TCS Daily

Science Not Sorcery

By James Pinkerton - May 21, 2002 12:00 AM

Why do we love technology in movies but not in real life? That is the question begged by the media explosion surrounding the latest "Star Wars" installment, "Episode II - Attack of the Clones," and a recent news story reporting that the vastly uncelebrated and underfunded NASA has been reduced to scouring the Internet for obsolete parts to fit its antiquated space shuttles. Will the eternally star-gazing human race ever move its quest for space from the movie theaters to reality?

The current state of play is not encouraging. The BBC reported on May 13 that NASA -- the organization that exists to put man in space but is funded as if its mission were to develop a better paper airplane for high school detention halls -- has resorted to bidding at online Yahoo! and eBay auctions for out-of-production computer parts for the creaking, 70s-era space shuttles. A spokesman for the United Space Alliance, the shuttle fleet's operating company, bluntly characterizes the searches for parts such as eight-inch floppy disk drives and circa-1981 Intel 8086 chips as "a scavenger hunt." With the American shuttle fleet scheduled to remain in service until at least 2012, it seems that what happens on the mousepad will be critical to what happens on the launchpad.

Such a chewing-gum and baling-wire approach to technology can have its appeal. Indeed, much of the charm of the original "Star Wars," released in 1977, lay in the gadgeteering improvisation of the heroes. It was comforting, for example, that Han Solo, captain of the Millennium Falcon, that warp-speed junk-heap, was a scruffy but swaggering underachiever. His ship needed a good tune-up, but with enough pluck and luck, Solo could outrace, or at least outwit, the Darth Vaderites. And in the "The Empire Strikes Back," released three years later, the cute furry Ewoks overcame the Imperial Stormtroopers with low-tech traps made of vines and trapdoors-and we loved them for it.

Alas, the new "Star Wars" film lacks the same do-it-yourself feel. In "Clones," the spaceships seem clean and antiseptic-and therefore lifeless. Those who are content to gape at the overwhelming visual gorgeousness of creator-director George Lucas's fifth installment in the series have a lot to look forward to, but those who like a little human-scale grit in their storytelling are likely to be disappointed.

Thus the paradox at the twain of life and art. The present-day NASA is too low-tech, the new "Star Wars" is too high-tech. But wait a second, one might protest: Isn't any movie about outer space likely to encourage people to think outwardly? After all, weren't many of the real-world spaceniks of the past encouraged by sci-fi? Even the "Star Trek" series, fantastic as it might have been, was set firmly in the human future. Captain Kirk, we were told, was born in Iowa in 2233, graduated from the Star Fleet Academy in 2254, and accepted his first assignment aboard the USS Farragut that same year.

By contrast, the "Star Wars" series is backward-looking and New-Age-y. The first film, as everyone remembers, was set "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away"-so there's nothing for human beings to look forward to. And whereas "Star Trek" makes it clear that religion was something to be transcended on the path to scientific progress, the "Star Wars" saga revels in the fantasy of "The Force"; when in doubt, characters are told to rely on their feelings, not their training. That's good news for humans who expect to get to space through yogic flying or out-of-body experiences, but it's no help to those who wish to invest their brains and wealth in the "old-fashioned" approach of actually building rocketships.

And so while it's true that NASA was stagnating even before the first "Star Wars" was released-the last astronaut went to the moon in 1972-the sorry record of space activity in the last quarter-century is proof that Luke Skywalker didn't do much to encourage real space-traveling.

So if NASA can't afford the sort of technology available to any dude getting a Dell, and if George Lucas promotes magic and myth more than science and math, what are we left with? We're left with all we ever had, which is human nature. We're left with ourselves.

And maybe, also, with the determination to better ourselves, to be more than just static observers, watching the universe go by, rooted forever on the third rock from the sun. In 1986, the American author Barbara Ehrenreich wrote of the effects of science fiction on at least one reader: "In sci-fi convention, life-forms that hadn't developed space travel were mere prehistory-horse-shoe crabs of the cosmic sense-and something of the humiliation of being stuck on a provincial planet in a galactic backwater has stayed with me ever since."

So maybe that's the ticket. Maybe if we think about being the galactic equivalent of a horseshoe crab, waddling around, down low on the earth's crust-in the spacey equivalent of ocean muck--we'll be filled with desire to evolve. We have the brains to go to space, as we've already proven; what's needed now is the will to uplift ourselves. And maybe the thought that we'll be remembered as just another primitive life-form-not to mention the fear that someday, if we sit dumbly, the intergalactic equivalent of a fisherman will pick us up and drain us of our copper-rich blue blood before cooking us-will make us think more seriously about upward mobility.

One scene from "Clones" might help. An alien drug-dealer approaches Obi-Wan Kenobi in a bar and asks him if he wants to buy some "deathsticks." Obi-Wan turns his steady, thought-controlling gaze onto the pusher and says, "You don't want to sell me deathsticks." The suddenly mesmerized dealer says in response, "I don't want to sell you deathsticks." Obi-Wan continues, "You want to go home and reevaluate your life." The drug-dealer responds, "I want to go home and reevaluate my life." OK, we're not as bad as drug-dealers-although an alien watching some prime-time TV might wonder a bit. But even without a Jedi Knight guiding us, we humans should go home and re-evaluate our species' future. Because right now, as we live our lives like Hobbits, nestled in the earth, the human prospect is heading, not to the long caravan of star-trekking, but to dead-ending at the multiplex.

Maybe we're not intergalactic drug-dealers, but perhaps we should take a Jedi clue and go home from this movie and reevaluate our direction as a human race. Space is in our future, not in a long-ago past, and it will be hard science, not soft sorcery, that gets us there.

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