates on unrestrained capitalism (informed by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism) and really runs with it. Plenty of different media are dabbling in post-apocalyptic sorts of narratives the last few years, but few employ an economic collapse as their cause. Rapture’s economy, inherently limited by its location at the bottom of the sea, could not sustain both the rapid accumulation of wealth by its top handful of elites and severe shortages of a product (ADAM) for which the demand increases exponentially. Sound familiar? We could replace any of the details in that last sentence and be talking about a real society (e.g., “America’s economy, inherently limited by its location on Earth…)

We talked about Deus Ex last time, and how it invokes the player’s moral prerogative to communicate its ideas. These two games’ philosophies intersect quite frequently, but where Deus Ex is complicated and cerebral, BioShock is visceral and brutally honest. In the former you rub elbows with the ruling class of the dystopian society; in the latter, you are knee-deep in the suffering and despair that Andrew Ryan’s selfish and naive worldview has created. The gaudy, opulent flagship of capitalism has sunk (pun intended) and the player must tread through human flotsam to escape to the surface — where, by the way, everything is virtually the same (minus Splicers and Big Daddies).

Let’s talk about those Big Daddies in an metaphorical sense for a moment. They protect the Little Sisters, who are the driving force of Rapture’s ADAM economy (and are controlled by the ruling elite), but they can also be seen performing repairs throughout the city, typically fixing leaks and other threats from the surrounding ocean. In other words, they maintain the status quo; they embody all of the laws and policies and regulations and taxes and so on of a government hell-bent on retaining its grasp on the society. Subsequently, we can read the Little Sisters as the all-but-invincible corporate entities that produce the society’s critical resources (without which the society crumbles — petroleum allegory, anyone?). While the Sisters are functionally invincible to physical attack, they are vulnerable after their attendant Big Daddy has been put down (violently). The most critical facet to recognize in this reading is that the Big Daddies defend the society’s corporate interests, not the civilian population as a whole.

Big Daddy = Big Brother

Plasmids are the end result of ADAM; they fundamentally alter the abilities of the user. Running with our capitalist allegory, three of these plasmids seem particularly relevant in that they might represent what the average person living in the society gains from dependency on ADAM or, in our allegory, on petroleum. “Electro Bolt” can represent the electricity (or just plain raw energy) that oil and other fossil fuels provide us, which is critical to basically every sphere of our society; “Incinerate!” can stand in for the use of combustibles to produce, transport, maintain and replace all of the commodities that a capitalist society values so highly; “Winter Blast” for the ability to refrigerate, or perhaps more broadly, preserve those commodities beyond what would otherwise be their normal cycle of usefulness. Again, all of these abilities are dependent upon the continued supply of the original resource, the demand for which is ever increasing.

So what’s the result of this sort of interpretation of 2K’s masterpiece? Is it an indictment of capitalism? An argument for collectivism? (Nope — see BioShock 2.) I think the underlying assertion of the game is little more than that human beings can wreak some serious havoc with their greed and their selfish desires. After all, the primary goal of a video game is to entertain and, perhaps more than any other medium, if a game can’t entertain then it’s not going to get anything else across to its audiences, either. But the game is asserting at least one other thing — that an economy entirely dependent upon a single resource for all of its (increasingly ostentatious) needs and desires is, at any given time, little more than a hair’s breadth away from collapse.

PC Games as “Art” — The Catch-33 of Deus Ex

The only ambiguity here is what exactly I’m shooting at… pixelated vampire Hitler?

I’m not using that term quite right, but you’ll get it in a minute. For those of you lacking the patience to plow through what’s certain to be a long post, feel free to skim and comment: Name some instances in which you appreciated shades of gray in a game’s plot or worldview.

Let’s dive right in. I think the most important distinguishing feature of video games is the immersion of the player into the narrative. You, personally, are participating in the unraveling story, not sitting at a comfortable remove as a passive observer. The First Person Shooter (FPS) genre has an easier time achieving this than others for obvious reasons, and the home of the FPS is undoubtedly the personal computer, emerging with Wolfenstein 3D in 1992 and solidifying with Doom in 1993 (it took a full four more years before a console would produce a truly worthy counterpart with GoldenEye in 1997).

The proverbial tip of the iceberg.

