Monday, January 12, 2015

Feature: The Revenge of Dr. Hasslein

Dr. Otto Hasslein has served as science adviser to two Presidents.  He is perhaps best-known for his theoretical work in time-dilation physics, and for exposing the sinister agenda of “ape-o-nauts”  Zira and Cornelius, thereby prevented a terrifying dystopian future.

Now enjoying a well-earned retirement in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Dr. Hasslein has kindly consented to lend his considerable subject matter expertise to The Infinite Reach.  

Readers with questions for Dr. Hasslein may send them to The Infinite Reach
via the Hyperspace Com Uplink referenced on our home page.

Dear Dr. Hasslein,

I was puzzled by a scene in the movie Interstellar, and thought you might be able to help me understand it.  In the movie Dr. Mann attempts to dock his shuttle to the Endurance.  He gets an imperfect lock on the docking ring, but when he attempts to force open the hatch his ship explodes and a good chunk of the Endurance is destroyed.  Since there was nothing explosive in either airlock, how is this possible?

Dr. Hasslein Replies: 

You are correct that this incident was very problematic, as little should have happened except rapid depressurization of Mann’s own airlock (and perhaps rapid depressurization of the airlock on the Endurance; it wasn’t clear to me if the other airlock was pressurized). It’s possible that the force of decompression would be enough to tear the two ships apart, damaging the docking ring in the process. But this would depend on several factors we’re not able to easily calculate without more data, such as the force with which the shuttle capture mechanism was gripping the docking ring of the Endurance, the tensile strength of the materials on either side of the ship, the amount of oxygen vented from the two ships, and so on. 

I will admit that this did scene did not bother me so very much, as I had already given up on the movie by this point.  Interstellar has its good points – the special effects were very impressive, the robots were amusing and Anne Hathaway is always very pleasant to look at. However, both the story and the science were quite laughable. I don’t know who would be foolish enough to try to colonize a planet near a singularity, or how NASA could operate a secret underground program that is somehow more ambitious and more successful than it’s ever been, or why the agency would recruit a sweaty, beady-eyed townie in a barn coat to lead the next mission, just because he blundered onto their secret location. The idea that he is the only pilot available for such a mission is extremely improbable. It is the same sort of plot device that used to be employed in Star Trek, where the Enterprise was always “the only ship in the quadrant”. 

On top of this is the sort of treacly spirituality that seems de rigeur for big-budget science fiction films these days, apparently out of fear of scaring away mainstream audiences.  People say lines like "Love is the one thing we're capable of perceiving that perceiving that transcends time and space", a sentiment we are assured is true because we love people even when they're not around and after they're dead. One might point out that under this definition hate might transcend time and space to the same degree, but somehow people don't go around mouthing platitudes about the universe-saving power of hate. 

Dear Dr. Hasslein, 

I knew that there have been lots of movies about computers taking over the world, but I was surprised to stumble across the movie Colossus: The Forbin Project, since it was made in 1970, quite a long time before The Terminator and The Matrix. Do you know of any movies that tackled this subject earlier than that?

Dr. Hasslein Replies: 

No, not unless you count The Invisible Boy (1957), though if I remember correctly the supercomputer in question was being manipulated by aliens from another solar system.  However as was often true, this theme was worked over rather heavily in science fiction literature even before then.  In Mary Shelly's novel Frankenstein, the monster demands that a mate be created for it, and Frankenstein balks because he realizes that a new, artificial species might run humanity into extinction.  Karl Capek's R.U.R. (1921) ends with the robot slaves turning on their masters.  Probably the first story of machines actively enslaving humanity was Jack Williamson's novella With Folded Hands, which was published in 1947 - a god deal earlier than Colossus: The Forbin Project which was, incidentally, based on a 1963 novel by F. D. Jones.

Dear Dr. Hasslein,

Westerns had John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, horror films had Boris Karloff and Vincent Price, gangster movies had Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. But where are the big stars of science fiction?  How come science fiction doesn’t have durable stars in the same way?

Dr. Hasslein Replies: 

I suspect this is true because science fiction tends to be less formulaic than other genres.  One western is not so different from another. One horror film will have a lot in common with other horror films.  But familiarity isn’t as important in the science fiction genre. 

Having said that, some actors have gotten typecast in SF films just because they are recognizable to fans of the genre. Richard Carlson was in a number of science fiction films in the 1950s, including It Came From Outer Space, Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Magnetic Monster and Riders To the Stars. Kier Dullea’s role in 2001: A Space Odyssey was impassive enough to mask his mediocrity as an actor, and no doubt was responsible for his later genre work, in the Canadian series The Starlost and the television miniseries Brave New World in 1979.  More recently, Tricia Helfer’s role in Battlestar Galactica seems to have led to her appearance in the mini-series Ascension, as she is a familiar face to Sy Fy network viewers. 

It should be noted as well that the late-career Tom Cruise has seen science fiction as a reliable go-to as his box office appeal fades.  Charlton Heston went through a similar cycle late in his career, as films like Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planer of the Apes, The Omega Man and Soylent Green helped keep him a viable leading man long after his expiration date.