Technology in Science Fiction and Science Fantasy

When George Lucas created Star Wars, he set out to create a universe in which a master swordsman is better in combat than someone with a gun. So he made swords much better than in our world: light sabres can parry rounds from guns. And he made swordsmen much better than in our world: they have Jedi reflexes, letting them parry with impossible speed and accuracy. But this wasn't enough. He still had to make guns worse than they are in our world. Guns in Star Wars have a low rate of fire, and their rounds are slow-moving and easy to see. A Jedi could never stand up to a burst from an AK47, which shoots 10 rounds per second, rounds which can't be seen with the naked eye as they travel forward at over 700 metres per second.

Improving swordsmen, improving swords and worsening guns let George create his fantasy of a world where a master swordsman is more effective than a gunman. That's a nice fantasy and I got a lot of enjoyment from watching the first two and a half films (for me Star Wars died at the point when Ewoks appeared). But let's be clear: Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction. The high-tech elements justify calling it science fantasy, but that is still not science fiction. It's fantasy with a high-tech setting.

Real science fiction is based on the question 'what if?': it is an exploration of possibilities. What might it be like if humans met aliens from another stellar system? What might it be like if humans expanded away from Earth to colonise other planets or stellar systems? How might human life change with the future advance of technology? These are science fiction questions. Unfortunately, much of what passes for SF in the popular mind (the pre-eminent example being Star Trek) fails disastrously to consider these questions.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has an enemy called the Dominion which has genetically modified super-warriors called Jem'Hadar. Dominion warships are crewed by Jem'Hadar, and are more space-efficient than the warships of other races because they don't have medical facilities. Wounded Jem'Hadar are just expected to suffer and die for the Dominion. But why does the Dominion, or anybody else, bother with living creatures as crew? It would be far more efficient to build a warship with no crew, needing no free space or life support systems inside it. The ship would be flown by its computer, which can think thousands of times faster than any living creature.

The same goes for individual soldiers. In ST:DS9, Federation troops fight the superior Jem'Hadar in a bloody land war. But why don't both sides simply make machines that would be thousands of times more effective at fighting? In the film Star Trek: Insurrection, the evil Son'a try this, but the way it's done it an utter travesty. The Son'a make attack drones that are basically flying guns, roughly the same size as a handgun. About five of these drones are sent against about five senior officers from the Enterprise. The drones line up in a line in front of Our Heroes, in an imitation of a Wild West gunfight, and the Enterprise officer win.

This is ludicrous drivel. The drones should have approached to within attack range by stealth and then all shot simultaneously in a coordinated attack. The whole landing party would have been wiped out in a surprise attack before any of them had time to react. The writers of the film threw that all away just to make some stupid reference to westerns. And, of course, they didn't want Captain Picard and half his senior officers to die half way through the film, so they deliberately ignored what should have happened.

Star Trek has 'transporters' that beam people from place to place. In fact, the cargo is not really transported: the original is destroyed and a copy is made at the destination. Occasionally transporters go wrong and don't destroy the original, leaving two identical people (this happened to Will Riker, so that there are two Rikers in ST:TNG). So, clearly, Star Trek technology can duplicate people. Why is this not used to create as many soldiers as needed?

A ship takes soldiers to the war-zone and they 'beam down', ie. the soldiers on the ship are killed and duplicates of them are made down on the planet. But why do they kill the soldiers on the ship? Why don't they just keep on creating duplicates of the original soldiers on the ship down on the planet? They could keep on making soldiers until the ship ran out of energy, which presumably would be a very long time. Some people might find the idea of being duplicated unpleasant, but any government could find some patriotic soldiers who would volunteer for this. Some people might even welcome being made into an army millions strong. The Federation might ban duplicating people on moral grounds and the Klingons might consider it a dishonourable mode of warfare, but ruthless governments that want to win like Cardassia and the Romulan Empire would have no scruples against replicating soldiers. Again, the Dominion grows its Jem'Hadar soldiers in laboratories and they grow to maturity in a few days, but why should the Dominion bother with this when it could simply use transporters to create copies of the first Jem'Hadar ever grown?

And every time a person transports, the pattern of his atoms should be stored. Then if he dies, he can be re-created at the point of his last transport. There's an episode in which it's stated that such a record is kept in the transporter's 'pattern buffer' for four minutes (to restore the person transported if there's an accident) and then discarded. Why is the pattern not saved indefinitely? If storage capacity is a problem, I would expect that at least senior officers would be stored in this way.