Man’s imagination knows no bounds. This has been demonstrated by his inventiveness since time began. First man discovered space, most particularly the space between him and the nearest attractive woman. Man then invented singing, perhaps to attract potential mates from afar. Then man invented soap, because the women ran in the opposite direction when their noses got in range. Man then invented opera, which most men considered a mistake, as it was a very expensive way to take a woman out and get her to sit next to you. And then man invented television, which was cheaper and more entertaining than opera, though women objected to not being taken out as often. So man invented soap opera, which appeased the women and kept them home, but which the men considered to have even more ridiculous plots than proper opera. Man solved that problem by inventing space opera, a kind of science fiction that allows man to imagine himself fighting aliens on other worlds whilst ignoring the demands of his mate to take out the rubbish. But even after all this invention, there are still some black holes in man’s imagination – rifts in space and time that allow the stupidest absurdity to become accepted as space opera fact. Some of these have been mentioned before, in a post about the crazy cliches of space opera. More follow…
What are sensors and scanners? How do they work? Teenage males gawk in dumbfounded amazement as they imagine themselves wielding energy death rays and experiencing faster-than-light travel, but nobody gives a second thought to the mysterious technology which seems to tell you what is going on in hidden places that are hundreds of miles away. Without even a cursory technobabble explanation, we are given the impression that these marvelous sensory machines could tell us pretty much anything we wanted to know…
Captain: How many people are on the planet below?
Ensign: Scanners indicate four billion lifeforms, sir. All human. Also some dogs, fish and weasels.
Captain: Take us in for a closer look.
Ensign: Sir, I wouldn’t recommend that. We’re sensing some very strong gravimetric tides in the planet’s upper ionosphere.
Captain: Okay, what can we tell about the inhabitants from this range?
Ensign: The planet has a pre-warp industrialized civilization that makes heavy use of coal as an energy source. They have yet to discover electricity. Society is organized on matrilinear grounds and it’s considered extremely rude to wear a hat whilst eating your breakfast. Their favourite leisure activity is a cross between canasta and beach volleyball, and their planetary anthem is note-for-note identical to Bryan Adams’ Summer of 69.
Captain: I’m hungry. Where’s my breakfast?
Ensign: Onboard sensors indicate that chef accidentally dropped your omelette on the floor and he is currently attempting to scoop it back up on to the plate whilst picking out any bits of fluff.
[The ship is violently rocked and internal klaxons start to blare out.]
Captain: What the heck was that?
Ensign: It’s a Klingulan Battlehawk, firing at us from point blank range.
Captain: How did they get so close without being detected?
Ensign: They must be using some new kind of cloaking technology…
Level Heads Play the Percentages
There is a lot of talk about science in space opera, which is not that surprising given it is a kind of science fiction. Many of the scenarios are driven by magical new scientific discoveries. Plots often concern scientific progress, especially when a lone nut scientist invents, all on his own, some fantastic new gizmo that nobody else can hope to copy (presumably the writers of space opera assume that the Chinese will never visit space). Spaceships even have science officers. But scientific units? Nope. They hate that. I have no idea what would be the SI unit for force field strength, but it is not a percentage. In space opera, percentages rule and absolute measures with proper units are for clowns who presumably have no idea what 100% means in practice. “Shields are down to 30%” is, of course, just a gobbledygook way of saying “we’re taking a beating”. However, at least I know that higher percentages are generally going to be better than lower percentages. What is somebody to make of levels? In the faux number systems of space opera, levels come up as often as percentages. They have levels for diagnostics, they adjust their weapons to different levels, sometimes even they measure the maturity of an alien society in terms of levels. Mostly the levels are either 1, 2 or 3, but there is never an explanation of what they mean. Is level 3 better than level 1, or the other way around? Perhaps level 1 is best, because we never hear about high numbers in the levels. If only somebody could set their phasers to level 42…
The Smartest Energy Grids
“Divert all power to engines…!” If this command was taken seriously, the lights would go out, the artificial gravity would turn off, and anybody undergoing surgery in the medical bay would be right out of luck. In space opera, spaceships seem to have infinite capacity to redivert power backwards and forwards. Systems like engines, shields, weapons and life support seem to be part of some infinitely malleable energy grid, where cutting off the oxygen supply might somehow enable the ship to travel a few times faster. That said, the power management is always intelligent enough to avoid completely starving any vital function of the energy it requires to function. Whoever designed these ships deserves a commendation for their flexibility. Perhaps, though, we have an explanation of why an impact on the exterior of a spaceship is guaranteed to set sparks flying from consoles in its interior. With every device being rated to run on any amount of energy from that produced by a slow-turning windmill to that produced by the nuclear reaction in a mid-sized sun, it must be impossible to fit fuses in spaceships. In short, your average star cruiser is less safely wired than a kettle.
Along Similar Lines
Parallel universes, new timelines and alternate realities feature in space opera with disturbing frequency. They tend to feature a different configuration of the current universe except that the Nazis won WW2, or the central cast of heroes and baddies reverse their roles, or the Nazis were aliens or the Nazis invaded the USA. But you never see stories involving only a very slight change of the current universe. Given the difficulty of swapping from one universe to another, you might expect it would be much more common for people to transition between realities that are almost identical, except for one small detail. This is a shame, as the possibilities are infinite. Imagine a space opera story set in a universe where everything was the same but the colours of the uniforms, or one where kids enjoy eating Brussels sprouts. Or, if that is not sufficiently interesting, consider how single focused changes might greatly alter our perception of how the universe works, possibly shaking it to its foundations. For example, imagine a universe where Richard Branson keeps a low profile and focuses on running good businesses, one where James Cameron made a movie where the screenplay cost more than the CGI budget, or – and this one is especially hard to imagine – a universe where Emile Heskey leads the England football team to World Cup glory by emulating Geoff Hurst and scoring three in the final.
Despite the wonders of sensor technology, space opera remains firmly vested in the two human senses we most rely upon: sight and sound. This is true even though these senses would be of little use in space. We all know that space would be silent, because there is no atmosphere to carry sounds, whilst we also know that space opera conveniently ignores this fact with its proliferation of booms, bangs, zaps and whooshes. It seems that all aliens hear in the same range as humans, which presumably means the canine people of Dogstar 6 will never get a show of their own. Not only do aliens hear like people, they see like them too. Occasionally there will be an alien race that lives in darkness, and they need to wear cool dark glasses to cope with 60 watt room lighting, much like an interstellar version of Bono. So why is there no alien race that sees in infra-red? Or that sees like bats ‘see’, through hearing echoes of their surroundings? The insides of their ships would be pitch black, which would prove a serious challenge to any human wanting to board their ship, and would undermine the benefits of talking via a viewscreen. Whilst aliens are treated as all too human, the most intriguing aspects of spaceship design are the ones that reflect human prejudices about how things work. For example, all spaceships have windows. They even have windows for pilots to look out of, so they can see where they are going. It is not hard to imagine what we would see if we looked out of a spaceship window as it traversed the vast distances between stars – just think of the night sky. Unless you are near something bright, space is very dark. Which begs the question of what anyone expects to see out of their window, apart from stars and maybe nearby planets and moons. You do not need a clever stealth design or fancy cloaking technology to make it hard to spot a spaceship. Just paint it black – then nobody would see it unless you pointed a searchlight right at it. Bizarrely, though, even alien aggressors can be relied upon to light up their ships so they are clearly visible for a distance. So whilst intergalactic H&S regulation is very lax on wiring, everybody knows their ships should carry more lamps and high-visibility strips than the most safety-conscious of cyclists.