Can Another 70s Science Fiction Work Be Successfully Updated?

Tomorrow night HBO will premiere Westworld, a series based on the 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton.  That film was set in an amusement park for adults populated by robots (the Westworld of the title was just one part of the park).  While the film did spawn a sequel and short-lived television series, it did not dive into issues around the use of androids but was a technology-gone-wrong tale.  The series has the potential to do both of those things and perhaps more.

The television program has all the elements that suggest a quality production.  The cast is noteworthy and includes Sir Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood and Ed Harris.  HBO has a reputation for sprawling storytelling of a high caliber (its Game of Thrones recently became the show with the most Emmy awards), and reports are that the network has invested heavily in the production. was developed by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, and Nolan directs the first episode.  He has co-written many successful movies with his brother Christopher Nolan, and created the television program Person of Interest, which recently ended a five season run examining the implications of a pervasive surveillance entity acting within modern society.  J.J. Abrams is credited as an executive producer, though it is unclear how much of a hand he has had in the show given his heavy workload that includes overseeing the Star Trek and Star Wars movies.

2015 may have been a big year for robots in popular culture, but if Westworld turns out to have the goods then 2016 could be too.  And maybe it will join Battlestar Galactica as a work from the 70s that was updated and better the second time around.


Disproving Star Trek Can Be A Good Thing, At Least Where Whales Are Concerned

While this week marks the 50th anniversary of the first Star Trek episode on television, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the fourth Star Trek film – The Voyage Home.  The shorthand for this film is ‘the one with the whales.’  Kirk and company travel back to Earth and find it suffering from the emanations of a probe seeking to talk to humpback whales.  In the history of Star Trek, that species of whale went extinct in the 21st century, so a time travel adventure ensues.

While we still have some time to screw things up for the humpback whales, things seem to be headed in a better direction.  The U.S. government has removed most of the humpback whale species from the endangered species list (H/T ScienceInsider).  NOAA Fisheries listed the species as endangered in 1970, and the International Whaling Commission has protected the species since the 1960s.

As part of a reconception of how to protect the species, NOAA Fisheries has identified 14 distinct populations of humpback whales.  Of those 14 populations, it considers 9 of them to have recovered sufficiently to be removed from the endangered list.  Four of the populations remain endangered and one is considered threatened.  FWIW, the whales in the film were in captivity, but were released in a part of the oceans where some of the populations that feed remain threatened or endangered.

Can we continue on this trend for at least the rest of the century?  I sure hope so.  As much as I’d like us to be as far along in space as the 21st century history of Star Trek suggests we are, I’m happy to have avoided various wars and at least one extinction.  May the humpbacks continue to live long and prosper.

#SciFiSciPol The Martian Portrays A Curious Space Future

Note: I will be discussing the film version of The Martian in this post.  I’ve yet to do fiction book reviews on the blog, but should that change I’d happily cover The Martian again, especially in comparison to the film.

Possible SPOILERS from here forward (though after five months, this is probably not necessary).

The Martian concerns the plight of a stranded astronaut, Mark Watney, as he figures out how to survive on Mars long enough for astronauts to come and bring him home.  After showing how Watney was separated, lost and presumed dead, action intercuts between Watney, various engineers and officials at NASA, and Watney’s crewmates on their way back home.  It’s a solid adventure film, with our hero using his wits and scientific training to overcome obstacles and adapt to new circumstances.  While there are other cast members, the film rises and falls on Matt Damon’s performance as Watney.  The rest of the cast is asked to do little besides advance the plot, which is too bad as they are capable of much more (see Jessica Chastain’s work here compared with what her character does in Interstellar).

The Martian was heavily promoted by NASA, in part presumably to help advance the agency’s cause in the public eye and with Congressional and administration officials.  So I noted with interest the near absence of the public and non-NASA government officials in the film.  Aside from a brief scene of people anxiously waiting on word of Watney’s final rescue, there’s no sense in this film of what people think of the space exploration or NASA.  No sense of what has changed from the current day to support the massive human spaceflight missions that seem routine in this film.

Please, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think such an explanation is necessary to make for an entertaining film.  But, if works like The Martian are intended to help make the case for continued human spaceflight, I don’t consider it sufficient to show the desired future without some sense of the path taken to get there.

So do we need to have a movie about how we get a public behind paying for more human travel to other planets?  I’m not sure.  I think it’s a hard sell as a movie, but it could be a useful part of a broader strategy for encouraging such things.  There was a multimedia campaign of sorts in the 1950s to build the case for human space exploration.  Wehrner von Braun was part of a series of symposiums and magazine articles (remember, this was the 50s when magazines were a major source of popular culture) outlining the steps for mankind to venture into space not some time in the future, but right then.  Coupled with the work of space artists like Chesley Bonestell,

Could something like that campaign happen today?  Maybe.  Google has just released a documentary series, Moon Shot, focused on the teams seeking to win the Google Lunar X Prize.  It deals with what people are doing right now to further space exploration.

While it may not (yet) have footage from the moon (a condition for earning the Prize), the film does have the backing of J.J. Abrams’ production company.  Given Abrams’ penchant for retelling epic science fiction stories from the past (Star Trek and Star Wars), I think he has the tools to make Moon Shot the 21st century attempt at something like what Colliers did over sixty years ago.

