It’s Life, Jim

One of the more interesting things that’s happened over the last 40 years or so (I can’t reliably go back far beyond that, what with not really taking notice of these things before I was about 10) is the way SF and Fantasy memes have crept into the mainstream.

Classic Star Trek episodes have been rerun so many times that an awful lot of people who were too young to see them the first (or second, or third) time around still recognize them, and know what it means to be a red shirt. The first set of Star Wars movies have also been rerun endlessly – and of course video rentals followed by Netflix and Amazon on demand mean anyone can watch them any time, so much so that “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” practically telegraphs that all heck is about to break lose.

I can’t say for sure just how far genre tropes have found their way into mainstream culture, but the mere existence of the TV Tropes site suggests the answer is somewhere between “a lot” and “everywhere”. Why else would there be bumper stickers reading “Come to the Dark Side. We have cookies.”? (The cookies, much like the cake, are lies).

The thing about tropes and their shorter, more colorful cousins memes is that when they reflect something fundamentally real, they can spread fast. The meme becomes a hook into the trope which in turn describes something that should be known – namely that the reason many of these things turn into clichés is that they were accurate and powerful when they first made an appearance.

Now people laugh at the choreographed flinging selves around the set used in classic Star Trek – but when the show was being filmed, and with the budget said show had, it was an innovative way to simulate the possible effect of an impact. If only they’d thrown themselves around in different directions each time to simulate an impact from a different direction… Or used props a little more sturdy so that the actors didn’t have to fling themselves on it quite so cautiously that it was kind of… obvious. Still, grabbing something and shaking yourself does give a really good impression of everything around you being jostled and buffeted.

There are plenty of other examples, other ways that science fiction particularly has become mainstream, aside from the technology we use every day. Mobile phones might not look like a Star Trek device, but they’re at least as powerful as long as you’re within range of a transmitter. We routinely carry around more computing power than was used in the moon landings. Heck, the first space shuttle was named the Enterprise in homage to Star Trek (and probably also the vision that we could one day be routinely flying around the universe – something that alas seems a fair way off yet). We have video phones and call them Skype. Cruise control in cars is good enough to automatically maintain a safe distance behind the car in front, and self-driving cars are coming along nicely.

All of this got imagined in SF, often pulpy SF, then other people worked out how to make it happen. Without the dream, the initial idea, there wouldn’t be the impetus to try to make it happen, so the innovations wouldn’t happen either. All it takes is for someone to have the courage to look at the world a little differently – Star Trek imagined a future where the global pissing match that “everyone knew” would end in nukes had become so much a thing of the past nobody cared whether a crewman was Russian or American. The makers also imagined instant communication that wasn’t tethered to wires, easy diagnosis of injury or disease, and many other things, some less feasible than others.

Quite a few of their ideas have found life, just not the sort of life the makers of the show imagined back when they were filming. And that is the way it should be.


  1. I think the most jarring realization of sci-fi becoming reality was when I read the afterword to “Mote in God’s Eye” by Niven and Pournelle. One of the small tech things that was key to the story was tablet computers and cloud storage. Except they didn’t call it that. If you had access to a tablet you could access your centrally stored files.
    Now that concept has been the reality for over ten years or so.

    1. yeah, everyone says the PADD in star trek was where tablets came from, but they, too, were just access devices and everything was stored on and ran on the Enterprise’s main computer.

      1. Yeah, kind of like the way all your business apps are being hosted in the cloud and accessed on your smartphone.

        1. Pretty much, yeah. It’s all on a computer somewhere. What differs is precisely where said computer is and who is in control of it.

  2. Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio is an Apple watch.

    Kate said: “All of this got imagined in SF, often pulpy SF, then other people worked out how to make it happen. Without the dream, the initial idea, there wouldn’t be the impetus to try to make it happen, so the innovations wouldn’t happen either.”

    Yes indeed, and what is being imagined in mainstream, book-awards SF now? Slavery, horror, the destruction of the West, and the death of Humanity.

    Luckily they’re so bad at it they can’t think up new things.