Now, nobody’s trying to avoid the honest truth here — games like Wolf and Doom were conceptual and technical successes only. Their plots can be summarized roughly by a mere handful of words: “Get weapons. Shoot [insert appropriate undesirables here]. Repeat.” (The only ambiguity I see here is what exactly I’m shooting at… pixelated vampire-Hitler?) But with their undeniable popularity, these proto-shooters gave rise to a genre that has blossomed into a powerful vehicle for complex narratives. Much as Rapture’s lighthouse represents but a narrow portal into the depths of its underwater city, gamers have come to expect not only an entertaining variety of gameplay dynamics in their first-person shooters, but also a wealth of story and character that they experience through that gameplay.

An FPS is possibly the easiest way to get a visceral thrill out of your gaming — see Omaha Beach in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault or the darkened, demon-infested Mars-base of Doom 3 — and these are fun and valuable experiences. Lord knows I love to stay up into the wee hours of the night with the lights off and the volume up and scare myself witless with some Doom 3 or Dead Space. But these are still largely reactions you can get from popping in Saving Private Ryan or any (in)decent horror flick. What I want to talk about in this entry are the responses that I think gaming has a unique opportunity to effect.

Enter Deus Ex, which I regard as the magnum opus of the modern cyberpunk-thriller genre. Read my review here, or skim the Wikipedia article for more info. Dark, serious, and solidly based upon real-world politics and theoretical sciences, Deus Ex extrapolates logically upon current social climates and technological development (circa 2000) to a future overrun by parasitic, corporate capitalism (that’s not too far-fetched for you, is it?) and troubled by increasingly questionable uses of bioengineering and genetic modification. The player character represents the synthesis of those two motives, a superhuman created by a “cabal of technophiles” to defend national interests against various “terrorist” groups (noteworthy is the fact that national and corporate interests are essentially equivalent in this context). Your job throughout the game is, in the simplest terms, akin to peeling an onion — an onion whose every layer is another conspiracy of global portent.

Ok. Are you still reading? Then you probably realize that a set of problems this massive and complex simply cannot be satisfactorily solved unless you’ve got a big red “S” stuck to your chest. The key word is “satisfactorily.” There are solutions available to you at the end of the game (three, in fact), but none of them are anything but problematic, much less offer you a sure road to human salvation and the obligatory victory cutscene. The brilliance of Deus Ex is that though you are, more or less, a superhero, you cannot save the world. All your extraordinary abilities win you is the chance to get yourself all good and invested in the outcome of the plot only to arrive at a tie between three equally dubious choices.

One of the three endings quotes Voltaire. Can you name another game that quotes Voltaire?

Many games offer the player options; a (sometimes paralyzing) degree of control over your character serves as a supporting pillar of basically every RPG in existence, and several other franchises have also capitalized on player choice as the impetus of plot development (see the Star Wars Jedi Knight series), but these choices are largely relegated to very black and white, good vs. evil situations (do I wantonly slice that hapless bystander with my lightsaber, or… not?). Deus Ex is one of a relatively small contingent of games to thoughtfully, persistently delve into moral territory so grey as to be virtually impossible to navigate. There are no right choices in Deus Ex, only choices.

Of course, we shouldn’t praise moral ambiguity simply for its own sake; if we did, we might just as easily prefer characters like, say, the Joker to come out on top instead of Batman, at which point… what’s the point? But the complexity of Deus Ex provokes a kind of reasoning that is really only just beginning to be utilized in gaming: ethics. To keep the superhero thread running, who’s really going to boo Superman for saving a bus-load of children from toppling off a bridge? He’s a stand-up guy, no doubt about it, and that kind of simplicity can be satisfying, too. My favorite novel, The Lord of the Rings, features one of the clearest notions of right and wrong ever put on paper. Clarity is definitely a good thing.

But consider, in contrast, the conclusion of a film like The Dark Knight, with Batman accused of multiple homicide. It’s certainly not the ideal outcome, but the way the characters deal with it says a lot more about them than a knee-jerk reaction to the tired “rescue X from Y” trope ever could. In Deus Ex, it is the player who must react effectively to an unyielding, unforgiving environment, and I think the process of that reaction unlocks not just an exploratory gaming experience, but a self-exploratory one. Isn’t that exactly what “art,” however we define that almost totally useless term, is supposed to provoke? Explorations like that are vital to our media because they require us to examine and sometimes redefine the beliefs and the values with which we approach the world; they’re especially vital to our video games because they continue to prove that this medium can make worthwhile contributions to modern culture.

