PLOT DEVICES FOR SCI-FI / FANTASY WRITERS
T. E. Mark’s Blog
Artificial Gravity in Science Fiction and Fantasy
Artificial Gravity in Science
Artificial Gravity Speculation
From the crew of the Enterprise dashing about the galaxy completely unconcerned with it, to Arthur C Clarke’s spiralling space station creating its own, novelists and filmmakers have either chosen to address the ‘Gravity While in Space’ issue, or to simply ignore it.
Let’s do a little review of how this oft-ignored, but ever-so-important, plot device has been used or abused over time in Lit and film.
Artificial Gravity in Science Fiction and Fantasy
As far back as Jules Verne’s classic, ‘From the Earth to the Moon,’ (1865), film version (1958), or the more recent ‘Star Trek’ films and 1960s TV series, we find the issue of whether to address gravity in space seemingly random. Some writers worked it in while others simply thought you wouldn’t notice or care.
In ‘From the Earth to the Moon,’ three men climb aboard a missile-shaped projectile and get shot out of a cannon determined to reach the Moon, with Verne masterfully depicting artificial gravity resulting from the acceleration. Even today, this would seem plausible, and one must credit Verne for his interest in detail, regardless of the inaccuracy.
In Gene Roddenberry’s original ‘Star Trek’ run, (1966-1969), and later spin-offs, we find the issue completely ignored. Scottie always seemed to have his hands full with the blasted Dilithium crystals, the warp core and keeping the ‘shields at maximum,’ to have time for the artificial gravity what-have-you.
If the story or script was well-written, people seldom gave it a second thought. Or even a first. ‘Of course, there’s gravity in space, and on every bizarre, typically hostile, planet out there. Hell, there’s always oxygen, isn’t there? And big spongy rocks to hide behind, just in case. And hot babes with blue skin to bother. And English speaking aliens to chat strategy with. I mean, C’mon… gravity?’
Artificial Gravity science, in Sci-Fi and Fantasy
Early – Some worthy attempts. In ‘A Voyage to the Moon,’ (1827), the author, Joseph Atterly, supplied us with a space ship coated with anti-gravity metal. A feasible concept for your typical 19th-century fiction reader. Manufacturing was on the rise. New materials were splashing the news every day, and people were still going with Newton’s gravity hypothesis in which even he admitted he hadn’t a clue why it exists.
‘From the Earth to the Moon,’ (1865), Jules Verne, already mentioned, used acceleration to keep the three intrepid explorers in their seats. Readers were convinced. And with Verne’s ingenious talent of making his fiction sound steeped in science, hardly anyone questioned his offering.
‘The First Men in the Moon,’ (1901) HG Wells – ‘Cavorite shutters’ that shielded the ship from this exotic and ubiquitous force which, at the time, like 15 people worldwide claimed to understand, but in secret, not even one had a bloody clue.
In ‘A Tale of Negative Gravity,’ (1886), Frank R Stockton took the issue head-on with an obscure disc-like invention which, though he never aimed for the stars with it, allowed him to do some rather fun and frivolous things here on Earth while totally bedazzling his wife and mates.
The list is long and seems mostly saturated with the idea of new and exotic materials. As stated, this was the age of early engineering and manufacturing wonders. There was every reason to accept anti-gravity coatings, cavorite shutters, and goofy implausible devices.
More Recent – Centripetal Acceleration – Create a spinning space station, or design your space ship within a centrifuge, and voila, artificial gravity.
We find the best use of this device in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ by Arthur C Clarke. (1969) Film version the same year, with the orbiting space station creating its own artificial gravity by gently spinning its way through space to Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz. (‘Damn, I love that scene.)
And the classic scene of the Discovery with an internal centrifuge constantly spinning the central axis section of the ship so astronaut Frank Poole could stay fit and trim right up until the moment HAL wigs, snips his oxygen tube and kicks his ass into deep space without his pod.
‘Rendezvous With Rama,’ (1973) also by AC Clarke, uses essentially the same device, centripetal acceleration, in the alien sphere sent to Earth by the Ramans to do something that very quite may have had something to do with Earthlings. Credit Clarke for masterful writing and an almost perfect mix of mystery and quasi-feasible science.
Gravity Generators – Design a preposterously complicated, intelligent machine based loosely on ‘superconductivity.’ Tell it gravity is just another form of magnetism, and ask it along on your next interstellar mission.
Stories employing Artificial Gravity Generators fall into two categories: inventive and thoroughly illogical, or radically logical and near dangerously believable. They also tend to appear in earlier works.
Notables: ‘Brigands of the Moon,’ by Ray Cummings (1930), a selection of stories by Olaf Stapleton, also in 1930, and ‘The City of Space,’ by Jack Williamson. (1931)
Stapleton referenced altering gravitational fields, which, like many of the Star Trek devices, (portable communicators – teleportation – warp drive) has found its way into the lap of serious science.
