How We View Space5 min read

One of science fiction’s favorite places is outer space.  Many works have offered their own unique interpretations of what space and space travel will be like.  Some tried to focus on scientific accuracy while others simply tried to use outer space to create their own style and atmosphere.  There is nothing wrong with either approach, but which works stand out?  I have compiled a list of five different examples of science fiction that each provides its own particular strength in the ways it portrays space and space travel.  Each work, in my opinion, represents a different aspect of the genre and offers something fresh and intriguing for science fiction.

1. Star Trek

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What list of science fiction would ever be complete without Star Trek? I’ll admit, there are certain things, like the alien depictions, that bother me about space in Star Trek. I know it was a tight budget, but I will never concede that pointy ears and funny foreheads mean “aliens.”  However, space travel and the science behind it are definitely the most accurate of any science fiction in Star Trek. Everything was based on modern scientific theories, so the universe seemed plausible on that level. There were also a lot of cool gadgets and technologies in the Star Trek universe like holodecks and phasers.  The series was also more intellectual than a lot of science fiction, with ethical dilemmas and diplomatic negotiations.  It wasn’t just a big loud shooting “fest” filled with explosions and lens flares…

2. Half Life

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I’ll admit I am cheating a little on this entry, since the merits of this science fiction aren’t so much in outer space, but in the creatures inhabiting it.  Unlike in Star Trek, the aliens of Half Life look like actual aliens.  None of them look even remotely like anything on Earth, which is how it should be.  Aliens are aliens, so they should look like aliens.  I applaud the people at Valve for realizing this often-forgotten fact.  In addition to a well-crafted story, Half Life has introduced some truly memorable creatures, my favorites being the “houndeye” and the “bullsquid.”

3. Dr Who

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There are two things in particular that I love about space (and time) in Doctor Who: the creatures and the Tardis.  Although the aliens in the series don’t look particularly alien, I love the concepts behind the monsters.  From the classic show, we have the Daleks and the Cybermen.  Daleks are sort of like Nazis in trashcans with egg-whisk death rays.  Cybermen, on the other hand, are more like metal Communists with some social commentary on our over-dependence upon technology.  However, the new series has some particularly scary monsters.  What make them so scary are the ideas on which they were based.  For example, the Weeping Angels are statues…when you are looking at them.  Instantly, an entire generation became afraid of stone statues.  There is also the Vashta Nerada, living dust in the air that thrives in darkness and eats everything organic in a matter of seconds.  The writers of Doctor Who knew that scary masks become dated, but a good concept is timeless.  Also, Doctor Who has the Tardis, a machine that can travel to any place in the entire time-space continuum; this machine is also alive (kind of) and looks, amusingly, like an old British police box.  Even though the science behind the Tardis is preposterous, it still works on the rules of “cool” and fun for me.

4. Star Wars

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Star Wars is what happens when you mix science fiction and fantasy.  Space in Star Wars is interesting in that they never explain the science behind it.  The story isn’t about science the way the story of Star Trek is; it is about the adventure.  The original trilogy uses this idea to its fullest potential.  I remember seeing an interview with George Lucas where George said he wanted Star Wars to be a “used future.”  Everything would feel like it was old; not everything would be sleek and shiny.  In the original trilogy, this “used future” idea made the entire universe seem organic.  Audiences never saw science fiction portrayed in this manner before.  I still respect the aesthetic of the original trilogy for this design.  Unfortunately, by the time Lucas started making the Prequels, he seemed to have forgotten about the “used future.”  Almost every effect was made on a computer and nothing looked real.  Suddenly, the gritty and realistic aesthetic from the original trilogy was replaced by the shiny, sanitized, and unrealistic CG aesthetic of the prequels.  Computer graphics had not caught up to real effects yet, so many of the backgrounds and effects already look dated in the prequels.  However, we will always have the original trilogy to admire, not just in its story, but also in its groundbreaking design.

5. Cowboy Behop

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I love the world of Cowboy Bebop.  This is an anime that took the idea of a used future and ran with it.  Every time we see space, it looks beautiful.  Every planet and colony has its own culture and personality; every ship, car, and piece of technology feels used and old.  The Bebop itself is an old fishing ship repurposed for bounty hunting.  It has scratches, peeling paint, and rust.  The show also has ships move around space in a unique way.  Instead of a warp engine or an unexplained hyperspace drive, the world of Cowboy Bebop uses hyperspace gates.  Unfortunately, in order to build a successful hyperspace gate system, you first have to reach your destinations the long way.  As a result, travel is restricted to within the solar system, but that only contributes to the excellent atmosphere of the show.  The visuals of a solar system scattered with old, dirty, and broken technology gives the show its space western tone.  Space itself becomes a character, building atmosphere and realism for the audience.  The excellent soundtrack helps too.

Each one of these works has something unique to offer science fiction as a whole, from the atmosphere of Cowboy Bebop to the aliens of Half Life to the science of Star Trek.  These five fictional universes have their own strengths that make them stand out in a relatively competitive genre.


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