Worldbuilding: where’s my Star Trek transporter?

I always enjoy the original Star Trek, mainly because it was really funny – Kirk and McCoy especially. Spock was the straight man in the comedy trio.

I made this picture with Celestia. You never see the model from this angle or with this lighting in the original series.

It was pretty futuristic with hand-held phones, transporters, warp drive, deflector shields. And a lot of it came true…er…a bit. So is this a good model (no pun intended) for credible sci-fi world-building? Uh… let’s see…

1. Auto-sliding doors
On the original Enterprise, stage-hands whipped them open and foley artists patched in the sound of guillotined paper.  Today we have auto-doors which, at least for me, close as I approach.

2. Flip-lid communicators.
Kirk’s communicator wasn’t a cellphone. It was a hand-held radio that could contact Enterprise on the other side of the planet. Lots of broadcast power. Battery pack must have been off-camera. Hope they didn’t use microwave frequencies. And don’t forget that the guy who first wrote of cellphones was Robert A. Heinlein (Space Cadet, 1947).

3. Medical monitoring beds
Hospitals today use medical beds with machines that go ‘ping’, like Trek, but don’t forget that the guy who invented this idea was Robert A. Heinlein (Have Spacesuit – Will Travel, 1958).

4. Wireless headsets
Bluetooth, though Trek didn’t call them that. Is your battery flat? Mine is.

In reality Trek offered the usual sci-fi trope of cool gizmos based on what was possible in the 1960s, coupled with ‘plot device’ engineering (like warp drive and transporters) that was known to be impossible even then. The more crucial innovation was Roddenberry’s social vision; an almost utopian integration. An ideal which it would be great to achieve, and we can’t ever fault his optimism in that sense.

But Roddenberry and the writers of Star Trek, just like everybody else of that era except Arthur C. Clarke, failed to predict the real change that was coming – or its social consequences. I’m talking about the internet, remote working, social networking. Defined by the capability to communicate with anybody – or any database – from anywhere. Clarke knew. He absolutely nailed it in detail – here’s a clip from 1974. Watch it with awe. He also predicted the salacious consequence of ubiquitous worldwide communication – in 1963.

As for the coolest Trek tech? Won’t happen any time soon. Or ever:

5. Transporter
Introduced to save on special effects – they didn’t have to show the landing. Unfortunately. tearing somebody into sub-atomic particles and reassembling them at the other end is impossible, because we can’t tell exactly where the particle is.Heisenberg proved it via a (possibly) dead cat, a generation before Trek. And if something went wrong, you wouldn’t be split into good and bad characters like Kirk in Mirror, Mirror. You’d end up unlike anything on Earth. Or Mars.

6. Warp drive
Hand-waving away Einstein’s speed limit. Only one problem. You canna change the laws of physics. That’s why the OPERA neutrino experimenters resigned after the loose cable speed calculation botch up. Einstein was right. Sorry. Get over it. The writer who first tackled relativistic star travel properly was Robert A. Heinlein (Time for the Stars, 1956).

7. Deflector shields
Magnetic fields trap electromagnetic energy – Earth’s does, hence the Van Allen belts. Takes the Earth to do it. Just how powerful are the Enterprise’s engines anyway?

8. Alien women with green skin who get the hots for Kirk
The chance that aliens will look like attractive human women wearing green grease-paint is so close to zero it may as well be zero.  (‘Aaaargh, Earthman Kirk, you are loathesomely bipedal and your lack of tentacles makes me sick with revulsion.’) As for Vulcans being inter-fertile with humans? We’re more likely to be inter-fertile with daisies.  I know it got ret-conned. I hate ret-conning. I bet the first aliens we discover will be algae analogues.

9.  Phasers
Beam weapons that vapourise guys in red shirts in half a second aren’t going to be hand-held. Water (which is what people largely are) takes a LOT of energy to heat. You need wads of energy just to replicate the effects of a common or garden bullet. (“This is my ‘L.A.S.E.R.’ And this is the 18-wheeler with the battery”) Don’t forget transfer losses (the gun gets red hot) and back-scatter (hop in, the radiation’s lovely). A E Van Vogt pointed that last out as early as 1939 in his story ‘Discord in Scarlet’. And the guy who first pointed out the power pack issue was Robert A. Heinlein (Tunnel in the Sky, 1955), a novel which, incidentally, ‘did’ Stargate – half a century earlier.

Anybody have anything to add to the list?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

11 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: where’s my Star Trek transporter?

  1. I agree with you. Clarke new, I also love that clip. He did some really amusing tv series that I’ve watched too.

    I’m not sure that I have anything to add to the list, but I am curious enough to wonder that if there are basic laws in the universe, doesn’t that support the theory that other planets have volved in a similar way.

    Of course, by the time we actually traveled to them our own planet would be years in the past, and we’d never be able to return to the same time period to tell people here/now about it….


    1. He did earlier clips from the 1960s of similar ilk. I guess that where other writers thought about the gee-whizz side of engineering, Clarke wondered about the human consequence.