As with virtually all Sci-Fi / Fantasy plot devices, there comes a time when the writer is simply too focussed on the story, that he/she completely, consciously disregards the gravity issue.
In ‘Star Wars,’ (1977), master filmmaker George Lucas was thoroughly unconcerned with supporting any of his plot devices. This certainly included the ‘Gravity in Space’ issue. The Millenium Falcon was, in every way, a Sci-Fi lover’s dream. And, according to Hans, ‘She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.’ Merely an extrapolation here, but I’ve always assumed the reference was to the Gyro-Morphic-Quantum-Entanglement Artificial Gravity unit he’d installed shortly before making that Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs he boasted so stridently in response to Luke’s critical remarks.
‘Tunnels,’ by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, (2007) and the sequels ‘Deeper’ and ‘Freefall’ describe pores bored into the Earth’s mantle with some type of anti-gravity well which allowed the main characters, and a pair of bi-polar psychotic twins, to descend into the very bowels of the Earth suffering little more damage than a chipped tooth. (Fun series)
‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind.’ (1977) Steven Spielberg, in his absorbing, mind-rattling masterpiece, sketched for us a magnificent story with lots of heart, great acting, the coolest alien spaceships in the galaxy, but saw no reason to clutter up his fantasy yarn with a quasi-acceptable explanation of how that mother of a…. uhm, excuse me, that’s, mother-ship, floated there above the super-secret landing strip at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.
And why should he? I mean, it was from an alien world, right? An alien world where they communicated with music, were peaceful, and most certainly spent the majority of their budget on things like anti-gravity, and replacement bulbs for their spaceships, rather than weapons. (If you happen to work in Government appropriations, and the hint here seems a bit on the subtle side, please contact me through my website. I will respond with enthusiastic alacrity.)
Artificial Gravity in Science
Since our actual understanding of how gravity works is still under review, and has been since Galileo and Newton first started messing around with it, it’s hardly a coincidence that there happens to be, presently, a fair number of serious research projects associated with uncovering the key to anti-gravity. I equate this to my personal investigation of how to uncover abject, miserable poverty due to the lack of an available formula for achieving appreciably comfortable wealth. If you know what I mean.
The Current Research
Centripetal Acceleration – Artificial Gravity is an example of a centripetal, or spinning, force. Differing from natural gravity which pulls objects to the centre of a planet, centripetal acceleration is an inward, force, the opposite of a centrifugal force, which works by pushing objects inward, much like 2001’s rotating space station, towards the axis of rotation.
This has already been proven by the clever bunch at the ESA and over at NASA, who have already produced some ingenious mock-ups of futuristic spacecraft which could conceivably employ this device.
The Coriolis Effect – Yet another form or artificial gravity based on the acceleration of a spinning environment. The Coriolis Effect, much like centripetal acceleration, works by creating a spinning habitat, (a rotating station or space ship) but is felt as a pushing force out and away from the direction of the spin by, say, an astronaut, inside the spinning environment.
Linear Acceleration – This theory is thoroughly comprehensible, readily available, but with one catch. Yes, keep thrusters at maximum, or something close to it, and space voyagers will indeed feel a type of gravitational force. The catch, of course, being the amount of fuel required. With our present chemical-fuelled engines, space ships can only carry ‘x’ amount of fuel with them. Most of the travel through space is actually by inertial forces with the engines used for breaking free of Earth’s gravity, and for mid-space corrections.
Mass-effect Gravitation – This is a simple extrapolation from Isaac Newton’s work with a little Einstein tossed in. All objects create gravity. Stars, planets, strip malls, strippers (only, in a different way), rocket ships, and even people and costly home furnishings. We’re all pulling at each other at this very moment.
The problem: Gravity is the weakest of the four known forces. Thus, to create a useful gravitational field, with something you could, say, take along with you on a space voyage, you would need something with about the same mass as Neptune.
But, keep in mind that Mass is not dependent upon size. A block of Styrofoam the size of your house may have the same mass as a lead paperweight. Thus, since a teaspoon of a Neutron Star, which you can get just about anywhere, is like mass-equivalent to the Himalayas, by adding about a cup, cup and a half to the hull of your spaceship, you would indeed increase its mass to that of a good-sized planet, and increase its gravity accordingly. (Obviously getting something as heavy as Neptune off the ground and into space may require some engineering, but, hey… could work.)
Diamagnetism – Super research, in which ultra-mega-super strong magnets requiring cryogenics to make them superconductive, have, in a laboratory setting, been able to lift a mouse 32mm, thus creating an artificial field force equal to 1g. (One Earth Gravity)
This certainly holds fantastic possibilities, not only for mouse-kind, once we start recruiting them for future space missions, but to give humans another way of messing with the world’s rodent population besides injecting them with cool diseases, fatal viruses and almost-always-lethal bacteria.
