OK, so ‘Captain James Tiberius Kirk’ got pinged on Monday for drink-driving, here in New Zealand.
Well, not actually Kirk, he’s fictional. I mean Chris Pine, who plays him in the movie re-boot. According to the reports, Pine was stopped in Methven (of all places), after a wrap party for a movie he’s been shooting here. It’s made major news internationally.
To me the media frenzy underscored the way Star Trek has been entwined into modern culture. In fifty-odd years since the original Shatner-Nimoy-Kelley series it’s gone from fan fodder to mainstream entertainment.
For me the real appeal of Trek has always been Roddenberry’s optimistic vision for society. This really was futuristic. But there’s also been a lot of focus on its supposed anticipation of today’s tech – everything from automatic doors to cellphones. That’s less compelling. The auto-door and cellphone also hit TV at the same time in Get Smart, underscoring the fact that Trek tech was of its time. Much of its gee-whizz stuff actually drew from prevailing mid-twentieth century visions, all of which missed the bulk of the information age revolution and focussed on mega-rockets and star drives. The best of the Trek stuff, as far as I can tell, came from Robert Anson Heinlein – an American literary great. He was also an engineer, and it showed.
1. Medical beds
McCoy’s sick bay was the epitome of high-tech in 1965, complete with medical beds that monitored patient vital signs. We have them today thanks to doctors inspired by Trek. However, Heinlein described one nearly a decade earlier in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958).
2. Communicators (cellphones).
The Trek communicator was a radio. No cell networks on alien planets – your signal’s got to punch through to the Enterprise in its 200-mile orbit (I’m glad I don’t have to hold a kilowatt transmitter to my ear). However, these days they’re widely taken to be ‘cellphones’. Setting aside Buck Henry’s ‘shoe phone’ in Get Smart, the first description of an actual cellphone, in everyday use, was in Heinlein’s 1948 novel Space Cadet.
My favourite Trek episode is David Gerrold’s ‘Trouble with Tribbles’. Proof that Shatner, McCoy and Nimoy were really a comedy trio with Nimoy as the ‘straight man’ (he can also be very funny, check out ‘The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins‘. But I digress.) In ‘Tribbles’, a space station gets over-run with cute ‘cat’ creatures that reproduce asexually if you feed them. The creature – and plot – so precisely followed Heinlein’s ‘flat cat’ from Space Family Stone (1952) (aka ‘The Rolling Stones’) that the producers apparently asked Heinlein for permission. Heinlein himself, incidentally, apparently drew inspiration for his 1952 tale from a 1905 story by Ellis Parker Butler called ‘Pigs is Pigs‘.
This is influenced by Heinlein’s ‘Space Patrol’ from Space Cadet. Explicitly – Roddenberry said so. Again, Heinlein had an antecedent – Space Cadet was basically ‘US Naval Academy In Space’. (As an aside, he precisely described the physics of space-walking in this book – 17 years before NASA had to re-discover the principles).
Needless to say, Trek wasn’t the only SF tech Heinlein did first. Remember Star Gate? Go read Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (1955). What about Dr Who‘s TARDIS, that can go anywhere in time and space? Try Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958). And the idea that your star-drive also makes a dandy weapon – a key schtik in Larry Niven’s ‘Known Space’ series? That was a throw-away line in Heinlein’s Time for the Stars (1956).
All of which points to one thing – Heinlein was a very great writer, by any measure – and a great engineer and thinker.
Indeed, some of us encounter his ideas every night, in our own homes, whether we’re reading one of his books or not. Guess who devised (and eventually patented) the modern waterbed?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014
Coming up: More science, more writing tips, more fun.