      There’s some fantastic work being done just now on extra-solar planet-hunting, The amount of data they can glean from a planet transiting across its star is just incredible, even down to the composition of the planetary atmosphere. It’s only a matter of time, I think, before we find an ‘Earth-type’ world (though whether it has life ‘as we know it’ is moot). Here’s the link to the NASA Kepler mission that’s generating most of the science


  2. In The Mote In God’s Eye, the humans have available to them something like a contemporary tablet computer, upon which they could write with a stylus. Wonder if Pournelle and Niven took inspiration from Clarke, since they also state the tablet was in communication with a central computer?

    OK. Re the FTL bit. Maybe FTL travel is impossible, but in my heart of hearts, I believe in FTL. I freely admit such belief is not based on any fact or other evidence and is dismissed by contemporary science. But once upon a time contemporary science believed in phlogistons, too, and dismissed the existence of “stones falling from the sky” as “mere superstition.”

    Regardless, the extra-solar planet hunting is remarkable.


  3. Clarke described an ‘iPAD/Galaxy Tab’ type device, physically and in terms of functionality, in “2001”, which he wrote 1966-67. It’s possible Niven and Pournelle took the inspiration from there, or maybe thought up something similar themselves. I did enjoy that book, incidentally – space navy and all. Pournelle’s engineering was always solidly thought through.

    I’d like to think FTL is possible too – and maybe it is, but not in ways we imagine.


  4. I think that’s the toughest part about science fiction — you’re trying to create science plausibility, not science fact. Add on the realization that what you come up with in your book may never come exactly to fruition the way you imagined it (and in all likelihood never will). You also have to balance that sense of wonder. Like with FTL. Is it realistic? No. Is it plausible if you add in the asterisk that someday some future technology will make it so (see what I did there)? Maybe. Science fiction has to balance the art of storytelling with actual science fact. At least that’s what I believe.

    I also know there’s hard science fiction and soft science fiction, but yeah. I also think Clarke was an interesting person. I need to read more of his work. 🙂


    1. Yes, absolutely – and it IS a delicate balancing act with that suspension of disbelief – especially when hard-science geeks get going with their calculators. I confess to actually checking some of the details Clarke wrote into ‘Rendezvous with Rama’, which was a wonderful instance of what I’m talking about. Everything he described was true to physics, down to the numbers. And then, at the end of the novel, he threw in a twist – actually a double twist – involving reactionless drives. Physically impossible, but it was believable – and transformed the story from ‘a good Clarke book’ into a really astonishing tale. To me the ‘sequels’, by Gentry Lee, just didn’t come close.


  5. No transporters coming soon to a Walmart near me? Drat! 😉

    “As for Vulcans being inter-fertile with humans? We’re more likely to be inter-fertile with daisies. I know it got ret-conned. I hate ret-conning. I bet the first aliens we discover will be algae analogues.”

    At the risk of showing my inner geek, wasn’t there an Original Trek episode that kind of explained this? It seems like I remember some god-like race having seeded various planets with humans, so we just had slight variations in the populations evolving over time. This is, of course, way too geeky to worry about… 😛


  6. Just checked – I’d seen somewhere that it was fan-retconned, but apparently Roddenberry changed the explanation from parallel evolution to that one, part-way through; and I gather they were still tinkering with the concept in later series set in the Trek universe. Actually, the way ‘Vulcans’ were developed by the series’ creators is a great insight into how the TV creative process works – apparently Roddenberry’s original pitch involved Spock being half-Martian. That got shifted to extra-solar amidst the Mariner discoveries of ‘dead Mars’. (Since then we’ve discovered Epislon Eridani probably desn’t host a “Vulcan”…) Later features were developed as the show unfolded – even the ‘logic’ concept didn’t emerge until after the pilot.

    Actually, I never understood how Spock could be half-human and yet have copper-based blood (hemocyanin rather than hemoglobin). Demands some pretty incompatible body chemistry, and the hemocyanin – oxyhaemocyanin reaction isn’t so efficient, which is why it isn’t common – horseshoe crabs have it, but they’re not Spock-sized. I am that much of a geek. 🙂


    1. If you were a little bit more of a geek, you’d have known the cat wasn’t Heisenberg’s – and Erwin Schroedinger didn’t intend his analogy to be taken literally anyway. He got a bit fed up with the attention it got, I understand.


  7. I meant Heisenberg, as in, velocity AND momentum cannot both be known precisely at subatomic scale. He got the idea out of a technical argument with Schroedinger, he of the indeterminately dead cat analogy, in 1926. But yes, I was probably a bit loose in my wording and it’s going to cost me a beer next week, isn’t it.


    1. In fact, you have no way of knowing who the cat belongs to until the box is open. If the cat’s dead, the owner is the one who has to take it away and bury it, and if the cat’s alive, it’s bloody furious about being cooped up and will attempt to shred the swine it trusted enough to allow itself to be lured in there with kitty treats in the first place.
      Roll on Thirstday.


Comments are closed.