Hanging Out Beyond The Neutral Zone

I’m a Star Trek geek from way back, so the much anticipated forthcoming movie and refurbished episodes of the Original Series have me in a Trekish mood of contemplation. That and my office is 85 frickin’ degrees and so I can’t help but zone out into Daydream land occasionally. One recent heat induced fugue got me thinking about the technology of Star Trek and I realized something that had never really occurred to me before: the humans of the Federation seem to have a distinct lack of imagination when it comes to how they use their super sophisticated technology. What follows may sound like a rant but is all meant in good fun and as a thought experiment (maybe towards a bit of space opera of my own? Who can say).

One of the flaws of the Federation has always been that it’s essentially socialism on a galactic scale. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself; just that there is a lack of the human equation that always made the Utopianism of the Federation seem a little too far fetched. In the original series, the planets of the federation were a socialist dream come true: no poverty, disease or want; everyones needs are met and everyone has the ability to fulfill their dreams, weather that means being a starship captain, a super-evolved galactic space entity or a sleazy con man plying his dubious trade on the fringes of known space. By the time the Next generation came along, the Federation had either changed into a socialist bureaucracy or else the writers were just being a little more realistic in their depiction of how such a society would work. A few cracks show, with maniacal captains, do-gooding Starfleeters meddling all up ad down the Neutral Zone, and even a Amerindian civil war plus the bonus of a bumbling incompetent with social awkwardness getting a position on the flag ship. But for all their supposed progressive social programs, they are still pretty conservative. Everyone in the 24th century is a straight teetotaler who’s never smoked a whiff of reefer and elicit drugs of a designer sort are pretty much universally a thing of the past. As is crime. Right. Because it’s so very likely that in four short centuries we’ll just abandon our innate desire to alter our brain chemistry or pull one over on The Man. The writers were clearly cribbing from a MADD brochure, if not the Republican National Party Platform. You have nanomachines and you can’t think of anything to do with them that might be a little more fun than just turn bad guys into cyborgs?

There has always been a distinct technophobic edge to Star Trek, as if the humans of the 24th century aren’t entirely comfortable with the gadgets they’ve created. This is no more evident in their ambivalent attitude towards Data. However interesting a character he might be, are you telling me his program isn’t backed up somewhere? If not why not? He’s just software, people. We all are. Data’s personality (or lack there of) might be unique but his little robot body is just a piece of hardware, no more unique than an iMac. In real life, the military would have replicated his ass a hundred million times, and stationed a battalion of Marines on board every ship. You blow one up, just make a replacement, download the AI software from backup and go. The “original” can be granted rights and left to pursue his dream of becoming a real boy, on Earth, where he doesn’t get to fly the space ship. (And why did he have to interface with the computer via keyboard? or dramatic purposes, I suppose. It’s not as interesting if your robot can connect wirelessly to the computer and fly the ship form his room, where he’s also composing a symphony and writing a book about what it’s like to be him.)

The Federation also outlawed bioengineering and cloning, and don’t use their replicator technology to it’s fullest advantage because of some hand waving about Humanity and Integrity. And this is where I got to thinking: if you have these three technologies: 1) matter/antimatter reactors that give you nearly unlimited energy, 2) matter to energy transporter/replication technology that allow you to make anything you want and 3) nanotechnolgy that allows you to customize biology, than you can do just about anything. And yet, the Federation does just about nothing but fly around, spreading conservative humanocentric values to all the benighted aliens they encounter. I know that Gene Roddenberry’s vision was of a future where humans had outgrown personal conflict and inner demons but that makes for some pretty lame story telling. So, what if you removed that altruism and put real humans in control of this technology?

First off, matter antimatter reactors are kind of volatile. They threaten to explode, taking with them an entire parsec of space if you so much as look at them cross eyed. And since you also have transporters, why even bother with reactors at all? Just beam a few billion kilowatts of solar energy out of the nearest star and convert it into the shape of your choosing, weather that’s a new ship, or the fuel to power it, doesn’t matter. Save the antimatter for your weapons systems.

The great thing about Transporter/Replicator technology is it’s versatility. You can turn anything into anything else. Beam up all the pollution on Earth and turn it into ice cream. Because if you dematerialize a ton of pollutants, what you have is the potential energy equal to a ton of generic matter. But the pollutants are gone. They have ceased to be. Store it in a battery and use it at a later date for whatever need arises. There are philosophical implications to this of course; if someone is dematerialized and then rematerialized somewhere else, are they the same person or a copy? Does it even matter?

Secondly, why do your space ships and space stations need to look like they came out of Buck Rogers? They could, if that was your thing but you have replicators. You can make anything you can imagine and you have nearly unlimited energy that you can convert into that dream palace in the the sky. Sure, you could replicate yourself a nice spacious habitat in orbit around a planet. It could also look like a fairy castle under a glass dome or a giant eyeball. But why stop there? Let’s say you want to build a Dyson Sphere, a giant shell that encloses a star. The shell is in the Goldilocks zone, where it’s just close enough for the inside to be a habitable zone but far enough away so you wont burn up. The benefit is that you can have hundreds of billions of miles of real estate inside the sphere and another few hundred billion outside. Building such a construction would be a huge undertaking, if you didn’t have replicator technology.

