|The Computers of Star Trek
Book by Lois H. Gresh, Robert Weinberg; Basic Books, 1999
Since its beginnings in the nineteenth century with the writings of Shelly, Verne and Wells, science fiction has always tried to describe what might be, what could happen, what life will be like in times to come. Unlike all other fiction, it's not concerned (at least overtly) with what exists now but what will happen later. In 1966, the most popular science-fiction television show ever, Star Trek, sent its crew on an ongoing mission to explore new worlds and seek out new civilizations. A third of a century later that mission continues with new starships and new crewmembers but the same dream. Our fascination with the future remains unquenched and it seems quite possible that viewers will still be watching Star Trek when voyages into outer space are daily occurrences.
Intelligent plotting, combined with vivid attention to detail, makes the Star Trek universe the most complex future world ever created. It's a setting that's been described in more than five hundred hours of television and movies, a half-dozen computer games, a detailed chronology, and an encyclopedia. It has its own language, Klingon, and dozens of international fan conventions. A vast number of novels have been published featuring characters from the various shows. There are Star Trek trivia books, photo books, postcard albums, and several technical manuals. Books have been written about the physics, the biology, and even the philosophy of Star Trek. Not surprisingly, events taking place in the universe of Star Trek, three hundred and fifty years from now, are strikingly similar to incidents in our everyday world. This is not only because good storytelling reflects universal human concerns that do not go away with changes in technology (although, as science fiction keeps reminding us, they constantly re-emerge in new guises). The real reason for the similarity is that, after all, no science fiction can do more than project into the future the concerns of the time in which it was written. Every word, every image, every moment of every episode of Star Trek depicts ideas that, by definition, already exist.
It's especially important to remember this when examining, as we do in this book, the way Star Trek deals with computer technology. The world of the twenty-third century as envisioned by the original series is based on the technology and culture of the 1960s. The universe of The Next Generation is vastly different, considering the scientific and social changes that took place in the two decades following the first adventures. Today's adventures, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, reflect even greater changes that have occurred in the past decade. These incredible advances are no better demonstrated than in the evolution of computers in the various shows. The giant thinking machines of the original series seem laughably primitive compared to the smaller and much more versatile hand-held units of the 1980s' Next Generation. Just as the computers of The Next Generation seem archaic when compared to those on Voy-ager ager. As our world changes, so does our view of the future world of Star Trek. In a sense, each series is a photograph of tomorrow taken with a camera firmly rooted in today.
Will the universe of Star Trek ever come to pass? The answer is clear: it won't. To understand why, you need only look at the shows of the original series and think about how much we'd need to forget in order to build a world like that. But by showing you how each series reflects the ideas and technologies of its time-and even the current shows are years behind what's happening in the research labs--we hope to get you thinking about how unimaginably different the real future is going to be...