Maybe The White House Wants A Wagon Train To The Stars

Wagon Train To The Stars was supposedly a working title for what became Star Trek.  The Western was always an influence on the show and its spin-offs, implicitly (space was ‘the final frontier,’ after all) and even explicitly (Kirk and some of his crew were forced to play the losing side in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in one episode of the first series, the “Old West” was called the “Ancient West” in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise focused on a town of humans taken from 19th century America to a distant planet.)

I was reminded of this when reading about a recent workshop co-sponsored by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Science and Entertainment Exchange, and the Museum of Science Fiction (H/T Gizmodo).  Titled “Homesteading in Space – Inspiring The Nation Through Science Fiction” the event took place in early February in Los Angeles and was focused in part on how to use science fiction to develop inspiring visions of ‘homesteading’ in space.  While there were panels discussing the underlying science and technology necessary to make these future homesteads a reality.

(I’ve not been able to find anything about the event on the White House website, but in 2014 OSTP Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation Tom Kalil posted about building a spacefaring civilization.  That post, however, was focused more on the technical challenges involved.  Perhaps something is forthcoming?)

So, will some enterprising (pun intended) creative types develop engaging new stories that show how humans may eventually forge a life out in the solar system?  I’m not sure that the Star Trek television show currently under development will stick that close to Earth, but I’d be surprised if was missing the frontier spirit of exploration that its forbears captured and OSTP wants to borrow.

Transparent Aluminum Getting Still Closer To Becoming A Thing

Thirty years ago Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home premiered to some success and acclaim.  A minor plot point involved the (or perhaps it was just one of many) formula for transparent aluminum.  While it was not ready in the actual 1986, various compounds involving aluminum have emerged that try to be as strong and as transparent as the material shown in the film.  There are aluminosilicate glasses like Gorilla Glass, and a kind of ceramic armor based on an aluminum compound.  With a version of Gorilla Glass being used for automotive glass things are getting close to the storm panels and water tanks using it in the film.

The latest development in transparent aluminum is a variant on the ceramic armor mentioned above.  The Naval Research Laboratory has made advancements in ceramics manufacturing that allows for spinel (magnesium aluminate) that is thinner and stronger than glass (H/T Science Rocks My World).  The Navy is looking at applications for military vehicles and imaging systems in hostile environments (the spinel allows infrared light to pass through it as well as visible light).

Star Trek, like a lot of science fiction, manages to predict future technology.  It may not get the exact form right, or know exactly when the new technology will become available.  But I’m comfortable placing transparent aluminum in the same category as the communicator from the original series (which is essentially a souped-up flip phone).  Imagined future technology today.

Tricorder Technology Gradually Catching Up To Communicator Technology

While the Star Trek-inspired flip phone has been surpassed by smartphones, and phasers quite a ways off, there’s still the possibility that tricorders could make the transition from science fiction to actual technology.  After all, there are teams laboring on the QUALCOMM Tricorder XPrize.

While teams are working on a handheld device to monitor and diagnose medical conditions, researchers at Stanford (subscription for full text) have announced progress in sensing technologies and the press release links it explicitly to the tricorder (though not the Tricorder XPrize).  Combining microwaves and ultrasound, the researchers have managed to detect embedded objects without contacting the material containing those objects.

The researchers used microwaves to heat the area being scanned.  The heating prompts expansion, and the pulsed microwaves return ultrasound pressure waves.  These waves will vary based on the different rates of expansion for the different materials being scanned.  Interpreting these differences will allow for the detection of specific materials.  A key breakthrough is using transducers to convert the resulting weak ultrasonic signals into useful data.

While the research was stimulated by a challenge to find plastic explosives without touching the surrounding material, the results could be applied to other scenarios.  The heating caused by the microwaves is on the order of thousandths of a degree, making it safe in medical settings.  Once the technology can be refined to the proper level of sensitivity, it could detect tumors and other growths in the body that would be distinguishable from the surrounding flesh.  The researchers are optimistic, but anticipate this being possible in several years.

That’s not nearly as fast as the Tricorder XPrize wants it to happen.  The competition schedule was recently extended, but the organizers still expect a meaningful device in 2017.  While the XPrize does not require sensing without contact, the sensing must be non-invasive.

Robot Stories Are Still A Thing

I suppose this could be traced back to the reboot of Battlestar Galactica over a decade ago, but robots and androids have become an increasing presence on film and television, particularly in the last 2 years.

In the movies, the new Terminator film comes out next week, and the previews suggest we will see a new generation of killer robots traveling through time and space.  Chappie is now out on your digital medium of choice (and I’ll post about any science fiction science policy/SciFiSciPol once I see it), so you can compare its robot police to those from either edition of Robocop or the 2013 series Almost Human.  Robots also have a role in the recent film Tomorrowland (of which I’ll have more to post later this week).

Starting tomorrow on AMC is Humans, a series focused on an alternate present where people can purchase a robotic servant, called a Synth.  The program has already premiered in the UK on Channel 4 (which co-produces the show with AMC), and is based on a Swedish program called Real Humans.  Episodes are supposed to be available on various digital platforms shortly after premiering on AMC.  The program is also cross-promoted on the Good Men Project, where you can read essays prompted by the issues broached in the show.

Early numbers from the UK airings are strong, and if they are replicated in the U.S., the show may run longer than the eight episodes airing this summer.  Once I get a few episodes in, I may have something to say here.