I digress. Next time, I’ll dive into Rapture in search of a little thing called “cultural relevance.” Sounds thrilling, doesn’t it? I know. I’ve had Django Reinhardt’s “La Mer” on repeat for days in anticipation. (Just for clarity, that’s repeat in my head. I apparently can’t make it stop.) So, readers — what other games haunt you with their moral complexity? Any I absolutely can’t afford to miss? And yes, I’m already working on Fallout 3.

 

 

 

Science Fiction — A Discussion of Defintion

It has frequently been brought to my attention in the past few months or so that our society at large is disturbingly unclear on what constitutes the genre of science fiction. For serious, people, this has got to stop. There is no single way of saying it that highlights all of the aspects of the genre, but one thing I am certainly tired of is people assuming something is science fiction just because it involves spaceships or laser guns. A look over Wikipedia’s article will tell you sci-fi is “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” That’s a pretty good starting place regarding setting, but it’s also extremely vague, and it doesn’t really touch on what kind of themes we should be looking for, either.I would complicate the above quote by adding the following: “Science fiction seeks to discuss the portent for humanity of these possible future events, including but not limited to the consideration of ethics, morality, longevity/survivability of the species/our native planet, and the implications thereof for modern humanity. The genre frequently chooses to remain morally ambivalent about said considerations; on the other hand, it also frequently uses the depiction of possible futures to warn or admonish the audiences of today.”

In order to demonstrate the definition that I’ve laid out thus far, I think a comparison of two well-known and well-loved films is called for. One is a near-perfect example of science fiction at its best, and the other (while a great film in its own right) is often mistakenly judged as part of this genre.

In my experience, The Terminator (1984) is regarded either very well or very poorly (in the same categories respectively, you generally find people who have seen it and people who haven’t). Judgments of quality notwithstanding (I happen to love this movie), it is a prime example of many different plot devices and themes often employed by the genre — namely, time travel, artificial intelligence, nuclear holocaust, and the human ambitions that bring these situations about. The film elicits sympathy for Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese as they suffer the results of actions entirely beyond their control.

Two aspects of this movie in particular strike me as exhibiting the qualities of science fiction: it spends considerable time and effort on Sarah and Kyle’s psychological reactions to their situation, and it wisely restrains itself from depicting the Terminator as “evil”; rather, it is a persistent, unfeeling antagonist that forces the intense humanity of Sarah and Kyle’s interactions with each other into closer focus. As a result, the film is first and foremost a tense, frantic flight from our own realized fears, asking the audience to recognize its various story elements (nuclear weapons, AI, etc.) as valid concerns for the near future.
In short: The Terminator is thoughtful and realistic (within imaginative limits), a gripping account of how humanity’s own ingenuity can have unforeseen consequences. This fits pretty much perfectly into the definition listed above.
In comparison, the movie frequently named the best science fiction film of all time is not, in fact, science fiction. 1977’s Star Wars may feature such things as space travel, alien species and swords made of pure energy, but this is (in most cases) where its similarity to sci-fi ends. Whereas a primary goal of films like The Terminator is to consider how humanity deals with the unexpected or the unknown, Star Wars simply assumes the existence of said elements and then fails to comment on them in any way. By “fails” I only mean to say that the film simply does not address the societal or cultural effects of the sci-fi story elements it employs.

Star Wars places far more emphasis specifically on morality and conflict themselves rather than the issues that inform and cause them. This may seem like a relatively negligible difference, and yes, some titles blur the line in really cool ways, but consider this: What would Star Wars be without the intense division between good and evil? It is those two forces that shape the film’s plot and create the galaxy-spanning civil war that culminates in Return of the Jedi. I would argue that one of the reasons we enjoy Han Solo so much is that we’re able to see and identify with his progression from selfish mercenary to swashbuckling hero — but how much would we like him if he had ended up on the other side? (Think about how you feel when Lando Calrissian cooperates with Vader.)