Gravitomagnetism – Though artificial gravity, or paragravity, is readily available in non-spinning and non-accelerating spacecraft in science fiction, there is currently no technique which can simulate gravity other than mass or acceleration.
Besides being such a cool and potentially useful term, I tossed this one in in honour of Eugene Podkletnov, a Russian engineer, who claimed he produced a gravitomagnetic field using a spinning superconductor in his garage in the early 1990s. Like Chris Columbus who went to his grave certain he’d made it to China, on each of his four sprints across the Atlantic, Mr Podkletnov maintains his discovery, regardless of the fact that no one in the observable universe has been able to reproduce his experiment. And neither has Eugene.
Artificial Gravity Speculation
This is by far my favourite part of my Plot Devices for Sci-Fi / Fantasy Readers and Writers blog. This is where I, once having swallowed and partially digested my research, get to vomit up some rather thoughtful devices of my own for a future novel or film script.
Black Hole Singularity Chambers – Preferably lit with keen magenta lights. Assuming Black Holes are warps in space-time, and so massively, uhm… massive, that their gravity can keep even light from escaping, simply discover how they work, patent it, get Stephen Hawking to approve it, then use the technology, albeit on a smaller scale, to make traversable chambers on space ships.
Linear Acceleration Gravity – I discussed the EM drive in an earlier issue on FTL. A drive which would use electromagnetism rather than chemical rocket engines for propulsion. If the EM Drive were to be perfected, and as it would require no conventional fuel, we could very well achieve, along with Light Speed, constant acceleration and…. Linear Acceleration Gravity.
The only problem with this one would be when you needed to head in the direction of the acceleration, ie against the artificial gravity. You know, there’s always some lurking, skulking, repulsive hindrance with nifty space ideas.
Ultra-massive Space Ships – This one goes along with Mass-effect Gravitation. Extracting again from Newton’s research: Though all objects of mass warp, or dent, space-time, thoroughly Massive objects warp, or dent, space-time more.
I can’t feel the pull of my laptop, and, though an assumption, it can’t feel the gravitational pull from me either. Similarly, astronauts cannot feel the gravitational pull of their space ships because they’re not massive enough.
So, design awesomely massive space ships – like Neptune-sized space ships, or, hell, just use Neptune for that matter. Convert it into a monster spaceship, add some jammin’ rockets that work well with frozen methane, and it’s off to Delta-Hydra-Gamma V to really piss off the Romulans.
Or, consider that cup, cup and a half of a Neutron Star I mentioned earlier.
Style Gravity – Please know that I really tried, hard, not throwing this one in. Sort of.
I admit to having found Alfonso Cuarón’s film ‘Gravity,’ starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, enjoyable, even though just about everyone in my general vicinity, of the Milky Way, found it slow and not terribly clever.
Anyway, though you can tell from the image that the short hair and snappy NASA underwear most certainly DIDN’T create an artificial gravity field for Sandy B, it’d make a great plot device, like for a Sci-Fi comedy, if everyone in skivvies and short hair was under a constant 1g walking around casually, while everyone clothed was snuggling the ceiling-mounted smoke detectors.
To Sum up:
Early writers, even more so than later ones, seemed determined to offer credible scientific explanations for their plot devices. Science Fiction was in its infancy and writers obviously felt obliged to address issues like gravity, oxygen and even relativistic physics.
Later writers, and many today, seem less inclined to focus on every detail of deep space travel, opting instead for a unique and absorbing story.
Personally, I find equal entertainment value in Arthur C Clarke’s enthusiastic attention to scientific detail, he was absolutely brilliant, as I do Gene Roddenberry’s fabulous and often provocative stories which neglected explaining things like gravity, planets with nitrogen-oxygen rich atmospheres and English speaking aliens.
Writing good Science Fiction or Fantasy is a challenge. And there are many ways of progressing from that finely crafted opening line to that closing sequence.
I’ve, as usual, thoroughly enjoyed writing this issue of my PLOT DEVICES FOR SCI-FI / FANTASY READERS AND WRITERS, and hope you’ve been at least modestly enriched by my exploration of the use of Artificial Gravity in Science Fiction and Fantasy, (Lit & Film) and in real science.
If my work pleases you, consider sharing this with your networking pals and maybe picking up one of my six recently published novels:
‘Love in the Time of Apocalypse’ (Published – June 2017)
‘Alina’ (Published – May 2017)
‘Never a Sun Rises’ (Published – April 2017)
‘Fractured Horizons: A Time Travel Odyssey’ (Published – Jan 2017)
‘…but then, why Mars really?’ (Published – Dec 2016)
‘AHNN’ (Published – Oct 2016)
T.E.Mark is a Science Writer, Author, Language Teacher and Violinist. He has written novels for young and adult readers and continues to write science articles for national and international magazines.