Salem’s Fire #42: Sci-Fi on Monitor


One of the hallmarks of good science fiction, past or present, is the use of well reasoned and logically derived predictions of tomorrow. Whether or not the predictions proved accurate is entirely besides the point. It remains that these authors had the guts to write about a future, which in many cases they or their immediate audience would live to see, that was very different from the present. Imagine writing a story in 1945 predicting a man would land on the moon thanks largely to a giant ballistic missile. The ballistic missile was known, but primarily as the flying bomb that the Germans used to smash London a time or two. Sticking a man or three on top of that sucker and sending it to the moon was a slightly radical concept at best. And this is one of the most basic of the assumptions made. The universes of Heinline and Asimov and Orson Scott Card contained modern computers, the internet, holography, interplanetary and interstellar travel, faster than light communication, advanced surgery, and more besides.

Even cinema has a fairly good track record on making reasoned but creative science fiction predictions. Star Wars and the Star Trek franchise headline those movies that insist on faster than light travel. Talking billboards, intelligent computers, and flying cars all are boldly indicated by modern cinema (and yes, most of the innovations predicted by movies first appeared in print.) Sci-fi on screen is willing to step out and show what the future will be like, just like sci-fi on the printed page is willing to step out and guess at tomorrow.

And then we have sci-fi on the computer screen. The written genre gives us Heinline’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Asimov’s Foundation and those excellent Ray Bradbury stories from Mars. The screened genre gives us George Lucas’ StarWars, the fertile imagination of Gene Rodenberry, and the haunting voice of HAL, thanks to Mister Clarke. The computer gaming genre has given us Doom. And Doom 2. And, finally coming soon to a store near you, Doom 3. Somehow, Aliens and Predators does not trigger the imagination like “I Will Fear No Evil.” The primary contribution of the gaming industry to our vision of the future is some really big weapons with really cool explosion effects.

Too be fair, all StarWars games, all Alien games, and any other game that is a spin-off of a movie franchise must be excepted. Thankfully, that means the fiasco that was Enter the Matrix will not further dilute the quality of sci-fi gaming. What we have left is not promising. StarCraft boldly predicts extraterrestrial life, interplanetary travel, and nuclear weapons. I confess that I am not clear on whether or not the Protoss, or any units of the Protoss, are flesh-machine hybrids or not… StarCraft may deserve credit on this count as well. If so, that is about the most original thing in the StarCraft legacy. All else I can think of in StarCraft that would constitute a prediction of the future is pretty much standard sci-fi fodder. And this game is among the cream of the crop.

There are, thankfully, some fairly new exceptions to this lackluster trend. There was several months back a game known as Impossible Creatures” It was a more or less a basic RTS, but armies were created by crossing various animals and breeding new animals that were conglomerations of the originals. Equal parts genetic technology and plan old base smashing fun. The game was not a great success and should soon be available on the cheap, if copies are even still available. I recall it because it seems to me that this is a game, a solitary example against a legion, that is trying to honor the tradition of the masters of science fiction and apply that level of creativity and guts to gaming. It is something we need more gaming houses to attempt.

There is more to science fiction than alien wars and really big explosions. An example? Write your own. Look around what ever room you are in. Go ahead, I’ll wait…. Pick out an object in this room, any object at all. A chair, perhaps, or your carpet, or the remote to the TV. Now, try to imagine how your chosen object could be better. Perhaps a chair that was softer and temperature regulated. Or a carpet that actively destroyed bacteria and mold. Or a table that would automatically change its height to accommodate whatever you placed beneath it. Take any object and make it better, in any way. If that improvement is not yet available on the market and the technology has been invented to make that improvement possible, then quit reading this right away and call the patent office. If we are still waiting on the technology, you may just started into science fiction.

Now, imagine what life would be like if that new and improved object was commonplace. For instance, a table that changes height automatically implies some fairly sophisticated and fairly cheap sensors, legs that can change their length, and a good balancing system. Spice it up a bit, and say the table floats without legs. Magnets, perhaps? A small electromagnet that could be finely controlled based on the inputs of the sensors would do the trick, provided a small enough power supply. No doubt you are already drooling over the other possible uses of such sensors and low power, inexpensive magnetic levitation. If that type of tech is in a table, imagine where else it must be! Welcome to the Land of Science Fiction.

Now, perhaps, my problem with the gaming industry can be better understood. A book can describe that table. A movie can show it to you. A game lets the player kick a box underneath the silly thing and try like mad to make it overbalance and tip by playing with the magnets that hold it up. Catch the difference? In both a book and a movie, only those aspects of the future that are shown are known. We have no idea what would have happened if Jill had jumped up and down on Mike’s water bed in the hospital of Stranger in a Strange Land. We have no idea what happens when you tell HAL to figure pi to infinite digits and display the answer as a pie chart of integer frequency. The movie could not show us. A game could, should, and hopefully would let the gamer try just that type of spontaneous manipulation of the new technology available in the game world.

We have the advanced gaming engines to allow the representation of brand new concepts in a way that would let the gamer actively interact with the new technology as if the gamer where in the world in person. Fantasy can do it reasonably well for swords and bows, why is science fiction having trouble with creating and representing unique visions?

Hopefully this will change. And soon. The legacy of H.G. Wells deserves better than endless sequels to Unreal and Quake. Or, perhaps, that is the most creative future the programmer can dream up?


Disclaimer: Salem?s Fire was written by Luke Blaize during 2002-2004, and hosted by Diabloii.net. The opinions expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Diii.net.

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