To build a Dyson Sphere, you park an industrial size replicator (about the size of the space shuttle) in orbit around a star. It starts beaming up solar energy and duplicating itself. Before long, you have a few hundred thousand self replicating ships that you can put in orbit at equal distance form one another around the star. They then start replicating the blueprints for the Dyson Sphere, each one making it’s part and constructing a giant three dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Energy can be syphone doff the star and converted as needed. So now, humanity has a new home, capable of supporting tens of trillions of inhabitants in any landscape imaginable. You completely enclose a star which means 100% of it’s lifetime energy output is now at your disposal. Free energy for the nextfew billion years.

You could also replicate your own custom planets while your at it and put them in orbit around appropriate stars. No need to worry about moving the natives off their home world to build colonies. And while you could make a standard issue Class M planet, you could also make one that is entirely metal or sausage shaped or made of cheese.

Space ships, likewise don’t need to look like saucers or rockets, unless that’s your thing. But you could also use your giant replicator in the hull of the Dyson Sphere to make yourself a fleet of unique, custom designed starships. Your Bird of Prey could look like an eagle, with a thousand foot wingspan and a hull made of a single seamless diamond. Or a Swan, or a fish or an Elephant or a martini glass. It could be a conch shell made of Ruby (or a real living giant conch but that would be gross) In fact, using diamond as a hull material makes a lot of sense, as it’s nearly indestructible. No need to worry about stellar debris punching a hole in your ship. And if your worried about being kept up at night by the sound of asteroids bouncing off your ship, you could have your sensors connected to independently working transporters so that anything bigger than a speck of dust that approaches the ship gets dematerialized and stored for reuse later.

A note on warp engines: They don’t make a lick of sense, especially how they are dramatized in Star Trek. If you’re flying faster than the speed of light, you wouldn’t be able to see anything outside of your window, especially streaking stars. There’s no Doppler effect at a hundred times the speed of light. Faster than light travel would look more like it does on Battlestar Galactica: you calculate your position and jump in an instant. Of course, if you have a transporter, why not just beam the whole ship from point A to point B? It would be easier and you wouldn’t have to worry about all that mucking about in hyperspace or warping the space time continuum. You just convert yourself to light and go. of course, this might be slower, since your transporter beam wouldn’t necessarily be traveling faster than the speed of light but at it. Either way, no smudged stars whipping past your window.

A note on weapons: You have a Klingon warship off the starboard bow. What do you do? Do you shoot puny phaser beams at it or fire photon torpedoes (which are neither torpedoes nor have anything to do with photons), hoping it gets through their shields? Or do you materialize a giant quantum flux cannon onto the hull of your ship and change the state of the Klingons into indeterminate free floating particles that you then beam up and store for later? How about just riddling them with bits of anti protons you materialize in a field a light year long and a light year high between you and them? Or skip the whole fighting thing and just dematerialize the attacking ship entirely? So many choices…

(And what’s the deal with Photon torpedoes? I’ve never understood photon torpedoes. Why throw a box of antimatter at your enemy, who can deflect it easily? Instead, just beam the raw antimatter into the heart of the attacking Borg ship. Boom. End of the Borg. Or if they’re wise to this and raise their shields, just materialize a wall of antimatter between you and them. They crash into it while you jump to warp. Either way, problem solved and no one needed to muck about with manually aimed laser beams or ship to ship weapons that are just digital versions of what humans had in the late nineteenth century; torpedoes and cannons.)

Thirdly, the bioengineering/nanotech issue. This seems to have been a hot button topic for the Federation at one time, so, like any good narrow minded bureaucracy, they just outlawed it altogether. (Stem cells? Who said anything about stem cells?) But you have microscopic machines! Capable of preforming delicate and detailed surgery! Or administering drugs! Why would anyone need to get sick or age or even die in the Federation? You could have a colony of nanobots living in your bloodstream who do nothing but monitor your vital signs and make tiny corrections, like scrubbing the cholesterol form your veins or regulate blood pressure. In case of trauma, they could cauterize blood vessels to prevent excessive blood loss until the medic arrives with a portable bio-replicator that will regrow your lost fingers or hands or whatever got sawed off by that freakin Klingon with the serrated sword and then the nanobots can reattach them.

But that’s just the tip of the bioengineered iceberg. Say you want a third eye or wings or to look like a centaur. Why not? So long as it’s biologically feasible, you could alter your physical appearance to look like whatever you want, just replicate the appropriate tissue and program the nanobots to incorporate the new/ altered body parts into your system. No organ rejection, no swelling or infections or scars. Sure, not everyone would be up for this level of body modification but some subcultures would. And the Universe is a big enough place for everyone to thrive. The Mormons and Republicans could have their own little fiefdoms, where people are poor, hungry, miserable and sick, just like God and George W. Bush likes it, while everyone else can go off and become whatever they want.

That stodgy old Federation might not like those kooky Borg or Klingons or Centaurs, but the don’t rule the Universe and never will, no matter how they might try. But let them try. Meanwhile, the free people of the universe will go about loving and fighting and evolving in all manner of crazy directions. Now that’s a story I’d like to see!