The myriad alien races, the dogfights in space, and the advanced technology of all kinds add an exoticism to the film that enhances its appeal and originality, but in its thematic focus, Star Wars is far more similar to The Lord of the Rings than other sci-fi titles involving space travel, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Battlestar Galactica. Star Wars is a morality play that emphasizes the dichotomy between good and evil as the defining conflict in the very fabric of the universe. Space fantasy, if you will. Science fiction (at its most interesting, in my opinion) tries to avoid such sweeping statements in favor of complexity of character and ambiguity regarding difficult and often undesirable situations.

None of this is to say, however, that certain titles do not significantly blur the lines between sci-fi and many other genres — some of my favorites being Firefly, Serenity, and Back to the Future. On the contrary, it becomes easier to identify these blendings of genre when we have a clear notion of what we’re talking about when we say “sci-fi” or “fantasy.”

So, next time you hear someone say that Star Wars is the greatest sci-fi movie of all time, tell them they’re wrong.

Faster than a speeding bullet, and almost as unique — Enemies & Allies by Kevin J. Anderson

This will be the first Sure as Shiretalk book review. Yes, I do indeed still enjoy books from time to time, even though no one’s forcing me to read them and requiring me to buy a specific edition from the local extortionist… erm, excuse me, campus bookstore. Anyway, here goes.

I’m a sucker for all things Batman. You guys know that. So when my uncle got this book from the fam for his birthday last year, I was intrigued (I borrowed it from him because I’m poor and cheap and I generally shy away from buying things I’m not absolutely sure I’ll like). I also really enjoy pretty much anything about the UFO scares of the 40s and 50s (hence why I liked Kingdom of the Crystal Skull more than others seemed to), and I find the Man of Steel tolerable, and sometimes even interesting, when he’s juxtaposed with the Dark Knight. And besides, the only other Batman novel I’d read was No Man’s Land, which was suspiciously, annoyingly lacking in Batman (as were the original comic versions). I was also psyched for another novel by Kevin J. Anderson, whom I had read and liked long before for his work in the “Star Wars Expanded Universe” or whatever they call the non-canon (and therefore good) Star Wars lore these days. I was hoping the late 50s setting would add some new interest to the meeting of two superheroes who tend to run into each other in the comics almost as often as Clark Kent runs into kryptonite on Smallville.

Well, despite the fact that Anderson sends both Batman and Superman to exotic locales such as Siberia and Area 51, the heart of all UFO conspiracy theories, there was almost nothing new or interesting about any of their interactions. Even in the key moment, when they meet each other for the “first time” (how many times can that happen in one universe, anyway?), Anderson can’t seem to think of any scenario other than what has probably been written a hundred different times by as many authors since the late 1930s: Superman is all hands-on-his-hips, spouting his “halt evildoer” nonsense, and Batman is gruffly having none of it and disappearing into thin air. Oh, and the dialogue is flat and fails to say anything worthwhile about any of the super important differences between the two characters.

Sigh… So you just biffed the most anticipated moment in your epically-staged but disappointingly-executed novel about the two most popular superheroes in history. Any reason I should read on instead of picking up The Dark Knight Returns again to wash the awful taste from my mouth? I guess I couldn’t really think of one at the time, but I kept going anyway (I’m apparently just loony enough to stick it out to the bitter end, but sane enough to be irritated with myself afterward). Lex Luthor is the supervillain for this go-around, and he’s without doubt the most enjoyable figure in the novel. Anderson does get the character right here; Superman’s nemesis is quite sufficiently despicable, and his final line in the book almost makes it worth the three or four hours (tops) it’ll take you to read it.

Anyway, the whole thing comes off as more of an outline in need of serious expansion and revision than a complete, polished novel. I would’ve welcomed another few hundred pages if it meant the story would be long enough (and good enough) that I’d actually have the time to get invested in it. And, though this is certainly personal preference speaking, more Batman is never a bad thing. But as it stands, the entire novel zips by about as fast as the Man of Steel rushing to save Lois Lane falling off whichever tall structure she decided to climb today, and you’re not going to find any situations or sentiments here that aren’t better said somewhere else in the vast DC canon. Take a look at this .gif about these two bruisers of comic books instead of reading Enemies & Allies — it’ll save you some time, and it’s definitely more enjoyable.

2 stars of 5.