Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Thoughts on artificial gravity

Last week I was watching the prestige science fiction film Arrival and it made me think about Star Trek and Star Wars.

Wait - stop! No, come back! Hear me out!

In Arrival the mysterious alien ships visiting Earth can be accessed by their human visitors through a sort of airlock. Because the ship has artificial gravity on board this causes people entering the ship to suddenly float at a right-angle as they shift from Earth's gravity to that of the ship's.

It's a moment meant to emphasize the strangeness of encountering another species but it caused me to reflect on how this science is normally used in science fiction. Some science fiction avoids the question of gravity aboard ships at all, preferring zero-gravity environments. But in Star Trek and Star Wars, the world's two most popular science fiction franchises, artificial gravity is a given.

The issues surrounding artificial gravity rarely come up on Star Trek. From time to time there would be a gravity failure on one of the ships. Enterprise, being the series set at the chronologically earliest point of the franchise, played with gravity a little more than the others - there were certain gravity glitches the characters would experience.

Yet Enterprise ignored an idea which Arrival explored - what about the airlock? That series frequently had alien visitors board the ship through its airlock (as transporter technology wasn't fully reliable). What would have happened if a visiting ship had to dock at a 90 degree angle because of its physical shape? What would a boarding sequence look like in that instance?

But then I began to think about artificial gravity in Star Wars and realized, "oh yeah - they have that too." Many have argued Star Wars is more fantasy than science fiction and I'm afraid I'm about to repeat that argument. Space and technology in the Star Wars films is extremely familiar and lived-in. Everyone is accustomed to being around some 200 different species at any given time, traveling through space at faster-than-light speeds is a given and the franchise's most popular vehicle is deemed "a piece of junk" by its universe's standards.

Where I would say Arrival and Star Trek hold concepts in common is that the characters experience a sense of awe and wonder as they're exposed to the wider universe. In Star Wars, all of the awe and wonder is calculated as an effect upon the audience, not so much as to be experienced by the characters. That is, we in the audience are supposed to think the Millennium Falcon is cool; those in the film do not.

What would exploration even look like in the Star Wars universe? It seems as though everything in that franchise has to be somehow connected to the Force. If you're mastering the Force, what else could the universe offer you? Among their thousands of culturally-acclimated aliens, why would people in the Star Wars universe want to go seeking another race? What purpose do planets serve in the Star Wars universe beyond military and commercial ventures?

The aliens in Arrival possess certain abilities (no spoilers offered) and the knowledge they carry changes the course of humanity. In Star Trek, various aliens have been shown to possess different abilities or cultural values which provide interesting contrasts against humanity's (one notable Trek race has the same abilities as the Arrival aliens). But in Star Wars, the only people credited with particular powers or beliefs worth coveting are those who use the Force. It is, as David Brin has argued, a pro-elitist perspective. For all that multiculturalism seems to be a universal norm in Star Wars (outside of the very British Imperials) the Force divides the universe into haves and have-nots. To paraphrase George Orwell, in Star Wars all people are equal but some are more equal than others.

And that's what the artificial gravity made me think of. Even Gravity didn't inspire me to think this much about gravity.