    1. Unfortunately, I can. Take neural implanted chips. “Right now, there are approximately 100,000 people around the world that have implants in their brains. Most of those are for medical reasons.”, 4/4/2019. They’re using them to counter problems with epilepsy and Parkinson’s, they’re testing them in rats to rebuilt damaged motor control nerves from strokes and to enhance senses (want to be able to see in the infrared?) Given an internal computer-brain interface and you can control your computer and communications technology directly with your brain.

      But that same technology can be used to alter your moods. It can be used to render your unconscious. And it can be used to kill you.

      You want to see horror, slavery, and tyranny unparalleled in history? Think of the Progressive-Socialist New World Order in control of a population all outfitted with those brain implants.

      The death of human freedom as everyone flocks to the newest iteration of the internal iPhone. Only 15 minutes to install, and it’s FREE!

      1. Mike, about 20 years ago, I told a Christian co-worker who swore most Christians would never take the “Mark of the Beast” that I could get 90% of them to take it in 15 minutes. All I would have to do is tell them “With this chip implanted in your hand, you’ll never have to remember another password, PIN, or anything else like it again. He thought for about 30 seconds with horror growing on his face and said “SDN, you’re evil.” “No, I understand evil and how it makes its’ offer.”

        Of course, now we have banks refusing to open bank accounts for badthinkers, or lend them money, or process payments. You’ll see that spread, until “No man may buy or sell without the mark.”

        1. In ancient Rome, the law was that you had to present a certificate that you had offered an appropriate pagan sacrifice for a great many trading activities.

        2. For what it’s worth, I suspect that enthusiasm for brain implants would take a pretty big hit after the first epidemic of induced epilepsy from hacked neurochips swept the populace. And to be honest, I kinda think there would be enough people having a “Nobody’s taking a knife to MY brain” reaction that it might never reach critical mass anyway. (Part of the reason Lasik surgery hasn’t wiped out the spectacles/contact lens industry is precisely because there are still a lot of people like me who don’t want anything cutting into their eyes unless absolutely necessary.)

          And even something as small as a chip in the hand would drop immensely in popularity once criminals make a habit out of cutting off people’s hands to get access to them. Or ambitious and unethical activists start campaigns claiming their emissions trigger cancer. (Part of the reason that campaign hasn’t worked with cellphones is that cellphones have an entertainment factor, not just a convenience one. You can’t play Candy Crush or watch YouTube on an embedded hand-chip.)

          1. Another reason is some people can’t take the chance of getting the chromatic aberrations that sometimes come with lasik.

        3. Evil is seductive. It entices you with things you want (“you’ll never have to remember a pin or a password again”) and hides the ugliness underneath.

  3. Classic Star Trek is said to have inspired a number of inventions, chief among them the flip phone and the 3.5″ floppy disk, which is almost the exact shape and size of the ‘computer tape’ props that Classic Trek used. Still working on the tricorder, although smartphones and especially tablets get closer every year.

      1. I first saw that as a tagline on FIDOnet back in the mid-1980s and ROFLed.

        In the early ’90s I wrote a book and needed an example of a string to fill a DOS environment variable, and used that…

        1. Hehehe…. Now I’m getting flashbacks to Star Trekking (across the universe, slowly going forward cause we can’t find reverse).

  4. and you can hack a self-driving $100k electric car by putting stickers on the road, and make it wander into oncoming traffic.

    1. That is just the start, eventually when there is enough of them criminals/gangs will figure out how to detour a car into the wrong part of town. The Jihadi’s will no longer need to actually put one of their’s into the vehicle running people over in crowded cities. People still fall for the Nigerian Prince scam, now imagine that involving malware and a 1 ton mobile object. Lets not even think on what a tyrannical government can do with them either: “Oh look the dissident committed suicide by running into a bridge abutment at 120 mph”.

      1. Or just decoy the vehicle into a convenient alley and strip it of anything that could be sold on Craigslist or eBay… it would be even better than robbing pizza delivery drivers; driverless cars won’t shoot back.

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